Tuesday, September 04, 2007
The brains in Bahrain fail mainly on the cards-based disciplines
"Names" would have worked better in the subject line, but I did okay in that one this time round. I did miss not doing daily blogged updates of the world championships like last year, but there wasn't internet access from the hotel. So that leaves me having to sum up the whole of the last week in one entry tonight before moving onto whatever I feel like writing tomorrow. Or maybe I'll spread it over a few days. There's a lot to write, anyway.
I got into the Bahrain International Airport at about 8:30pm local time - night falls there earlier than it does here, and it was already fully dark by the time I was leaving the airport. But even so, stepping outside I was knocked off my feet by the staggering heat - it was well over thirty degrees celsius and humid with it, so that you're soaked in sweat almost instantly. But the hotel was pleasantly air-conditioned (a bit too much so at times, in fact - on the first day the competition room was freezing, and thereafter it varied from too cold to too hot as people tried to grapple with the air con controls) and very swanky-looking. Most of the other competitors and organisers were staying there too, except the ones who couldn't afford it and had to make do with one of the cheaper ones down the road, and Tony Buzan and Ray Keene who were staying in a posher place, which gave the whole event a more social, friendly kind of feel. The hotel had a seafood restaurant where I ate the first night with an assortment of other memorisers (from memory I think it was Boris, Simon, Hannes, Ed, Lukas and somebody else who has slipped out of my brain right at this moment. Idriz. Sorry.)
Which reminds me that I shared my shuttle-bus to the hotel from the airport with a retired Swedish-American couple who were touring the middle east and were thrilled to learn that the World Memory Championship was happening in their hotel. They were only there for the first day, but they came along to see what it was like in the morning, even though I'd told them it wasn't much fun for spectators.
Anyway, the hotel also had a Harvesters pub which served excellent food, and we had lunches provided during the competition, so there was no shortage of decent grub. Which maybe explains why we didn't all lose weight like the Sunday Times promised we would. I only had the one day for sightseeing, and I had Nick following me around with the camera, but I did my best to see some interesting sights around Manama. Going outside in the daytime was practically lethal - the temperature got up to about forty degrees and it was a case of having to scamper between patches of shade and try not to look too much like a tourist (kind of a wasted effort, seeing as we were conspicuously white, sweating like the Halal equivalent of pigs and carrying a big TV camera). The coolest bit was seeing the multiple giant billboards advertising the WMC and the "Festival of the Mind" that accompanied it. This isn't something that's ever happened before, as far as I know. There was plenty of media coverage too - we got full-page spreads in the local newspapers every day ("Mind Wizard Pridmore In Race For Title") was my favourite headline.
We only managed 32 competitors, which is rather a step down from the last couple of years, but only to be expected because of the exotic location. And there were plenty of good ones among that lot, including a gang from China, competing in the WMC for the first time. The competition itself started off with some entertaining bickering over the rules - Gunther had asked for an extra page of abstract images, Ed took exception, and they first decided not to allow it, then changed their minds back again in the end. And then the abstract images sheets turned out to have been very badly photocopied (the printer the organisers had arranged turned out not to come with toner), making them much harder to memorise and making the extra page unnecessary after all. It's all part of the fun of the championships.
I got a passable score in that, then broke my world record in the binary digits again, with 4140. Woo! I got an entirely acceptable score in hour numbers too, the second-best after Wu Tiansheng, and was about neck-and-neck with Gunther after the first day, even though day one has his three best disciplines.
Day two was less successful - I honestly don't think I was really up to match fitness, not having practised as much as I should, and by the end of the day (we ran three or four hours behind schedule every day, as is traditional), I was tired and not concentrating properly. But I got a reasonable score in names and faces, a pretty cool 365 in speed numbers, and an 86 in historic dates. But in this one Hannes stole the show, with the only other world record of this year's WMC - 99, beating my old record of 96 that I thought was safe as houses. And then in the hour cards I had a total disaster. Like I said, I wasn't concentrating properly, but I nonetheless decided to go for 33, and my recall was horrific. I filled in 22 complete packs on the recall papers, but a lot of them involved educated and uneducated guesses, so I wasn't at all surprised to see a score of 10.5 packs (you get a half if there's one card wrong in the recall - seems I wrote the king of diamonds down twice without noticing) the next morning.
