What the Queen’s Gambit taught be about working memory

I cannot remember a time when a television show had such a pronounced effect on Christmas gifts, but this year, as yet another family member unwrapped yet another chess set, it was clear that the Queen’s Gambit was on our minds.

And my family are not alone in this obsession. A friend emailed me at the end of November with the below graph which neatly illustrated the impact of Beth Harmon et al.


As I played a few games, I realised that chess is a useful in illustrating the distinction between working and long-term memory.

Allow me to explain.

I am not a good or experienced player. When I look at a board, I can see two, maybe three moves into the future. Why? Essentially because I have few chess patterns stored in my long-term memory. I have to store each move individually:

If my pawn goes there, it might get taken by the knight, which I can then take with my bishop, but then he take me with his rook. But what if he takes my pawn with his pawn instead of his knight? Where would that leave his bishop, and knight? Do they threaten something else instead? And so on and so on.

It is easy to see how my seven-slot working memory quickly becomes filled up.

My brother, by contrast, has played a lot and to a good level. He beats me easily again and again because he can generally anticipate what I am about to do because he has seen it all before. His long-term memory has stored patterns and strategies that make much of his game automatic. (‘Ah, you’ve started with the Queen’s Gambit. Well, from me that requires [insert strategy here].’)

If I do put up a good fight, it requires an enormous mental effort on my part.

Happily, though, the roles were reversed in another area: driving. This is also a helpful illustration of the working memory/long-term memory division. (And, I readily cede, not a new example.)

My brother is learning to drive. Like chess for me, this process taxes his working memory.

Foot down on clutch, car into first, check mirrors, blind spots, indicators on, slowly release the clutch and press the accelerator, find the bite, move off, don’t forget to steer… Now, can you make small talk with the passenger?

By contrast, I have driven for a decade and so I recall all these things without conscious thought. It is why people report having driven to work and not remembering having done so: the process is so thoroughly automatic.

I appreciate for many readers this will be teaching you to suck eggs. (I apologise.)

Nonetheless, particularly as we career towards exam season, it is helpful to have a few examples to hand to explain the limitations of working memory and thus the importance of pupils committing ideas properly to their long-term memory.

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