Mnemosyne, part 3

Mnemosyne is a spaced repetition program for aiding memorization; see my first and second posts for more information on the program and how I use it.

I guess it is high time for another update; when digging out the above posts I was startled to see that they’re from four years ago. I’ll mostly discuss my experience using it for chess, since that’s what the majority of my 8000 cards are.

I’ll skip to the exciting conclusion first: since starting to use Mnemosyne for chess knowledge, my USCF rating has risen from a pretty stable 1800 over fifteen years of on-and-off playing to over 2000. That may not look that impressive, but the chess rating system is effectively logarithmic; the difference of 200 points means that new me would score about 75% against old me, so that’s a pretty big jump, especially for a middle-aged person with a previously stable rating like me. Of course, correlation does not imply causation, and there’s always a bunch of noise involved in chess results, but I’ve now played enough games in a row (around 60) with a performance rating of over 2000 that I feel comfortable assuming that I have actually improved.

The majority of my chess flashcards are opening positions. Here’s an example:

Mnemosyne flashcard

Sometimes the answer includes some explanatory text to help me remember why the move is good.

Having openings memorized has had the most obvious effect on my play of any of my flashcard categories. Although rote memorization of opening lines is generally frowned upon, I’ve noticed the following benefits:

  • Most obviously, I have internalized thousands of good opening moves, so I am less likely to make bad moves in the opening, or spend lots of time figuring out good moves on the fly.
  • I am often able to gain time on my opponents in the opening, as they are “out of book” and thinking on their own before I am. Even if they find good moves, they use up valuable time on them.
  • I am now able to play very sharp (tactical and tricky) openings because I’m confident that I can navigate their waters. This allows me to play much more interesting and dynamic chess than I previously felt capable of doing.

There are drawbacks as well: my memory can fail me in a complicated line, or my memorization can run out too early in a tricky position if I was careless entering the line, or I can enter a position by rote that I haven’t spent much time thinking about strategically and have to wing it. But overall it is a clear benefit.

Most of my other chess flashcards come from exercises in books. I started with theoretical endgame positions, which require concrete fact-based knowledge in the same way that openings do. (I used Bernd Rosen’s Chess Endgame Training for this.) But then I decided that since chess is largely about pattern recognition (so that your eye is drawn to promising moves), I could try shoving tons of patterns in my brain and hopefully they’d stick around subconsciously influencing my thought as I played. For this purpose I’ve used exercises from the following books:

  • Yusupov, Build Up Your Chess et al
  • Ivashchenko, Chess School
  • Cheng, Practical Chess Exercises
  • Hellsten, Mastering Chess Strategy

It’s hard for me to assess how these cards have affected my play. I don’t think I can recall any particular situation in a tournament game in which I consciously remembered a particular card (even an endgame one), prompting me to notice a specific good move that was otherwise eluding me. But they certainly haven’t hurt, and the effect I was hoping for was more of a subconscious one anyway, and as I said my rating has gone up along with this regimen, so I’m continuing to proceed with the assumption that they’re helping my play.

How much time does this all take? On any given day I have to review about 60 to 100 cards, which takes me probably between 10 and 30 minutes (opening positions can take a while, since when a card comes up I first play through the variation on a virtual chessboard), though I usually don’t review them all at once. Making cards can be a little tedious (I don’t want to do the calculation to figure out how much time I’ve spent making all 8000!), but it seems a small price to pay to prevent the knowledge I’ve just acquired from leaking out.

The other topic that spaced repetition has been the most useful for is math. I enjoy reading math and physics textbooks but my retention is poor, so I’m constantly starting over. This causes even more problems because I already half-know the early material in the book, so I skim it, which means that once again I’m not really internalizing it. Memorizing formulas and concepts means that I don’t have to start from square one every time.

Other categories in my deck:

  • Esperanto vocabulary: I still haven’t picked this back up since the last time I mentioned it, but it’s nice to know that because I review a few cards a day, it’s still in shape if I ever pick it back up.
  • Go problems and joseki: I’m not sure how much this has really helped me, since I haven’t played Go very actively in the last few years, but it’ll be interesting to see if I have less rust than usual the next time I pick up the game.
  • Japanese hiragana and katakana: I clearly still haven’t still internalized these, since once I do well enough on one of them that I go a few months without seeing it again, I tend to forget it the next time. I’m sure this is due to the fact that I’m not doing anything with this knowledge, so I never have any context other than the flashcards.
  • Cyrillic: so I can read proper nouns on Russian chess websites. Definitely a success.
  • Keyboard shortcuts for Sibelius (music scoring program): mixed success. A lot of shortcuts are very abstract like Ctrl-Shift-Down, so they’re pretty hard to memorize. I think I need to learn these more with my fingers than with my eyes and brain.

