Memory power and chess

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Memory power and chess

Professor Tony Buzan and The Mind Map (image created in Shutterstock)

To what extent is memory power important in chess? At a social level, hardly at all, but at the higher echelons of face to face competitive chess, a well-honed memory is an important asset. In particular, memory plays a vital role in three separate phases of the game, namely: memorisation of precedents in the theory of the chess openings; recall and pattern recognition in the middlegame; and crucial and recurring situations in the endgame.

Certain notoriously difficult endgame scenarios (such as giving checkmate with bishop and knight against a lone king) can scarcely be worked out ab initio in the heat of battle: you have to know how to do it. This rare endgame represents one of the paradoxes of chess. With such a crushing material advantage, victory should be easy. In fact, the process is fiendishly difficult. Even more anomalous is the endgame where one side possesses the huge preponderance of two extra knights against a bare king. With correct defence, the stronger side cannot force checkmate and the result, with best play, is a draw.

My friend Tony Buzan, who died five years ago in John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, was, in his quest to expand human brain potential, the fons et origo of the official world memory championship. This has now been running annually, without even a break for the Covid pandemic, for 32 consecutive years.

Tony was originally motivated by the question of “who is intelligent?” During his time at junior school, the young Tony was struck by the anomaly that one particular boy, (Barry) who had a tremendous knowledge of nature, repeatedly failed in school tests on his favourite topic, because of an inability to express himself. Unsurprisingly, Barry, the nature expert, was consigned to the bottom of the class, in spite of the fact that Tony knew that Barry’s knowledge was far superior to his own. The authorities had decided who was intelligent and who was not. Tony experienced this assessment as grotesquely unfair and it eventually led him to develop three beliefs.

The first was that an operations manual was needed for the human brain, not its medical functions, but the way it works.

The next was that every human has a spark of genius within, but the problem was to ignite it.

The third and final Buzan insight was his invention of the Mind Map, a tool for recording thoughts, plans and general creativity, which bypassed conventional academic norms. The Mind Map was predicated on radiant thinking, spreading out from a dominant central concept, utilising colour, dimension and association. The Mind Map also revealed itself as a powerful memory aid.

Tony Buzan’s insights amounted to the declaration of a revolution within the sphere of world wide educational philosophy. Moreover, in the current creative environment, it has been established, not least by a 500 % upsurge in the sales of Tony’s classic books, that Mind Mapping sits at the core of the vibrant new advances in AI.

Inspired by his initial experiences, Tony went on to write over 140 books, translated into 40 languages, as well as lecturing around the world and making numerous TV programmes about his ideas. He was an enthusiastic player of mental games, such as chess and go, and a serious rower on his favourite stretch of the Thames at Marlow, where he often skulled with the Olympian, Sir Steve Redgrave.

The perception that the Mind Map also promoted memory drew Tony towards the foundation of the world memory championship at London in 1991. This was won (for the first of eight times) by the dyslexic Dominic O Brien. Growing from just eight entrants in 1991 to over three hundred , the 2018 world championship was won by a 14-year-old Chinese girl, Wei Qinrun. Both victors exemplified Tony’s belief that everyone possesses that immortal spark of genius, which merely awaits the right flame to set it in motion. The world memory championship has now been run in unbroken sequence for thirty two consecutive years, surviving the Covid Pandemic and adapting to online as well as live manifestations.

According to the official Guinness World Records, the most playing cards memorised in an hour is 2,530 cards, achieved by Kim Surim (North Korea), at the 2019 World Memory Championships held in Wuhan City, Hubei, China, from 4 to 8 December 2019. Notably, female contestants, such as Kim, have  tended  to dominate recent memory championships. No need for segregation or males masquerading as females in this mental sport.

The World Memory Championship is an organised competition of memory sports in which competitors memorize as much information as possible within a given period of time. The championship has taken place annually since 1991, originated by Tony Buzan and co-founded by Tony Buzan and myself. It continues to be organised by the World Memory Sports Council (WMSC), which, again, was jointly founded by Tony Buzan and myself. The current WMSC world champion is Huang Jinya from China, who won at Hainan in December 2023.

