Some of the other questions on SE discuss the use of spaced repetition systems such as Anki and Mnemosyne to learn tactics, openings and other aspects of chess (see especially Effectiveness of a spaced repetition system (SRS) for memorizing tactical patterns for long-term skill gain?). (I am also aware that memorisation should never be done at the cost of understanding (see Understanding vs. Memorization).

My question, however, is about older memorisation techniques that don't rely on current SRS software. So far, I have found only one example of spaced repetition that does not rely on a computer. It comes from Hans Bouwmeester's book Schaken als vak: brug naar het professionele schaak (1976; English: Chess as a profession: bridge towards professional chess). (Bouwmeester coached people like Jan Timman, Gert Ligterink and Paul van der Sterren.)

At the end of a chapter about building up a card index or filing system for opening theory, he briefly describes a method for memorising opening variations (pp. 96-97). Assuming that you can subdivide your opening repertoire into 16 groups, you can review it in the following way (with 1.5 to 2 hours of study per day):

Day  1:     1
Day  2:     2   1
Day  3:     3   2
Day  4:     4   3   1
Day  5:     5   4   2
Day  6:     6   5   3
Day  7:     7   6   4
Day  8:     8   7   5   1
Day  9:     9   8   6   2
Day 10:     10  9   7   3
Day 11:     11  10  8   4
Day 12:     12  11  9   5
Day 13:     13  12  10  6
Day 14:     14  13  11  7
Day 15:     15  14  12  8
Day 16:     16  15  13  9   1
Day 17:     1   16  14  10  2
Day 18:     2   1   15  11  3
Day 19:     3   2   16  12  4
Day 20:     4   3   1   13  5
Day 21:     5   4   2   14  6
Day 22:     6   5   3   15  7
Day 23:     7   6   4   16  8

So, every day, you take a "new" group, you review the group from the day before, the group from 3 days earlier, the group from 1 week earlier and the group that was new 15 days earlier.

Bouwmeester implies that there are other methods, but he does not mention any. Is anybody aware of other methods (possibly from other chess books)? Have Dvoretsky, Jusupov or Aagaard written anything about this in their books?

2 Answers 2


I went through a number of chess books where advice on memorisation techniques might be expected, but I did not find anything that resembles Bouwmeester's proposed technique. Below is what I found; the books are listed in chronological order, except for Soltis.

Maizelis (1960)

Ilya Maizelis: The Soviet Chess Primer (English translation, 2014; original Russian edition, 1960)

Opening variations should not be taken on board by "cramming", and learnt by heart. The mechanical assimilation of a series of moves in some line or other is perhaps not difficult, but to say the least it is useless. (Page 373)

You should play through opening variations on a chessboard, looking carefully into the rationale of the manoeuvres involved. You must not simply accept on trust everything written in the handbooks; you need to form an independent assessment of the positions that arise. You are therefore definitely not advised to play through opening after opening, particularly at a fast pace. (Page 376)

Suetin (1974)

A. Suetin: Hoe men de opening speelt (1974; "How to Play the Opening"; originally in Russian).

In the book's last chapter, which discusses the study of openings, Suetin points out that the study of openings requires a good memory, but one should not blindly memorise as many variations as possible. Players should find games that illustrate the variations that they have chosen to learn. Some players are better at remembering visual features such as positions, while others are better at remembering move sequences. "It is not feasible to provide a recipe that works for everyone." Players should note down their games and analyse them; they can then consult books to check for better continuations.

Euwe (1977)

Max Euwe: Praktische schaaklessen 3: Openingsrepertoire (1977).

Euwe warns against blindly following what is printed in books, but offers no advice on how to memorise openings.

Mednis (1982)

Edmar Mednis: How to Play Good Opening Moves. (1982) Revised by Burt Hochberg (2002).

Mednis points out that it is much more important to understand how to play good opening moves than to have memorised many complicated variations. He cites the match between Capablanca and Kostic as an example. Kostic was noted for his memorisation of openings (and games generally), while Capablanca admitted that he was no expert in opening theory. Nevertheless, Capablanca swept the first five games, after which Kostic resigned the match.

Awerbach, Kotow & Judowitsch (1983)

J. Awerbach, A. Kotow, M. Judowitsch: Schachbuch für Meister von Morgen: Ein Lehr- und Trainingswert - nicht nur für den Nachwuchs (1983; originally in Russian).

The chapter on openings was written by Judowitsch. The last part of the chapter discusses how to learn openings. It contains the usual advice about understanding, healthy opening principles and the analysis of master games, but nothing about memorisation techniques.

Kostjew (1987)

Alexander Kostjew: Schach lehren leicht gemacht (1987; originally in Russian).

Like several other authors, Kostjew points out that is is important to understand the idea(s) behind the main variations in one's repertoire. These can be learnt by studying a few games that use these variations (chapter I, section 18).

Samarian (2007)

Sergiu Samarian: Das systematische Schachtraining. Trainigsmethode, Strategien und Kombinationen (9th ed., 2007). This is the German chess federation's official instruction manual.

