When we last saw Zoomy, UK Memory Champion, he was about to face the first day of competition, last Friday morning. I was staying at the same hotel as Phil, Chris and Jennifer, the people who do all the work of running the competition, and they were already at breakfast when I came down (good breakfast, too - as close to an English breakfast as you're likely to get in Bahrain, beef bacon is pretty much indistinguishable from the pork stuff, and next time I might get past the name and see what 'foul mesdames' taste like...). "Don't walk there this morning!" Chris cautioned, in a way that suggested he knew I wouldn't be so mad as to walk really. "I was planning to..." I said. And I did, too - it was a bit less than half an hour if you don't get lost, and it's nice to get a bit of fresh air (albeit swelteringly hot fresh air) and exercise before spending the whole day indoors, sitting down.
I passed Yip Siow Hong on the way, and he was out jogging! Now that's excessive. But you won't catch me taking a taxi to a memory competition every day, I've got a reputation as a cheapskate socialist to protect. I got to say hello on the way to a ginger cat who looked like he might be friendly but then ran away at the last moment. I'm normally quite good with feline body-language, but perhaps it's different in Arabic.
So I got to the conference centre in good time and picked my seat (we get to choose them in order of world rankings, so I technically get to throw anyone out of their place if I really want to, although I've never exercised this privilege - any desk at the front is fine with me). I ended up with Andi Bell to my right and Liu Ping to the left; both of them likely to be among my rivals. Ping was the best of the Chinese competitors last year (although Guo Chuanwei did better than him at the Chinese championships and wasn't quite on his best form at the 2007 worlds) but he's not really part of Team China - he shuns the team uniform in favour of his stylish pale pink jacket and doesn't generally join in their noisy and excited motivational chants that they broke into at unexpected moments between disciplines. Of my other expected rivals, Gunther Karsten was lurking a few seats behind Andi, dressed all in black - how good was he going to be this year? Chuanwei was dead-centre in the room, looking confident in Team China jacket, and Johannes Mallow was towards the back, looking very much like someone who'd startled the memory world with some amazing scores at the German championship and could spring a surprise or two here.
The room itself was spacious - more than big enough to fit the 44 competitors who'd turned up (once again just failing to live up to the most-entrants-in-history boasts of the pre-championship press releases, but comfortably more than last year, which I wasn't really expecting) - and rather noisy (there were board games tournaments in the room next door, the arbiters next door on the other side and the lobby just outside the room was the place where competitors gathered to discuss the competition so far), but otherwise excellent. Great sound system which worked fine all weekend, ample supplies of water on the desks, replenished regularly and efficiently by someone who deserves high praise but who I never even saw. The whole championship ran wonderfully smoothly, in fact - huge kudos to the people working behind the scenes to make it look effortless!
Those board games I mentioned were part of the "Festival of the Mind" (there's a Tony Buzan title if ever I heard one) which incorporated the memory championship. It also included little tournaments in chess, scrabble, dama, sudoku and possibly something else too, lectures from Tony and friends and an exhibition in the basement of various brain-related things which absolutely nobody seemed to visit.
Anyway, we didn't have time for that kind of thing, because we were off on event one of ten - Abstract Images. This is the newest of the ten memory disciplines, introduced a few years ago to replace the poem, which had proved impossible to offer fairly to all competitors in these multi-lingual times. It was Dominic's idea, and the idea was to provide something that uses natural memory rather than techniques. You get rows of five abstract shapes, and you have fifteen minutes to remember the order they came in. Then you get the shapes back with the images in each row in a different order, and have to number them. Five points for a correct row, minus one point for an incorrect one.
I've been moaning for years that the images program is hugely not what it was supposed to be - the shapes are all well and good, but nobody looks at the shapes, because they're coloured in with one of a very limited number of textures, so you can just memorise those. While I was moaning about it, Gunther was practicing and working out the best system to do them, so he's better at it than anybody else. And he refuses to allow them to change it unless and until he no longer has a huge advantage. So lately I've been practicing too, and trying to catch up with him, but (as is always the way with these things) he keeps getting better too. He's recently lobbied to increase the number of rows provided from 50 to 60, and so a world record was expected from him here. It's 1000 championship points for 50 rows (250 images), so my aim here was to be less than 500 points adrift of Gunther (knowing I can usually make that up on things like binary and dates, where I'm the one who's much better than everyone else) and roughly on a level with everyone else.
