Is memorization necessary in modern chess? Whenever I play chess, I always run out of time because I move slowly in the opening; unlike others who move fast in the opening because they have memorized it, and slowly in the middle game to execute their plans.

Should I should memorize opening theory to save time in the middle game?

  • 4
    Knowing more is better than knowing less. Memorizing more is better than memorizing less. That being said, understanding is better than memorization.
    – Tony Ennis
    Apr 16, 2014 at 11:18

5 Answers 5


Who better to answer this question than the legendary former World Champion and master of opening preparation Garry Kasparov himself? I quote

In June 2005 in New York I gave a special training session to a group of the leading young players in the United States. I had asked them each to bring two of their games for us to review, one win and one loss. A talented twelve-year-old raced through the opening moves of his loss, eager to get to the point where he thought he'd gone wrong. I stopped him and asked why he had played a certain pawn push in the sharp opening variation. His answer didn't surprise me: "That's what Vallejo played!" Of course I also knew that the Spanish Grandmaster had employed this move in a recent game, but I also knew that if this youngster didn't understand the motive behind the move, he was already headed for trouble.

This boy's response took me back to my own sessions with Botvinnik thirty years earlier. On more than one occasion he chided me for committing this same sin of blind emulation. The great teacher insisted that his students recognize the rationale behind every move. As a result, all of us learned to become great skeptics, even of the moves of the best players. We would discover a powerful idea behind each Grandmaster move, but we also found improvements. We studied, we questioned, we grappled with the idea behind a series of moves, and eventually we could build our understanding and create more and better strategies.

For players who depend on memorization, the opening ends when their memory runs out of moves and they have to start thinking for themselves. A rote opening might carry you to move five, or even move thirty, but this practice always inhibits your development as a player. It is one thing for a world-class player to rely on memorization; he already knows all of the whys behind the moves. For your own development it's far more important to think for yourself from the very start.

--- Garry Kasparov, How Life Imitates Chess (emphasis mine)

Following Garry Kasparov's advice, I myself do not recommend memorization of opening moves. If you really want to improve your game, you must understand (rather than memorize) why a certain move is played and only then play it.

Should I do memorizing to saved time in middle game?

No! Instead, you should study the openings more and understand why certain moves are played. When you understand these moves, the result is that you often automatically remember them because you have found the rationale behind them. The focus should be on understanding and not on memorization.

Great players have fallen prey to blind memorization, including legends like Viswanathan Anand himself. Consider the game where he lost in just 6 moves (!!!) because he blindly memorized a line played earlier by a grandmaster.

     [FEN "rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1"]
     [Event "Blind memorization makes Anand lose in 6 moves"]
     [White "Zapata"]
     [Black "Anand"]

     1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Nxe5 d6 4. Nf3 Nxe4 5. Nc3 Bf5?? 6. Qe2! 1-0

Or consider his loss in the first game in his World Championship match with Topalov where he "forgot" his preparation and blundered and lost the game.

     [FEN "rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1"]
     [Event "Anand forgets his preparation and blunders"]
     [White "Topalov"]
     [Black "Anand"]
     [Result "1-0"]

     1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. e4 Nxc3 6. bxc3 Bg7 7. Bc4 c5 8.
     Ne2 Nc6 9. Be3 O-O 10. O-O Na5 11. Bd3 b6 12. Qd2 e5 13. Bh6 cxd4 14. Bxg7 Kxg7
     15. cxd4 exd4 16. Rac1 Qd6 17. f4 f6 18. f5 Qe5 19. Nf4 g5 20. Nh5+ Kg8 21. h4
     h6 22. hxg5 hxg5 23. Rf3 Kf7?? ({not thinking objectively and trying to repeat moves from memory}) 24. Nxf6 Kxf6 25. Rh3 Rg8 26. Rh6+ Kf7 27. Rh7+
     Ke8 28. Rcc7 Kd8 29. Bb5 Qxe4 30. Rxc8+ 1-0

Now to redeem Anand a bit, I must mention his smashing win against Bologan, where Bologan blindly copied a line that had been played by other grandmasters before and got smashed by Anand's stunning novelty.

    [FEN ""]
    [Event "Bologan merely copies known opening moves and Anand punishes him"]
    [White "Anand"]
    [Black "Bologan"]
    [Result "1-0"]

    1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Nd7 5. Ng5 Ngf6 6. Bd3 e6 7. N1f3 Bd6 8.
    Qe2 h6 9. Ne4 Nxe4 10. Qxe4 Qc7 11. O-O b6 12. Qg4 g5 13. Qh3 Rg8 14. Re1!! Bf8
    15. Qf5 Bg7 16. h4 Kf8 17. Qh3 Rh8 18. hxg5 hxg5 19. Qg4 c5 20. Bxg5 cxd4 21.
    Rad1 Bb7 22. Rxe6 fxe6 23. Be7+ Kxe7 24. Qxg7+ Kd6 25. Nxd4 Qc5 26. Bf5 Qe5 27.
    Nf3+ Qd5 28. Qg3+ Ke7 29. Rxd5 Bxd5 30. Qg5+ Kd6 31. Qf4+ Ke7 32. Be4 Rh5 33.
    Nh4 Rg8 34. Ng6+ Kd8 35. Qf7 Re8 36. Bd3 1-0

Even after this game, I checked a database and found that many strong players unaware of this novelty also lost their games in this variation in the same manner.

