Saturday, August 04, 2007

Back in black and white

I've completely neglected the game of othello lately. I'm playing right now in a tournament on kurnik for the first time in I can't even remember how long. So many memory competitions and media nuisances and jobs and things getting in the way. But I'm not doing all that badly, considering.

I should really write more on the subject, to make this into a proper blog entry and not short-change my readers, but it's late and I'm going to bed as soon as the tournament finishes. So I'll just advise everyone to buy the Sunday Telegraph tomorrow, where somewhere among whatever rubbish the Sunday Telegraph usually contains (I've never read it, but I'm pretty sure it complies to the usual quantity-not-quality rule of Sunday newspapers) there should be a big article about the World Memory Championships.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

World memory champion reveals his secrets

By Adam Lusher, Sunday Telegraph
Last Updated: 1:14am BST 05/08/2007

I am sure there was a reason why it seemed a good idea to come to this chaotic bachelor flat in Derby, but I can't quite remember what it was. Which, come to think of it, may be precisely the reason.

It took British memory champion, Ben Pridmore, a moment to remember where he had put the cloak he was given in Brazil

Ben Pridmore, the man cheerfully picking his way between piles of clothes and DVDs, may have the knowledge I seek. He may hold the key to the question that, eventually, every man must ask himself: how do I stop walking into rooms (and flats) only to discover I have forgotten why I went there in the first place?

As the newly crowned British memory champion, Mr Pridmore, 30, also carries the hopes of a nation on his slightly drooping shoulders. Soon, he must do mental combat in the World Memory Championships in Manama, Bahrain.

He may look like a bespectacled accountant. He may have the kind of knees that regularly kept him off games from the age of 12, but this man is all that stands between us and the Teutonic might of the Germans.

He has a lethally honed hippocampus (brain area associated with memory). He will claim the World Championship back for Britain, which invented the sport and dominated it until Clemens Meyer, a 20-year-old law student from Bavaria, seized the world crown in 2005, and retained it in 2006.

He will depose Herr Meyer and wrest the number one spot in the overall world rankings from Dr Gunther Karsten, 46, the memory grandmaster from Erfurt.

Just not now, at the end of a long day. It's not that Mr Pridmore can recite pi to only 64 decimal places today.

It's more that he, er, can't remember where he set his world memory record. "I remembered 27 packs of cards in an hour," he says. "Last year, at the World Championships. In London, somewhere in London. Erm, where was it? No. It's gone completely."

But he remembers that "I hold all four card-remembering world records, and both binary number records. I think they are the only memory records I hold at the moment, although I have quite possibly forgotten a few".

He starts rooting among the piles of clothes. "Brazilian TV gave me this wonderful cloak. They flew me to Rio, just to memorise a pack of cards. Now, where did I put it…?"

At which point The Sunday Telegraph ventures to inquire: "Er, Mr Pridmore, would you say you are a forgetful person?"

"Oh yes," he says happily. "I forget everything. Go into a room and wonder why I am there? Happens to me all the time… Ah! there it is." Mr Pridmore has found his Brazilian "man of mystery" cloak.

He competes at the World Memory Championships from August 31 to September 2. The championships, a 10-discipline "deca-mentathlon", were created by Tony Buzan, 65, who has published and lectured worldwide on his Mind Maps system (and is also, according to his press release, a published poet, an honorary black belt in Aikido and a man once called "the greatest thinker since Aristotle"). He staged the first competition somewhere in London (the Athenaeum club, Mr Pridmore) in 1991.

Mr Buzan, advising me from the non-chaotic grandeur of Home House, a private members' club in London, says: "There were questions to be answered: are we just born with good memory? Can memory be changed in terms of its power? What is its potential? Its limits?"

The answers exceeded scientists' wildest expectations. "In the mid-Nineties, they predicted no human would memorise a spoken number of more than 30 digits. At last year's championship, Clemens Meyer remembered a 188-digit spoken number, and could still recite it five hours later. Backwards.

"People's memories are limitless. Everything indicates that. Everybody is born with a good memory, then most people are trained how to use it badly."

