Saturday, August 23, 2008

UKMC, episode four: Am I Still Writing This Thing?

Seriously, I'm going to have to spend next week catching up with blogging all the things that have happened to me this week. And then the week after that blogging all the exciting things that will happen to me next week. And the week after the week after that... well, you get the idea. Maybe I'll just spend all day blogging tomorrow instead of packing up my stuff because I'm moving house next weekend.

That's something I haven't blogged about yet, because I've been writing about the UKMC.

Anyway, last Sunday morning, it was the final day of the competition. After another very nice full English breakfast at the swanky hotel, I went over the road to find that I was comfortably in the lead. So in five minute numbers I went for a "safe" 360, only to forget an image half way through the final line, so I only wrote down 339. And had a mistake in a previous row, so ended up with a score of 299. Which is still pretty good, really. Wasn't long ago that 280 was my safe-ish score and 324 was my risky second attempt. Which just goes to show how the standard at these competitions is going up at a staggering rate, like I always say.

I was reasonably confident of a halfway acceptable score in abstract images, having done a bit of practice before the competition. I said to Boris that he was going to get 200 or so, wasn't he, and he replied that no, he wasn't going to do that, 150 would be a good score for him. Accordingly, he got 205, while I ended up with 144. Which is still a personal best, and a halfway acceptable score by any standards.

Around this time the media throng started arriving, in the form of that BBC documentary I've probably unwisely agreed to allow to film me, and also another person with a camera from the Sun. I spent most of the time in between disciplines (and there wasn't much time, since we were hurrying to finish before the chess players moved into the room) talking to people and not really being sure who I was talking to.

So, we got on with the historic dates, which went pretty well, and the spoken numbers, in which I got a quite acceptable 99 in the first trial (Boris got a perfect 100, but I always struggle with that last digit, since I memorise them in threes and have one left over that I have to remember by just repeating it to myself). It's always fun to watch memory competitors after a spoken numbers - everyone stands outside the room in a group, reciting the number to each other and exclaiming "Drat!" or "Woohoo!" depending on whether what they remembered agrees with the group consensus.

Which left us with speed cards. I had a lead of around 1200 points, so I was safely the UK champion unless I failed to memorise anything and Boris did a pack in 25 seconds or so. But I was in with a good chance of knocking Gunther off the world number one spot, with a time of (according to my rough calculations) 50 seconds or so. So the sensible strategy was a safe, slow first pack to make sure of that, followed by an amazing world record to blow everyone away.

And so I went through the pack twice, really really quickly, in 47 seconds or so, which should have been safe, but my brain wasn't really up to speed, and I didn't pay attention to the last few cards both times I looked at them. So I got the recall wrong and was torn between attempting another safe time or saying to heck with it all and going for that world record. I really wanted to break the world record and make "Superhuman Genius" out-of-date before it was even broadcast. Besides, it annoys me that they bullied me into making a record attempt outside the competition and ending up with a sort-of-semi-official-but-not-counted-as-a-100%-real world record.

In between speed cards trials I escaped the cameras long enough to get my historic dates score corrected (the arbiter had somehow stopped marking my recall paper about a third of the way through the final page, possibly distracted by a butterfly)* and recalculated that a speed cards time of about a minute would still be enough to take that number one spot. And, on the advice of James, I decided to refrain from attempting the world record anyway, and just play it safe.

*[see my post of three days ago. The arbiters were great. Really they were. Just ignore me.]

So, I did 56.41 and recalled it without a hitch. Woohoo, UK Champion, World Number One, Really Great Memory Person, and so on. Woohoo! Boris did 54.41 to ensure his second place and to move back into the world top ten (at the expense of Dominic O'Brien! That's a cool achievement to put on your CV!), and Gaby did 54.50 to narrowly snatch third place from Katie.