Moral of the story - do not merely copy the moves of grandmasters or just memorize them. Analyze them and understand them and see if they can be improved.

  • What do you mean when you say he lost or won?? I don't see mate in any of the games depicted
    – CSharper
    Apr 24, 2014 at 19:08
  • 2
    @CSharper Grandmasters rarely ever play out their games till checkmate occurs. Usually they resign when they see that their position is beyond saving (for instance, when they lose a piece or more without any compensation). In all of the games listed above, the loser resigned in the final position. Apr 24, 2014 at 20:01
  • Very Interesting, I don't see how the first game is beyond saving they have the same pieces on the board, but I'm also not a GM. I guess they are under the assumption that my opponent will play perfect, I will play perfectly, I will ultimately lose. As a competitor that would be hard for me to do because one bad move/great move could bust it open. But I guess my statement above holds true.
    – CSharper
    Apr 24, 2014 at 20:23
  • In the first game, Black loses a piece by force. If 6...d5 then 7. d3 wins and if 6...Qe7 7. Nd5 wins because Black cannot defend against the threat of both Nxc7 and d3. Perfect play is not necessary. Even "good enough" play should win from that position. Even a 2200 player would be able to beat Vishy Anand from that position. Apr 24, 2014 at 20:38
  • great quote by Kasparov.
    – user3431
    Aug 1, 2016 at 22:15

Is memorization necessary in modern chess?

Depends highly from the opening you play.

Should I do memorizing to saved time in middle game?

Yes you should, but not in the way you assume it.

If you play an opening that has volumes and volumes of lines to go through then you must memorize the lines.

If the opening is playable only by playing "only moves" or forcing lines then yes, you need to memorize it.


Well, if the opening is too broad than it means that it is popular on the high level which means that it is very well explored. You can rely on the best players in the world and trust that they did find the best moves and that they are sound. This will save you time, and honestly you and I both know that us "normal players" can hardly come up with something better. So if it is popular and broad you would do well to memorize it. Grab a partner and play blitz games until it "enters your fingers" as I would like to say.

A good example is the main line of the Ruy Lopez.

If the opening is playable only by playing "only moves" or if the lines are forcing then there is no choice. You must memorize it or else you will lose the game.

Some examples include Botvinnik line or Marshall gambit in the Semi-slav defense, some lines of the Sicilian Najdorf and so on. Again, you will need a partner and a lot of blitz games.

Still, there are openings that are relatively quiet ( Caro-Kann/French defense... ) and you do not need to memorize them. These openings rely on solidity and positional play. Knowing general opening principles and thoroughly learning typical plans for these openings allows you to find a good move on your own without relying on memorization.

If you have trouble memorizing sharp openings than the quiet ones might be what you are looking for. They also allow you to move fast in the opening.


You should know how to play your opening regardless it being sharp or positional. You must understand which skills it requires from you to successfully play it, and know all the relevant lines for you in order not to lose.

If you play sharp openings or they have lots of deviations then you will do better to memorize them since, generally speaking, those openings do not rely on understanding of typical plans but rather on your tactical sharpness. Playing a lot will help you in your memorization.

If you play quiet openings do not memorize lines, but learn typical plans. Quiet openings are simple and "logical" and you can find most moves by yourself if you understand opening's idea and you know the general plans that crop up in the middlegame.

If you have further questions leave a comment. Hopefully this answer helps.

Best regards.


Memorization is important in chess. You need to memorize lots of concepts, and in some cases, memorizing move sequences will save time, especially in the opening.

I have to disagree with others who make the blanket statement that memorization in the opening is a bad idea. But it should not be the primary method for learning an opening. As others have said (viz. the Kasparov quote in another response), you should understand the ideas behind the moves first.

But your memory is a frail and fickle thing. You need to reinforce the learning with repetition. It's the repetition that commits to memory what you already understand.

So, think of it as a finishing touch, or like polishing; it isn't the main technique, but it's an essential to the longevity of your knowledge.


Check the books of the "Read and Play" method written by Ponzetto and Bellin. It was the most impactful book in my chess learning. Totally focused on learning the ideas rather than variations memorization.


It is better to understand and play even the openings but you can learn some of the openings from stockfish 7 which itself analyses but here even it thinks something deep so it is recommended for only bit beginners.

  • As this answer currently stands, it is hard to interpret what you mean. Please focus on the actual question and try to answer in plain, correct English.
    – Glorfindel
    Sep 13, 2016 at 18:53

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