Age is no excuse either, he says. "The idea of memory declining with age is ridiculous. My memory gets better with every year of my life. So do the scores of competitors."

The key, he says, is recognising that "the whole history of Western thought, suggesting we think grammatically, in logical lists, is seriously suspect."

With that easy hurdle jumped, Mr Buzan explains, I can start remembering people's names, or why I am in a flat in Derby. I can accept that the true language of the brain is based not on words, but pictures. Devise a code that allows you to link such things as numbers, cards, dates or names to memorable images and you are getting there.

For some reason, though, Mr Buzan decides to start slowly. To remember my own name, he advises helpfully, "Picture an Adam in the Garden of Eden, accompanied by Eve, who is luscious. For Lusher."

I get that one perfectly, even without Mr Buzan's helpful reminder: "The first reason why people forget, is that they haven't paid attention in the first place."

Back in Derby, I think I am ready for the advanced course. With Mr Pridmore, the absent-minded memory man. Despite first impressions, Mr Pridmore broke the equivalent of the four-minute mile of memory athletics, obliterating the "30-second barrier" by memorising a shuffled pack of cards in 26.28 seconds.

He even remembers where he did it: "On July 14, at the British championships, in Highley, Shropshire. That was a real thrill. There were about half-a-dozen people watching, maybe even 10."

When seriously pressed, he will also admit to having an IQ of 159, reluctantly confessing that others consider him a genius, "or something like that". He insists that "pretty much everyone has the capacity to remember everything that has ever happened to them. But why would any sane person want to do that?" he asks, perhaps anticipating some obvious questions.

"Yes, I have a toned hippocampus, for anything pointless, like cards or long numbers. I like mental games, puzzles. With useful things, like names, I prefer the ice-breaker at parties: 'I won the World Memory Championship in 2004, but I can't remember the first thing about you.' "

It seems we will be training our memory in the company of a pack of cards, not at a party. Mr Pridmore introduces me to the all-conquering "Ben System". It allows him to file any pair of cards, or set of three digits, in his memory as an image.

He then recalls the cards or numbers - "like a magician pulling a string of handkerchiefs out of a hat" - by placing the mental images at strategic stops along an imaginary journey (see below).

"So for every possible combination of cards," explains Mr Pridmore, "you just need 2,704 mental images pre-programmed into your head." He pauses, and looks into my eyes.

Perhaps we will try the "Simple Ben" system, instead. This gives an image to every individual card, rather than every pair, so you need only 52 mental images in your long-term memory.

I think it goes rather well. I am flawless recalling my Dad (the Ace of diamonds) with Sid James (the three of spades) and a demon (the seven of diamonds) invading my bedroom. I just about make it to my front door, although I do forget there was a cod (the four of clubs) pinned to it.

And given what I have just seen, is it any wonder that, by the time I step into the street, I am a little confused?

I have no idea why the Khyber Pass has relocated to London (because it is supposed to be the eight of clubs), and get a bit mixed up about whether Hiawatha (the eight of hearts) is being pursued through it by Darth Vader or Mr Darcy (although they both amount to the same thing: the king of diamonds).

"Not bad at all," says Mr Pridmore, "for a beginner. Don't worry, I'll take my time." Where I take minutes to memorise five out of nine cards, Mr Pridmore memorises the whole pack in 43 seconds. He pauses only to wonder what Mao Tse-tung is doing in his living room. His smile, though, is short-lived. "Where did I put the box for the cards?"

He starts rummaging again. "I know I am better than ever," he says. "On an average evening, I'll memorise three packs of cards. And a 400-digit number. I am getting better every time… ah, there it is."

The Germans may have their trophies and their smart squad shirts. Mr Pridmore has his cards box again, and his lucky T-shirt, vintage circa 1998 ("why buy a new shirt just because the old one has a few holes?").

He has a "famous hat", but not The Famous Hat. "I forgot to take it off the train coming back from last year's World Memory Championships," he explains.

He can't fail… and I, meanwhile, have new memories to inspire me. Surely, I too could be a contender?

I shall leave this flat and go into the world a changed man. All I have to do is remember those 2,704 mental images. And where I parked my car.