[For the uninitiated, note that each discipline in a memory championship has two kinds of points to it - a 'raw score', for example 250 images, and a 'championship points' score, also known as a 'milennium standard' score, although I think that's a silly phrase and don't use it, which converts the raw score to a number proportionate to a 'milennium standard' that is worth 1000 points. So everyone is theoretically at least shooting for 1000 championship points in each discipline, which might be 250 images, 2500 digits, 100 dates, or whatever.]
I attempted forty rows, more than I've tried before, and it went pretty well. Gunther looked pleased with himself, Boris Konrad looked contented too - I should have mentioned him before, he's the second-best in the world at this one - and everyone else looked like they were waiting for the 'real' memory disciplines to start. The ones with numbers and cards, allowing the use of super-duper memory techniques, are the ones that most people come to these competitions for.
It takes time to get the results of each discipline, so we went into the second event of the day, binary digits, not yet knowing how the images had gone. Here we have thirty minutes to memorise as many 1s and 0s as possible. They come in rows of 30, and you get 30 points for remembering a complete row, 15 points if you recall a row with one mistake in it, zero for any row with two or more errors. I'm comfortably better than everyone else at this one - I've got a groovy and brilliant system for it that took a lot of work to prepare but gives me a huge advantage now it's ready and waiting in my head. Gunther is the second-best in the world. Almost all his best disciplines come on the first day of the world championship, so I knew if I was close to his score at the end of the first day, I'd be well placed.
I didn't do as well as I'm capable of doing here - for some reason I haven't quite been at my best all during my training this year, but I knew I'd still got a half-decent score by my standards; I was thinking in the region of 3700, which turned out to be very accurate, as did all my predictions this year. Memory people generally know what score they've got, more or less, but it's still nice not to be surprised.
The results of the images came in - Gunther had indeed set a new world record score, 276. Boris was second with 208, and I was very satisfied with a third place 188. That's a personal best for me, and I found out back at home that it's a higher score than anyone except Gunther and Boris has ever got, which I didn't know. But it's still cool. Boris was still disappointed, he'd been hoping for something better. That put me just 350 championship points behind Gunther. Not that the championship scores really matter at such an early stage after such an atypical discipline, but the top ten went:
Dr Gunther Karsten 1104
Boris Konrad 832
Ben Pridmore 752
Chuanwei Guo 684
Yuan Wenkui 660
Zhu Shao Min 636
Johannes Mallow 504
Su Ruiqiao 500
Dorothea Seitz 480
Mia Korkemeyer 460
The schedule had called for lunch after the binary, but it wasn't twelve yet and we had time to accommodate names and faces too. Now, as everyone knows, this is my weak spot in memory competitions. I'm rubbish at it. You get 110 photos of people's faces, each with a name underneath, and have fifteen minutes to remember them. Then you get the photos back, in a different order, and have to fill a name in underneath. One point for a correct first name, one for a correct last name. I suck at it, but my only consolation is that Gunther sucks at it even more. All I can really do with names and faces is sit back and get it out of the way, letting the likes of Andi and Boris get the good scores and just making up for it later.
After that, we went to lunch, which was again a very nice buffet, followed by an optional speech from Tony about which foods science has recently demonstrated are good for the brain. My own opinions about this being at odds with modern science, I decided to skip it.
Then we got the results of the binary digits, which is always the first indication of who's on form and who isn't. And it seemed that I more or less was - a score of 3730 - and Gunther wasn't quite. He got 2460, when he's normally above 3000. Dr Yip was on form, though, in second place with 2865, and Hannes was right behind him with 2840 - personal bests in both cases. The Chinese army, Guo Chuanwei, Su Ruiqiao, Liu Ping and Yuan Wenqui, all had scores over 2000 too, and Andi rounded out the top ten with 2013. Andi can do better than that - he genuinely had come to Bahrain believing he was in with a good chance of winning, but he's been out of serious memory competitions for quite a while and he clearly wasn't quite up to the form he had five or six years ago. Su and Yuan, on the other hand, are scarily young and clearly going to be dangerous if they improve on this year's performance.
