I'm finally home! Here's what I wrote on the train while trying to get here...
Back home, sort of. What with tube strikes and then signal problems at Kettering cancelling all the trains going from St Pancras, getting back from the airport turns out to be a lot more tricky than usual. I'm currently speeding towards Grantham, in the hopes of getting a train to Nottingham and then to Derby and Belper. Still, it gives me time to carry on writing about the Extreme Memory Tournament. The wifi on the train isn't working ("this is caused by a technical fault," the tannoy has just helpfully told us), but eventually I might get somewhere that allows me to post another blog entry, maybe.
Where was I? Oh yes, we'd just finished the quarter-finals. Things were running late (this was a revolutionary and different kind of memory competition in many ways, but not in that way) so the schedule was rejigged - Roddy Roediger's presentation about the study of memory athletes, then a lunch break, then someone else's presentation about identifying the precise bits of a fruit-fly's brain that relate to memory (which included colourful 3D movies of microscopic brains), and then finally back to the competition.
This gave everyone time to think a bit more about the first surprise task (we were only given ten minutes strategizing-time before starting it, so most of the detailed analysis came later), and to conclude that most of the competitors would have been beaten by an opponent who immediately threw his recall papers away and stopped the clock without trying to memorise anything - 81 three-second penalties for a final score of just over four minutes. Anyone who had just memorised the three ten-digit numbers (memory and recall of those could have been done within thirty seconds) would have ended up with a score of three minutes, which would have been the best score of the day. Probably contrary to the spirit of the rules, though...
In the gap between quarters and semis, I was chatting with some of the others, and mentioned that Jonas and I had both guessed the three of hearts in our surprise round. "I guessed the three of hearts, too!" gasped Boris. What are the odds of that? Well, as anyone who's considered a three-card-image system will tell you, the odds are 1 in 140,608. This inspired us to ask the other quarter-finalists what they'd written down. It turned out that most of them had left it blank; the only other person who'd taken a guess was Mark, and he'd written... the three of hearts. 1 in 7,311,616.
This inspired various theories about what nudged everyone's brains in that direction. Hearts was the first option on the recall sheet (you wrote down a number and circled the appropriate suit symbol) and there were a lot of threes floating around at the time - three piles of cards, three sets of numbers, three recall papers of which the missing card was written on the third, three seconds penalty for a mistake - so it perhaps isn't all that surprising. Still cool, though.
Speaking of surprises, the surprise task for the semi-finals related to the presentation we'd just seen - the DNA sequence of one of the strange things they'd done to generations of unfortunate fruit-flies in the name of science, or in other words a long string of the letters A, C, G and T. One point for a correct recall, minus one for incorrect. Again, it wasn't until afterwards that someone came up with the intriguing idea of treating them as binary digits - A being 1, all the others being 0, and only writing down the As. That might have got a much better score than any of the semi-finalists came up with.
As it was, Simon won in his semi-final against Mark Anthony, and Jonas won against Johannes. For the second round, Mark chose numbers, the only one of the four disciplines that Simon hadn't set the highest score in, having tried three fast times but made three mistakes. No mistakes this time, though, and Simon went 2-0 up. Johannes chose words, but lost (just barely) to Jonas - a 2-0 lead for the Swede too.
Simon then picked names, and comfortably moved into a 3-0 lead. Jonas picked names too, and won too, 3-0 to him.
That left Mark to choose, and there were a few mumblings of surprise when he picked cards, against the undisputed world's best card-memoriser. But if you think about it, his only other option was words, at which Simon is also by far the better of the two of them - and in cards, there's a much higher chance of making a mistake and getting a low score. No mistakes here, though, and Simon "the hitman" Reinhard (after reading my previous blog post, James told me that that's a better nickname for him) moved into the final with a second consecutive 4-0 win. Unstoppable.
As for Jonas "the feet of memory" von Essen (he competes barefoot, like some modern-day memory-competition Zola Budd), he was also given cards for the discipline that could take him into the final, but, well, you could practically hear the sound of his brain collapsing under the pressure. Johannes stopped the clock with a respectable time, Jonas took the whole 60 seconds to look at his cards, and then spent the 4-minute recall staring at the screen and being barely able to remember a single one.
That made it 3-1. Then it became 3-2 (words), and then 3-3 (numbers), as Jonas continued to fall a long way short of the kind of scores he'd been producing in the morning. Not that he could have done anything about Johannes's new world record 15.98 seconds in the numbers, though! Jonas had the choice for the final decisive round, and opted for that old favourite, names.
