The combination of snow here this morning and the squirrel calendar I got for Christmas got me in reminiscent mood about the Austrian Memory Championship 2004. January's picture is a red squirrel in the snow, you see, and the Austrian championship that year gave me the most amazingly pretty scenic view I've ever had from any hotel window before or since - it looked out on a grassy garden leading down to a little group of trees further away, there was a light coat of snow, and a whole lot of red squirrels skipping around and apparently just having fun in the winter weather.
The Austrian Open is a much-missed part of the memory calendar. If you're new to memory competitions (or just have a bad memory), you might not think of Austria as having been a major player, but back in 2004 it certainly was. We'd just had a World Championship with four Austrians in the top ten and two in the top three, and all the talk was about Austria, rather than Germany, being the country poised to put an end to Britain's monopoly on the World Memory Champion title.
The 'buzz' (ie a single brief article on the internet somewhere) about the Austrian championship in November was that it would be a rematch between me and Astrid Plessl after our heroic tussle at the WMC in August, but since I hadn't done any training since then, and neither had Astrid, apparently, it was a bit of a disappointment on that front.
There were in fact two competitions taking place simultaneously in Vienna - an adult and a junior competition. Joachim Thaler, third place in the WMC that year, had reluctantly decided to compete in the latter, which had better prize money and a pretty much guaranteed first place for him, rather than testing himself against the grown-ups - can't really blame him for that, since he did need the money, but it was a shame to lose one of the top contenders.
The scores of the junior championship, for some reason, aren't on either Memocamp or World Memory Statistics - I can only assume we couldn't find them when we were putting the latter website together, but they are in fact still available on the ancient Austrian Championship website, which is still up there on the internet after all these years! Click here for Junior results and Click here for adults - both are pdfs.
My memories of the competition itself aren't actually very clear at all, compared to a lot of competitions. I suspect this had something to do with the beer available to competitors afterwards (possibly it was free, or someone bought it for me, I honestly don't recall), and the presence of Ed Cooke and Lukas Amsüss and their memory-themed challenges. I remember at one point announcing that I'd memorise multiple packs of cards, a long number and drink a pint of beer, all in the space of five minutes. I didn't succeed.
The Junior championship pulled in seventeen young Austrian memorisers from all over the country - Joachim basically took everyone else to the cleaners, but the runner-up was Corinna Draschl, who also did well and is still involved in memory competitions to this day! In fact, the two of them were first and second respectively in almost every discipline.
The Austrian Open, meanwhile, attracted eleven competitors in a very international field. Just the two non-junior Austrians, in Astrid and Lukas, but five Germans - Florian Dellé, Boris Konrad, Ferdinand Krause, Clemens Mayer and Martina Mayer-Lauingen - myself and Ed from England, Idriz Zogaj from Sweden and Trevor Nell all the way from South Africa! That included five of the top ten from the recent world championship, and I'm pretty sure Luise Sommer (10th in the WMC) was there too, but helping to organise the junior competition instead of competing.
We started with the Poem, that much-missed memory discipline that was a lot of fun but admittedly impossible to organize fairly in multiple languages. I had previously been the world's best at that, but Astrid by 2004 was widely acknowldeged as being much, much better than me, so it was a pleasant surprise when she produced a bad score this time and I ended up winning. Lukas missed the first discipline, having overslept - maybe Astrid had a late night too?
In five-minute binary, I broke the world record - in fact, it was announced that I'd got a world-beating score of 810, and I had to hassle Hubert Krenn into going back and checking it, because I knew I'd only written down 780 digits. They were all right, though, and 780 was still considered exceptional, way back then.
Names and faces was won comfortably by Clemens, who'd come fourth in the WMC and seemed seriously committed to doing better in the future - legend has it that he'd been corresponding with Gunther Karsten back in 2003, and said he wasn't ready to enter real competitions, because his scores in practice weren't good enough. Gunther pointed out that the scores he said he'd got were better than almost anyone in the world had achieved before, and that he really should think about actually competing, and the rest is history...
30-minute numbers (this was a strangely non-standard-format competition, half-way between a National Standard and International Standard - regulations were a bit looser back then) was also won by Clemens, with a fairly mind-blowing 1000; I came fourth and was realising that my concentration wasn't what it should have been.
I then totally made a mess of ten-minute cards, only getting one pack right, and then speed numbers, where I got just 163, and with Clemens winning both of those too, I had to admit that I wasn't going to add "Austrian Open Champion" to my list of achievements. This was followed by another terrible performance in 15-minute words, which Astrid won handily - that was another of her specialities. Boris was second, in the discipline he'd soon come to rule the world in.
Clemens also won historic dates, which I was supposed to be far and away the world's best at (at the world championship that year I flabbergasted everyone with an enormous score of 80 - those were the days), following which we had a rather eccentric version of spoken numbers.
Most memory competitions, when asked to provide 100 digits spoken at a rate of one per second, make some kind of recording. This competition had a man reading the numbers from a sheet of paper, while another man looked at his watch and waved his finger once a second to show the other when to speak. I don't remember it being a huge disaster, but nobody got a score higher than 60 in either of the two trials.
Finally we came to speed cards, and Lukas, a real speed cards specialist, did a pack in 35.62 seconds. I think he was one of only four people who had ever broken the 40-seconds barrier at that point - the number four sounds right to me, anyway, though I'm racking my brain and can't think who the other one would have been apart from Lukas, me and Andi Bell. Anyone? Anyway, I was well and truly brain-drained by that point and didn't manage to get a pack correct.
That left Clemens the overall winner by some distance, followed by Astrid, Ed, Boris and me. Lukas was a tiny 35 championship points further adrift in sixth, which means I only just scraped into the prize money places - I took €100 home with me, which only barely made me feel better about losing to Ed and Boris just three months after I'd beaten them by miles in the world championship. But that's what happens when you don't practice - after winning the WMC, my motivation dropped off completely, and it was nearly a whole year before I even picked up a pack of cards at home again!
For Clemens, this was the start of seven consecutive memory competition wins, an unbeaten streak that ran right through 2005 and 2006. For Astrid it was the last competition she entered, although she never properly 'retired' and kept talking about coming back for years thereafter. She was much missed, as was the Austrian Memory Championship - 2004 was the last one, and that burgeoning Austrian dominance of memory sports just sort of fizzled out. It's a shame. I want to go back there and see the squirrels!