Having known Tony for thirty years, and written his biography, what struck me most about him was his inner child. Tony was fiercely determined to create a legacy for future generations. He fervently aspired to teaching the children of the planet how to think – not what to think.

It was clear that his own school experiences had marked him deeply and left an indelible impression. Indeed, his early questioning of who decided who was intelligent or not, repeatedly positioned him  as the headmaster of the human race. One of his numerous unfinished books at his death was an ambitious report card on the human race, marking humanity, out of 100, on such topics as: the environment, education, peace, economics, race and gender relations and survival.

Another prime theme of Tony’s was an exploration into animal intelligence, a subject which constantly absorbed him. His speciality, the brain, transmuted smoothly to traverse the border between the human and the animal, thus: how could insects, with micro brains, or collective brainpower, achieve such feats of organisation as, for example, evinced by ants and termites, or arachnids such as the Portia spider?

Unsurprisingly, in view of his desired legacy , Tony found himself particularly at ease with kids, and one of his triumphs was the TV series In Search of Genius, in which Tony, on camera, took a class of poorly disciplined and defectively motivated comprehensive school children and converted them over six programmes into model pupils.

In spite of his impressive catalogue of published manuals on the working of the brain, what Tony truly craved was recognition as a philosopher of educational theory. Tony was inordinately proud of the accolades showered upon him by the global academic fraternity, including honorary doctorates and professorships. As the age of online interaction dawned, software applications of his brainchild, Mind Mapping, became ever more significant within the realm of AI development.

Tony’s enduring legacy will be those generations of readers of his books, practitioners of his software, competitors in his Brain Power world championships and untold numbers of attendees at his lectures. All found unexplored depths within themselves and were thus inspired to maximise the power of what Tony frequently referred to as “that sleeping giant – the human brain”.

In this week’s game, the former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov exploits his prodigiously powerful memory to recall a lengthy sequence of moves prepared two years beforehand. Astonishingly, the game was played in a simultaneous display, with his opponent being a grandmaster and former Candidate for the world chess championship. 

Garry Kasparov vs. Oscar Panno

Simultaneous display, Buenos Aires, 1997

1.d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. Qc2 O-O 5. a3 Bxc3+ 6. Qxc3 b6 7. Bg5 c5 8. e3 d6 9. dxc5 bxc5 10. O-O-O Ne4 11. Qd3! TN

This game, part of a simultaneous display, was played in the Buenos Aires Stock Exchange Building. According to an eye witness, “Kasparov displayed a 30-move-computer analysis dating from 1995. And Panno innocently fell into it !!”

This game, top prize winner for 1997 in Informator #71, is annotated in detail by Kasparov himself. Where this has been included in my notes following, it is italicised. In relation to the text move, he had noted: 11. Qc2 Nxg5 12. h4 f5 13. hxg5 Qxg5 14. Rxd6  with an unclear position. The effect of the change of queen’s square from this noted line, to the novelty, is that 11. Qd3! challenges Black to fork, by capture of the now unprotected f2-pawn.

11… Nxf2 

Or 11… Nxg5 12. h4 g6 13. hxg5 Qxg5 14. Qxd6 with an advantage to White.

12.Bxd8 Nxd3+ 13. Bxd3 Rxd8 14. Be4 d5 15. cxd5 Bb7 

15… f5 16. Bf3 e5 17. e4 f4 18. Be2 also with an advantage to White.

16.Ne2 Nd7?!

Better is 16… exd5 (16… Na6 is also playable) 17. Nc3 Kf8 (17… Nc6 was played in Kasparov-Timman, ½-½, Eurotel rapidplay, 1998) 18. Rhe1 Nd7 19. Bxd5 Rab8 20. Bxb7 Rxb7, with equality.

17.dxe6 Bxe4 18. e7! Re8 

18… Rdc8!? 19. Rxd7 Bc6 was worth consideration.

19.Rxd7 f6 

19… Bxg2 20. Rg1 Bf3 (20… Bc6 21. Rc7 Rec8 22. Rxc8 Rxc8 23. Rd1 Re8 24. Rd6 with advantage to White) 21. Ng3 Bg4 22. Rc7 f5 23. Ne4 fxe4 24. Rxg4 with advantage to White.