Watching this match was the absolute highlight of the weekend - not for the high standard of recall from two seriously-stressed-out competitors, but for the sheer excitement! Over the course of four minutes' recall, the two of them struggled to fill in names - first one was winning, then the other. Johannes got up to twelve correct names, shook his head, changed one of the correct names to an incorrect one and fell back to eleven points. Jonas got up to ten, remembered that one of the men was called Sidney, wrote that name into two of the blank spaces, moved his cursor to the real Sidney... and didn't write anything. The recall time ran out, the audience collectively exhaled (seriously, I don't think anyone had so much as breathed for at least the last two minutes), and Hannes celebrated a comeback victory, 4-3 to take him to the final!
So my predictions for the final didn't quite work out - Jonas looked pretty devastated, as you can imagine, but he seemed to perk up after some extensive hug-therapy from his girlfriend. A grand final between Simon and Johannes brought back memories of the German TV show where they had to compete against each other for the honour of facing me in the grand final - sadly, the XMT picks its grand finalists based on merit, so that didn't happen here. Florian Dellé, who'd been extensively live-streaming the whole tournament, cheerfully pointed out that seven of his eight predictions for the quarter-final lineup had been correct - I asked who the exception was, and it turned out it was me. Some people have no faith in my powers of fortuitously getting through on a tie-break, it's shocking. But Florian is now proudly sporting a hat and beard, so I can't stay mad at him.
Before we got to the final, there was the important matter of the third/fourth place play-off. Simon and Hannes were locked in the cupboard again, since the final would be using the same surprise task, and everyone else gathered around to watch as Jonas and Mark were presented with their Extreme Memory Task. A truncated chessboard, 5x8, would be placed in front of them, and on each square would be 0, 1, 2 or 3 coins. There were four different kinds of coin (those poor Americans only really have four kinds) and they could be either heads or tails. The competitors had one minute to look at the board, then four minutes to take a pile of coins and place the correct denomination with the correct orientation on the correct square. One point for a completely-right coin, minus one point for any wrong coins placed on the board.
It was a tricky one. I'm still not sure exactly what the best strategy would be - the various permutations are hard to turn into decimal numbers without a lot of unnecessary repetition. Jonas won with a score of 10, but I suspect bigger scores could be achieved with a bit of work and a lot more than ten minutes to prepare.
The surprise tasks were all completely awesome, by the way. I really want to arrange my own Extreme tournament now, just because I've already had ideas for two really great surprise tasks that I want to confront competitors with. The UK Extreme Memory Tournament is a definite possibility, if only I can get the resources to stage it.
Jonas went on to win at names, words and cards without any real difficulty, to take that coveted third place. A great performance all round!
And so to the grand final! This one was best of nine, just to make it even more special, with two extreme tasks. The first was the coins again, and Simon won. He then won cards, with Johannes trying a fast time and not getting it right, then chose names and won that too, for a 3-0 lead.
Then it was time for our final Extreme task, which turned out to be spoken numbers-and-letters. Nelson read out a list of random numbers and letters, at roughly one a second (no recordings here, it was live and extreme), and the competitors had to take turns recalling one at a time, with the first mistake losing, like they do in the US Championship. The first list was ten items, then fifteen, and so on. Only it didn't go so on, because Hannes made a mistake in recalling there. 4-0 to Simon - is he really that much better than the rest of us at extremeness?
Well, we can take comfort in the fact that he's not quite perfect. As the loser of the surprise task, Johannes chose numbers, and Simon stopped the clock at 18.54 seconds, confidently typed them out in the recall, before stopping in confusion when he realised he'd only got 14 images in his head rather than 15 (he's got a super-extreme 4-digit system). The great thing about this competition is that we could all watch on the screen and see exactly what was going through his head as he figured out where the missing image must have come in the sequence, and took a guess at what it might have been. But it wasn't right, and we were 4-1. Comeback on the cards?
Not quite. After suggesting that he should have been able to select names, since they last did it three rounds ago including the surprise round, Simon opted for words, and won it with a confident score of 43. The hitman became the first ever Extreme Memory Champion, and richly deserved it was too - he was a class apart from everyone else all weekend!
I can't wait for the next XMT! Huge thanks to Nelson, Simon O, and everyone else who made it possible!