Saturday, January 19, 2013


There are some nice photos of the WMC to be seen here: Photographer Captures The Strain At The ‘World Memory Championships’.

I'm not sure about the inverted commas - they seem to be implying that the competition isn't a real world championship, it just likes to call itself that. And while I'm allowed to constantly imply things like that, I'm a competitor, so it's fine. I'm intolerant of that kind of thing in other people. Still, there's some very nice pictures of the weird goggles and headphones a lot of competitors like to wear, an extremely unflattering shot of me, deep in thought, and down at the bottom of the page an extremely cool one of me with all my packs of cards. The clever photographer has realised that the best way to make me look cool in photos is to cut my head out of the picture.

If you want to take part in a fun memory competition without being worried that the photos will make you look silly, I heartily recommend the Online Memory Challenge! I've been having a Challenge every Saturday at 10:00 GMT, along with the awesome Jonas von Essen and any other memory people who feel like turning up - it's open to everyone and a great training aid! If you want to join in, send an email to simon.orton, at gmail dot com, and he'll give you a link. Come and play!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Poles apart

My Blogger stats page tells me I've had a lot of pageviews from Poland lately, so I just want to say a big hello, Pole or Poles who've been reading!

It's a bit like the North Pole here today, or at least the way I understand the North Pole to be. There's about an inch of snow out there, and nasty icy remains of the previous snow still underneath it. Good job I hoarded lots of food before it started, because I'm really no good at walking in that kind of stuff.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Just a quick primer for those not quite as obsessive about superheroes as I am: Superhero comics were huge in America in the 1940s, nearly died out through lack of interest in the 1950s, then sprang back to life at the end of the fifties when DC Comics launched all-new superheroes named after their Golden Age counterparts, the Flash and the Green Lantern, who had the same basic superpowers but were otherwise entirely different characters.

Soon enough, the DC Universe of superhero comics revealed that the characters from the thirties and forties actually lived on an alternate world, Earth-2, and were still going strong, if a little grey around the temples. The two worlds used to regularly interact in the pages of 1960s comics.

This posed an interesting question for comics fans - Superman and Batman had remained popular enough to be continually in print during the dark days of the fifties, and yet now their comics were depicting the adventures of the Earth-1 versions of the heroes. So, exactly at what point did the comics switch from chronicling Earth-2 to chronicling Earth-1?

I only mention this because, if you're not as obsessive about the Beano as I am, you might not have noticed that the fathers of the central characters have had a makeover recently. The core Beano characters first appeared in the early fifties (the same time that American superheroes were disappearing, funnily enough), and their dads were traditionally bald, grey-haired and decidedly elderly-looking. Perhaps men didn't have children until they were sixty back then, I don't know. But now, in line with parenting habits of the 21st century, Mr The Menace, Mr The Minx and Mr The Dodger have all become much more youthful, with full heads of hair and not a moustache or a wrinkle to be seen on their faces.

The really fun part is in a Dennis The Menace story on the shelves now, when he looks through old photos with his granny, and sees that his dad was exactly like him as a boy (except that his jumper was black and red instead of red and black), AND that his dad's dad looked exactly like the old character model for Dennis's Dad! And even more, that his granddad was also identical to Dennis, during the war! It's fun stuff for the old-time fans. I want to see more adventures of Earth-2 Dennis.

The Bash Street Kids did the same thing many years ago, incidentally - their teacher was called Mr Brown in the fifties, before sliding into just being called Teacher, and then a story in the seventies or eighties revealed that the Kids' parents were all former pupils, and that their teacher was Mr Brown - who made an appearance, aged somewhat but looking like he used to in the olden days. And another Bash Street Kids story around the same time revealed that they all have younger siblings who look exactly like them, just smaller... you could have a lot of fun working out which generation of Beano characters you're reading about at any given time!

The writer deserves praise, whoever it was. Nigel Parkinson was the artist, and he always deserves praise anyway, so unless I hear otherwise I'm going to credit him with all the cleverness.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Other memory competitions are available

Having publicised the Friendly Memory Championship, I feel I should tell you all about the other memory competitions coming up in the next few months.

USA Memory Championship - Saturday March 16, Con Edison building, New York

Only open to US citizens, and apparently only to people over 12 years old too - the usual fun format with an exciting finale on stage in front of the audience. This will be the 16th US championship!

Italian Memory Championship - Friday/Saturday March 22/23, Italy?

I don't know much about this one, if it's still happening. Anyone got the details?

Welsh Memory Championship - Saturday March 30, Llanover, Wales

The fifth Welsh Open - anyone can take part, you don't have to be Welsh. Exactly the same format as the Friendly/Cambridge competition - let Dai know if you're coming, on the Facebook page or with an email.

North German Championship - Saturday April 13, Magdeburg, Germany

Only open to people from the north of Germany, a Regional Standard competition, which means exactly the same as Wales, but without the 15-minute numbers, 10-minute cards or spoken numbers.

South German Championship - Friday/Saturday April 29/30 - Karlsruhe, Germany

Saturday is exactly the same as the North German Championship, but only open to people from the South. However, people from everywhere else can compete on the Friday, with those extra three disciplines, and Saturday both, making it a National Standard, Open championship.

If you believe in long-range planning, there'll be the bigger championships in the summer - Germany in July, UK in August, probably - then Sweden in September, Hong Kong and Australia both planned for that kind of timeframe too, and no doubt a World Championship somewhere, somewhen, later on in the year!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Memory Lane Again

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!