James Ponder won the battle of the Jameses to take fifth place and the coveted third-best-British-entrant trophy and prize (another thing I forgot to mention about the arbiters - arranged lots of sponsorship and some extremely cool prizes again!). Jürgen, Ameel (have I mentioned Ameel Hoque? Another excellent newcomer to watch out for in future competitions!), Mark Channon and Mia rounded out the top ten. Two-time Polish champion Tomek Krasinski was a close enough eleventh that I'd feel like I'm being rude not to give him a namecheck too. Mark Aarøe Nissen (who I haven't mentioned here before, but who was competing in his first real-life competition after taking part in the Online Memory Challenge) got an excellent 87.11 seconds in his first ever real life speed cards. Everybody else, I'm sure, had good reason to be proud of their performance. Give them a round of applause, if you're reading this!

Of course, by the time we ended we were overdue to clear out and let the chess players in, so they were huddled outside muttering dire imprecations in Russian (most of the competitors were British, but I assume chess players of all nationalities curse in Russian), and I was decidedly overdue for an othello tournament quite some distance away elsewhere in London.

Final episode tomorrow! Thrill to my attempt to make a quick getaway from Simpson's!

Friday, August 22, 2008

UKMC, episode three: Interlude

With the competition only taking place in the mornings because we were piggybacking a chess tournament's rooms, I had Saturday afternoon free. Eventually, anyway, because as mentioned I was talking to Canadians while everybody else got to wander off for lunch - and that was only after waiting around for them to finish talking to Tony (who is one of the world's great talkers, as everyone knows, and can go on for hours if you give him half a chance). Meanwhile, Ray Keene did his best to persuade me to come to the prizegiving/gala dinner on Monday evening and I said I would (mainly because of my usual difficulty in saying no to people), despite having to work in Beeston on Tuesday. Then after leaving Simpson's, it occurred to me that I was on telly on Monday night and I would much prefer to be at home for that. So I made a mental note to tell them that I wouldn't be going to the dinner after all. But I decided to wait until after the competition had finished, just in case anyone had the idea of rigging the result so that the winner would be at the prizegiving.

Not that anyone would do that, of course. I'm joking. Please don't rig the result of any future memory championship to teach me a lesson, arbiters.

Anyway, I went to Victoria station for a late lunch - I love the food court there, a couple of times when I went to the MSO and stayed in a hall of residence nearby, I had my tea there every day. And then I went down the road to the Royal Horticultural Halls down the road, where this year's somewhat smaller-scale MSO was taking place. The Horticultural Halls are surprisingly devoid of any plant life, but a nice place for an MSO, featuring rooms of various sizes spread around the building, just right for all the various competitions.

There wasn't anything happening there on Saturday afternoon that I could compete in, but I went along anyway, just to say hi to all the usual MSO suspects - the dozen or so people who can still be found there every year. Everyone seems to still think of me as a usual suspect, too, even though I've barely shown my face at the MSO for the last few years. But after that, I decided to see a few sights, seeing as I was in London. I got a tube to Oxford Circus, intending to walk down Oxford Street to Charing Cross Road, check out all the bookshops, go down to Trafalgar Square and admire that big column thing, then walk back along the Strand to my hotel.

This was a pretty ambitious plan for me - I can't cope with London streets, even if I'm only planning to walk along three really big and well-known ones. I get confused and lost if I try to travel anywhere in London that isn't within sight of a tube station. I have taken the tube from Euston to King's Cross in the past.

However, on Saturday I set out on this adventure with great confidence, which was only slightly dented when I realised after quite a bit of walking that I'd turned the wrong way out of Oxford Circus and was headed down Oxford Street in the wrong direction. Never mind, I thought, I'm still seeing the sights, and I haven't really been down this end before very much, and when I get to Marble Arch I'll get the good old tube down to Tottenham Court Road. But when I got there, it turned out that Central Line services were seriously disrupted due to what the tannoy described as "a person under a train". So I got a bus instead. I practically never take London buses, and I should do it more often. And I got off at Tottenham Court Road and successfully completed the rest of my planned walk, so I felt hugely accomplished and metropolitan.

