World Memory Champion Simon Reinhard on how to keep things in your mind

by Johannes Fischer
7/4/2019 – With a German rating of 2246 Simon Reinhard is a strong amateur. But he probably learns openings better, more efficiently, and faster than most top grandmasters. After all, Reinhard is several times World Memory Champion. In an interview, he talks about the art of remembering and how memory techniques can help to train openings, middlegames and endgames in chess. | Photo: André Schulz

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Interview

"Everybody can improve their memory"

Dear Simon Reinhard, you are a passionate chess player and a professional memory athlete. In memory sports, you are multiple World Champion and the current European Champion. You can memorize 92 digits in one minute, a deck of cards in 21.9 seconds, and 888 cards in 30 minutes. How do you do this and what did you do to be able to do this?

Much of what I am doing is based on certain memory techniques. Techniques that everybody can learn. It’s best to have an experienced teacher — progress is easier and quicker. But with a bit of effort memory techniques can help everyone to memorize more than they could with their "natural" memory. Everybody can improve their memory. Of course, using such techniques is not limited to digits and playing cards. We use such data in our memory tournaments because they are easy to randomize and you cannot profit from previous knowledge. But memory techniques can be used to remember any kind of information better and more reliably.

Simon Reinhard at the World Memory Championship 2015 | Photo: Simon Reinhard

In 2005, when I was preparing for my first university exam, I had the first contact with memory techniques. I came across a homepage about these techniques and then got into memory sports. During tournaments and meetings everybody talks about the various techniques and ways to refine them. And everybody wants to break the next record — and thus we were all pushing each other constantly. 

What is more important: talent, that is, to be born with a good memory, or effort, the regular training of the techniques?

As so often, both are crucial. But in my opinion effort plays a bigger role. To use memory techniques successfully you do not need to be a "superbrain" or a "genius". This a typical media myth to make things more spectacular. Everybody can learn these techniques and can improve their memory. And it is fun and motivating to see one's progress. 

Some people are said to have a photographic memory. Are these the best and most successful memory athletes? 

An interesting topic. A neuroscientist once told me that according to research there are no people with a photographic memory in the classical sense (that is they only need to see a written page for a short amount of time to be able to read it aloud from memory even if they do not speak the language it is written in) unless they have certain cognitive deficiencies in other fields of the mind, like savants, for example. However, that does not mean that such people might not exist but all I can say is that among the thousands of memory athletes I met and saw at memory tournaments there was not a single one with a photographic memory. Which is not that bad, after all — I guess such a person would be rather hard to beat in a memory contest. (smiles). 

You have a good memory and you love to play chess. Does memory training help playing chess? Or, to put it differently: how much theory do you know?

I love chess and I enjoy playing it. To my mind, playing strength in chess consists of a number of factors that complement each other, e.g. positional understanding, tactical skill, good nerves or time management. However, it seems to me as if the factor of memory sometimes is omitted here, as if people are a bit embarrassed to admit that memory is a serious part of the noble game.

A typical argument against memory in chess is: "Only understanding matters." Of course understanding is important, but memory and understanding complement each other. What is remembered must be understood and what is understood must be remembered.

There are also limits to "understanding" when the lines get sharper and more and more follow the suggestions of an engine. Moreover, understanding something is no guarantee to recall all details and not only the general outlines you understood.

But chess as a sport is very precise and details are crucial. And that is why memory is a significant factor that determines chess strength. In the long run, improving your memory often means that you also improve your chess. And the best chess players of all time have been famous for their great memories. 

Garry Kasparov's (seen here playing online blitz in the ChessBase offices in Hamburg) memory and his opening knowledge were legendary | Photo: Frederic Friedel

I use my memory techniques to get better in chess. It suggests itself that you can try to learn opening theory with memory techniques. Recently and just for fun, I made a test and learned 100 moves of Najdorf mainline theory (200 half-moves) while taking time. I do not play the Najdorf and all the lines were new to me. It took me about 20 minutes to learn the 100 moves by heart, and that felt rather slow: However, I recalled 99% of the lines correctly (only one little move eluded me).

