Sunday, July 15, 2007


"Booyeah" isn't a word I normally use, but I did find a good excuse to use it yesterday. The UK Open Memory Championship was great fun - what it lacked in competitors it more than made up for in entertainment value.

There turned out to be five of us taking part - me, James Ponder and James Kemp from Britain, Boris Konrad from Germany and Tomasz Krasinski from Poland. Idriz Zogaj was planning to come from Sweden, but didn't turn up, and there was a mystery new competitor who registered the day before but then changed her mind again at the last minute. So our five desks seemed a bit lonely in the middle of the very nice main hall in the very nice Severn Centre in Highley.

The Severn Centre is a bit of a mystery - it's a HUGE sports/leisure/everything else centre (it also contains a library and a police station and probably a small zoo somewhere among the masses of tennis courts, playgrounds, fields, badminton courts, large cafeteria and bar etc etc) in a village that, although apparently the largest village in Shropshire, is still a village. It's not a huge place, and you could probably fit the whole population of Highley into the Severn Centre without an overcrowding problem. But the facilities there were more than top-notch. We need to make memory competitions there a regular feature, however impossible to reach by public transport the place is. Hold the world championships there some time, and we'll car-pool.

Things went more or less well for me. I got quite respectable scores in nine disciplines out of ten, and the speed numbers wasn't my fault (this means it was my fault, but I'm making excuses) - the camera crew made a loud clanking noise early on in the memorisation time, just as I was fiercely concentrating and that put me in a bad mood throughout the five minutes, so that every muffled noise or movement seen out of the corner of my eye infuriated and distracted me. I had no end of gaps in the recall and ended up with one complete row and one row a bit further down (I think it was the fourth) with the only gap being the last four digits. So I crossed out everything below that and settled for a woeful score of 76.

In everything else, though, I was satisfied. I was generally a way below the scores I'd been getting in practice, with a slightly slower memorising speed than I'd expected, and a less efficient recall, but I was still getting scores that were more than acceptable. From memory, a decent 70 in five-minute words, a slightly-better-than-my-old-world-record 795 in five-minute binary, a thoroughly excellent 52.5 in five-min names and faces (I'm definitely getting better at that), 615 or so in fifteen-minute numbers, five packs in ten-minute cards, 99 in abstract images (getting there with that one, too, slowly), 84 in historic dates and 95 in spoken numbers. All of those, names and images aside, are scores that I know I can improve on, but which are more than enough to satisfy me, especially in my first competition for seven or eight months.

As for speed cards, well, that's the fun one. I was about 2000 points clear of Boris by that point, so no need to go for a safe first time. I decided to go all-out for that fabled 30-second barrier. The first time through, it didn't go so well, there were three or four images that didn't come instantly to mind and I had to drag them out of my brain kicking and screaming. The time was 29.16, but the recall was unexpectedly dreadful, and I didn't come anywhere close to getting it right.

So, second attempt, TV cameras on me, local newspaper reporter hanging around, Phil Chambers sitting to my right, Dominic O'Brien keeping an eye on me from across the room, last chance to break the record, and my brain obviously not fully up to speed, I didn't expect wonders. I sort of blanked my mind out, thought to myself "Come on, let's show them what I can do!" in a silly, macho style, giggled at myself silently, and started to memorise. "That's more like it!" I thought, realising I was seeing the images much more clearly. I focused on what I was doing, getting a good feeling all the way, and stopped the timer. 26.28 seconds. Damn, that would be something, I thought. That gave me four and a half minutes to sit and think before I could recall anything - running through the journey in my brain, I had the first three locations all there, just the first image of the fourth, all present and correct for the fifth and sixth, then a big gap and then the ninth location all present and correct. Drat, I thought, must have lost concentration towards the end there. Maybe I can work them out when I get to look at the unshuffled deck. That makes 16 cards I can't place, I've rescued packs with worse.

Then my mind wandered to other things, and suddenly locations seven and eight popped merrily back into my brain - tiny bit of doubt about the exact identity and order of the images at location eight, but not enough to worry me. By recall time, I was quietly confident. I worked out what the final two missing images were, sat indecisively for a moment trying to remember the order, and finally made an educated guess that I was about 90% sure of. Then I had to wait another two and a half minutes for the recall time to end before I could check them with Phil (and an interested crowd who had gathered to watch). Sure enough, they all came out correct, and I saw fit to shout "BOOyeah!", just to alert anyone who hadn't noticed that something interesting had happened.

That capped off a definitely enjoyable day. 26.28 - I'd like to see Andi beat THAT! Everyone involved has my deepest gratitude - Phil organised the tournament impeccably, as usual, assisted ably by Gaby Kappus and others. Everything worked the way it was supposed to, even the spoken numbers (more or less), we weren't more than half an hour behind schedule. Tony Buzan paid a flying visit before dashing off to see a sheikh from Bahrain, told us the story about how scientists once said that nobody would ever memorise a 30-digit spoken number (as I'd told the camera crew he would - I'm a psychic, aided by the fact that he says the same thing at every memory competition) and the one about his university teacher who memorised all the class's details (I hadn't heard that one before, but it's in at least two of his books). He also orchestrated a phone call to Jennifer over at the Australian championships in Melbourne (Simon Orton won, brilliantly) and generally inspired everyone with his unfailing enthusiasm for the world of memory. Dominic came by in the afternoon and did the same (in a slightly more low-key way), including very kindly describing me as the reason he isn't competing. He also said that he's working on training again, he's got a new system that he's breaking in, and while he won't be competing in Bahrain, he's 70% sure he'll take part in 2008. Which will be great.

But 26.28, baby. Booyeah.

I also wrote a pen-and-paper blog on Friday night, and when I find it, I'll probably transcribe it for the world to read. It's mostly about an anecdote told to me by a taxi driver, but you'll still want to see it, I'm sure.


Mike said...


Joeymom said...

I keep forgetting to tell you- I tagged you for a meme. I don't know if you do memes, but if you're game, you're tagged.

Anonymous said...

Holy macaroni!
Congratulations Ben! That record will stand for ages :)


Anonymous said...

There’s like only one thing I can successfully do in 26 seconds. You have my admiration Mr. Ben.

Mike said...

Well done Ben !!

That is a modern wonder !!

Seriously, well done !!!

Sam said...

Brilliant stuff, well done!

Ian said...

That's absolutely fantastic, Ben! Well done mate!

graham old said...

Hey Ben,

I've only just heard about this. Congratulations!

You might remember that we competed together in 2000 - and I was impressed when Andi did 58 seconds. I'm not sure you even managed a pack! ;-)

Again, well done. This is a great achievement.

Zoomy said...

Hi Graham, great to hear from you! No, back in 2000 the best time I'd ever managed for a pack was a bit over seven minutes. Wow, feels like a long time ago now...

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed reading this! (...well after the fact.)

Is it too cheesy an analogy to compare the speed cards discipline to the hundred metres sprint, as being the one whose world record people are most likely to care about if they only care about one world record? (Then again, people used the analogy "four-minute mile" for "30-second pack of cards".)