The Great Forgetting

When Anand, at the Zürich Chess Challenge that was played in February, had clobbered Levon Aronian in 28 moves thanks to fine opening preparation, Aronian, who of course also had prepared for the game, said that he had forgotten something.

There we go again. In a distant past I used to say such things now and then after a defeat, but in a different spirit. “I had forgotten about this strong move of yours.” Ostensibly you were saying that you had seen it coming, but then in an unfortunate lapse had forgotten about it, but at the same time you communicated with a civilized smile that this was just a joke and that in fact you had never thought about that move before it hit you.

Nowadays it is meant seriously. Top players prepare their openings with their computers in such fantastic detail that it is impossible for them to remember everything.

On his website Chess Curiosities, Tim Krabbé gives a hilarious collection of quotes – titled Fischer Random Anyone? – from top players who blamed their defeat on memory loss. From this collection we learn that Garry Kasparov was not only a pioneer of computer-aided opening analyses, but also of forgetting them.

In 1995 he lost against Joel Lautier and Jeroen Piket. It had been all in his notebook, he claimed after these games, no doubt truthfully, but he had forgotten his analyses. Many great players have since followed him on the path of obliviousness.

In Zürich, one day after Aronian had forgotten something during his game against Anand, Sergey Karjakin forgot his analysis when he was playing Hikaru Nakamura. Karjakin as Black played a very sharp line of which he knew that it should lead to a draw. But alas, memory loss...

After Karjakin had lost that game he twittered: “The worst way to lose a game is when you know the line until a draw, but cannot remember how it goes, and get a losing position immediately.”

Nakamura-Karjakin after White’s 15th move.

This was the moment when Karjakin’s memory failed him. He played 15...Ne3+ and lost, while he should have played 15...Qd2+. At the press conference Nakamura spouted some mind-boggling variations starting with 15...Qd2+ 16.Kb3 Qxb2+ 17.Kxc4 to show that with best play from both sides the game should be drawn. Here is a link to that press conference: 

You’ll see Nakamura discussing his game with Ljubomir Ljubojevic, a guest of honor at the Zürich tournament. A very interesting and lively conversation, but not easy to follow.

Recently at the FIDE Grand Prix tournament in Tbilisi, Alexander Grischuk gave a new twist to the tale of forgetfulness, after his game against Leinier Dominguez Perez: “If I know what I forgot I maybe would remember during the game, but I don’t know what I forgot.”

This might remind you of the former American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s famous distinction between the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns,” but the comparison would be unfair to Grischuk, a decent and peaceful man.

How to explain all this forgetfulness? Moves suggested by the computer are more likely to be forgotten than moves that are found by the player himself. There has been some research that suggests that moves executed by hand with wooden pieces on a wooden board are better imprinted on the mind than moves 2015
at are played with a mouse on the screen. But the main reason is of course the enormous amount of information that has to be processed by modern top players. They may forget something now and then, but it is still awesome how much they remember. The top players have the same problem as modern intelligence services. They are drowned in the big data that are generated by their computers, but they cannot do without them.

Click to play through the games:

Anand-Aronian, Zürich 2015

Nakamura-Karjakin, Zürich 2015