Mentalpedia (Seven Slots, Part 3)

Familiarity is a huge advantage in Chess, and the reason is rooted in your working memory and psychology.

“When I have a tough job in the plant and can’t find an easy way to do it, I have a lazy man put on it. He’ll find an easy way to do it in 10 days. Then we adopt that method.”

It’s often the laziest people that come up with the cleverest solutions.

The lazy person would rather not put in all the effort to do a hard job. Instead, they’ll point their efforts at finding the fastest, easiest, least demanding way to complete it.

To reduce the amount of work they need to do, they’ll question every part of a process. They’ll ask themselves, as Tim Ferriss does, “What would this look like if it were easy?”

And from that perspecive comes great innovation.

Obviously, there are some serious downsides to laziness. But I want to keep the focus on the positives right now.

The lazy person wants to put in as little effort as possible and still achieve the results they need. That can be quite the asset.

Now the interesting part: we’re all lazy. At least, our brains are. And like any successful lazy thing, our brains have come up with some incredible ways to achieve their goals with minimal effort.

We see evidence of this everywhere in human psychology, including in the way we handle information. And especially in our seven slots of working memory.

As we’ve discussed earlier in the series, we can’t fit all that much in here.

If we try to hold a string of random letters, like UNFBICIAEU, we’re going to struggle.

If we group those letters into recognizable chunks, it gets easier.

But let’s say you’ve reviewed that string of letters every day for the past year. You know it back-to-front, upside down, and could recite it any which way.

Our brains are lazy. When they notice they’re processing the same information over and over again, they transfer it to long-term memory so they don’t have to work as hard anymore.

When you need the letters again, all your working memory needs to do is link to the relevant entry in your long term memory.

I like to think of it as linking to a mental Wikipedia entry on the topic.

Our “Mentalpedia”, if you will.

All of that information, held in single slot, with a simple link to Mentalpedia.

Your lazy brain just made everything a little bit easier for itself.

When certain patterns are held in our Mentalpedia, they become easier for us to process and track. Our seven slots don’t need to hold all the information, just the link.

I’ll let you experience what I mean in the context of Chess. Try to follow these two miniature games in your mind, making sure to understand clearly what each move does and how it interacts with the rest of the board.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 *

1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. cxd5 exd5 *

If you took your time and tried to follow each of these moves on your mental board, you’ll have probably found that one was easier than the other.

If you’re an e4 player, the e4 one was easier for you. If you’re a d4 player, the d4 one was easier.

(If you’re a c4 or Nf3 player, then they’re both hard and you’ve done that to yourself 😛)

In your favorite opening, your Mentalpedia page is full of information, so your working memory can do less work for the same result. In the other opening, your Mentalpedia page is lacking, so it takes more slots and more effort.

Familiarity reduces the stress on our working memory. Familiarity is therefore a huge advantage in Chess.

If you’re familiar with something and your opponent isn’t, they have to burn way more energy and slots to keep track of things than you do.

Since their slots are working harder, they’re more likely to blunder, freeze up, tilt, miscalculate, or forget details.

This is one of the reasons all the top players fiercely guard their opening innovations until the perfect moment. It’s about the advantage of familiarity.

The more relevant information we have in our Mentalpedia, the less our working memory has to do.

We build familiarity through repetition and attention.

If we see something enough times, it will eventually become a Mentalpedia page.

Pure repetition can get us there, but it takes a loooong time. To speed that up, we need to add some deep focused attention.

The more attention we give our learning, the more we tell our brain this information is important. And our brains are great at responding to important things.

I won’t go too much into it here, but here’s my dedicated article on focus and learning for those who want to go down the focus rabbit hole.

So what can we do to cultivate familiarity as Chess players?

To make the most of this fantastic feature of our brain, here are some things you can try:

1. Regularly review the most important 20% of tactical and checkmate patterns.

Most puzzle systems give us a random assortment of puzzles with all sorts of tactical ideas in them. This isn’t particularly effective.

Instead, we should engage regularly with the most common, important, and impactful patterns. Burn these into our mind, create familiarity. That way we’re far less likely to miss them when they show up in games.

2. Pick openings and stick to them.

The Chess world can be pretty obsessed with openings. Many players seem to be constantly switching, looking for the “perfect” opening.

But there’s a problem with that: They leave their familiarity behind. Every time they do it, they’re starting from a blank Mentalpedia page again.

Pick your repertoire and stick with it unless you have a really good reason to change.

3. Review theory and model games blindfolded.

Like in the quote at the beginning of this email, we need to give our lazy brains the tough job. Blindfold training is that tough job.

To keep up with the demands of blindfold training, our Mentalpedia pages fill up fast. Much faster than if we’re reviewing the same information with our eyes. The difficulty forces our lazy brains to build efficient systems to succeed, and that’s where the benefits occur.

The best way to test this claim is to try it for yourself. If there’s an opening line or game you’ve been struggling to remember, do the following:

  1. Record yourself reading the moves from the variation or game into a microphone. The voice recorder app on your phone will do the job.Leave a few seconds of silence between each move, and make sure to include extra information like move numbers and checks etc.
  2. Listen back to it slowly, playing it out on your mental board. Work to understand clearly in your mind what each move does and how it affects the position.Notice the threats, strengths, and weaknesses in the position as the game/line goes on. You don’t need to see a picture in your mind if it’s not natural for you to do so.
  3. Pause and repeat as often as you need to. Come back to it regularly.

It’s tiring and challenging, but after you’ve done this a few times I bet you’ll remember and understand the line or game like you never have before.

Reply and let me know how you go with that exercise. I read every email.

Wherever you can, build familiarity.

Free up your working memory for more impactful things.

I’ll see you next time for Part Four, where we dive into the role of working memory slots in our decision making.

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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