A Yellow Briefcase

Can you be good at Chess if you have a bad memory?

This is a short story of hope. And of a yellow briefcase.

A yellow briefcase that became famous in Chess clubs across Europe.

In the 1920s, you could happen upon it sitting alone on a table after a tournament. Perhaps a hotel foyer. Perhaps in the back of a car.

People would spot it, point it out to others, whisper about it with a mixture of mirth and awe.

It was a calling card of sorts. Like a weird bat signal. Or Zorro’s ‘Z’ in briefcase form.

It meant exactly one thing: Richard Réti was here.

Specifically, that Réti was here. He had been here.

But he wasn’t now.

As Savielly Tartokower told it, “Where Réti’s briefcase is, there he himself is no longer to found. It is therefore evidence of Réti’s pre-existence.”

The briefcase story is a funny example of Reti’s forgetfulness, but there’s another that was less amusing to him.

His brother wrote in his memoirs that after years of effort Réti left his “almost completed” doctoral thesis in a taxi. He never got it back.

In the days before digital backups, you had two options in this situation: start again, or give up.

Réti went to a dark place afterwards. He never completed that thesis. He almost gave up entirely.

Memory, I think it’s fair to say, was not Réti’s forte.

But then, in 1925, Réti set a world record for blindfold Chess. He played 29 games at once, winning 21, drawing 6, and losing only 2.

How is that possible?

Réti’s general memory was terrible. But his memory for Chess, and his ability to conceptualize, was incredible. He’s one of the best to ever do it.

Reti’s example is important for any adult improver to remember, especially those among us getting on a bit in years.

It doesn’t matter if you struggle with people’s names, don’t remember what you had for breakfast, or accidentally let the due date slip by for the electricity bill.

You can still be good at Chess. Even blindfold Chess.

Because Chess memory and general memory are different things in our brain. The parts of our brain that store our Chess skills are different from the parts that remember general information.

So if you’re anxious about your Chess improvement because your “memory isn’t what it used to be”, you don’t have to be. Your pattern recognition, your conceptualization, and your tactical knowledge exist elsewhere.

So be confident. Be hopeful. Be dedicated.

Study with focus. Learn with gusto.

Your brain is up to the task, regardless of whether or not you can find your keys.

About the author

Aiden Rayner writes about how to make the adult brain better at Chess. Using science-backed insights, he works to change the narratives around adult improvement, and help adults discover the power of their Chess brains.

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