The next day I still recalled all the moves accurately. After a 10 minute repetition I should remember the lines reliably for the next weeks and until the next game (when I might try to play the Najdorf (smiles). 

If I had learnt these long, intricate, complicated, often counterintuitive variations (the longest line went up to move 26) in the traditional way I would at best have been able to recall only 20% of these lines the next day without repeating it ten times. 

But memory techniques not only work for openings: You can equally well memorize the 50 most important rook endgames or the most important middlegame pawn structures and the typical plans in these structures. Memory techniques are wonderfully flexible: with a bit of practice you can visualize very concrete and detailed data like opening variations as well as more abstract concepts.

Many chess players complain about the huge amount of opening theory that you need to learn to be able to compete today. Do you, as a memory athlete, have some tips how to remember openings better?

In memory sports we are memorizing, among other things, words and digits, both with very effective methods of visualization and encoding. Opening moves are nothing else than a combination of letters and digits, so these things are already familiar. For a competitor in memory tournaments, there is no huge difference between memorizing 464 digits in 5 minutes or 136 words in the same time or 50 moves of a chess opening. 

Of course, I first needed to develop a custom-made encoding system for chess moves that assigns images to the moves in an efficient way. 

To go into too much detail here would go beyond the limits of an interview, but I would be happy to talk about this in more detail at a different time, perhaps also in a different setting — should anyone be interested. 

Memory artist Simon Reinhard in action  | Photo: Simon Reinhard

But with a bit of practice it should not be much of a problem to remember 100 half-moves in ten minutes. Well, you might say that some people do this same without using memory techniques. That may be true, but the real advantage of using memory techniques to acquire chess knowledge is not necessarily the speed with which you learn initially (although I feel one should get faster with practice), but the fact that you will remember the data better and for a longer time. There is less "memory decay" and a higher rate of retention after a comparable amount of time. 

When learning the traditional way you need to relearn and to refresh the data again and again and often the next day more than half of it is gone and needs to be learned again. On the other hand, when using memory techniques in a proper way, it is not unusual that 90% or more of the data "survives the night" and can still be reliably recalled the next day — and beyond. 

And after a few more repetitions you will remember the data you memorised after weeks and months which saves a lot of time and energy.

This also refutes the often-heard argument that goes: "If I have to learn even more to learn memory techniques why should I learn them at all?" However, at a closer look this kind of argument turns out to be misguided because in the long run you actually need to learn less because memory techniques help you to break the endless circle of learning and forgetting.

Top players often remember many games in detail, their own games, games of others, and they also know a lot of patterns by heart. But I have never heard that these players are using memory techniques. Do memory techniques allow you to do things that top players cannot do – or at least don’t do?

A lot of people have passed their university exams without memory techniques, and a lot of people are very good in what they do without using memory techniques. The same goes for the best chess players. It would be a huge misunderstanding to assume that there is always only one way to achieve a goal. There are often different methods to reach your goal but some methods are simply easier and save more energy. 

As far as chess is concerned it might help to ask yourself: how happy am I with my "chess memory"? Is it fun to learn openings in the form of a constant drill? And how much can I recall one day or one week or one month after learning the opening for the first time?

If you think there is room for improvement here, memory techniques might be helpful. 

I have also often noticed that even experts fail to remember their pet lines after a while. Let’s say a strong player wrote a book about a certain opening and has invested hundreds of hours into researching and analysing the lines of this opening and is without doubt an expert in that opening.

But after publishing the book this player stops repeating the lines he analysed. And then, e.g. when playing blitz on a live-stream, he happens to have one of the main lines of “his” opening on the board but suddenly wonders: "How was that move order again?" And not around move 20, but at move 8.

Whenever I see such things, I feel confirmed that even the most intense "normal" and traditional ways of studying of an opening do not stop you from forgetting the data much too fast — unless you regularly repeat what you want to remember. But in the end you have to learn and repeat again and again which is frustrating and costs time and energy (not to mention points). 

