Features Feb 20, 2015 | 10:30 PMby chess24 staff

Memory lapses and elite synapses

After Hikaru Nakamura defeated Sergey Karjakin in Round 3 of the Zürich Chess Challenge, the Russian tweeted his frustration at forgetting his opening preparation. That prompted us to ask sport psychologist Carlos Martínez, who specializes in chess, to briefly explain what happens in our memory, how it works and above all, why we forget things! He tossed in some practical tips for good measure!

Every chess player has at some time or another forgotten a line which he or she had prepared. Sometimes it's a total blackout, other time moves are mixed up due to the pressures of over the board play. It's a routine situation in the world of chess, even among grandmasters. But what can be behind this forgetfulness? Do we leave it at "he simply forgot" or, on the contrary, can we learn something from these mistakes in order to train and strengthen our game?

Today, with the prevalence of chess engines, the amount of time players spend studying the opening, and the quantity of information players have to remember is higher than ever. There are lines which can go up to 30 moves deep or more and remembering all that at the board is a real challenge — especially if these lines are complex and were analysed some time ago. 

Without getting too far into the weeds, I would like to cite a classic study which is taught in all psychology departments and which led to the creation of what later became known as the ‌forgetting curve. According to this study carried out by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, the rate of forgetting is not linear. At the beginning, you forget quickly, while later on the rate slows. Below, you can see a chart which will help us understand this process:

As you can see, the amount of forgotten material is very pronounced in the first days after learning new information, and stabilizes after about a week. Although this study uses material which has little to do with chess (the author instead used lists of thirteen syllables), it is still helpful in showing us how important it is to regularly review material which we have previously studied.

After having learned a concrete line, we often think that we "know it now" and we never revisit it again, or at least we lack motivation to do so ― that is, until the day comes when we have to put that knowledge into practice! Then we discover that what we (maybe) knew once doesn't last forever. With this example I want to emphasize the importance of reviewing analyses which we have looked at some time ago — it is the fundamental step for remembering them later during a game.

Besides remembering, it is essential to find mental keys or strategies (such as mnemonic devices) during the preparation or training phase which help us strengthen our memory. Of course you should previously have understood the position, because otherwise simply memorizing it will be much more complicated and you will forget even more.

It's difficult to propose precise mental strategies for memorizing material, since everybody has his or her preferences and for some, it is easier than for others. For trainers, it would be interesting to know your students' interests in order to make learning and remembering easier for them through custom tailored strategies. For players, it's important to know which methods tend to be most helpful when it comes to memorizing certain information.

And finally, what can we do if our minds go blank during a game? What do we do in a position we know we have studied, but where we don't remember the analysis?

Was that g5 now or takes on f2 first?

Our first, almost automatic reaction in such a situation is to try and remember what we studied through all possible means and with all our strength. This goes on for a few minutes. Then we enter the irritation phase. When we simply don't remember the material, we find ourselves in a type of loop of self-deprecating negativity. This also usually lasts a few minutes. Finally, we enter the phase where we have to make a decision and we either play something which seems sensible to us, or we convince ourselves that we vaguely remember it. This is (in general terms and somewhat tongue in cheek) what happens when we forget something like an opening line.

An alternative suggestion would be the following: I recommend a first step, during which we accept the fact that we have forgotten the material and that we will have to play using our own skills and abilities. After or during this acceptance phase, its good to relax, to calm down in order to face the game in the best possible way.

And finally, it's essential to believe in our skills, confident in our knowledge, and in the hours training we have put in, so as to find the best possible practical solutions. 

Other "psychological investigations":

Carlos Martínez

Carlos is a psychologist and expert in Gestalt therapy. At the moment, he's working with the Valencian and Spanish Chess Federation on programs for the technological advancement, the assistance and the support of players in championships in Spain, Europe and the world. If you want to contact him, email him at: carlosmartinezpsi@gmail.com




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