Upstairs in the Science Museum in London, there's a really cool-looking little library room, with double-decker bookcases (there's a sort of ledge half way up that you walk along to see the higher-up shelves, I don't know what the technical name is) and antique furnishings throughout. Although today and tomorrow it's got some modern tables and chairs and a stonking great computer screen set up, for the UK Memory Championship!
We've got a healthy mix of competitors from around Britain and the world, as usual - thirteen altogether, and that's not including the various other people who came along and had a go at one or more disciplines. Foremost among these were journalists from the Times and the Independent, who both tried their hand at 30-minute binary. Both attempted four rows, 120 digits, but while the Times man got them all correct, the Independent made mistakes on three rows, and so only got a score of 30. Make your own judgements about the relative merits of the two newspapers.
Incidentally, I could swear that I've met the man from the Times before. As my readers will know, I rarely remember faces, but his is familiar enough that I'm sure I've had an interview with him in the past. He talked as if he'd never met any of us, though, so maybe I'm wrong. Or maybe the article in tomorrow's paper will say "I went to the UK Memory Championship and nobody remembered me, even though I remembered them." Or maybe all reporters from the Times look the same (young, posh, floppy-haired...) and I spoke to another one of them.
My scores in everything were awful, as I confidently expected. I'm going to need to be careful not to end up with fewer points than James Paterson, and so avoid being not the best British competitor in a championship for the first time since (I think I'm right in saying this) 2004. It's so long since I did a half-hour discipline, in practice or in competition, I really made a mess of binary, and ended up with a score of 2000 or so, attempting 4500 or thereabouts. Abstract images followed a similar pattern, and I was already exhausted by the time we sat down to speed numbers. 30-minute numbers followed after that, and I decided to manage my expectations hugely, and just attempt 680 digits. I'd written them all down within 15 minutes of the recall time, so perhaps I was over-cautious, but I'm fairly sure that really was as much as I could do - my mind was wandering terribly, which is just what you can expect if you don't train for these events.
Incidentally, we know our scores for abstract images (first discipline after lunch) already, thanks to some unusually speedy and efficient marking from the team of arbiters. Kudos to Phil, Chris, David, Gaby, Nathalie, Dominic, Peter, whoever I've forgotten to list (there's always one) and whoever I don't even know is there (some arbiters always lurk in the back room and never come out to say hello to me). Phil's machine that beeps after a specified number of minutes seems to have died (which is very tragic; it's been coming to these competitions longer than I have), so disciplines were timed on a digital watch, but nothing's gone spectacularly wrong yet. Tony opened the competition with a lengthy speech that was mainly about royal jelly, which makes a change from the usual one and kept us all entertained, someone was buzzing around taking photos, several spectators came to see what was happening, science museum people were looking at us suspiciously, it's all the fun of a memory competition!
Jonas von Essen is clearly going to be the runaway winner, although he's producing the kind of scores that elite competitors do when they haven't got any real opposition. That, more than anything, is motivating me to do some more training and pose him a challenge at the World Championship! I copied his habit of taking his groovy shoes off, since my less groovy ones (which I nonetheless love, since they were bought for me by someone special) got soaked in the rain, and went around barefoot all afternoon. We're the Zola Budds of memory sports!
The British contingent are led by James Paterson, Wales's finest, who got the highest score at names & faces, although not quite as high as Phil announced - he accidentally read out James's competitor number, 170. The score printouts all have the competitor numbers on them, which is just confusing for everyone - I keep reading my name and thinking I only scored 29, which is bad for names and faces, but downright horrible for binary! There's also Ryan S Smith, who loves his middle initial enough that he added it onto his nameplate in red pen (we all get toblerone-shaped paper names to put on our desks, with the appropriate national flag and, of course, that competitor number again), Mike Outram and Phill Ash, all warmed up at the Friendly Championship and dipping their toes into two-day International Standard competition, and Jake O'Gorman, at his first competition and saying I'm the one who inspired him to compete. I always worry that I'm a sad disappointment to such people when they meet me in real life. "Who's this short, fat, bald oaf?" they no doubt say to themselves, "I thought Ben Pridmore would be a huge, mighty specimen of humanity, with a big deep booming voice and magic mind-powers of some kind, possibly involving telekinesis!"
International guests are Jonas; James's Russian student Sergey; Raj who spends so much time in England competing in memory competitions that he hardly counts as Indian any more; Søren from Denmark; Rick from Holland; Joona from Finland who was at the WMC last year but who for some reason I never got round to saying hello to; and a newcomer from Spain who I'm sure introduced himself to me as Javier, but is called Francisco on the scoresheets and nameplate (with different surnames on each). He might be a spy. Or I might just be bad at remembering names.