Top players or even strong club players invest a lot of time on opening preparation, often a couple of hours per day. Which makes me think: top players are always keen to have even the tiniest competitive edge over their peers and if they could, for example, save even half an hour every day because they do not need to invest this half hour into repeating what they have already learned ad nauseam before, these saved half hours would add up to a lot of time. 

If memory techniques helped them to remember lines better and longer, the minutes they could save every day would quickly add up to hours and hours of time which they could invest into other areas of chess study or simply to take a well-earned break and recharge their batteries. Having more time than your rivals would almost necessarily lead to more success. 

It seems obvious that a good memory is helpful when studying openings. But you mentioned above that memory techniques can also help to study the middlegame and the endgame?

Definitely. The techniques are very flexible and can be used for a wide variety of topics. All you need is a bit of practice and experience. Then it is no problem to memorize typical middlegame plans, different rook endgames in all their detail or also susceptibly "simple" things like mating with knight and bishop (which might only seem simple as long as you do not have to do so). You can learn are large variety of topics.

Chess strength is said to decline with age and studies tend to explain this with a decline of short-term memory. Is it possible to outwit old age with memory techniques?

Simon Reinhard

Yes. I am already respectable 40 years of age myself, and I have not seen any kind of decline in my results at memory tournaments. On the contrary, I seem to still get better. Which is necessary if you want to compete against the world's top memorizers and against all the young people from around the world. Luckily, I still manage to hold up rather well (smiles).

I think the main reason for this is due to the fact that memory techniques relate to other areas of the brain than mere short-term memory. Since the most important techniques are based on an approach of connecting visualized information in a spatial, three-dimensional mental environment, the information sticks much better and more reliably. 

You often hear how "older" chess players (starting at 40! ...) claim that they could memorize openings up to move 30 and beyond "when they were young" but that they lost this skill with age. For such players in particular memory techniques can open up whole new perspectives and the potential to "reignite" the glorious fire of their chess youth — or even surpass it.  

In many of his blitz games World Champion Magnus Carlsen plays strategically better than many amateurs or even IMs in classical games though he has only 1 or 3 three minutes for the whole game. Does this have anything to do with memory and can this way to "remember" be learned?

Players like Carlsen have an uncanny feeling for chess, an intuition that tells them where the pieces should go. Intuition is often the result of a huge, subconscious treasure trove of accumulated knowledge that the brain can access through pattern recognition. That helps the brain to suggest moves that simply "look correct" or "feel right". In that regard, a player's memory definitely plays an, albeit subconscious, role. However, for this you need to have a broad and deep chess knowledge that is permanently memorized.

But of course, even then you do not automatically play like Carlsen. But every player has his or her own potential that they can realize in an optimal way.

Do you have a favourite player — and if so, do you know any of his or her games by heart?

I think Carlsen — particularly after the World Championship match 2018 against Caruana — is in the process of becoming an even more complete player than he was before. 

Magnus Carlsen | Photo: Lennart Ootes

In addition to his positional mastery he now often also employs sharp tactical play to overwhelm his opponents. His spectacular sacrifices against Giri at the recently played Gashimov Memorial are a fantastic example for this new style.

 

But other players and their characteristics should also be mentioned: Kasparov's legendary dynamism, Karpov's efficiency, technique, and positional harmony, and of course Fischer. Among the female players, I like GM Anna Muzychuk's games extraordinarily well because she combines great positional strength with an excellent tactical eye.

But it is important to note that even as a memory expert you do not memorize games automatically — you need to consciously employ memory techniques. When I just look at a game, without using memory techniques, I often still remember the main themes of that game and even certain moves but the details start to vanish. For sure, everybody knows that effect, it is simply the way our natural memory works: Simplification, filtering, pruning. If I really want to memorize a beautiful game, I do it with the help of memory techniques, and then I know it will be there whenever I want to recall it. 

How about your own games? Can you recall them all?

If you analyse a game in-depth, the memory of that game remains fresh for a longer period of time. However, even then, if you rely on the traditional ways to remember, the memory decays if you do not refresh it regularly by repeating what you learnt. And when comparing my games to the games of the masters I have to admit that until now I have not considered any of my games worth to be permanently memorized, unfortunately.