Friendly Memory Championship 2013

Springtime is the time when people like to get together in a scenic part of the world and have a short, one-day-long memory competition particularly welcoming to beginners, and so I'm pleased to announce that the Friendly Memory Championship is returning to its traditional spot in the schedule in 2013.

The competition will be held in the beautiful surroundings of Attenborough Nature Centre, in Attenborough, near Nottingham, on Sunday 26 May 2013.

Anybody wanting to attend is welcome to stay at my house overnight on Saturday or Sunday - the Monday is a public holiday in Britain, so if you live in this country, you won't need to go to work the next day, probably. There is plenty of other nearby accommodation in Beeston, Attenborough or Chilwell if you want to look for it on the internet - the Rockaway Hotel, just over the road from my place, was heartily recommended by someone who stayed there last year.

The competition will start at 9:00am, promptly, and finish by 6:00pm. It's a rather intense, draining kind of day's work, but there's plenty of opportunity to chat with other memory-competition enthusiasts and have a lot of fun! The entry fee is £30, which includes a hot lunch (very nice hot lunch, at that) at the nature centre - the entry is free to anyone who has never competed at a memory championship before, and the £30 might be significantly reduced for everyone else if we get a lot of people taking part this year (it's to pay for the room hire and expenses, not to make a profit for me!)

The Facebook page contains all the useful information about the event, and is a good place to chat with other people who are coming.

The competition will go something like this...

9:00am - Random Words

You get a sheet of paper with random words on it, and have 5 minutes to memorise them, then you get another sheet of paper with blank spaces, and have 15 minutes to fill in the words you remember. This is the basic format that all ten disciplines follow.

To score points, you need to get a complete column of 20 words all correct - if you have one incorrect word or blank space in a column, you just score 10 for that column; two or more errors or blanks and your score for that column is zero. If a word is correctly remembered but spelt wrong, you only lose the point for that word, so scoring 19 for an otherwise correct column.

For some reason, when I created the slide above, I forgot to make a deliberate spelling mistake, but please just use your imagination and assume that the word with a red 'sp' next to it is somehow spelt wrongly.

For the final column that you fill in, you're allowed to stop part-way down the column and score 1 point for each word (9 points in the above picture). One incorrect word or blank space gives half points for that column, rounded up to the nearest whole number (so it would be 5 points if one of the above was wrong); two or more errors or blanks gives zero points for the column again.

The 'raw score' in each discipline (38 points in the example above) is converted to 'championship points' by comparing it to a standard raw score that gives 1000 championship points - in this case the standard is 125, so a raw score of 38 would give you 304 championship points.

Words can be provided in any language of your choice, provided you ask for translations a month in advance of the competition.

The other nine disciplines work in the same kind of way, so I'll be a bit less wordy in describing them unless the basic principles differ from the ones above.

9:30am - Binary Digits

Ones and noughts - all the number disciplines are arranged in rows rather than columns, but otherwise the same principles apply as in words.

10:00am - Names & Faces

You get a lot of photos of faces, each with a first name and surname underneath it. Then you get the faces in a different order, and have to fill in the names.

There are no rows or columns in this one - you can choose which names to memorise, and each first and last name scores one point. Names will be random and come from any language around the world, not matched to the apparent national origin of the faces or to each other. A picture of me could easily have a name like Baozhong Patel.

Names that are phonetically correct but spelt wrong score half a point, names that are phonetically incorrect but reasonably close to the correct name (three letters different at most) score zero, completely wrong names score minus half a point.

10:30am - 15 Minute Numbers

Just like binary, except these come in rows of 40, rather than 30. There are two 'decimal digits' competitions; this one is the longer version.

11:30am - 10 Minute Cards

Rather than information on paper, you're memorising packs of playing cards here. Then they're recalled on paper, as seen above, by filling in the appropriate number or letter (J, Q, K, A) next to the appropriate suit symbol.

Packs of cards will be provided, although you're welcome to bring your own if you prefer.

12:30pm - Lunch Break
They do really good food there.

1:30pm - 5 Minute Numbers

Exactly like 15 Minute Numbers, only shorter.

2:00pm - Abstract Images

The memorisation paper has lots of rows of five shapes and patterns, as seen above. You have to remember which order they are in, and then fill that in on the recall papers.

3:00pm - Historic Dates

A list of fictional 'historic events' with a year next to them - you have to remember the year and match it to the list of events on the recall paper. As with words, you can ask for a translation into your preferred language.

Again, like names and faces, you can pick and choose which ones to memorise.

3:30pm - Spoken Numbers

This time, instead of reading, you're listening to numbers, spoken at the rate of one digit per second (in English - sorry, only one language available here). Recall is on paper, but you only score up to your first mistake. Two trials - one with 100 digits, and one with 400 - and your best score from the two is what counts.

Scoring is a little unusual here - the championship points you get are 70 times the square root of your raw score.

4:30pm - Speed Cards

Rather than having a time limit to memorise as much as possible, here you're memorising a single pack of cards as quickly as you can (5 minutes maximum). Then you get another pack of cards and have to arrange that into the same sequence as the one you've memorised. Scoring is again weird - the formula is 11170 divided by your time in seconds to the power of 0.75.

And there you have it! Any questions, please post them here!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

WARM winter ahead!

All of the newspapers are proclaiming that it's going to be freezing cold and snowy and kill everyone (Yahoo news included the phrase "nobody in the UK is safe," which seems a teensy bit melodramatic), but they all said the same thing last winter, which turned out to be really mild.

Consequently, I no longer believe anything that the news says about winter weather, and I'm going to wander around outside in just my pants. If I get hypothermia, it's entirely the fault of the media.