If you’re thinking of taking up chess or trying to play the game at the highest level you may be worried that chess isn’t really a game at all. Many players allege that really, excellence at chess is just a feat of memory and that chess is all memorization and no game. But is this true or are there other skills involved in chess over and above simple rote learning? Let’s find out.
Is chess just memorization? No, chess is not just memorization. Since there are over 10120 different positions available on the board and 1080 different possible moves, no human can memorize and remember them all. It is a challenge even for a computer to generate all possible positions and moves, and compare them all against each other.
Memorization does play some part in chess but let’s take a look at just how much.
Where Does The Idea That Chess Is Just Memorization Come From?
It probably comes from Bobby Fischer, the former world champion, who said,
“In chess so much depends on opening theory, so the champions before the last century did not know as much as I do and other players do about opening theory. So, if you just brought them back from the dead they wouldn’t do well. They’d get bad openings. You cannot compare the playing strength; you can only talk about natural ability. Memorization is enormously powerful. Some kid of fourteen today, or even younger, could get an opening advantage against Capablanca, and especially against the players of the previous century, like Morphy and Steinitz. Maybe they would still be able to outplay the young kid of today. Or maybe not, because nowadays when you get the opening advantage not only do you get the opening advantage, you know how to play, they have so many examples of what to do from this position. It is really deadly, and that is why I don’t like chess anymore.”Bobby Fischer
In fact, Fischer was so convinced that memorization was going to ruin chess along with what he called “pre-preparation” that he invented a whole new variation of chess, Fischerandom chess that used a bigger board and new pieces. He said this would stop chess from being degenerated into a sport of memorization and pre-arrangement.
Hey We’re Not Playing Fischerandom Chess, Though!
No, we’re not. In fact, as far as we can tell, almost no-one is playing Fischerrandom chess, though it is possible that it might catch on, one day in the future.
This is because Bobby Fischer was wrong. Many know the story of how Fischer failed to defend his chess title and it has been clear to many outside observers that Fischer, though undoubtedly a chess genius, was somewhat paranoid to say the least.
You see, no major chess player other than Fischer is convinced that chess is all memorization. And Fischer was only convinced because he was positive that the Russian chess players were rehearsing their matches, remembering them and then playing them as exhibition matches rather than as real contests of skill.
There is, even now long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism, absolutely no evidence that this was the case, and it seems more likely that Fischer’s paranoia was getting the better of him.
Why Can’t Chess Be “All Memorization”?
The easiest thing to do is to turn to the numbers of potential variations of a game of chess. These are so numerous that a chess computer could not calculate the 10120 different positions of the board or the 1080 potential moves and evaluate them all before the end of time.
This is why chess will never be “solved” unlike, say checkers which has already been “solved” (though only “weakly”.
Some people note, astutely, that if we could eliminate all bad moves then chess computers would not need to work so hard to find the perfect game and thus might be able to solve chess. Sadly, while this sound like a good idea – the truth is that we don’t know what a “bad move” is when potentially all possible situations are represented on the board.
Thus, if a computer can’t calculate all these moves given unlimited power and unlimited time, no human being can learn them all with rather less power and the limit of their lifespan.
So, Does This Mean Chess Has No Use For Memorization At All?
No, not at all. You would expect a poker player to remember the odds of their hand beating another hand. You’d expect a bridge player to remember the basics of how to bid in harmony with their partner and chess, like all other intellectual pursuits, does have elements of memorization.
Bobby Fischer was right to call attention to openings, for example. Though there are a huge number of openings with more than 1,000 openings having their own name, there are not so many openings in chess that a determined player couldn’t memorize them.
After all, determined people have learned every word in The Bible or the Q’uran, for example, and these are, by far, greater achievements of memory.
Most openings, however, don’t go much more than 10-15 moves before moving into the midgame and the longest of openings is probably around 25 moves long.
Chess goes for many moves longer than 10-15 moves and the more moves that are played, the more memorization that would be required and the more potential combinations you would have to learn. This means that learning all the moves of the midgame would be impossible, for example.
Memory And The Midgame
This doesn’t mean that your memory will be useless when it comes to the midgame, though. It just means it is used in a different way. You can’t remember every position of the board and every move, but you can certainly memorize specific tactical plays and strategies that can enhance your game.
You apply these memories to your creativity to create the “game” of chess. There’s no doubt, at all, that many grandmasters will simply play their openings from memory but even they, when reaching the midgame are going to have to start playing chess rather than remembering it.
This is a good thing, because a diligent chess student can learn tactics and strategies in a fairly straightforward manner, however without some natural creative flair – their memory will not be enough to propel them into the ranks of the best players in the world.
Yes, creativity counts in chess, which is why there is still a world championship event. If all players could simply memorize the games and be “perfect”, there would be no competition because either one color would always win, or all games would be draws. Either would end chess’s appeal as a sport.
Memory And The Endgame
Endgame situations are less complex but again, there are simply so many possible endgames that even with just 7 pieces (total between both players including kings) there are more variants than any human being could learn in their lifetime.
Computers have analyzed this set of games though and discovered things like a 546-move forced mate! That is rather more than any human can ever hope to find on the board.
Thus, as with the midgame, you can bring your memory to bear on the endgame but it is tactics and strategy that combine with creativity to bring the moves – not a rote list of moves you learned from a book.
So, Bobby Fischer, as talented as he was, was just plain wrong about the future of chess which is, without a major human evolutionary leap, safe from memorization at least until the end of this universe.
Is chess just memorization? Thankfully, no, it’s not. It is simply impossible for even the cleverest human being to remember enough chess to render themselves unbeatable on the board. The best players, however, do remember quite a lot of things around chess.
Almost all chess openings are now standardized, but that’s because there are now over 1,000 named chess openings. By memorizing the effective early game options, a chess master can gain a large amount of additional time on their clock for when it comes to tackling the midgame and endgame. In some cases, endgames will fall on familiar lines too but the midgame requires creativity and intelligence from even the chess player with a photographic memory.