Friday, August 25, 2017

Dumb human beats cleverest computer

It's Lines of Action at the MSO today, a game I go into with a knowledge of the rules but nothing else, against a lot of people who have played it rather a lot more than me, so I've just searched for a way to play online and practice against a computer. The only one I found gives you a choice of intelligence levels for the computer opponent ranging from 'dumb' to 'cleverest', but the humans are officially rated as 'dumb' by default:

These computers might think we're all dumb, but I just played it on that setting and won at the first attempt, so I'm inclined to think that the cleverest computer isn't all that, compared to the dumbest human. I'm just going to have to go and annoy the real players by being rubbish at the game, and coming last. It's all part of the MSO fun!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Lucky at cards

I did get the silver medal in Sunday night's othello tournament at the MSO, and then yesterday I added a rather fortunate bronze at continuo - it was a four-round swiss with sixteen players, and I lost my first game but won the next three, leaving me as one of the four people on three points and somehow by way of the tie-break ending up in third place. And only at the MSO will you hear a conversation like "We've got the perfect sixteen players for four rounds!" "Yes, but we've only got seven complete sets..."

It was okay, there was another set with one missing piece, and they could borrow another piece from a ninth set and change the colour of a couple of squares. These things all work out in the end. So I got to stand on the bottom step of the podium tonight and get a nice round of applause and stylish bronze medal, following which blow me down if I didn't win another bronze in the five card draw poker tonight! I got the most monstrously lucky hands, over and over again, and since there were fewer players than usual (most of the devoted bluffers were playing liar's dice instead), it carried me through to the final three.

I also did the decamentathlon this morning (which didn't go particularly well) and mastermind in the afternoon (winning a rather unimpressive three out of seven), so I'm not sure where else I can add to my medal haul now. But we'll see - anything can happen at the Mind Sports Olympiad!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Impressive podium, minimal odium

Day two of the MSO dawned bright and sunny, at least in the hearts of the people taking part. Actually, the weather was grey and miserable, but it cheered up a bit in the course of the day. As I woke up, the thought occurred to me "Gah, I didn't bring the speed cards timers! Here I was congratulating myself on being great at preparing for memory competitions, and I left the timers at home!"

But it could be worse - I was thinking of improvising something with chess clocks, but everybody's got timing apps on their mobile phones nowadays, while the top competitors bring their own timers anyway, and so everything worked out in the end. There needs to be a certain amount of trusting people not to cheat, but there's always a bit of that at memory championships, especially in one with a shortage of arbiters (Nick couldn't come to this one), and everybody at the MSO is nice and honourable - I think that's one of the requirements for entry that the security guards on the gate check for.

There's always a bit of self-arbiting at my competitions, in that after the papers are marked, I put them on a table under my watchful eye, and allow the competitors to come and look at them to see where they went wrong, and correct any arbiting mistakes. It saves a lot of fuss and trouble that way, though it's the kind of thing that makes the IAM shudder (see below), and this year I took the added precaution, as requested, of taking photos of every recall paper before letting it back into the hands of the competitors, just in case there was any dastardly cheating. There wasn't.

So, the morning's competition was Natural Memory. The five marathon competitors from yesterday were joined by three more today (who, helpfully appreciating the difficulty I have remembering names, were all called Daniel), and we started with Random Words. In the course of conversations at the MSO, I did wonder how any word-memorising competition could be non-random, unless perhaps the challenge was to memorise the dictionary, but for some reason we traditionally put the adjective "random" in front of the title of this one.

Katie, as is well known, is head and shoulders above everybody else in the world at "natural" memory disciplines words and names (and at least a head above most of the world at the unnatural ones too), and she swept all before her as usual with a senses-shattering score of 270. So then we moved onto names and faces, and somebody asked (as someone always does before every memory discipline) "How many faces do we get? Is it 120? How are they arranged on the page? What size is the paper?" and so forth. These questions are especially prevalent with names.

"Um, hang on, I'll check," I said, opening the envelope and glancing at the sheaf of papers. "It's... hang on... what did... oh, gah!" and so forth, ending with "he's done me a five-minute set!"