Then it was just back to the hotel to enjoy some abstract images practice and rather a lot of Sky One. Being a Virgin customer, I really miss being able to see some Simpsons episodes other than the handful that Channel 4 keep endlessly repeating with all the funny lines edited out, and even better, I got to see the new series of Gladiators!

New Gladiators is basically exactly the same as old Gladiators, which is exactly the way it should be. I'm hugely in favour of this! And I still want to be a Gladiator when I grow up. Maybe once I've won the world memory championship I'll turn my attention to bodybuilding.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

UKMC, episode two: London On £80 A Night

I stayed in the Strand Palace Hotel, which is posher than any hotel needs to be, and rather expensive, but is just over the road from Simpson's. My justification for this is that I've now got a job, and I've got a credit card, and if a fellow can't splash out on an expensive hotel once in a while (or even every single time he goes to London, despite asserting that he always stays in cheap places), what is the world coming to? And it was quiet and peaceful, and since I'd brought my abstract images crib sheets with me and spent the evenings practicing (as well as watching telly), that's a good thing. Besides, the eighty quid includes a full English breakfast, and a good breakfast is an absolutely essential part of good preparation for any memory competition.

And, as I mentioned yesterday, this was a very good memory competition! 22 people competing, old-timers including Mark Channon who competed in the world championship back in 1995 before even I had heard of these things, and new-timers including Leong Hoo Tan who turns out to be one of Graham Brightwell's students at the LSE (proving beyond scientific doubt that it really is a small world) plus a wide range of usual suspects, among them Boris, Gaby, Jürgen and Mia from Germany, a couple of Jameses, a Katie and a Dai from England and Wales, lots of other international visitors and lots of other British people too!

We started out with five-minute random words, in which I attempted 104 but blanked in the recall on most of the fourth column and on just one word of the fifth ('bluebell', and for some reason I was sure it was either 'lily' or 'lilac'). 74 is still a pretty good score, and I know I could do quite a bit better if it goes really well for me some time. It did go really well for Boris (as indeed it always seems to do), and he broke the world record with 106.

Eventually his score settled on 106, anyway - there were a lot of mistakes in the marking and misunderstandings of the scoring rules, and all the scores had to be re-checked and adjusted a couple of times before we'd settled on the final results.

But while the words were still being marked for the first time, we were doing five-minute binary. My record in this of 795 was just waiting to be broken - I set it last year knowing that I can do a lot better in practice on a good day, and Saturday turned out to be one of those good days. This despite the fact that it turned out to be four-and-a-quarter-minute binary - a mix-up in timings led to us being told to stop memorising fifteen seconds early (we had a lot of that kind of thing this weekend - Phil was running in and out of the room all weekend doing three or four things at once, and none of the arbiters in the room seemed to be keeping track of the time. In the 15-minute numbers we were told to stop a full minute early and then told to carry on again, and a couple of other times I told the competitors to stop myself when time was up, seeing as I was sitting right next to the microphone and nobody else wanted to say stop).

[At this point, can I refer you to yesterday's post when I make it clear that the arbiters do a really great job and don't deserve to be publicly criticised like this. I've got it out of my system now, more or less. Sorry.]

Anyway, my recall was unusually perfect. Literally. And I ended up with a really groovy 930 digits! New world record, and by a long way too!

So, with the competition running more or less to schedule still, we moved on to five-minute names and faces, which of course I'm rubbish at, but I produced a quite acceptable score of 41 (once I'd got my score double-checked and corrected from an even more acceptable but clearly impossible 51) to stay in a good position overall. This is Katie's specialist subject, and she duly got the highest score, but only with 65 this time. Which is a bit strange, really, seeing as I thought the names here were quite a bit easier than the ones I made up for Cambridge, when she scored a sensational 82.

Anyway, by this point it was clear that, as expected, Boris was my main rival - he dropped out of the world top ten after Hannes's performance in Tuttlingen, and was eager to get back in - with Katie, James and James fighting it out for second-best-Brit (trophies and cash for the top three British competitors) and Ameel Hoque as a dark horse newcomer doing extremely well.