The book's last chapter discusses how to choose an opening repertoire and how to collect and analyse opening variations. It does not describe a memorisation technique. However, the book's introduction recommends players to memorise and understand one or two exemplary games for each of the themes discussed in the book.

Lars Bo Hansen (2009)

Lars Bo Hansen: Improve Your Chess by Learning from the Champions (2009)

Lars Bo Hansen says it is important to have a broad opening repertoire in order to adapt to your opponent, but does not give advice on how to study openings.

Stewart (2013)

William Stewart: Chess Psychology: The Will to Win (2013).

Chapter 5, "How to Study Chess", discusses how to organise a regimen for chess study. Stewart recommends a schedule with 30% tactics, 25% positional play, 20% endgames, 15% openings and 10% psychology. He also advises not to learn openings via memorisation.

Memorization of certain positions is important for any kind of study, but really understanding the core concepts of what is happening on the board is a lot more important than automatically knowing what response to make to your opponent's move.

In spite of admitting that memorisation is important, Stewart does not say anything about efficient memorisation techniques.

Soltis (2010)

Andrew Soltis: Studying Chess Made Easy (2010).

At last a book that is honest about the importance of memorisation.

Chapter 4 discusses "the right was to study an opening". Soltis writes, "Every player memorizes. Grandmasters do it more than anyone else," and that "all good opening play is part memory and part understanding". To start learning a new opening, "a good first step is to look briefly at a large number of games that were played in that line". You should not look exclusively at recent grandmaster games, since the most instructive games are often several decades old.

An alternative approach is to find a book about the opening, especially one with good verbal descriptions. Soltis has much more to say about studying openings, but gives no advice on memorisation techniques.

Update 1: Dan Heisman

In a tweet on 11 August 2016, chess instructor Dan Heisman wrote, "[I]n all my chess reading I have never read about a player using a memorization technique & most analysis doesn't require it".

Update 2: Art of Memory Wiki and Forum

Memorisation in chess was discussed in a few threads on the Art of Memory Forum:

However, the page Memorizing Chess Games on the Art of Memory wiki is still a stub.

(The thread memory techniques on Chess.com from 2011 discusses an alternative to memorising opening lines, i.e. playing lots of games in the chose opening, starting with games that are won or lost in 20 moves or less.)

Update 3: Mnemonics and Blindfold Chess

Staffan A. Svensson: Mnemonics and Blindfold Chess (2003, PDF): discusses several aspects of mnemonics and mnemonic systems that are relevant to blindfold chess.

  • 1
    This is possibly the most comprehensive and well-researched answer I think I've ever seen, on any of the stackexchange forums I visit, which is quite a few. A kudos to you for your community support, and this effort towards it! Take a couple of days off...
    – jaxter
    Commented Oct 1, 2016 at 18:59
  • Of course, since you also asked the question, it wasn't quite spontaneous, but still...
    – jaxter
    Commented Oct 1, 2016 at 19:00
  • @jaxter I put a bounty of 50 reps on this question a few weeks ago, and nobody posted an answer...
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Oct 3, 2016 at 15:12

I'm afraid I can't contribute to your research on pre-computer, pre-SRS memorization techniques.

I would suggest that, since in your response to your own question you acknowledge multiple sources that advise against memorization of openings at all, the question is moot apart from its value to chess history. I can't roust out my copy of The History of Chess, by Whyld, et al, to confirm my suspicion, but it may be able to shed light, if you're still interested for that rather arcane reason.

In addition, spaced repetition has been demonstrated through multiple research projects to produce the best retention in memorization efforts, so it doesn't seem as if a pre-SRS technique (digital or otherwise) is worth using, if SRS is available for free and has been optimized for retention.

There are also some useful, related questions on this forum that are related to the two assumptions in your question that you challenge in your own response. See:

Other questions have been posed and answered that relate to the specific SRS techniques and tools, if you're interested.

  • Please, do check Whyld's book. The purpose of this question is explicitly historical.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 15:19
  • I regret that, as I noted in my answer, I can't roust out my copy of The History of Chess (for reasons that don't pertain to this question or even website). However, it may be possible to locate one through your local library system, particularly if you're in the US or UK.
    – jaxter
    Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 15:27
  • Sorry, I misunderstood you. Anyway, The Oxford Companion to Chess is available in some libraries in Europe; see WorldCat. I hope I can get it through interlibrary loan.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 15:37
  • 1
    I checked Dvoretsky and Yusupov's Opening Preparation and Training for the Tournament Player. Neither work nor author makes any mention of memorization techniques. Given the advanced nature of their materials, it's likely that they don't treat the subject anywhere. I recall an IM friend of mine once telling me that he escorted IM Dvoretsky while at a workshop here in the US. The players at the workshop were all rated under 1800. At a break, Dvoretsky told my friend that he didn't know what to do with these players; they were just too junior to benefit from his training.
    – jaxter
    Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 1:25
  • I have since located and scoured my copy of Hooper and Whyld's book, "The Oxford Companion to Chess". Unfortunately, there's no material in it related to training methods at all; I researched the usual keywords, including repetition, train, coach, study, etc. and there were no hits. Regrets.
    – jaxter
    Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 1:55

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