Overall, using spaced repetition has been a tremendous benefit to me. To take the chess example: even if I hadn’t seemed to have improved as a result, knowing that all the studying I do is not just pouring water into a leaky bucket (as it seemed to be for the previous 15 years), but instead is permanent in some sense, has made me immensely more motivated to learn. The same is true for other subjects like math. If any of the above discussion makes you jealous, I highly recommend you give it a try.

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12 Responses to “Mnemosyne, part 3”

  1. Steven Carr says:

    I am also using Mnemosyne to memorise chess patterns.

    Like you, I naturally can’t tell if my subconscious mind is being affected, but am hoping that it will be.

  2. Stigma says:

    Great to hear that you’re having such success with this method!

    I’m on the verge of starting a similar regimen using Anki. One potential time-saver I plan to use is to not bother inserting the actual position and moves into the program, but simple reference the original source with title and position or page number. For example, a card with “AoA p. 215.” would mean some game on page 215 of Vukovic’s Art of Attack (maybe I’ve marked an exercise position there, or I’m trying to reproduce all the moves from memory).

    It means I would need to have the source books handy of course. But today quite a few books are available in Chessbase format, and choosing mainly those makes it easier to keep up the schedule when traveling. For example, Everyman has the aforementioned Art of Attack and Hellsten’s now three “Mastering Strategy” books, Chessbase has Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual (though still only in the 1st edition) and Knaak’s “Mating the King 0-0”, etc. So ideally I should be able to get by with just Anki and Chessbase and maybe a small number of the very best books on paper.

    Btw. If I want to create proper cards there’s also an add-on for Anki that creates chess diagrams (from FEN notation IIRC).

  3. Steven Carr says:

    There is also a web site that will take PGN and turn them online into FEN notation.

    This speeds up drastically the production of flashcards, as PGN files are easy to find.

  4. d. says:

    Hi Dan,

    Found your blog link from the Quality Chess blog. Any chance you’d be willing to share your deck of chess problems? I’d really love to try a Mnemosyne-friendly version of the Yusupov and Ivashchenko problems.



  5. dfan says:

    Hi D., for various reasons I’d rather not, though I am happy to give advice on constructing one’s own. Actually I think a non-negligible part of the benefit from these cards came from making them in the first place, not just reviewing them.

  6. m says:

    Hey dfan!

    Just like d., I found your blog through the Quality Chess Blog. I found your concept very interesting, and perhaps it will be beneficial for me to try. I have a 2250 ELO and hope to get that damn FM-title within a couple of months (I’m 17 and play 100+ ELO games per year).

    First of all, I downloaded Mnemosyne and just had a look at the program. Is there any program with better graphics and a more modern look, but more importantly is there any program that can sync with Android tablets and Android phones? It would be very nice to do some tactical exercises during lessons and on the subway etc.

    Second of all, Steven’s idea of converting PGN files to FEN seems interesting. How does this work, what site does this and how do you convert FEN to picture in the flash card program?

  7. dfan says:

    The main alternative to Mnemosyne is Anki, which seems to have Android support. I haven’t used it so I can’t make an informed comparison. I agree that the subway is a perfect place to do card review!

    Searching for “pgn to fen” turns up the site, which seemed to work okay for the PGN I just tried on it. Probably this is the one Steven referred to.

    A couple of ways I know of to convert FEN to diagrams are (online) and the program DiagTransfer (Windows only).

  8. SilentKnight says:

    Hi dfan,
    I see your blog is inactive, but you’re still active over at Stack Exchange. I’ve recently started adding Hellsten positions into my spaced repetitions and I was curious how deep you were taking the solutions? Most of the problems I’m doing the full solution unless the variations go deeper than 10 moves without much explanation. There’d probably be value in trying to understand everything that was going on, but understanding the initial moves/ideas is probably best for this.

    I’ve been using training mode in Chessbase for these, but I think I will try to get them to work in Chess Hero if I can. I used that software for tactical training sets and it was great for that purpose, probably the best out there.

  9. dfan says:

    It’s only inactive because I haven’t had much to say recently!

    For the Hellsten problems I often only include a single move plus the reasoning behind it (e.g., “Exchanging off the opponent’s good bishop”). If the solution needs some tactical justification, or if it’s really a sequence (for example, the third move really has the strategic point and the first two were just setting it up), I extend it out as far as I feel I need to. The point is mainly to improve my strategic pattern recognition and vocabulary, so I don’t worry too much about the tactics.

  10. Joseph Coffey says:

    I’d be very interested in getting your decks:) Im perfectly willing to buy the books/provide evidence that I buy them. I’m just pretty daunted by the labor of entering all those fen:) I’m also willing to pay you if you’d like.

  11. dfan says:

    Hi Joseph, I still would rather keep them private (see my comments above). Sorry if the post seems like a tease. I still think a lot of the value comes from doing it yourself.

  12. Arne says:

    Hey, I found this site though hackernews. I made a website exactly for what you suggested here, spaced repetition for chess. Thanks for the inspiration and if you want to check it out you can find it here:

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