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I'm somewhat new to chess. I've been playing on and off for years but it is only in the last few months I have been playing with an increased frequency and learning about openings, tactics and such.

I've never liked playing with a clock. I hate the extra pressure and feel like I don't have enough time to think things through. I think this is especially true for blitz type games, which I don't even consider playing.

It seems to me that when you play for speed, you are relying on rote memorization rather than overall strategy. This would seem especially true for the blitz type games, where a player will choose the best move from memory in response to the move the opponent made.

Without the timer you have a chance to consider the overall board, possible moves your opponent will make and a greater opportunity to play strategically.

Is there any truth to this type of thinking? Is it just a matter of opinion? Are blitz games more than just rote memorization?

  • I'd like to understand more about where you're coming from. It seems clear that you're not satisfied with the answers you've gotten so far; for us to make progress or improve them, it would help to further pinpoint the source of your dissatisfaction. For instance, my post gives an affirmative answer to your question "Are blitz games more than just rote memorization?" If you find my answer less than convincing, perhaps you could comment on it explaining where specifically you disagree with it. – ETD Jul 30 '12 at 4:41
  • @EdDean I think part of the issue is there isn't going to be an easy yes or no answer to the question backed by evidence. If that were possible that's what I'd love to see. Otherwise the answers for this type of question are going to arguments/opinions, which is fine. It isn't that any are bad, indeed I have up voted them all. It's just that they have not made a convincing case IMO. – Sonny Ordell Jul 30 '12 at 5:31
  • I think that one thing you asked - "Are blitz games more than just rote memorization?" - actually does allow for a clear-cut yes/no answer backed up by evidence, and that's why I focused on it. – ETD Jul 30 '12 at 6:08
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It's difficult to write a short answer to this question, but I will try.

Yes, the human mind is incredibly powerful at pattern matching. If you play chess for a long time, you will develop very strong "gut-feel" for a variety of positions - heuristics, if you will. These are shortcuts that your brain feels are particularly applicable to chess, and allow you to forego much calculation to arrive at the same conclusion. They are certainly incomplete, or only consider parts of the board. E.g. I have a gut feel for any two pieces placed so that a pawn could fork them; it certainly doesn't take into account the rest of the board. It is just one of hundreds of little "tools" I (subconsciously) use to make my calculations more efficient.

Now, you refer to this as rote memorisation, but I'd prefer to call it pattern matching, since the former implies a learned response, whereas my definition does not. Your actual question was whether the relative importance of this skill in rapid games leads to less time spent strategising.

I would argue that this is not necessarily the case. In my own experience, long games are dominated by extensive, deep calculations (i.e. tactics), not strategy. Strategy is definitely present, but I don't think I've ever spent hours thinking about strategy in any one game.

If you shorten the game, you are taking away the possibility of truly deep calculations; players need to rely on extremely quick (and selective) calculations, guided by their gut feelings and learned patterns. This may in fact lead to a larger percentage of their time being used to strategise, although it's difficult to say for sure. In any case, I would argue against the fact that blitz games are all about learned responses (although you absolutely must have high levels of pattern matching, to stay competitive).

Aside:

To be fair, I should mention the the following:

  • During a blitz game, much of the opening may literally come from rote memorisation. The set of openings is huge, but still small enough that you can learn many to this level.
  • You often see a complex, 5-move exchange take place in seconds, making it seem like rote memorisation is guiding the entire thing. In fact, what's probably happening is that both players have (extremely rapidly) calculated that they would like to see this exchange through to a certain point before it began. There is no use second-guessing themselves through the exchange, so they make the moves as rapidly as possible.
  • During the endgame, rote memorisation can come back into it again, though to a lesser degree than during the opening.

Again, I think it's important to note that even though these seem to suggest your initial comment was correct, I don't think it necessarily means that there's less strategy, overall. I'm sure there's less strategy - the game is much, much shorter - but there's less everything. Percentage wise, who knows.

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As far as I know, clock was introduced to combat abuse regarding time. So it's a needed thing. You say you don't like to play with a clock. And you immediately add about blitz. So it isn't clock that's the problem. It is that certain limited amount of time that makes you uncomfortable. To deal with this, I suggest you to just play longer games (though, with clock). I believe I understand your problem, since in some situations I feel exactly your pain: I am a slow thinker and I feel extremely stressed when I try to play chess with 10 minutes per game, but it becomes OK as soon as I get at least 15 minutes per game.

While clock is a stress factor, as you correctly point out, it also has positive consequences. One of them is that when you think about a move - you "float" less between estimating the same variant over and over, thus wasting time. You learn to be disciplined and estimate each variant only once (and have a final look over the one you choose just before making the move on board).