If I were pressed to name a game that I fondly think back to, I would probably choose an informal game without clocks that I played right before the prize-giving ceremony at the 2007 World Memory Championship in Manama, Bahrain, against a well-known chess grandmaster who happened to be present. It was my first World Memory Championship and after three days of memorizing, visualizing and recalling I was rather tired. But I was also quite relieved, and thus I played the game freely and in a relaxed fashion.

I only remember that I thought and calculated very little but that the moves simply seemed to "fit". I won with an exchange sacrifice and was a bit surprised myself (smiles). After the game I wrote the moves down to save the game at least digitally. Perhaps, I should also memorize it properly one day (smiles).

 

Simon Reinhard (right) in a casual game against GM Raymond Keene

If I recall correctly, the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges once wrote a story titled "Funes the Memorious" in which the eponymous character suffers from being unable to forget things. How realistic are such stories/visions/fears?

I hope there is nobody with such a memory in real life. Without being able to forget, we could not change, it would be so much harder to correct bad habits, and we would be trapped in our own past for eternity.  

Fortunately, memory techniques are only a tool in the toolbox of the mind. What you do not want to memorize with the help of memory techniques and with a conscious effort, you can gladly and happily forget, like all other people. 

To have a good memory, to be able to remember names, faces and facts, is certainly nice and useful. But does memory training also help to be more creative, to create new things out of the well-known?

Of course, every method has its limits. But it is interesting and noteworthy that using memory techniques trains mental flexibility and forces you to always form new mental associations. In both stages of typical memory techniques, the visualization process and the spatial connection of the data you want to remember, creativity is very helpful. And this continuous challenge certainly helps to improve your creativity.

And how do you move from learning facts to expert knowledge? Or, since you studied Law: does knowing a lot of laws make you a good lawyer?

Fortunately, when working in the field of Law, it is not necessary to know all the laws by heart. But you have to know the structure, the interconnectedness of the whole system. Then it is also possible to find one's way in unknown territory because you can discern similarities and differences much better. 

About the topic of expert knowledge in general: In the end, the most important thing is how well your knowledge is interconnected, how well and how precise you can recall your knowledge, and how deep your understanding of the field of your knowledge is. Here, understanding is certainly important but remembering is also crucial. What has been understood becomes worthless once it is forgotten. 

Memory sports are becoming more and more popular, there are world championships, European championships, and you can now become a "Grandmaster of Memory". Do you think that the insights of memory sports could also play a larger role in the context of chess?

I would be happy about that and I would be glad to make my chess-related memory methods accessible to as many chess players as possible. Let us be honest: The summer is too beautiful and life is too short for learning hundreds of opening moves in the traditional way. Who wants that, where is the lasting fun in that? I would like to contribute, in a way, toward changing that paradigm of learning. 

To conclude, a final question: what should you never forget when it comes to memory training and to chess?

That the most important thing is the fun that these endeavours can bring: I think the famous German author Friedrich Schiller has written something to the effect that humans are only fully and truly human when they play. Sure, chess is a game and a fight. But one can enjoy fights, too: if you, in the end, are as happy about the strength and the efforts of your opponent as if they were your own.

Simon Reinhard portrait photo: Lara Freiburger, 2016

The questions were asked by Johannes Fischer

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Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".
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genem genem 7/7/2019 11:13
"To go into too much detail here would go beyond the limits of an interview, but I would be happy to talk about this in more detail at a different time, perhaps also in a different setting — should anyone be interested." . . . ChessBase should produce a DVD training video with Simon R., just as ChessBase has done for so many regular topics such as this or that opening.
Edwin Meijer Edwin Meijer 7/5/2019 03:35
"To go into too much detail here would go beyond the limits of an interview, but I would be happy to talk about this in more detail at a different time, perhaps also in a different setting — should anyone be interested." Definitely interested. Do a second interview.
KevinC KevinC 7/5/2019 01:39
Please follow up with him, and do an article on his method of memorizing openings. I would love to see that.
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