Saturday, November 28, 2009

It's Christmas Day

Or at least, it is in othello terminology. Today was the traditional "Christmas tournament", traditionally held some time around the end of November. I was meaning to get the very early train down to Cambridge this morning, and so set my alarm clock last night for some time before the crack of dawn, but then forgot to turn the alarm on. I did wake up in time - I generally wake up just before my alarm goes off, whatever time it's set for - but decided that since the alarm hadn't gone off yet, it must not be time to get up, and just lay around dozing until I finally decided to look at the clock and noticed that the train I was meaning to get had left five minutes earlier.

Still, I got the quarter-past-seven train with no problems, trusting that the half-nine starting time would really mean ten o'clock or a bit later, as it usually does, and I got to the Junior Parlour at Trinity College (the traditional location) just after ten. I was greeted with "Well, that buggers everything up, doesn't it!" from Aubrey, who'd just finished inputting everybody's name into the computer and pressed the button to generate the pairings for round one. Still, it turned out to be easy to fix.

The tournament itself went reasonably well - I lost to David Beck and Helen Starkey, then went on a sort of winning rampage, beating Roy, David Hand, Adelaide and Aidan before finally losing to Imre. Four out of seven is sort of what I aim for at this kind of thing, so I'm quite satisfied. I also surprised everyone by consistently playing the diagonal opening, which I never do - I'm very boring in my choice of openings normally, so I'd decided to make an effort to do weird and unusual things in this competition. Whether it helped or hindered me, I'm not sure. I was white in four games, in one of which I forgot I was playing the diagonal today and went perpendicular without thinking, and the other three games were my losses to David B and Imre, who generally beat me whatever I'm playing, and my win against Roy, who I generally beat. So it's hard to really analyse, and the only conclusion we can draw is that I'm a mediocre othello player.

Still, getting home tonight was unusually easy, given how hard it is to travel to and from Cambridge by train - I got to the station at exactly the right moment to catch the 18:12, and only had to sit around at Ely for twenty minutes or so to get on the Nottingham train. So, that's all the othelloing until next February, and now we're into the long winter mind-sports-free closed season. It's terribly boring.

Friday, November 27, 2009


I've just noticed that I'm prejudiced against American sudoku-solvers. I noticed that while I was writing about the national sudoku championship, I was automatically assuming that American sudoku competitions would be really easy to win for someone from this country, because we do much more complicated and difficult sudokus than them as a matter of course.

This prejudice is based on crosswords, I think - I have absolutely no idea how difficult the average sudoku puzzle is in the USA and no reason at all to assume that it's easier than the ones in newspapers over here. So I apologise to any American sudoku-solving mind-readers who were offended by what I was subconsciously thinking. I'm really sorry about that.


I'm not sure whether this violates my rule about not passing comment on news articles on the internet (because everybody does that in their blogs, and I like to be different), but I notice that Evil Eugene Varshavsky (as he's probably known in Philadelphia mind sports circles) has been stripped of his third place and $3000 prize in the US National Sudoku Championship, according to this article. The cool thing is that Eugene was also caught trying to cheat his way to victory in a major chess tournament, also in Philadelphia, a couple of years ago. Which makes me wonder how long it'll take him to expand his sphere of evil operations into memory competitions.

Okay, probably not until the WMC a) moves to Philadelphia and b) has prize money, but still, the US Championship in New York should probably watch out. It's been quite a while since we had a really interesting accusation of cheating in memory competitions and wow, it's ten years now since Yu Zhang's famous performance at the WMC (I wonder what he's doing now?). Of course, maybe everybody's been cheating all the time and they just haven't been caught yet. I suspect some competitors have been using secret techniques to help them memorise cards more easily - converting cards into mental images, visualising them along a journey, that kind of thing. It's disgraceful, and something should be done about it.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Okay, I admit, I haven't touched my Teach Yourself Chinese course since trying the first lesson a week or so ago and deciding it was too hard. But hey, I've still got a year before next year's World Championship. Well, nine months, because it's planned to move back to August after a few years in the autumn/winter, which will mean my current reign as World Memory Champion will be the shortest one in history, probably. I haven't checked, but that sounds right. I've been too busy finding out that the title you see above is apparently how you write my name in Chinese news articles about the World Memory Championship. Now that's something worth remembering!