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I think there's little truth to the idea that memorization plays a greater role in blitz than it does in longer time controls. When playing blitz, a player might tend be a bit more "habitual" in the opening stage than she would be when she can ponder a bit more, but in every game of chess (blitz or not) the point will come when memorization can't be a factor because you're in brand new territory. In general, blitz isn't really a matter of memorization any more than slower play is, at least in the sense of specific memorized lines.

Perhaps you mean something different by "memorization." If you intend it to refer to reliance on an ingrained accumulation of typical patterns that arise in chess, then I would agree that it plays a large role in blitz chess, but it does so in slower play as well. And in fact the simple recognition of familiar patterns probably goes further than you think toward constituting "strategic play" in general.

The crux of the matter may be this: you write, "It seems to me that when you play for speed, you are relying on rote memorization rather than overall strategy," but in your use of the universal you here, I think you're projecting your own blitz chess onto blitz chess in general. I don't mean this as a slight. Give even an "ordinary" master enough time to comfortably engage in some strategic thinking, say 30 minutes for the game. Now pit him against Aronian, giving the latter only 5 minutes. At worst, Aronian's going to be doing just fine in this contest. My point here is just that the time factor alone places no absolute limit on the potential strategic content of a game; it's a matter of who's doing it.

The only way I could engage in any kind of conversation with a Chinese speaker right now is if I were to memorize some phrases, but of course that doesn't mean that two Chinese speakers quickly prattling on with each other are relying on their memories to do so. At the moment, it may be that the only way you could imagine yourself proficiently "speaking chess" in the blitz setting would be from memory, but that can change. Someone like Aronian is essentially a "native" blitz chess speaker, while the rest of us are speaking a foreign tongue, but that doesn't mean we can't become fluent. I'm no great player, for instance, but even I craft actual plans during blitz (and occasionally successful ones).

  • I think you are reading too much into my use of the universal you here, and I don't really get the Chinese analogy as I think of chess nothing like a language (although maybe that's just me). In your first paragraph you say that memorization cannot be a factor at a certain point in the game, which is true, however a blitz player who played until that point relying on superior recall would still have the advantage, or so I would think. – Sonny Ordell Jul 30 '12 at 5:29
  • @SonnyOrdell, you say, "a blitz player who played until that point relying on superior recall would still have the advantage, or so I would think." Of course she would, but she'd be getting such an advantage at slower time controls too. Perhaps it is more helpful in blitz than at slower time controls (though generally less than you think I suspect), but that is a far cry from making blitz chess nothing more than rote memorization. That's the question you asked: "Are blitz games no more than rote memorization?" That question does have a simple yes/no answer (yes) ... – ETD Jul 30 '12 at 5:57
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    @SonnyOrdell I'm inclined to agree with Ed Dean here; using the word rote does injustice to what actually happens. Yes, your mind learns to recognise patterns almost instantaneously, but no, you definitely do not have a "canned" / rote response to all situations (that would be absurd). What seems to happen is that your reasoning moves to a higher level, and I mean that literally - you stop expending effort to calculate simple combinations (those are almost instantly visible), freeing your mind to come up with strategems. I say this as a weak player, better ones take it to another level. – Daniel B Jul 31 '12 at 7:29
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    @SonnyOrdell I see your point, and it's almost impossible to answer this accurately. What I don't really agree with is your assertion that memorisation = less strategy. In my opinion, the memorisation, if we can call it that, means less tactics. You have limited time for in-depth calculations, so you may not even attempt that. This may actually lead to more strategy (measured as amount of time spent strategising vs calculating). In a long game, how much of your time do you spend calculating versus strategising? For me, most of the time is spent calculating tactics. – Daniel B Jul 31 '12 at 10:08
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    @SonnyOrdell OK, I'll see if I can write it up in a nice way. – Daniel B Jul 31 '12 at 10:53
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I'm posting a second answer here in order both to distill some of the back-and-forth that's gone on in comments, shedding light on where disagreements lie, and to perhaps to answer the question thereby.

I believe that the reason for the gulf between how Sonny has been thinking/talking about the question on the one hand, and how folks like myself have been on the other, is really just because there are two separate questions here which got more intertwined than they should have been in the original post. What I mean is this: two questions we might wonder about are

  1. Is there less strategy in blitz chess than in slow games?
  2. Does memorization play a greater role in blitz games than slow games?

These are distinct questions, and a Yes answer to either one wouldn't necessarily imply a Yes answer to the other. But these two questions got rolled up into one big one in the question's text, and I think the root of all disagreements thus far is that Sonny came into the game with two background assumptions that some (e.g. me) think are inaccurate:

  • First, that the answer to (2) is Yes.
  • Second, that that goes hand in hand with the answer to (1) being Yes.