After that, we just had to finish off the day with the two 'marathon' events, at least by the standards of these short-discipline championships - 15-minute numbers and 10-minute cards. I tried for four journeys' worth of digits in the first (936, plus an extra three for luck) and ended up with an excellent new-world-record 819 (ie three rows with mistakes). Which is great, because before this I didn't hold ANY of the decimal-numbers world records and it was really annoying me. As I've mentioned before, my system isn't particularly exceptional with numbers, and I wish I could think of a way to improve it.

And in the cards, I contemplated attempting a daring eight packs, but in the end they just didn't seem to be sinking into my brain as clearly as they could, so I played it safe with just seven. And I finished the recall with minutes to spare, so possibly I could have gone for eight and been just fine, but never mind. I got the seven all correct, for another world record, so I can't complain.

So, lunchtime arrived - or at least it did for the other competitors who weren't dragged away to talk extensively to Canadian television - and the end of the first day's play. I really wanted to keep memorising, I was really in the mood. Too bad I had to wait until Sunday morning to keep going.

So, at the half-way point, I had a very comfortable lead, as well as three world records to my name. Second was Boris, then tightly packed together behind him were James Paterson, Katie, James Ponder, Jürgen, Gaby, Ameel, Mark and Mia. Stay tuned for what happened next!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

UKMC, episode one: In Praise Of Arbiters

Okay, FINALLY I can get round to writing about the UK Memory Championship weekend! As I said yesterday, this is going to be split into multiple episodes over the next... four or five or three days. I'm not sure exactly how many. It might also be postponed if something exciting happens to me in the next few days. But it would have to be really exciting, because I spent today, uncharacteristically, doing DIY and things with tools and paint, and I'm not going to write about that, even though it would make for a fun blog. Because I really want to write about this.

So, before I start recounting the events of the weekend, it occurred to me that my account of the memory competition is going to involve observations about arbiting mistakes, and that this is really, really rude of me, because nobody ever mentions the things that go right with the organisation and running of memory competitions. I think I mentioned before that it's like being a football referee - you get no credit for getting it right, and no end of grief for getting it wrong. So, rather than just not saying bad things about the arbiters, who work unbelievably hard for little or no financial reward and never get recognised for it, I thought I would do a prologue-post in which I list all the many, many things that went right last weekend!

First off, the venue was excellent! The rooms above Simpson's-in-the-Strand had been booked for all the previous week's afternoons for a very, very major chess tournament (the kind that attracts Adams, Short, Speelman, Timman and many other recognisable names even to someone like me who's not really interested in chess all that much) and thanks to Ray Keene (OBE, chess grandmaster, buddy of Tony Buzan) we memory people were able to borrow the room, for free, in the mornings. And the room was classy, spacious, entirely silent and perfect for a memory competition! Also, there was a constant supply of water and glasses from the restaurant, which somebody behind the scenes presumably organised without any thanks from the competitors.

Or at least not from me. It's possible that all the other competitors are more polite.

Furthermore, all the memorisation and recall papers were prepared perfectly, which is a major headache to do - the abstract images, which take Phil a huge amount of time, were printed clearly and with very good quality (and, importantly, were exactly the same quality in each copy - it's a major problem if bad photocopying or empty print cartridges make some pages different from others). The historic dates, which also take a huge amount of time to write, were done just right. And the dates and the words were translated into LOTS of languages, and I didn't hear a single complaint about the quality of the translations. That's impressive.

The scores for each discipline were announced promptly - marking papers is a tiresome and tedious process that, just to make the point again, was done by mostly unpaid volunteers just helping to make the event possible. These markers were also always accommodating to competitors questioning their scores and demanding that they be double-checked.

