I'm here on Westminster Bridge and there are dinosaurs. No, hang on, I'm in Edmonton, and there aren't enough dinosaurs, but there has been a really cool memory competition, which I'll tell you all about after this interlude.
Brilliant song by Jay Foreman, and absolute genius video by Bec Hill. And not enough people seem to appreciate just how wonderful this video is, so please do watch and appreciate it!
Anyway, here in Alberta, it's cold and snowy and the only dinosaur to be seen at the IAM Canadian Open Memory Championship was a superannuated former world champion testing his hopelessly-rusty memory skills against the cream of Canadian cleverness!
I got a lift to the venue (Westlock Elementary School, something like 55 miles to the north of Edmonton and so considered a quick drive by the people in this very big country) courtesy of Hua Wei Chan, along with Francis Blondin. "We've met before," Hua Wei pointed out when I said it was great to meet him in person, "the Mental Calculation World Cup in 2008, remember?". Of course I didn't remember, this is me we're talking about, but never mind. Everybody else at this competition was someone I've only talked to online, so there wasn't any danger of being laughed at for not remembering what they look like.
We drove through the snowy fields, and not for the first time in North America someone expected me to be impressed by large, flat, open agricultural spaces, because we don't have landscapes like that in England. I need to bring all these people to the part of Lincolnshire where I grew up; believe me, it's exactly the same. But we arrived at the definitely different and non-English-looking little town of Westlock, arriving in good time at the school and meeting the competition organiser, Darren Michalczuk. He's a teacher there, and so was able to provide the awesome venue and a group of his pupils to take part in the competition too!
Having the whole school to play with, we had a venue possibly better-equipped than any memory competition I've ever been to - the competition was in the music room, the arbiters were in Darren's classroom down the hall, and there was something that all competitions need but very few have, a breakout room (the staffroom) where competitors could go and chat out of earshot of the competition room, AND another room (the surprisingly enormous school library) where people could go and prepare themselves in silence. No clustering in the hallway outside the competition room door for us here!
Apart from Darren and Hua Wei, there was a vast army of arbiters, whose names I was told but can't remember - Darren's wife and her brother and sister kept things ticking over smoothly, lots of other people were around too (most of them parents of the kids, I think), and Big Brother was watching them and us in the form of Florian Dellé in Costa Rica and Simon Reinhard in Germany, via video links.
This competition was a guinea-pig for several IAM innovations, you see, and one of them was the 21st-century miracle of remote arbiting. With multiple laptop cameras scrutinising us around the room and live communication with the inexperienced arbiting team, the experienced arbiter Florian was able to see that things were done the right way. It's all very hi-tech, and to the best of my knowledge it worked out okay. The whole thing was conducted in an efficient and correct way with no more than a minimum of chaos and confusion, thanks to Darren and the team keeping it all under control nicely! We had a timer on the big screen as well, which isn't a totally new innovation but impressed the Canadian competitors so much that I thought it was worth mentioning.
We started with 5-minute names, which is always a good thing to start with, because it gets it out of the way early and I can safely forget about it. I used to be mediocre at names, but not having done any training outside the "American" names on Memory League, I'm worse than ever at the "International" names we get in competitions. It's probably worth mentioning that the photos had backgrounds, which they're not supposed to (unless they've changed the rules again), but it didn't really help me much, and I got a score of 12.
So now we could start the 'real' memory disciplines, with 5-minute binary. Again, I'm rather out of practice at this, but I've done a couple of trial runs in the last few weeks, and got a little bit faster and better each time. I got a 625 here, attempting 820, which is a fair way short of my olden-days best, but not a disaster. New IAM innovation number two made its debut here - people can now request pre-drawn lines on their memorisation papers. I preferred not to; drawing the lines myself is a part of my whole routine, I think it would just confuse me to have them already on the paper.
After that came the quarter-marathon that is 15-minute numbers, and again I'm too out of practice. I went through three journeys' worth of digits, 702, reviewing them several times, and it felt like they were sinking in perfectly fine, but then I had a lot of gaps in recall - this was something that happened all through the day, and it's really down to nothing but lack of practice. I ended up with a score of 487. Then we did the all-new 5-minute images, which I still haven't trained at enough and got 104 - most of the other competitors, having done some practice with it, were significantly faster and better than me at this one. And then it was 5-minute numbers, and I got my ironic comeuppance for complaining that the new pre-drawn-lines idea was a recipe for disaster and something was sure to go wrong with it, by being the one and only person who something went wrong for - I accidentally got a memorisation paper divided into two-digit groups, which is really confusing for a person with a three-digit system. But never mind! Teething troubles happen, and we did get two trials of this one! In the second trial, I went for a should-have-been-safe 240, blanked on one image and ended up on 200.
