Friday, December 28, 2012

Grand Master of Memory

You can tell I'm not working today, can't you? There has been talk about the title of "Grand Master" on the Facebook page for the World Memory Championship, and it put me in mind to do a bit of historical research about this illustrious title - because nobody really knows the history of it, even though it's less than twenty years old, and it's impossible to find details on the internet unless you really, really know where to look...

According to Use Your Head (aka Synapsia) magazine, the idea was first announced at the World Championships in 1995. The magazine says that the qualification was based on "the Buzan/Bond Mind Sports Rating System for Memory", and nowhere explains exactly what this was, although it was apparently just based on the hour cards and hour numbers scores. The idea was that it gave a score similar to the ELO system for chess, and it obviously wasn't based on any kind of simple multiplication, because Dominic O'Brien was much, much better than anyone else in those days, but only had a slightly higher Buzan/Bond score. Still, the first Grand Masters - who were given their awards in a big fancy ceremony by Prince Philipp of Liechtenstein - were:

Dominic O'Brien (2814)
Jonathan Hancock (2710)
Mark Channon (2577)
Andi Bell (2569)
Kevin Horsley (2545)
Patrick Colgan (2452)
Philip Bond (2504)
Creighton Carvello (2464)

I'm willing to bet that the scoring system was devised with two goals in mind - to make Dominic's memory rating match Garry Kasparov's chess rating (the article mentions that his highest rating at that time was 2815), and to make Philip Bond's score over 2500, so that he could be a GM too.

Use Your Head also mentions that James Lee has a rating of 2463, higher than Patrick Colgan, but isn't a GM - it doesn't say why, but I assume Patrick was given the title because he held the world record in the old Poem discipline at that time. It also mentions that Sue Whiting was "very close to qualifying as the first female Grandmaster of Memory".

She, along with Michael Tipper, Ian Docherty and Stephen Clarke, were added to the GM list over the next few years; I have no idea why or how, I can't find any official reference to the standards that were used. By the time I came along in 2000, the whole Grand Master thing had sort of gone into hibernation - the only mention of it was that Tony Buzan constantly addressed Michael Tipper (who back then was performing the role that Phil Chambers has made his own nowadays of running the WMC) as "Grand Master Tipper".

Then, in 2001, the WMSC (which might have still been called the IFMS then) decided to get scientific and serious about scoring systems, and we got the "Milennium Standard" concept that is still in use today - for each of the ten disciplines (historic dates was added that year to bring it back up to ten - it had been just nine ever since the 'images' discipline was dropped a few years earlier) there was a standard score that would give 1000 points, and each competitor's result in each discipline gave them a milennium score proportionate to the standard.

The standards have gone up sharply in the last decade (and some went down, because they were much too high, and then up again...) - for the sake of nostalgia, here are the original standards from 2001:

Hour Numbers 2500
Speed Numbers 400
Binary Numbers 3000
Spoken Numbers 200
Hour Cards 1538 (29½ packs)
Speed Cards 30sec
Names & Faces 200
Poem 300
Random Words 250
Historic Dates 50

This new system came with a whole raft of new rules about how to become a Grand Master! There were three different ways to qualify:

a) Achieve the three Grand Master norms - 713 digits in Hour Numbers, 365 cards (7 packs plus one more card) in Hour Cards, and under 3 minutes in Speed Cards.

b) Score over 5000 championship points across the ten disciplines (Decathlon Grand Master).

c) Score over 2500 championship points across the five disciplines Words, Poem, Speed Numbers, Names & Faces and Spoken Numbers (Pentathlon Grand Master).

A score of 3000 over the ten disciplines made you an International Master - in 2002, I had a lot of fun calling myself "Ben Pridmore, International Master of Memory". It sounds really much cooler than it was, and conjures up images of a James Bond kind of person who travels around the world, remembering things. Probably in a very cool car.

In 2003, the norms were rejigged to the levels they still are today - 1000 digits, 10 packs of cards, 2 minutes - and the Decathlon qualifying score was increased to 6000 for Grand Master, 4000 for International Master. As far as I know, the Pentathlon title was never mentioned by anyone ever again after that first announcement - the Poem was dropped after 2005, so it's no longer possible to do it anyway. The Decathlon rule was also forgotten about over the next few years, and so we were left with the Normal Grand Master rules, which have been unchanged ever since! Consistency is victory!

I'm currently agitating for an official "Double Grand Master" title to be conferred on Wang Feng, Liu Su, Simon Reinhard and Johannes Mallow, who have all managed to do 2000 digits in Hour Numbers, 20 packs in Hour Cards and under 1 minute in Speed Cards. When I finally get round to developing a new system for numbers, I hope to join that elite group...


Graham Old said...

Hi Ben,

I know this is an old post, but I've only just come across it.

Personally, I think that "Double Grandmaster" sounds a bit silly. Why not stick to Chess equivalents?


Other possibilities could be National Master, Life Master, WMSC Master (cf. FIDE Master), Honourary Master, Speed Events Master (cf. Correspondance Master), etc.

But they need to be given for real achievements, so that they really mean something (and don't look too masturbatory to the general public).

Personally, I think it's a real shame that the Poem was dropped. In 2000 I beat both Andi and Dominic, which is silly. It just shows that the top in the game just focus n one set of skills. I've always thought we should add more variety like a random map, fictional language or FBI video.

So, a GM Title would not just award skill at 3 different ways to translate numbers into images. It could include words/poem and names-faces.

Graham Old said...

And what about using the Olympics as comparable?

It's then more about current achievements, than titles.

So, you can have world champion, Olympic champion, national champion, etc.

I wonder if we should do,something similar with the various events. So, whoever wins the binary numbers at the WMC is the Binary Champion, who may be distinguished from the World Champion, or the Binary World Championship Rcord Holder.

Snooker gives another comparable sport, where there are numerous events throughout the year. We even have Buzan as our own Hearst.

(Though, personally, I'd like to see a few non-Buzan competitions. Come back, Andi! Viva the US!)

Tracy S. Miller said...

I like the sound of "Supreme" Grandmaster of Memory.