Announcing scores is a very formal thing at memory championships, with a real ritual to it - Tony Buzan reads out the top ten in reverse order in his wonderful, sonorous, booming voice (generally mispronouncing the names of any non-English competitors) and everyone gets a round of applause (from everyone except Andi, who always sits motionless and scowling throughout), then the whole room goes out to the lobby to read the results posted on the noticeboard and see where they and their rivals are placed. The gap between me and Gunther had narrowed to a mere 34 championship points, which is better than I'd expected. I already had nearly 400 points on third-placed Chuanwei, although there was a long way to go yet.
And a major milestone on that long way was the afternoon's entertainment - Hour Numbers. This is one of the two 'marathon' disciplines; a whole hour to cram as long a number as possible into your brain. Scored like the binary, except in rows of 40, which makes it rather easier to make a mistake and lose all the points for a whole lot of numbers that you really have memorised properly. Gunther holds the record for this (1949), but I was quietly hopeful of maybe just beating it - I'd been doing very well in training.
During lunch, Andi, who has an annoying habit of offering me advice as if he's an old pro and I'm a newcomer, surpassed himself by advising me not to drink too much coke since we had an hour of memorising and two hours of recall to come. I treated this with the contempt it deserved, but in the afternoon I was rather grateful that the arbiters let competitors take a quick comfort break in between memorisation and recall, otherwise there would have been a very embarrassing situation for everyone involved, and probably a lower score in the hour numbers for me too. But, without too much bladder-related distraction, I was quite happy with my result. Gunther was reportedly rather less so, and was heard muttering that perhaps he wouldn't come back tomorrow.
We didn't get the scores until the following morning, but I'll let you in on the secret now to round off this first day report. In names and faces I'd come eleventh, with a mediocre 70. Gunther, as usual, was a little bit below me, in thirteenth with 62. The good scores had come from Boris, winning comfortably with 123.5, Corinna Draschl second with 101, then Dorothea an impressive third with 86. After them came Andi, James and Hannes, all making up a bit of ground on me, with Chuanwei just half a point ahead of me (you get half a point for a name that's phonetically correct but spelt wrong - I'm not sure how spelling works if you're getting your names in simplified Chinese characters like he does, but presumably there are arbiters who know).
In the hour numbers, I had the best score, a personal best of 1800, and I still wasn't happy. I'd thought there was an outside chance of a world record, dagnabbit. But Gunther had indeed underperformed, getting only 1352. The big threats to me were Ruiqiao with 1710 (yikes, he's going to be one to watch out for next year), Dr Yip with 1640 (he's always good with numbers, and he was clearly on form), Hannes with 1631 (in every discipline he'd elevated himself over the course of a year from the chasing pack to the top-flight competitors. I did the same, many years ago, and I'm going to need to make another quantum leap upwards soon if I want to stay ahead of these Johannes-come-latelies), Andi with 1580 (not his best, again, but you can never write him off) and Chuanwei with 1440 (a way behind me, but he's consistent at everything and I have a habit of messing one or two disciplines up every year).
The top ten championship scores after four disciplines looked like this:
Ben Pridmore 2853
Dr Gunther Karsten 2644
Johannes Mallow 2345
Chuanwei Guo 2302
Boris Konrad 2156
Su Ruiqiao 2054
Andi Bell 2041
Yip Swe Chooi 2034
Yuan Wenkui 1961
Edward Cooke 1759
Three British, three Germans, three Chinese and a Malaysian (no, Team China, you don't get to count Chinese-Malaysian Dr Yip). Boris had had a somewhat disastrous hour numbers, only getting 688, and would have to do something impressive with two of his best disciplines already gone, but was still up there. Hannes and Chuanwei were both lurking, but I was very happy with this position - being a couple of hundred points ahead of Gunther after day one and five hundred ahead of anyone else is better than I'd hoped for and started to put me into the ever-dangerous "if I don't make a mess of everything, then I might just..." kind of mindset.
Stay tuned for the Day Two Report, tomorrow, probably. Unless I don't feel like it. This one was a bit boring, to be honest...