That put me fractionally in the lead after day two, but then I'm always in the lead after day two. I think I have been in every WMC since 2003, oh, except 2005 when I was leading after historic dates but then fell behind. But I generally find a way to mess things up on the final day. I ended up with 159 on words, with several annoying mistakes when I was convinced I had it nearly perfect. Spoken numbers was again entertaining - the playback stuttered at a couple of points and ran some numbers together instead of playing them at one per second. Lots of people protested that we should do the third trial again, Ed again complained loudly that we shouldn't, largely on the grounds that he had the highest score as things should. I also said that we shouldn't, mainly because I thought Gunther would get a better score if we did it again, and we were still neck-and-neck as it was. Then I changed my mind, realising that that wasn't much of a reason, and Ed also backed down, having been convinced by Lukas that he could improve his own score still further and break the world record.
And in the end, the only one to improve his score was me, with a new personal best 129. Which was cool, and put me once again, fractionally in the lead going into the speed cards.
Remembering last year, when I tried two fast times and failed them both, I decided to be sensible and go for a slow and safe one first time round so as to make sure Simon couldn't steal second place from me. Well, there was a lot of money in it this time, not just pride. I was thrilled to see that the timer I was randomly given (one of the 35 they had there - my ten and the 25 that the WMSC had bought) was the one I used for the world record in Highley in July - it hadn't been used since, and the time came up on the screen when I turned it on. What a good omen, I thought!
I did my safe time of 57.8 seconds, and the recall was perfect. Not a single card I had to think about, it reeled out of my brain flawlessly. I should have gone for a fast one, I thought, irritated. Gunther did 57.1 seconds. That left him needing 50 seconds or so on the second trial to beat me, if I didn't improve at all.
Now, I should clarify something here about the way I memorise cards. I can NOT do a pack in 45 seconds and make it safe. I can go through the pack once (thirty seconds or so) and make it risky, or twice (one minute or so) and make it safe. If I try to go through once, slowly, it makes no difference at all. It's still risky. It's even more risky, in fact, because my brain isn't used to the change in tempo, and my mind starts wandering. I did take my time, knowing Gunther can't do below 40 seconds, and recorded a time of 32 or thereabouts, but in the recall I switched a couple of images around and got it wrong. Gunther got his pack right in a just-fast-enough 47, and won the championship. Drattles.
Still, never mind, eh? Next year. Yes, I'm seriously annoyed with myself. I really, really wanted to win this one. But it really is great that Gunther's finally got a world title under his belt, after all those second and third places over the years and all the work he's done in making 'memory sports' the thing it is today. He gave a great speech at the prizegiving ceremony, praising me in a very flattering kind of way. The prizegiving was a little excessively long, as usual, with the top three in each discipline coming up onto the stage one at a time to get their medals and cheques and rounds of applause, and that was only after the same had been done for all the sponsors and arbiters and helpers (all of whom very much deserve applause and rewards, of course!). Then we had the announcements of the team results, in which the scores were wrong again - they were probably using the same software as last year without having noticed - but the positions were right. Germany won, naturally, and they announced the top three Germans as Gunther, Simon and Hannes, instead of Gunther, Simon and Boris, meaning that Boris had to stay down in the audience taking pictures and Hannes had to limp over to the stage and be helped up the stairs one more time than was strictly necessary. Then we all came up one last time for the prizes for the top ten - I'm now the proud owner of another rather nice glass trophy, not as stylish as the UK championship one but still a lot better than a tin cup, and cheques totalling $6,050, which I'll have to pay into the bank as soon as I can find my chequebook.
My business cards ("Ben Pridmore, idiot") caused quite a stir this year - everybody wanted one, and I soon gave away the ten or so I had left. I'll have to get more printed on the machine at the train station. And I'm not going to say anything about the allegations of cheating against one competitor in the speed cards event (no, not Gunther), without knowing every side of the story. I'm sure I'll think of more important reminiscences about the long weekend over the course of the next few days, and I'll be sure to share them with you.