March 27, 2005
Memory or Skill?
This is response to a comment to an earlier post that was almost exactly as I thought about the question on my own in a funny bit of coincidence.
The comment was about the role of memorization in chess:
If you're ever going to play chess competively, then the need for memorization grows as you play aginst tougher and tougher competition, especially at the top levels. In fact, when Bobby Fischer played his rematch with Boris Spassky in 1992, he said that computers would eventually overtake human players, simply because of the ability to store a huge database of games. There are over 10 million unique positions after only 4 moves by each players (although I'd guess that there are only about 1000 that are considered usuable in competition) In fact, one only needs to look at the 1997 rematch between The world champion Garry Kasparov and the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue. Deep Blue won the six game match with 2 wins one loss and three draws, although Kasparov did play without any knowledge of Deep Blue's past performaces. At the highest levels, the game is played along lines basically predetermined and memorized by both players, similar to football in that they each have a plan to use their biggest strengths and negate those of their opponents. The only difference is that the pieces always have the same skills whereas humans change. At some point, one of the players will go "out of the book" and play a move that hasn't been studied extensively (at least publicly). The trend over the last 50 years or so has pushed this critical phase of the game where the players go "out of the book" further and further into the game, requiring more and more memorization. Once players are "out of the book" then the burden of play is directly on their shoulders. Now, tactics and strategy predominate rather than memorization. They choose their moves by calculating, that is, looking at a possible move, then considering their opponent's response, then considering their response to their opponent's response, etc. This is really where computers have an advantage over people because they can consider many, many more possible variations after each possible move. This is also where the concentration and thinking ability enter the game and where the benefits enter the picture. I liken this to, say, hitting a curveball. You memorize how to hold the bat and how to move your arms, but when the ball is pitched, you still have to meet the ball with the bat. You can read all you want about it, but the only way to get anything out of it is to actually try. Any chess player that has little experience cannot be that good of a player no matter how many opening variations they memorize. Further, knowledge of these openings is only required in serious, competitive chess. I know only a handful of openings and yet I managed to finish in the top 50 (of about 1000 players) in the high school state chess tournament twice.
While it's necessary to memorize many sequences of moves in order to reach the top echelons, at the other levels, especially with younger players, those lines of moves haven't been learned nor do they need to be. Instead, the game is played by each player utilizing more or less general principles that they've learned rather than rote memorization. When i say that chess will really help, I really mean young(ish) people who are still learning how to apply ideas and principles to tangible, real-life situations. Still, I think anyone can benefit from learning to play simply because it really is a practice in logic once you understand a few very general principles. The goal at these lower levels is to objectively find the best move. This pure, independent exercise in logic is the real benefit. Nearly everyone could use better logic skills.
I agree that memorization can be important, and experience defintely helps (but in what game/sport/skill does experience not improve ability?). However, it's not required and when it's relied upon, undermines the logical aspects. When the game is based almost completely upon the players finding the moves, not regurgitating memorized lines (as is the case more often than not), this is when I think chess reaps benefits upon its players.