See, there's been a bit of back-and-forth discussion between me and the International Association of Memory about competitions I run, and following their rules as opposed to doing my own thing however I feel like doing it (my argument is that the way I feel like doing it is to do competitions that are consistent and fair to everybody and so forth, and that imposing certain rules designed to do that but actually sometimes having the opposite effect gets on my nerves a little, but that's neither here nor there). I can appreciate that allowing me to do whatever I want sets a slightly undesirable precedent for other people's competitions around the world, so I am trying to make occasional grudging concessions to the IAM to keep them happy. One of them came about last Tuesday, when I agreed to use their names and images papers that follow the rules, rather than my own.

And so when I got the papers on Friday, I just printed them out in the evening, put them safely in envelopes, and cheerfully travelled down to London. Note that at no point in the conversation did anybody say "fifteen-minute names", and somehow the question of exactly how many faces were on the paper just hadn't crossed my mind in the slightest. There's certainly a part of my brain somewhere that knows that there are two different kinds of names discipline, but it didn't mention anything to my conscious thought processes at any time - somehow, checking the number of pictures the papers I was sent just didn't occur to me, although I DID count the number of images, knowing that I wasn't sure how many we were supposed to get (it's a new thing) and that other people might be similarly confused. It was just a bit of a mind-blank, I'm afraid.

But never mind. "Cheerfully shambolic" is a thing I always like to see in memory competitions, even the ones I'm supposedly in control of, and everybody was very nice about it. So we did five-minute names instead of the planned 15-minute version, and Katie clearly wasn't rattled by the confusion - she memorised more than anybody in history has ever done before, getting a score of 105!

And then we moved onto Images, the all-new "concrete" images that are a lot more fun (and, interestingly, more abstract) than the old "abstract" images. Katie won that too, but in this case not by miles and miles and miles, narrowly beating Marlo into second place. So Katie added a Natural Memory gold medal to her Marathon Memory one from yesterday, with Marlo taking the silver and Dan Evans the bronze:

And then, in the afternoon, it was Speed Memory. Without one of the Daniels (a mental calculation enthusiast who went to the Memoriad in Las Vegas and fancied trying his hand at the memory disciplines that don't need an excessive amount of technique) and without being joined by a James who'd signed up for this one either, we had seven Speedy competitors. Actually, speed was of the essence here - the requirements of the MSO's scheduled sessions meant that the first two memory competitions could be very relaxed and leave generous pauses between each discipline, while this one had to be a bit more frantic. Yes, we did finish late. Memory competitions always finish late, nobody minds.

Marlo's awesome 177 at spoken numbers was a highlight, but he surpassed that with a totally awesome 22.93 seconds at speed cards, to win the Speed Memory competition in sensational style! Even Katie was a quite distant second in this one:

But Katie's dominance of the first two thirds of the three-part overall competition was enough to make her our overall champion! She wins a lovely little trophy, a hundred pounds (Marlo won £50 for second place and Lars £30 for third), and a nice hoard of medals to add to her collection! And the podium impressed me by being nearly, but not quite, the ideal size to equalise the height variance between Katie, Marlo and Lars. Just need to make the steps a teensy bit bigger for next year...

Incidentally, I really need to stop making jokes about Lars's size. I know he always says he doesn't mind it, but I seem to have a blind spot about height-jokes that is wildly at odds with my basic-common-sense rule of not poking fun at what people look like. You know, it's like my blind spot with speed cards timers and names-and-faces papers. But it's all good fun, and many thanks to everybody who took part!

Of course, that wasn't the only memory presentation of the evening. My wrangling with the International Association of Memory about rules has been as nothing compared to the wrangling with the World Memory Sports Council on the subject of not only this "unauthorised" competition but also their desire to present me with a Lifetime Achievement Award. It's a whole saga that seems to have been going on for ages, but it ended with Chris Day coming to the MSO last night, making an absolutely wonderful and flattering speech and presenting me with the interesting statue I posted a picture of last night - a naked man holding a laurel wreath. It was all extremely kind and friendly, there wasn't even a hint of a punch-up between the rival associations and the cheerful banter about my lucky Pocket Dragons T-shirt even prompted Josef Kollar to offer to ask his friend Real Musgrave if he's got any of them lying around that I could have when my latest lucky shirt wears out!