The engine likes the above, and also suggests that: 19… f5 20. Rf1 g6 21. g3 Bg2 22. Rf2 Bc6 23. Rc7 Rec8 24. Rxc8 Rxc8 25. g4 Kf7 26. gxf5 Kxe7, is playable with approximate equality.

20.Ng3! Bg6

21.A) 20… Bxg2 21. Rg1 Bh3 22. Rc7 Kf7 23. Ne4; or

22.B) 20… Bc6 21. Rc7 Rec8 22. Rxc8+ Rxc8 23. Rd1 Re8 24. Rd6 Bxg2 25. Nf5;

both lines are winning for White.

21.h4 h6 

21… h5 22. Rhd1 Kf7 23. R1d5

to which the engine adds: … Rxe7 24. Rxe7+ Kxe7 25. Rxc5, with an advantage to White.

22.h5 Bh7 23. Rh4 Kf7 24. Rc4 

Also worthy of attention is: 24. Rg4 f5 25. Rf4 Ke6 26. Rb7 a5 (26… Ke5 27. a4 a6 28. Rc4 Kd6 29. Rc3 Rxe7 30. Rxe7 Kxe7 31. Rxc5) 27. Rb6+ Ke5 28. Ne2 Rxe7 29. Rc4 Rc7 30. Nf4 Bg8 31. Ng6+.

24… Rxe7 25. Rxe7+ Kxe7 26. Rxc5 Kd6 27. b4 Re8 28. Kd2 Re5 29. Rxe5 Kxe5 30. a4 Bg8 31. b5?

One has a feeling of trepidation, even of temerity, in criticising any move of Kasparov’s, in this nigh-perfect example of precision. But reluctantly, I must animadvert upon the improvement 31. Kd3 which is the only move to maintain White’s considerable advantage: 31… f5 32. Ne2 Bf7 33. Nd4 Bxh5 34. a5 Bf7 35. Nc6+ Kd6 36. Nxa7 Bd5 37. Nb5+ Ke5 38. g3, after which, Black is unequivocally lost.

31… Bb3 32. a5 Bc4??

This blunders the winning advantage back in White’s favour. Black needed to play, 32… Ba4!, after which: 33. b6 axb6, is enough to consolidate Black’s equality.

33.b6 axb6 34. axb6 Bd5? (Kasparov)

The following analysis is shooting fish in a barrel. Black is busted, but this explains why:

34… Ba6 35. Ke1! (but not 35. Kc3 Bb7 36. Kc4 f5 37. Kc5 Ba8) 35… Bc8 (35… f5 36. Ne2 Kd6 37. Nd4 Bd3 38. Kf2 Be4 39. Kg3 Ke5 40. Nf3+ Kd6 41. Kf4 Kc5 42. Nh4 Kxb6 43. g4; winning for White) 36. Kf2 Kd6 37. Kf3 Kc6 (37… Be6 38. Kf4 Bf7 39. Nf5+ Kc6 40. g4, also winning for White) 38. Kf4 Kxb6 39. Nf5; once again winning for White.



35… Bb7 36. Ke3 Bc6 37. Nf5 Bxe4 38. g4 Black resigns 1-0

From this position, the engine mercilessly calculates the following awful and unwholesome continuations for Black:

39.A) 38…Bd5 39. Nxg7 Kd6 40. Nf5+ Kc5 41. Nxh6 Kxb6 42. Kf4 Kc6 43. Kf5 Bf3 44. Kxf6 Kd7 45. Nf5 Bxg4 46. h6;

40.B) 38… Bc6 39. Nxg7 Kd6 40. Nf5+ Kc5 41. Nxh6 Kxb6 42. Kf4 Kc5 43. Kf5 Bd7+ 44. Kxf6 Kd5 45. Nf5 Ke4 46. Kg5.


Ray’s 206th book, “  Chess in the Year of the King  ”, written in collaboration with Adam Black, and his 207th, “  Napoleon and Goethe: The Touchstone of Genius  ” (which discusses their relationship with chess) are available from Amazon and Blackwells.



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Member ratings
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36 ratings - view all

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