Saturday, May 03, 2014

To the Extreme

I've probably said enough about the Extreme Memory Tournament now, but if you're still eager to read more, check out Nelson's summary!

Anyway, it's another long weekend, and just maybe I'll spend the next couple of days memory training. I'm even inclined to create a big database of names and faces and do some practice of that. I just get the feeling that I should do that, for a change. And did you know that you can upload a photo to Google images and it'll give you hundreds of similar images? It's a great way to get lots and lots of background-free head-and-shoulders photos for your training!

Friday, May 02, 2014


I really want to organise a UK Extreme Memory Tournament. Nelson and Simon are all in favour of having local competitions happen as much as possible; all I need now is for someone to give me really quite a lot of money in order to make it happen. I'm thinking of a three-day extravaganza, with the Friendly Competition in the WMSC style included in there as well.

Could I get 16 British competitors? Actually, probably quite easily, there's a lot more of us now than there used to be. Could I get 32, and expand it to World Cup proportions? I'd want to make it UK-and-Ireland, actually, so I can invite Conor Muldoon and Charlie Garavan. And for that matter, maybe we should add Americans and Australians, too, so that Nelson and Simon can compete? Okay, now it's the English-Speaking Countries Extreme Memory Tournament! If we spread our net any further than that, then those Europeans will just win everything again...

Okay, who's competing? I'm not, since I'm hypothetically running the thing and learning how Simon's software works so that I can keep it going while he's competing, but I'm sure there'd be plenty of interest!

Thursday, May 01, 2014

RIP Bob Hoskins

Yes, it really is sad that the star of Who Framed Roger Rabbit has died, it was a completely wonderful movie that I really love, and he was awesome in it. It's just that I'm confused.

See, I'd always had the idea that Bob Hoskins was famous for something else, before he starred in one of the universe's greatest cartoon-human-interaction movies of all time. I was under the general impression that he was a renowned star of other famous movies or something like that, who appeared in that film as a bit of light relief from a serious career in proper films that people who aren't me really thought were great.

So it's a bit strange to see all the news stories describing Bob Hoskins as "the star of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and other movies". Was I just imagining the whole thing? It's true that I always got him mixed up with Phil Collins, so maybe that's what I was thinking of, but then Phil Collins wasn't famous in films before 1988, and I didn't see Buster until a couple of years later... maybe they've got a third twin brother out there too, and that's who I was thinking of?

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


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!

If only I was 0.35 seconds quicker

It's been a sort of extreme memory-family reunion this weekend - not just with fifteen other memory masters and their families and friends, but a whole pile of American competitors standing by to take part if necessary (it wasn't) and helping out with the organisation, the Washington University in St Louis gang, casino-cheating expert and card wizard Sal, webmaster Josh and two entirely non-memory-related local friends, I've been constantly surrounded by a horde of people I know, some of whom I hadn't seen for ages. But now I'm in San Diego airport, on the way home (the plane's delayed by half an hour, exactly like the one on the way out - it's probably the same plane, and has been running thirty minutes late for months) and need to try to summarise everything that happened at the Extreme Memory Tournament for the benefit of my loyal bloglings.

I hope everyone was following the action on the internet, because that site and all the software really was amazing. Never in the history of "memory sports" have we had the ability to watch everything going on, even from far far away (like in Australia, where Simon Orton was at work non-stop, patching up minor bugs as soon as they arose). Live coverage of which cards the competitors were looking at at any given moment, and the ability to follow along with the excitement as they recalled! You can see the results of every match on there now, if you're interested.

Although Group D was very much the group of death, it did come last alphabetically, meaning I had the opportunity to watch the other three groups have their first match before my turn. Plus, my first match was names, against Simon "the iceman" Reinhard, which I was never going to win, so there was no need to worry about getting off to a worse-than-expected start. It wasn't until the second match, numbers against James "the one who decided that Simon's nickname is 'the iceman'" Paterson that I got off to a worse-than-expected continuation, setting a 'safe', slow-ish time of 25 seconds but not being able to remember one of the images.

When one competitor stops his or her timer, the border around the other competitor's screen turned blue, signifying that they could take the full one minute and concentrate on getting a perfect score - James did just that, and won. It was worrying, because I was significantly more sluggish there in the competition than I had been in training.

I pulled it together against Bat-Erdene in the words, and also got a win against him in numbers later (he went for an extremely fast time and didn't quite get the recall right). But those were the only two of my six matches before lunch that I won, and it really wasn't looking good for me at the half-way point. Simon was crushing everyone in his path except for one slip-up against Bat in numbers, but if I wanted to scrape into second place, I really would have to buck my ideas up in the afternoon.

The hectic pace had made it hard to keep up with what was happening in the other three groups, in between my own matches every half hour, but Jonas was the star of the day, winning everything in group C - the other three places were extremely close together and the tension was running high, as everyone could tell from Boris's loudly-yelled rude word in German when he made a mistake in the numbers against Andi. Group A was seeming pretty easy for Johannes (he got the group of life, or of undeath, or of whatever the best word for the easy group is), with Gunther and Mark Anthony closely matched behind him. Ola and Christian were fending off the challenge of Erwin over in Group B.

After lunch, I was thrown into action against Simon in words, another guaranteed loss - two wins out of seven now. I could afford to take it easy against James in cards, with 45 seconds, but I was disturbingly feeling like that was as fast as I could manage to go, with my mind not being fully up to speed. Three wins out of eight. Six out of twelve was realistically the minimum I needed.

