Fedor Holz baffled by Magnus Carlsen’s chess memory

Jon Pill
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Posted on: April 30, 2021 8:39 pm EDT

Fedor Holz enjoys a game of chess now and then. His chess.com rating was hovering around the 1050 mark when he was last active on the site. But watching a recent video of Magnus Carlsen identifying chess games from a single board position left him wowed.

Remko Rinkema tweeted the video produced by Champions Chess Tour. In it, the interviewer sets up board positions for Carlsen to look at. Carlsen then has to identify the players and year. He gets almost all of them correct immediately.

“When I became a poker fan I would lose my mind when [Daniel Negreanu] called out someone’s cards during the 2005 Main Event,” Rinkema tweeted about the video. “As a recent chess enthusiast, this just has me completely baffled.”

Fedor Holz replied to Rinkema: “I’ve seen him do this with much harder games in another YouTube video. That was pretty crazy.”

Magnus mnemonic

Magnus Carlsen is a little like Phil Hellmuth, known for poor sportsmanship and bratty outbursts. Also for a canniness when it comes to self-promotion. But whatever you say about him as a person, he is a killer on the board.

Carlsen is the current Chess World Champion. He is the highest-rated player in the FIDE database for Standard and Rapid time controls. And the second-best in the world at Blitz time controls, just four Elo points below the world number one: Hikaru Nakamura. In 2004, when he was just 14, Carlsen became a Grandmaster.

In a variation on the game, the interviewer starts to play a game out. “Who was playing black?” he asks. That is clue enough for Carlsen; he guesses the game just two moves into the Petroff defense before calling out “It’s going to be Anand.”

One commenter was less bowled over by the trick.

“Though VERY impressive,” @figbean wrote. “It is not much different from a film/music buff seeing a still from a film or a few notes from a song.”

This is an imperfect analogy. But Carlsen’s memory, like most Grandmasters is impressive. The obsessive way in which he must have studied classic chess games, picking over every move and studying for weaknesses, makes his brain a database of chess history. So the kind of encyclopedic knowledge that the video displays is perhaps not entirely surprising.

The last game gives Carlsen a little more trouble. The hint is “it’s from the entertainment industry.” That’s enough, he knows its from the first Harry Potter.

“They play the Scandinavian and then Knight C3…”

Another commenter speculates to what degree a poker player could do the same with famous hands, pitching a PokerGO show based around the idea.

The ability to recall hands accurately is often cited as a key skill for players. But the game records of other players have a very different place in poker player’s training. Still, there are probably some poker TV buffs who could do this for some of the more famous bluffs and hero calls from the WSOP, WPT, and High Stakes Poker.

I’d certainly watch that show.

Featured image source: Flickr by WPT