Saturday, December 29, 2012

Do you remember the first time?

I'm in a talking-about-memory mood lately. I'm even in a practicing-some-memory mood! I did a 30-minute binary practice today, which went quite painfully slowly and mind-wanderingly, but I know I can only improve. If I manage to do the hour events in the next couple of days, it'll set me on the course to my new year's resolution for 2013 - to do lots of training and then win the world championship! I like to aim high.

I've also been catching up on Nelson's blog, and since I don't remember plugging it here before, go and check it out now! Lots of memory talk to be found there!

Meanwhile, I thought it would be fun to blog about the olden days of memory competitions some more, just so that all these newcomers can get a feeling of what it was like in the days before I even had a blog! (I always assume that my blog is the sole source of information about everything, everywhere)

Cast your mind back, then, to August 2003. I was considerably younger, and the "Ben System" was younger still - I'd come up with it about six months before, and had been enthusiastically practicing with it ever since, although I was still a long way from world-beating levels. The MSO Memory Championship was the first time I'd had a chance to use it in a real competition, and I was thinking about switching back to my old system for things like speed cards, because I still hadn't got to the kind of speed with my two-card-image technique that I'd been capable of with the one-card-image thing. But I decided to just plough ahead with the new system, reasoning that every bit of training would get me closer to winning the world championship. To be honest, I was sort of obsessed with that idea at the time.

I was newly bearded, still had my original hat, and had lost a lot of weight since the previous August - something which I hadn't actually realised until John Louis pointed it out to me. I was possibly the thinnest I've ever been, a combination of giving up coca-cola for financial reasons, a lot of walking and probably a lot of mental exertion with the Ben System. I also had a really bad, streaming cold that week, and had to spend the competition pausing to wipe my nose constantly while trying to memorise numbers and pick up packs of cards. Blowing your nose while other competitors are trying to concentrate is sort of frowned upon.

The MSO championship had been a separate thing from the WMC since 2001 - if you want a fun read, look for the public correspondence between David Levy and Ray Keene as to why that was - and had fluctuating attendance figures. The 2001 event was a couple of days before the WMC, and also in London, and got quite a lot of people taking part as a bit of a warm-up. In 2002, the MSO went to Loughborough, a week before the WMC, and got a whopping three competitors. In 2003, at the university in Manchester (a really great MSO location, by the way!) but with the world championship set for Kuala Lumpur in November, the MSO memory competition amassed nine entrants.

It was very multinational, too - along with me, there were John Louis from India and Pierre Berbinau from France, who'd both started competing within the last couple of years; old-timers and hot favourites Gunther Karsten of Germany and Yip Swe Chooi of Malaysia; debutants Ed Cooke from England and Charlie Garavan from Ireland (possibly the two most fun guys and best conversationalists ever to attend a memory championship!); and Dr Yip's two latest students from Indonesia, Titiani Loren and Fanny Boediman.

You couldn't make it up, could you? The avuncular fifty-something Dr Yip accompanied everywhere by two attractive young women who cheerfully introduced themselves to everyone as "Titty and Fanny". James Bond meets Moonwalking With Einstein.

The competition was six disciplines over two days, including both hour-long marathons and speed cards - the organisers were keen that people should have the opportunity to achieve the new Grand Master norms. The 2002 event had taken the same approach, but squeezed the whole thing into one day, which was seriously exhausting!

2003 was rather less stressful, and produced lots of results that were awesome for the time - four new Grand Masters (me, John, Titty and Fanny) and two new world records, both from Gunther. I was absolutely delighted with my own performance all the way through (even pretty happy with names and faces) and really, hugely, super-enthusiastic about memory!

We started with binary digits, which I'd always disliked in the olden days, because I hadn't been able to come up with a good system. Now that I had, I loved it! I got a score of 2850, which I'd be disappointed with today, but back then for anyone to get 3000 was practically unheard-of, so my score was considered really amazingly huge! Gunther broke his own world record with 3180. He was always far and away the world's best at binary back then. Heehee, I soon took over that position!

Next was random words, which I hadn't trained for at all, but I still got a really great score for the time - 168. Perfect memory, too - not a single mistake. I was just in such a positive frame of mind after the binary, despite my rotten cold, that anything seemed possible!

Finally for the first day, hour cards, and the improvement over my original system was huge - I'd long since realised that doing more than ten packs with one image per card was impossible - each of my 52 images would appear once per pack, and it was just too confusing. With the all-new Ben System, the only limit was struggling to remember my 2704 images quickly enough, and even though I was still new to it, I got 13 packs. The lowest score out of the nine competitors was six packs, which is quite impressive, isn't it? Small turnout, but good quality.

So I was actually in the lead after the first day, which was better than even I'd expected!

Day two started off with hour numbers, which the all-conquering Ben System is admittedly not so hot at. But I still managed a hugely impressive 1630 nonetheless. Dr Yip was famously good at numbers, and got 1855, but Gunther surpassed even that, with another new world record score of 1914.

In names and faces I managed 70, which isn't so bad. Gunther somehow got 83, when he's normally even worse than me at names! Newcomers Ed and Charlie got the highest scores, with 99 and 88 respectively - okay, pretty low winning scores, but the rest of the competition was full of great results!

So we went into the speed cards, and I just needed a reasonably good time to win the competition. Treading carefully with the new system, I did 2 minutes 40 seconds in the first trial (going through the pack twice) and then 1 minute 38 in the second. I sped up a lot once I'd had a bit more practice! Dr Yip had the best time with 1:13, which with Gunther not getting a pack correct (he tried 55 seconds both times, but had errors) was enough for second place overall.

So I won my first memory championship! There was prize money, too - a whopping £300 for first place! It was a great couple of days all round!

As one final note, did you know that Indonesia and Monaco have nearly identical flags? I didn't, until I just noticed today that Fanny Boediman's got the wrong one on the memory sports statistics site!

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...

Thursday, December 27, 2012

It's grim oop north

E4 is full of trailers for a new series called "My Mad Fat Diary", which is apparently set in Lincolnshire. Although it's great to see my much-neglected home county getting some TV coverage, I can't help but notice that the actress playing the central character is speaking "Northern", that strange dialect adopted by southern actors when they're asked to pretend they're from somewhere north of Watford. Nobody in Lincolnshire sounds even remotely like that!

The internet says that Sharon Rooney is from Glasgow, but I'd bet you anything that she went to drama school in London and has never set foot in the bit of England in between. The premise of the series looks fun, and it'll probably be good, but just bear in mind that anyone who watches it is personally insulting me and the whole Lincolnshire/East Midlands region, please.

Anyway, I hope you all had a good Christmas!