What’s the last thing that slipped your mind? was it a chore, your belongings at a hotel or on a flight, an appointment or, worse still, your wedding anniversary? If it’s the last, I hope your limbs are intact.
I’m a survivor myself. I run the risk of throwing my reputation off the cerebral pedestal with this story, which I’ve often shared at seminars and gatherings – but I’ll do it once more anyway. It was January 1998, during my World Championship match against Karpov in Lausanne, when three-and-a-half-inch floppy disks were still in vogue. Every night, whatever preparation had been worked on would be backed up, stored in floppies and stowed away in a safe by Aruna.
One night, after putting away the disks, she turned to me with a knowing smile and told me that the code to unlock the safe was easy to recall, 2706. Confused, I commented, ‘That’s a silly code… Which player has a rating like that?’ Live Elo ratings weren’t around then and ratings were usually updated to a difference of five. Aruna looked aghast.
From the look in her eyes I could sense her blood beginning to simmer. ‘It’s not anyone’s rating,’ she said coldly. ‘It’s our wedding anniversary!’ I had the stupidest look on my face as I tried to make sense of why I should be trusted to remember this detail. We were just into the second year of our marriage.
Coming from a chess player who is believed to thrive on plucking out endless moves, games and notations from memory, this might sound incredulous, even blasphemous.
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Broadly, chess players tend to be the subject of envy for their eidetic memory – or at least what’s commonly perceived as eidetic memory. This belief was debunked by the Dutch psychologist and chess player Adriaan de Groot more than half a decade ago through his experiments. He tested four categories of players of varying strengths – Grandmaster, Master, expert and class ‘A’ player, the last a decent chess player who ranks below expert level. De Groot showed each of them a chessboard configuration with 22 pieces from an unknown game. The subjects were then asked to reconstruct the board, either on another board or verbally.
The Grandmasters and Masters reproduced it almost effortlessly and got 93 per cent right, while the experts and class ‘A’ players struggled a bit, missing a detail in a couple of places, and got 72 per cent and 51 per cent correct respectively. But when the positions were randomized, making no logical sense whatsoever, each group, including the Grandmasters, placed only three or four pieces correctly. It showed that Grandmasters didn’t look at or commit to memory the positions of individual pieces; rather, they remembered pieces in groups, structures or patterns.
So, essentially what chess players have isn’t an inexplicably photographic memory, but contextual memory. What most of us do is convert a picture into a story. The mental soliloquy in a seasoned player’s head goes something like this: ‘Oh, these three pawns haven’t been moved, so White was basically moving these other pawns… White has a bishop here, and I recall this bishop position from my game last year.’
The reason the Grandmasters and Masters were able to reconstruct what they were shown the first time was because the picture made sense to them.
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Personally, I favour creating summaries, or collapsing a whole lot of positions into a story. While doing this, I keep the essential elements in mind. I could liken this to a situation in which you’ve lost your way and all you know is that you need to head north-west. It works in the same way as a person recalling trivia through a story that makes the facts stick in their head. Who’s ever going to forget Isaac Newton and the discovery of gravity, for example? The story that goes with the discovery makes it unforgettable.
When I was younger, I could recall every game I played from the first move till the end. Now, with an avalanche of analysis and positions to remember, I often don’t have complete memory of a game I played a week ago.
Playing a move on the board, however, is more than just about remembering. It’s also about remembering why the move is being made. If I know for certain that a particular move works at a specific position, I can play it with a whole other level of confidence; on the other hand, if all I have is a broad idea of where a move might work, which then calls for rechecking, I’d play it with a hint of hesitation.
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On the morning of a game during the World Championship matches, after breakfast, my team of four trainers and I would spend a couple of hours debating the final choices and lines, and they would force me to go over my notes before breaking off to get back to work while I showered and took a nap.
My memory of positions and lines is much stronger if the reason for remembering them is interesting – a game connected to a painful loss, perhaps, or if something is new and interesting.
If I haven’t revised my notes, the chances of me forgetting my preparation runs high. It’s why my team’s chorus cry for me during a World Championship is ‘Revise, revise, revise.’ ‘Paint it Black’ and ‘Viva La Vida’ can wait.