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My team’s chorus cry for me during a World Championship is “revise, revise, revise”.

GM Viswanathan Anand

Modern chess requires its players to memorise more and more. “That’s probably the number one thing,” said top grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, “For becoming a really strong grandmaster today you have to have a really good memory because there’s so much to memorise."

Most of this effort goes on the opening moves, because you have to survive the opening to demonstrate your middlegame and endgame prowess. Although chess players have a good memory for moves, even elite players can struggle to remember their preparation at the board. And it is a constant source of frustration for all of us to spend so much time rehearsing openings.

Meanwhile, a new sport of competitive memory has sprung up, which reaches new heights every year. The record for most numbers memorised in five minutes stands at over 540. In 15 minutes, 1300. A man from India has recited 70,000 digits of pi.

How is this possible? Is it a special photographic memory? Actually no, it’s the disciplined application of memory techniques – and the techniques are surprisingly simple! They tap into our brains’ natural ability to remember places, images and stories. We can all remember our route to work, and we can all understand a story, even when it’s told to us quite fast. The trick is to convert non-memorable information, like a number, into memorable images.

The digits 5318, say, are bland and not memorable by themselves. But if you were walking down a street and came across a lamb playing with a dove, you would watch the scene with delight. Using a well-known code, lamb and dove translates to 5318. So a memory competitor, memorising the number 5318, could imagine a lamb playing with a dove. This feels strange at first, but quickly becomes easy.

“I am still surprised at the speed and fluency with which these images return,” wrote eight-time World Memory Champion Dominic O’Brien about memorising playing cards. “As soon as I recall one card, the next two are queuing up ahead, beckoning me. On a good day, I can’t deal out the cards fast enough.”

We can do the same with chess moves. We can memorise thousands of images, each one representing a pair of moves. We can store the images in memory palaces in our minds. These are structured sequences of images that cover an opening repertoire. Learning the repertoire becomes a game of creativity. Recall becomes an adventure.

At this point there is an obvious objection: What is the point of memorising chess moves? Isn’t it enough to understand the plans? I will discuss this thoroughly in Chapter 7, but for now I will simply ask: Would it help to have your entire opening repertoire written down on paper and placed in front of you at the board? If yes, The Chess Memory Palace will help you, because that is what you can achieve in your mind.

To get started, all you need are Chapters 1-3. Chapter 1 introduces picture notation, a system for writing chess moves as pictures. “A lamb playing with a dove” indicates unique moves involving the squares e3 and a8. After reading Chapter 1, you will be able to understand picture notation and play the moves correctly at the board. Chapter 2 is a crash course on memory techniques. How do you memorise an image so that you never forget it? Then in Chapter 3 we will become architects, learning to design a memory palace and select the best pictures to put in it.

After reading Chapters 1-3 you will have all the tools you need to create your own memory palaces and learn your opening repertoire. Chapters 4 and 5 are two example repertoires to walk you through the process: one as White against the Ruy Lopez Schliemann, and one as Black against the Ruy Lopez Exchange. “A lamb playing with a dove” features in the Exchange memory palace, where it means 10.Be3 and 10...O-O-O.1 If you want to learn either of these openings, you are in luck, you can memorise the palaces and use them in a game! If you don’t play these openings, treat them as worked examples to follow when memorising your own repertoire.

The Chess Memory Palace method is primarily for learning openings. But you can also use it for endgames. Chapter 6 shows how, and includes six ready-made tree diagrams to memorise.

Chapter 7 contains odds and ends, including how to used spaced repetition to keep your memories sharp for the long term, and an essay on why it is not sufficient to “understand your openings”, you also need to memorise the moves.

Finally, the Appendix lists picture words for all 64 squares. Use it as a reference when building your memory palaces.

The real fun of The Chess Memory Palace method comes at the board. Deep in a sharp Marshall Gambit, while your opponent is struggling to remember their preparation, you will be calmly walking through your palace, watching your repertoire laid out before you.

What do all these images mean? Let’s find out in Chapter 1.

  1. This book assumes you are comfortable with algebraic notation. If not, you are too early in your chess career to memorise openings.