Anyway, speaking of the history of the WMC, I was thinking that I should write a huge long epic article of some kind about "Memory Sports in the Noughties" - the history of competitive memory's second decade. It's been a pretty eventful ten years, from 2000 to 2009, all in all, and as the person who competed in the second-most world championships and other competitions in that decade, I'm uniquely qualified to write about it if Gunther doesn't. I think it's a work that needs to be written, although I'd probably only offend someone in the process - unless I leave out all the fun but controversial bits, and that would just make it boring...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How to win the World Memory Championship

I need some kind of new strategy if I'm going to win it again. I haven't really improved at all over the last couple of years, or not by enough, anyway. I didn't even beat a single personal best at this year's WMC. I've still got the edge over everyone else in the cards and binary, but that's just because my system is so much better than everyone else's (I'm trying not to be modest, because it's non-English), and when other memorisers have successfully adopted a Ben-style-system and practiced it a bit, they'll catch up with me.

I could get better scores if I practiced some more, but I lack the motivation. I really need to develop new and better techniques - a four-digit-per-image system would really boost my scores on the numbers, but I can't get my head around a good way to do it. And what clever things could I do with cards to make my system even better? There must be something, I don't claim to have come up with the greatest system it's possible to have... (just the greatest system that anybody's got right now! To heck with modesty, let's call it the Ben System with capital letters and boast about how great it is, while I still can! I'm the best!)

Monday, November 23, 2009


An anonymouse asked me in a comment today "Ben, from where are you originally from? You dont look like british..."

I asked why not, and got the following reply:

"I think you are not British for the following reasons:

1.Your First name and Surname are not typical for someone from Britain.

2.You are much smarter than the average Englishman. Here I don’t mean memory and stuff.

3.Then, you are too modest. That is not typical for an Englishman as well.

4.You don’t get drunk and go outside to make some damage (at least I think so), which is common for some English guys.

5.When you wear the hat it reminds me of someone who has cultural backgrounds from southern countries.

That is what I think, and I did not mean to offend anyone."

I'm fascinated to learn that I don't fit the traditional English stereotypes as held by foreigners, but I think we should examine these points in more detail. At least it's my behaviour and not my appearance that strikes the anonymouse as being non-English - I was worried that I'd need to pose for my new passport photo wearing a top hat and gnawing on a joint of roast beef, like all English people do.

1. Pridmore is, according to a website that's almost certainly wrong, the 5171st-most-popular surname in Britain. Okay, it's not exactly top of the charts, and it's not a name that most people have heard of, but it's a genuine English name, like most or all names ending with 'more'. Well, some people suggest that it's Welsh, and others that it might be French (derived from 'Prudhomme', since 'Pridham' also exists, but I don't think that's a very plausible theory), and the origin of the name is unknown. It's a name that has only ever been used by working-class nonentities, and so has never featured in literature, court reports etc, but it's got a long (albeit mostly unrecorded) history, and I'm quite proud of it.

Incidentally, type Pridmore into Google, and you get Pridmore Bookmakers, then (John Pridmore, "an ex-London Gangster, turned Christian" whose website describes how God has changed his life. He's no relation. And I assume the "ex" relates to his gangster career, not just to London, but you never know.), then, which belongs to a Shaun Pridmore who as far as I can see has never done anything of note but who presumably was the first Pridmore to discover computers and bags the domain name for his family photos, then the Google Maps location of Alan Pridmore Entertainment, then the Surname Database entry for 'Pridmore', which boldly asserts that the name is a lost place-name (an assertion apparently based on complete guesswork), and then, finally my blog. See, anonymouse - I'm world-famous, and I'm only number six on Google's Pridmore listing!

As for Benjamin, I owe that to my mother's fondness for Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat back in 1976, but it's not an uncommon name in Britain. Lots of famous Bens in this country - Benjamin Britten springs to mind for obvious reasons, but there's lots of others too.

2. I always thought English people had a worldwide reputation for cleverness! What, we're a land of dunces to the world outside? Well, that's disappointing. Anyway, I'm not 'smart'. Not in any sense of the word. Thick as two short planks, me. So obviously I fit right in to the mass of oafish English!

3. And I'm sure that modesty is a quintessentially English trait! Come on, don't we all like to hide our light under a bushel, at least compared to those boastful, swaggering foreigners? The tradition of British understatement? I can see that we need some better ambassadors for the country. And anyway, I'm not modest. I ceaselessly brag about my accomplishments, I just do it in a subtle way, by saying that I'm modest and following it up with "Here's an impression of what I would say if I wasn't modest: I'm really great, for the following detailed and lengthy reasons..."