Darren was low-key about announcing scores, in a deliberate strategy to keep the kids motivated - the scoring system is extremely harsh on complete beginners, and he's planning to focus on how good it is to remember lots of numbers, even if you end up with no championship points because of blanks and mistakes - but Simon was updating the world via Facebook with a running commentary. I was in a closely-fought contest with Braden Adams, who matched my scores pretty neatly all the way through, setting new Canadian records (this being the first "official" Canadian competition, it was easy pickings) with every discipline! Our other adult competitors, Francis Blondin and Ezequiel Valenzuela, had also travelled the length and breadth of Canada to be there, and put in some great performances too, as well as getting to experience the wonders of live competition, so rare in this part of the world!
The kids, meanwhile, also had a lot of fun - leading the pack was Mackenzie Michalczuk. From personal experience, I can definitely say that having your dad for a schoolteacher as a ten-year-old is an essential ingredient to set you on the road to becoming the World Memory Champion, and it's probably even more so when he's a memory-competition enthusiast as well! So we all need to watch out... unless it works out like me not being interested in my dad's Young Ornithologists Club, and Mackenzie going on to become the world champion birdwatcher.
Anyway, the afternoon session gave us spoken numbers, and I did half-way okay at it, getting 39 in the first trial and 63 in the second. Still all those blank spaces that shouldn't have been there, though. But then we went on to 10-minute cards, and not a problem this time - attempting a safe six packs, I managed to get them all right, though a couple, including the first, were full of blanks again that I managed to fill right at the very end of the recall time. I always do okay with cards, even if I'm out of practice.
That just left the comparatively relaxing dates and words, before the grand finale speed cards. Dates went okay, I got 68, but it was infuriating how many of them I nearly sort-of remembered, but couldn't quite place. Practice would fix that. And words was a complete shambles - huge amounts of blank spaces, and it's harder to run through a mental list to jog your memory there. I ended up with a score of 13, which I was probably lucky to get. Half of one column, and half of an incomplete one.
So then speed cards, and in the first trial I did 33 seconds or so, but didn't really come close to getting the recall right. Francis took the Canadian honours here, with just over a minute, while Braden did a 1:23 that put him on top of the leaderboard. So I had to come back with a decent time to take the overall win, and I somehow managed to cobble together a 33.96-second pack, with a two-seconds-to-spare relocation of a rabbit (ace of diamonds, nine of clubs) when I realised I'd put it in the wrong place entirely. So I just barely ended up the winner, but this is the kind of event where scores don't really count (to me), and it's all about having a good time. Which I think we all did!
We came away loaded with goodie-bags and good wishes, from a wonderful, friendly competition! I even saw a possible coyote on the way back to Edmonton! (Hua Wei: "There's a coyote in the field there," Me: "Oh, wow, that's awesome! I've never seen a coyote in the wild before!" Hua Wei: "No, actually, I think it's a fox. Coyotes are smaller." Me: (thinks) "Well, I'm going to count it as a coyote. I've seen foxes. I saw a coyote!")
This result will have the effect of dramatically lowering my position on the (to my mind slightly flawed) IAM Active Rankings, but I suppose it's motivating because I could theoretically improve it again by going to another competition and getting a better score...
Additionally, this competition was the first one to give out certificates for the all-new IAM Levels system! Check it out, I'm Midnight Blue!
This is due to my past achievements rather than anything I did at the IAM Canadian Open Memory Championship, despite what the certificate says. It counts the best score you've ever got in each discipline, and your level is the average of your best ten individual-discipline levels, with at least one and no more than four from each of the five sections, as below.
It's still hoped that Memory League competitions (of the type where people get together in the same place and compete, rather than playing online) will get more widespread and frequent, and this system is sort of based on that assumption, but I'd expect they might have to change the standards if they do.
It's possibly more exciting for people who are improving and achieving new personal bests in competition, but in any case, assuming I could get back in shape, mentally speaking, how could I get up to the slightly darker blue heights of level 21? Or even to the lofty purple levels above? I'd need to gain an extra 7 deci-levels (because each individual discipline level counts as a tenth of an overall level) from somewhere...
I could gain 3 if I improved my 5-minute numbers score to the 468 that was my "no good reason why I shouldn't achieve it some day" optimum score back in the days when I was in training. I should aim for that, definitely. 32 packs in hour cards was also well within my grasp back in the old days; there's another 3 deci-levels there. Speed cards, too, I could do a 23-second pack and get the one more deci-level I need to level-up. So it's entirely possible, even without Memory League. And if we do get more ML competitions and they don't change the standards, it'd be easy to bump myself up a few levels in images (gain 2 deci-levels with 15 seconds) or names (it's not beyond me to get a freaky 21 or so; 4 more deci-levels in the bag there).
So that can be my new goal. Well, one of them. Another is to create an Excel spreadsheet to calculate the IAM levels, because I just like creating Excel spreadsheets with complicated formulas for the fun of it. It's all good.
Christopher Clark, BBC News, Westminster.