How Moonwalking With Einstein Gave Me A Blueprint To Better Chess

Joshua Foer

My old quaffing partner Andreas Pedelevis recently recommended that I read Moonwalking with Einstein, the Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. The book is both an overview of the role and importance of the art of memory in ancient Greece and Rome, the middle ages and the Renaissance, and an account of how Joshua Foer, a graduate of Yale University and a freelance science journalist, got drawn into the world of memory championships and ended up as the 2006 USA Memory Champion.

It is actually quite a bit more than that, but the points that chiefly interested me were the accounts of the role of memory in classical rhetoric and how it was cultivated; that it was cultivated at the moment when writing came on the scene; that the role of the book as an aid to memory and not as a convenient substitute; that the method of reading switched from intensive to extensive reading; that the method of remembering was by loci, or places, where you distributed the objects of memory in a mental memory palace; that Renaissance thinkers such as Giulio Camillo and Giordano Bruno attempted to construct kabbalistic memory machines; that Johann Winkelmann‘s memory system for word/number substitution (which I studied years ago after purchasing the Bruno Furst “You Can Remember” course) gets an airing; that Francis Bacon disparaged memory techniques; that chess masters rely on a vast memory of chess patterns rather than on deep analysis; that the secret to improving your memory – or anything else – is to get out of your comfort zone and practise failing; that the way to improve your chess is to study master games and try to work out “the next move”…

The last three points were for me the most stimulating of all. Ever since I read Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz a few years ago I have come to appreciate the value of failure as the key to success, just as “negative feedback” informs a guided missile that it is off target.

The torpedo accomplishes its goal by going forward, making errors, and continually correcting them. by a series of zigzags it literally “gropes” its way to the goal. (Maltz, p. 18)

Now, here was Joshua Foer giving me a blueprint to better chess! What follows is my own version of what Foer was talking about. It goes like this:

  1. Study master games.
  2. Try to work out the next move.
  3. Pay special attention to the times when you “get it wrong”.
  4. Study one game at a time.
  5. Study it intensively until you can remember the moves.
  6. Practise playing the game from memory.
  7. Talk to chess players about the game, and demonstrate it on a chessboard.

As soon as I had a spare moment I plucked Gerald Abrahams’ Teach Yourself Chess from the bookshelf and turned to Chapter VII “Illustrative Games” at the back of the book. I intend to go right the way through, one game at a time, at the rate of one game a month. The first “illustrative game” is the drubbing that Morphy inflicted on the Duke of Brunswick, which I believe I have now learned and shall expatiate upon in my next blog post…