4. Yep, the English reputation is rather worse than I thought. Can't really argue with this one completely, but we're not all football hooligans over here. Quite a few English people practically never get drunk and damage things. My grandma, for instance, is practically never drunk and disorderly and hasn't assaulted a policeman or carved her name into a public monument for weeks. And while I have been known to damage things when drunk, it's only shot glasses that I tried to juggle to impress my friends, or the ligaments of my knees. Ahh, that was a great weekend...

5. Hey now, there's one thing I'm most emphatically not, and that's southern! My hat's not a southern hat! It's northern, like me! It's probably a Yorkshirehat!

For the record, I am as far as is known an entirely English person. As I've mentioned once or twice before, my family tree is the most boring in the universe, it's full of Yorkshire/Midlands labourers and absolutely nothing else. On the other hand, my strikingly semitic appearance and instinctive fondness for beards and black fedoras leads many people to guess, possibly correctly, that there's a touch of the Jewish in my family history, and I hope there is. It'd make my background ever so slightly more interesting...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Extra post

Because some things can't wait until tomorrow's blogging. I take back everything I've ever said about Wikipedia. You've got to admire the kind of article-writing skill that, in the page about Japanese young children's cartoon Anpanman, describes Anpanman and his enemy Baikinman as "physical representations of moral dualism".

The computer screen that displayed the numbers and things for us to memorise in the MRI machine in Tokyo had a starting display of Anpanman saying "Please wait". I surprised the scientists by knowing who he was.

Of travel I've had my share, man

It's, sadly, passport renewal time. If I want to go abroad next year, my trusty passport will be past its expiry date in June. Just look at all those stamps in it, too - I wasn't sure if I was ever going to use the thing when I first got it. Now, if they gave you a stamp when you went to Europe, the passport would be full to bursting with exotic ink colours. Even so, it's still pretty cool.

The first page has Malaysia, 01 Oct 2003 arriving, 06 Oct 2003 departing. World Memory Championship, I came third and took a lot of people by surprise with how much I'd improved since the previous year (that was the year I debuted the "Ben system"... ahhh, happy memories). Next page has the USA, 26 Feb 2007 - Las Vegas, during my unemployed-waster phase, justifying it to myself by saying that it'd help me write my book if I had a change of scene. The page after that has the USA again, 01 Jul 2009, my recent jaunt to Pittsburgh, and Bahrain in 22 Oct 2008 where I triumphed in the World Championship last year. Blank page, then Japan, 24 Oct 2009 - I never realised it was exactly a year after the WMC - to have my brain scanned and sing karaoke. Six more blanks, then we come to the middle pages, which a lot of passport-stampers seem to favour. USA, July 02 2002, was a trip to Chicago to hang out with Jimi and the gang, wow, seven and a half years ago, and Brazil 09 07 06, for that brilliant TV-star holiday in Rio. The other half of the middle-page spread has two more American stamps - Jan 17 2002 was Las Vegas for the first time, Nov 16 2002 was back to Vegas for the second time because I'd liked the first time so much. Six more blanks, then again with the USA, Mar 05 2009 - New York this spring. Next page is a mostly faded black stamp of some kind, I don't know what, and USA for Feb 21 2005, which was another Vegas trip. I do love Las Vegas, although on that trip I caught the flu and spent the whole time ill in bed, so it wasn't the best holiday I've ever had. Four more blank pages, then we get Bahrain, 29 Aug 2007 to 03 Sep 2007, where I spectacularly failed to win the World Championship but still had a great time. And then on the last page, US Immigration on Oct 21 2000, my first ever trip abroad, visiting Washington DC just for the hell of it. There had been talk of having a housewarming party for CV when he moved over there, that didn't happen, but I eventually resolved to go to Washington anyway, because who says you need a good reason and I'd never been anywhere before. And I'm glad I did!

You don't need to get the renewal form and photos countersigned if you're still recognisable from your previous photo - I think I just about qualify, more or less:

Just look at that young stripling with the naive smile, the smooth chin and the last vestiges of a trendy hairstyle on top of his head. 23 years old, never left the country, never competitively memorised anything, never spontaneously quit his job for a life as a waster... and wearing a cool Zenith badge ("Never trust a hippy") that I wish I still had. I'd try to picture myself looking back on now, ten years in the future, but I really can't imagine getting any older than I am right now. 43? I'm never going to be 43.