And really, it couldn't have worked out any better. Leaving aside any issues of rival-memory-council-politicking and the obvious question of whether I can honestly be said to have ever "achieved" anything worth commemorating, this was exactly the right moment to present me with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Not only have I probably already achieved all the coolest things I'm going to achieve in the field of memory competitions, but it's the twentieth anniversary of the first Mind Sports Olympiad, a thing that entirely changed my life at the age of 20 and set me on the course of becoming the internationally-famous 'memory man' I am today. It's been a mental roller-coaster for the last exactly-half-of-my-life, and I will always remain eternally grateful to the people who created the MSO and memory competitions (a list that includes Ray Keene) for all they've done for me.

So... here's to the next twenty years, spreading the word of memory competitions and bringing a bit more mental fun to the lives of people around the world! Now I can enjoy the rest of the week at the MSO stress-free (apart from the I-hate-mobile-phones stress that will come with figuring out how to get all those photos of recall papers off my phone and sent to the IAM... but I'll leave that until I've got a quiet moment) and forget anything I feel like forgetting!

Monday, August 21, 2017


And I'll tell you all about it tomorrow.

(Probably) All In The Mind

Yes, the Mind Sports Olympiad is up and running again! While various other board games and things were going on around us, a small but select group gathered in a quiet room away from rattling dice and things, to compete in the Marathon Memory Championship.

This is part of the larger MSO Memory Championship (discussion of what exactly to call it continued into the day, when it turned out that the database still calls it the Memory World Cup, but I do think "Mind Sports Olympiad" is a prestigious enough title in its own right!) which continues today with Natural Memory (words, names, images) and Speed Memory (dates, numbers both spoken and written, and everybody's favourite, speed cards). But the Marathon event was all about sustained concentration, 30-minute memorising of binary digits, then decimal digits, then cards.

With an MSO double-timeslot to fit the competition into, we actually had plenty of time - ten in the morning till six in the evening gives us eight hours to accommodate four and a half hours of actual memory stuff. We could maybe expand it to include hour cards and hour numbers if we did this format again, though it would be a bit of a tight squeeze. I remember the non-standard MSO competition at Loughborough in what was probably 2002, which included the hour marathons both in one day, and that was a lot of fun! Today we had rather lengthier breaks between disciplines than is ideal, and also had to wait around to present the medals at the end of the day - and as everyone knows, I hate delayed prizegivings at these things. But never mind, it gives people time to talk among themselves!

Katie dominated the competition despite her specialist subjects being in the Natural event, with 2850 binary, 1080 numbers (always satisfying to beat 1000 at the 30-minute numbers) and 7 packs of cards (tiredness setting in by the end of the day, I think). Lars was an excellent second place; he's really improving rapidly just lately! Scores went like this:

The medal presentation was worth waiting for - the MSO has this year invested in an actual podium, and red carpet! The podium came in three bits, and the carpet wasn't fastened to anything, and it seemed a bit of a health hazard, but it did look good on camera! Marlo couldn't stay to get his medal, and with Lars being so tall it looked a bit unconventional - even with Katie standing on a higher level, Lars was still about a foot taller than her, and a long way above the top of the backdrop. Even so, it looked brilliant!

After that it was the othello, and I wasn't sure anybody else would be competing - none of the regular othello crowd were there, and the allure of Texas hold'em was more attractive to MSO people. But in fact there was a huge attendance, 22 players! A big crowd of Korean youngsters, a smaller crowd of, um, somewhere-in-South-America youngsters and a respectable smattering of adults from various countries too! It was a five-round Swiss, and I lost to Paul Smith in round 4 - might have got a medal, depending how the tie-break worked, but to be honest I was feeling so worn out that I left while the harassed organiser was still trying to juggle the pairing cards. It was a great event, though!