This is evidenced, for instance, by this comment of his: "My question was whether or not a blitz game is less strategic than a game with longer time controls. Since it probably does rely on memorization to a greater degree, I think the answer is yes." Thus when I suggested that the answer to (2) might be No, from Sonny's point of view that would seem like I'm also claiming that the answer to (1) is No. But I don't think that at all. So now, at the risk of beating a dead horse, I'm going to say my piece about each of these questions separately.

(1) Yes, absolutely, there is less strategy in blitz chess than in slow games. There's less time for strategizing, and so there's less of it. But there's also less time for calculation, and so there's lower quality tactical play than in slower games too. Really, blitz is just going to be lower quality chess in general since we require time to think through anything at all in life. This question can be answered that simply.

(2) Despite that, I maintain that the answer here is No, and that this matter has little bearing on (1). I don't have anything new to say on this that hasn't already been said in comments earlier. However much time you may have allotted for your chess game, a point is quickly (in terms of number of moves) going to come when you're in a brave new world and canned responses can't help. This is true in a 5-minute game or a 5-day game. Though this isn't a fair rhetorical move at all, I'll just end by saying that while you don't think so now, I believe you'll come to agree with this point as you accrue more chess playing experience.

  • While I disagree with you here, I really do appreciate your answer. I do think that 1. and 2. would be linked, and did not even consider that I should ask them as separate questions. I will have to be more careful in the future. I'll be interested to see if I look back on this question at a later date and agree with you after all. – Sonny Ordell Jul 31 '12 at 12:24
  • +1 I agree with you in general, especially at the higher level, although in my own blitz games I do try to stay within openings I know more deeply than an opening I might be willing to explore in a longer time control. Opening ignored, I agree with you completely. – Eve Freeman Aug 3 '12 at 17:40
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I'm not convinced that better blitz players have memorized more of the game. While chess (and life in general) favors people who know more, there's a considerable diminishing return on memorization.

Faster time controls favor players with more talent for calculating. A faster time control will also favor a more dynamic, attacking style of play. Not many people have time for a 60 move positional game in blitz.

  • Hmm, I see blitz as relying on rote memorization. i.e. most people know the multiplication tables through rote memorization, which is different from actually solving a math problem. – Sonny Ordell Jul 29 '12 at 13:06
  • @SonnyOrdell are you saying that the best blitz players have already seen every position they play, have previously determined the best response, and have memorized that too? – Tony Ennis Jul 29 '12 at 14:03
  • more or less, yes. – Sonny Ordell Jul 29 '12 at 16:13
  • @SonnyOrdell, that just isn't possible. The number of potential moves each player has on each turn is such that the set of possible positions grows way too fast for a player to have memorized responses in all the games he plays. With a (conservative) estimate of 20 moves available each time, think about how many possible positions could already arise after only, say, 10 moves for each side. More: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shannon_number – ETD Jul 29 '12 at 18:23
  • @EdDean, it isn't possible to memorize all moves, but it possible to memorize a huge list of tactics, responses to certain moves, best plays for certain situations etc. I think the better the blitz player, the more they will have memorized and rely on quick recall to win the game. – Sonny Ordell Jul 30 '12 at 4:05
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Here's my problem with your question - You are somewhat new to the study of chess rather than just the playing of chess, and you have a host of experienced players that you are continually telling "you're wrong". What answer are you looking for?

As alluded to already, yes, there is less tactical and strategic play the shorter the time control gets. What does come into play is NOT rote memorization, but the pattern matching through lots and lots of play and study.

For instance, when a certain pawn structure arises, you know some of the better ways to attack it, not because you've memorized it, but because you've seen and studied it in various games (regardless of opening).

Also, some people simply do better in blitz because it suits their style of play. Blitz does not lend itself readily to closed, complicated positions with minute positional changes. You simply don't have the time, and getting bogged down in that is a killer in a 2 or 5 minute game.

I know that when I first started studying chess, I sat there with a board in one hand and the MCO book in the other and tried to pick 6 or 7 openings to flat out memorize, and it is not as productive as you think. As soon as you deviate from the memorized line, you're lost. As you become more familiar with the INTENT of the openings, then you I suspect you will become more comfortable with the clock, and with faster play, because you will know what they are trying to accomplish. You can then play to block that objective while advancing your own.

Finally, I really do advise you to make peace with the clock. Very rarely in tournament play (40/2, 20/1 typically) have I ever gotten into time trouble. Blitz is just fun, but if you obsess over the clock in any type of structure, then already your concentration is not on the game.

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