Magazine article The Spectator

Thanks for the Memories

Magazine article The Spectator

Thanks for the Memories

Article excerpt

How useful is memory in chess? Some great masters, such as Capablanca or Karpov, have relied little on memory, preferring to employ standard openings with few surprises possible to alarm either side and resorting to their strategic skills to produce victory. Others, such as Kasparov, whose play is primarily of a tactical inclination, require extensive memory skills as part of their preparation. Alekhine, Kasparov's role model, frequently took on tens of opponents without having seen the boards. Such public demonstrations of memory skill are known as blindfold simultaneous displays. Without great memory powers, such exhibitions would have led to fiasco. But are memory skills acquired or learnt?

Prodigious mental talent is all too often apocryphally ascribed to some cataclysmic personal experience. For example, the precocious teenage dinosaur-hunter Mary Anning from Lyme Regis was rumoured to have acquired her faculty for locating and unearthing the bones of extinct cretaceous ichthyosaurs, after being struck by a bolt of lightning when a toddler. However, the more normal route is sheer hard work allied with the development of a successful technique or algorithm for tackling the chosen task.

It is doubtless a myth that Mary's skills were due to natural effusions of electrical energy - likewise, so-called savantism, with its hypertrophy of one particular mental skill at the expense of the rest, is, of course, the exception, not the rule. Though with Bobby Fischer one sometimes wonders! During the past decade and a half, memorisation as a competitive activity has grown from humble beginnings to become a regular competition, paralleling chess, with national championships around the world and a grand finale, for many years held at Simpson's-in-the-Strand. Entrants to such tournaments train hard for them, like the mentathletes they are, constantly elaborating new ways of memorising vast lists of items, such as shuffled packs of cards, binary digits and random numbers.

As to the memorisation of pi, a popular item for memorisers, the British mnemonist Creighton Carvello achieved 20,013 digits correctly in 1980, in a total time of nine hours and ten minutes, only to see his record smashed nine years later by Hiroyuki Goto of Japan, with 42,195 in just ten hours and 50 minutes. …

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