How GMs Memorize Chess Opening Variations - GM Avetik Grigoryan

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  • GM Avetik Grigoryan GM Avetik Grigoryan

How Grandmasters Memorize Opening Variations

Struggle to remember opening variations in chess? Learn the training technique that GMs use to remember long and complicated variations.

Openings | 6 min read
How Grandmasters Memorize Opening Variations

Memorizing complicated chess variations is a challenge for all levels of players – even for Grandmasters like me. So, what’s the solution?
Well, I have 4 pieces of news. Three good 🙂 and one bad 🙂

Let’s start with the first piece of good news: There is a solution!

And now for the bad piece of news:  It’s not easy!

But keep the mood up! I’ll reveal the other two soon.

In my article about memorizing variations, I said that the key is to UNDERSTAND them.

(If you haven’t read that article yet, I highly recommend you to read it first, and then come back here).

Now I have something surprising to tell you. Ready?

Grandmasters memorize variations easier than beginners! WHY?

Actually it’s not just Grandmasters.

Generally speaking, more experienced players find it easier to memorize variations than less experienced ones.

– And it has nothing to do with having a better memory!

There are 2 reasons why:

  1. Experienced players don’t buy into the idea that they can memorize chess variations in the same way people learn languages. They understand that the key to memorizing variations is understanding them.
  2. As they’re more experienced, it’s easier for them to understand the ideas behind each move.

Let me show you a couple of examples.

A Philidor example

Position from Philidor

This position is from our course on the Philidor Defense.

It occurs after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 ed4 4.Nd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Be7 6.g3! (The strong move Aronian told me about) 0-0 7.Bg2 Nc6

It’s White to move. What would you play here if you saw the position for the first time?

Well, the best move is 8.Nde2!

Seems a bit strange – White's ignoring an opening principle by moving the Knight for 3rd time in 8 moves. So how do you memorize this move?

If you knew that when you have a space advantage, you need to try to keep the pieces on the board then this move becomes very natural, doesn’t it?  Otherwise, you would play 8.0-0.

An Alekhine example

The next one is from the Alekhine Defense.

Position from Alekhine Defense

The position occurs after 1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.Nf3 Nc6?! 5.c4 Nb6

Now, what should you play as White? If you're an experienced player it would be very easy for you to remember the move 6.e6! In fact, it would come to you very naturally.

You’ll easily notice that after 6...Be6 7.d5 you win a piece, and after 6...fe6 Black will be in danger.

You might have seen this idea from different openings such as in the Caro Kann after 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Bf5 4.h4 h6 5.g4 Bh7?! 6.e6!

Caro Kann Example

After 5...fe6 White plays 6.Nf3. They ruined Black’s pawn structure, got the e5 square for their pieces, and made it hard for them to develop their dark-squared Bishop.

The same e6 idea was mentioned in the Alekhine Defense. On the contrary, if you haven’t seen many games with the idea of playing e6 it will be tough to remember.

More good news!

At this point, the second piece of good news becomes clear:

With experience, you’ll remember variations easier.

The stronger you become, the easier it is for you to understand the ideas behind each move. And the better you understand each move – the easier it is to remember them 🙂

How to understand moves

From previous articles, you might know that my favorite question is WHY?

Well, the same question is useful here. Before making a move, always try to ask yourself:

“Why should I play this move?”

“What’s the idea?”

“Why this one, and not another?”

Never play a move just because your memory says it’s the move. And never try to memorize a move blindly during your training. Always ask yourself why?

In our courses, we rarely ask our students to memorize moves. Instead, we try to explain the ideas behind them.

The same principle can be applied if you learn something from a book too – always try to understand the ideas behind what it’s trying to teach you.

You might also find my friend GM Noël Studer’s article about asking WHY very useful.

How Grandmasters memorize and understand moves

Being experienced helps to understand and memorize moves.

But the problem is that Grandmasters often need to memorize much longer variations. Their analysis is far deeper, and before their games, they often need to revise very long variations...

How’s it possible?

Besides understanding the moves, they also play lots of blitz/rapid games with their training partners starting from a certain position or opening!

When? Whenever they don’t remember a variation or the moves aren’t intuitively clear to them!

This helps them to understand positions better. And when they understand positions better, they remember them better.

Additionally, there’s one uncommon but super effective training method that I’m very excited to share with you...

The Secret Training Method Grandmasters Use to Improve Memorization

I learned about this interesting method when I was already a Grandmaster.

I can't remember who told it to me, but I wish I’d heard about it earlier.

What I do remember is that the person that told me said that even Kasparov used this training method.

Here it is...

Black starts the game!

Black starts with 1...e5!

Sounds strange, right? 🙂

The idea is that you’ll have the exact same positions as when you play with the White pieces. There really is no difference, the board will just be flipped and you’ll see the same position from a different angle.

Take a look at the following boards:

Two positions with reveresed colors               

They’re the same positions 🙂 They occur from the Scandinavian Defense.

1.e4 d5 2.ed5 Nf6 3.Bb5! Bd7 4.Bc4 Bg4 5.f3 Bf5 6.Nc3 Nbd7 7.g4!

This is one of the variations our students sometimes mess up.

Why? You already know the answer. They fail to understand the ideas behind each move!

When you play your openings using this method, you have no choice but to play the moves by understanding them.

If you’re a 1.e4 player, then after playing 1...e5 you’ll face the same openings you usually do after playing 1.e4.

After 2.e3 d5 3.d4 it’ll become the French Defense 🙂 After 2.c4 it becomes the Sicilian Defense and so on…

It can be confusing, funny, and super-useful at the same time, for both you and your training partner.

When you play 1...e5 you’ll mess up your variations more often than when you play 1.e4. And that's good!

Why? Because you’ll know which openings you understand worse. And then you can go back to those openings and work on them more.

Let’s go!

Learning about something is cool, but without action most of the time it’s useless. 

Nothing will work unless you do

So here are the action points:

  1. Never play moves in the opening without understanding them.
  2. Keep the right mood if you fail to remember some of your variations. With experience, you’ll understand the ideas behind the moves so it’ll become easier to remember. Play lots of training games with your training partners, and make sure to analyze them.
  3. Black starts the game! Do you play 1.e4 or 1.d4?

Now you play 1...e5 or 1...d5! 🙂

Soon you’ll notice which openings you understand more than others and which you need to work on.

  1. If you don’t have a training partner yet, you can search for one in our forum. You’ll also find it useful to read our 3 part series about how to find a training partner.

The 4 pieces of news

At the beginning of the article, I told you there were 4 pieces of news about remembering variations.

So here they are:

Bad news – It’s not easy to remember variations. There are no magic pills or super-shortcuts.

Good news #1 – There is a solution! You need to understand the moves.

Good news #2 –  With experience, it will become easier for you to remember variations.

Good news #3 –  The training methods for remembering your variations aren’t boring 🙂 There’s no need to sit in front of your computer and try to memorize them blindly...

The solution is much more fun. You need to play!

Additionally, flip the board, and let Black start the game.

Simone Weil- the joy of learning quote

Note for ChessMood student with PRO Membership

From now on, often in our events, we’re going to play…

You guessed it! ChessMood openings with reversed colors. 1...e5!

So, get prepared. You’re going to find the openings where you suffer the most. Go to our events page to schedule to join.

P.S. Did you find this useful? Do you think this will help you to memorize your variations? We’d love to hear your thoughts in our forum.

Originally published Jul 06, 2021

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