That left names against Bat-Erdene to be a real must-win. Since I tend to regard names as being more of an inevitably-will-lose, that was worrying, but on the other hand, he's not so great at names either, so I did have a chance. And I won, just barely. I cheered "Yes!" quite loudly, before even remembering to shake hands, in all the excitement. Four out of nine. Simon had beaten James in the names, too - I really needed Simon to win his matches against my rivals if I was going to finish second, so that was a relief. That put me into second place, ahead of James on the XMT equivalent of goal difference (% recall).

Numbers against Simon, and he stopped the timer in a super-fast sub-15-seconds time - he had by that point set the best score in three of the four disciplines, just needed numbers to complete the set, and had no reason not to try as fast as he could and not really care if he made a mistake. Luckily for me, he did. Five out of ten.

Words against James. I messed it up, getting everything one place out of sequence and not being able to correct myself in time. Wouldn't have made a difference anyway - he'd scored enough to beat me if I had had the time to correct myself. Five out of eleven, back into third place in the group, all to play for in the final round.

Which was cards against Bat-Erdene, who'd not had a good day and was already out of the running. I stopped the clock on 43 seconds and did manage to recall it correctly, much to my relief. But wait - had Simon messed things up against James? Luckily, not quite. He had gone for a fast time and only got 42 cards right, but that was still just more than James. He was only eight cards away, as Boris and Johannes happily informed me immediately after the match. But no matter! I'd qualified for the second day's competition, just barely, on tie-break, with six wins and six losses!

My opponent in the quarter-final would be the winner of Group C. That was Jonas, who had completely killed his opposition, winning everything except for one late attempt at a super-fast numbers time long after he'd sealed first place in the group and had nothing to lose. Boris had also edged through in second place on tie-break over Andi, but as they say in Germany, a good horse only jumps as high as it has to.

Boris's cousin says that, anyway, on Facebook. I can't promise that everybody in Germany says it.

Ola and Christian qualified from Group B with no real difficulty. Johannes won Group A comfortably, and Mark Anthony prevented a completely European quarter-final lineup by finishing second there.

So the second day started with the first two quarter-finals - me against Jonas, Johannes against Christian. Four Germans and four Miscellaneous in the quarters, but we'd landed in two all-German ties and two all-Misc, so we didn't need to worry about a Teutonic whitewash. The other quarter-finalists were sealed away in a soundproof cupboard so they wouldn't find out what the surprise task was, and we got started.

It turned out to be an interesting challenge - a pack of cards would be split into three piles of seventeen (with the spare card put aside), and beside each pile was a piece of card with a ten-digit number on it. We had to, in this order, look at the first pile of cards, look at the number, recall them on a piece of paper, look at card pile two, look at the second number, recall that, repeat one more time for the third set, and finish. Fastest time wins, but every mistake in recall adds three seconds to your time. Correctly identify the missing card on the final box on the third recall sheet and knock ten seconds off your total time.

I went extremely quickly, more in hope that I could remember such a small amount of information with ease than out of a deliberate strategy. I had a lot of gaps in the cards recall, but I was gratified to see that Jonas was taking much longer, and finished a minute and a half after I did. I just took a guess at the missing card, writing down the three of hearts. First thing that popped into my head.

So then we added up the scores, and yes, I'd won - Jonas, a bit rattled by my speed, had made a fair few mistakes too. I noticed with some amusement that he'd also guessed at the three of hearts. But that made it 1-0 to me! First to four wins it.

From then on we were back to the four disciplines from day one. The loser of the surprise task got to pick which discipline to do next, and after that the choice alternated, with the restriction that you couldn't select either of the disciplines from the previous two matches. Jonas selected names, knowing that it would be an easy win. It was, although my score of 14 wasn't too far behind his 18. Score 1-1.

I chose cards for the next one. I'd woken up feeling a bit more positive about my abilities than when I'd gone to bed, but just to reassure myself further I'd done one practice run of cards, stopping the clock in 24.35 seconds and recalling perfectly. So I knew I could do it. I also knew that Jonas had never done a pack of cards in under 30 seconds. In the quarter-final, I stopped the clock at 28, got it all right, and moved 2-1 ahead.

Jonas chose words. I got a very creditable 37, but he managed 40. 2-2.

Left with a choice of numbers or names in round five, which isn't much of a choice, I went for numbers. I stopped the clock at an extremely fast 19.81 seconds, and had to spend a tense recall period wondering if I'd got the recall all right. It turned out that I had, but it also turned out that Jonas had stopped his own clock at 19.47, so immediately before mine that I hadn't noticed the screen turn blue. And he'd got his recall correct, too. 3-2 to him.

After that, it was a bit of a formality. Naturally he chose names for the next match, and equally naturally, he won. 4-2 and Jonas goes to the semis, but really, I was happy with my performance, I couldn't have done any better - no shame in losing in that way.

Johannes had beaten Christian by an identical score. He not unreasonably pointed out that a surprise task involving lots of picking things up, putting them down and writing is unfair to people with muscular dystrophy or any other kind of physical issues, so perhaps for the future we'll have more exclusively-mental surprises, but it didn't matter in the end.

The other four quarter-finalists were released from captivity and had their own battles. Ola slipped up twice in cards, which should have been his specialist subject, and lost 4-1 to Mark, surprising everyone. Rather less surprising was a flawless 4-0 victory for Simon over Boris. He was just unstoppable. In an interview with a New York Times reporter called Ben (I don't normally remember journalists' names, but this one was quite easy), I predicted that the final would be Simon against Jonas, with Simon to win. I'd been saying that all weekend, and saw no reason to change my predictions now.

(We'll be boarding in ten to fifteen minutes, apparently. I don't think I'm going to finish this marathon blog entry in time. We'll have to say "To Be Continued...", I'm afraid.)