In a related note, and something that isn't done enough at memory competitions, the memorisation papers were available for competitors to look at after the recall period had ended and the recall papers had been collected in. This is important because memorisers know what they've written down and, once they've looked at the memorisation papers afterwards, they know what score they've got, more or less. So if there is a mistake in the marking, they can challenge it with confidence and not waste everybody's time. It makes the whole thing go more smoothly.

The cards were all shuffled, and shuffled well and repeatedly, whether the competitors had brought their own or were using the cards provided. It's another thing that takes a lot of time, isn't any fun at all, and never gets any thanks.

The spoken numbers worked perfectly, without a technical hitch, and they'd tested the sound system beforehand to make sure. This is the number one discipline for things going wrong or competitors being dissatisfied, and it all went well this time!

And, as a major tribute to the organisation, there were TWENTY-TWO competitors! This is huge! Much more huge than any competition in this country for ages, bigger than the German championship, many more than I expected, not too far off the number I was expecting for the World Championship in Bahrain in October! Excellent work with the publicity and the press releases.

So, here's a special Zoomy thank-you to Phil, Chris, Ray, Tony, Warren (whose name I am really, really going to try to remember in future), Françoise, Neil, Jamie, Dionne, and whoever else was involved with the organising and arbiting but whom I've forgotten or never even noticed in the first place because they were doing such a good job. I really, really do appreciate all the unbelievable amount of hard work and effort! Thank you!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hey, look! It's a superhuman genius!

Okay, I've finally seen it. Here's a bit of "the making of" dialogue, just for my loyal bloglings...

Director Matt: Can you say that again, but say "Marti Pellow out of Wet Wet Wet"? Because if you just say Marti Pellow, people won't know who you're talking about.

UK Memory Genius Ben: Okay. Should I explain who Elmer Fudd is, too?

Director Matt: No, everybody knows who Elmer Fudd is.

Poor Marti. Also, for the record, can I just stress that I HAVE now got a job, and money, and everything else anybody could want. I'm very grateful to my neighbour who put a friendly letter and £10 through the door this morning, but I'm not actually in imminent danger of starving to death for want of money. For that matter, can I make it clear that when I quit my job it was always with the intention of just having fun and then going back to the office in a year or so, not an attempt to make a career out of being a memory genius? I just worry that the wrong impression's going to come across there, and I seem like a slightly more hopeless case than I really am.

Apart from that, it was good fun. Ariel the pianist looks like he'll be fun to hang out with in a few years' time, he's almost certainly going to grow up into a long-haired, extremely cool, piano-playing hippy dropout celebrity who's actually a genuinely nice guy. Akiane the artist rather less so, but great paintings. Would've been good to see her sketching something, though - I know it's hard to capture the artistic process on a brief TV segment, but the scenes of her pretending to put the finishing touches to a painting didn't really put across how she goes about creating her pictures.

Anyway, that's the last you'll be seeing of me on telly for a while, to the best of my knowledge. A similarly-themed BBC documentary early next year, most likely - they filmed me in London over the weekend, and will be pestering me a bit more in the future.

And now I've got that out of the way, I can finally get round to writing the story of the UK Memory Championship and the MSO and the impressive way I found my way around the streets of London without getting excessively lost, and how I told Nigel Short I was a big fan of his when I was a nerdy teenager. I think I'll break it into chapters and blog it over the next few days.

And on an unrelated note, I just want to say hi to Jason. Hi, Jason!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Tell you later

Tonight's blog was going to be a huge mega-epic account of all the weekend's goings-on, but then I got a call telling me that Grandma had had a fall coming out of the pub this afternoon (she swears she only had a cup of tea) and ended up in hospital. She's fine, just an impressive-looking black eye and lots of bruises, but I even ended up missing Superhuman Genius. I'll catch the repeat tomorrow, and I'll let you know what happened at the UK Championship too. Or you could read the Sun tomorrow, or the Derby Evening Telegraph, or whatever other newspapers pestered me for an interview, I forget.

But right now, I'm completely exhausted, and I've got to work tomorrow. Going to be a long day...