Saturday, August 28, 2010

My life is an action movie

As I was walking to the MSO the night before last, in the still-pouring rain, a lightbulb fell from a theatre poster and missed me by a fraction of an inch before shattering on the ground. In fact, either on the way down or as the bits bounced back up, it burnt my arm just below the elbow! I have a feeling that this is the kind of thing I could sue someone for, but luckily my life isn't a courtroom drama, so I won't. And then as I was heading back to the hotel, I was halfway down to the platform at the Tottenham Court Road tube station when the fire alarms went off and the whole station was evacuated. Fire engines and everything, and I had to get the bus back. It was all terribly exciting, and also wet.

Anyway, I did end up winning the UK Championship after all, although I was quite some way off my best in everything except random words (don't ask me why, but I got a personal-best 200 in that). All the other disciplines, though, I was somewhere around 80-90% of the kind of scores I expect from a safe, unexceptional result. Boris took issue with that, saying that I could have come really quite close to my best-ever score if I hadn't messed up the speed cards, but I know how good I can be, and how good I wasn't all through this competition, and I need a big improvement if I'm going to do any good at the WMC. Still, it could have been a lot worse.

And the speed cards wasn't because I couldn't memorise them, it was just either tiredness or general stupidity - the first trial I came close but got mixed up with the images somewhere in the middle of the pack, but the second trial I remembered perfectly with almost no trouble at all. But then when I was re-ordering the recall pack I somehow put the first two cards down in the wrong order. Sigh. I still don't know how I did that, I've never done it before.

So, with a bit of training and some more 'practice competitions' in Sweden and Germany, I might be able to get back to my best results. I hope so, anyway, because even though I didn't lose this one, I'm feeling more in a memory-training kind of mood now.

There might be an article about the competition in the Washington Post, if you're a reader, because I did a big long interview with an enthusiastic journalist after the championship. Then we had a big international meal at an Italian restaurant, with at least ten or eleven nationalities represented among the nine people who were there - I had thought that Enrico would be chatting with the staff there, but our waitress turned out to be Lithuanian, so Robertas did the talking instead. All in all, it was a fantastic competition, and I'm looking forward to more!

Now, should I play Texas Hold'em tonight, or go and see Avenue Q?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The best way to prepare for a memory competition

Blogging from London! I love this internet cafe next to Charing Cross. Anyway, I got the train down here yesterday afternoon in the pouring rain, found my hall-of-residence-cum-hotel with a minimum of getting lost, then set out on a reconnaisance mission to find the venue of the UK Memory Championship and the MSO.

If you're ever trying to find MWB Business Exchange's Paddington offices (and you should, it's awesome, I can't recommend them highly enough), you really should follow the map on their website. It's a bit tricky to navigate, but don't give up on it and use Google Maps instead, because the address is "1 Kingdom Street", which Google Maps thinks is about a mile away from where it really is, and the London A-Z thinks doesn't exist at all. Luckily, London has internet cafes for weary and wet travellers (did I mention that it was pouring with rain all day?) to turn to after an hour or so of fruitless searching.

Having established where the memory championship was going to be, I made my way to the easily-found Soho Theatre for a bit of poker before getting an early night. The nightly poker tournaments at the MSO run from 6:30 to 10:30 every evening, but I'm a terrible player, so I figured I could count on being knocked out within an hour or two at most. But I'd forgotten I'm also a naturally lucky player, and by a combination of dreadful play and ridiculous luck I ended up coming second and being there until eleven o'clock at night.

Also luckily, it had stopped raining by that point, which was particularly lucky since I got lost on the way back to the hotel and ended up going to bed at a bit after midnight.

But after a couple of hours' sleep, I was all ready and raring to go for the fourth UK Memory Championship (and the first to be an 'international standard' event instead of a shorter and easier 'national standard'). I managed to find "Kingdom Street" without any real difficulty this time (although it's not really a street as such, just two enormous office blocks on a business park) and got to the completely wonderful venue of the championship bang on time.

I really can't enthuse enough about the venue - it might just be the best place we've ever had, and it's all thanks to the generous sponsorship of MWB Business Exchange. If you ever need an office or a meeting room, check them out, you won't regret it. Now, memory competitors don't ask for much from a venue. A quiet room, basically, but there are certain optional extras that are nice too, like an extra room for arbiters, a place for competitors to go and chat out of earshot of the competition room while others are still recalling, plentiful drinks, and so on. This venue has all of those, it's a huge spacious competition room, and it's completely and totally silent. Even though Paddington Station is right next door, you genuinely can't hear a thing.

It's a gorgeous modern building, made almost entirely of glass, with super-fast zippy lifts without buttons on the inside (you press a control panel outside and it sends a lift to take you where you want to go - only ever seen these once before, and that was at the South German championship. They're very groovy.)

We had 14 competitors turn up - less than was on the list of registered competitors, as usual (I didn't really expect to see "David Duchovny, USA", but it's a real shame that Simon Reinhard wasn't able to come along after all) but with a huge wide range of countries represented. Off the top of my head, it's England, Wales, Germany, Austria, Holland, Slovenia, Italy, wherever Robert comes from (somewhere Baltic, I think) and the Phillipines. The latter team consists of two players and a coach who have travelled about 7000 miles just for this championship, so yay for them. They also called me "Sir Ben" until I told them to stop it.

I did surprisingly well, considering my lack of training and sleep. In abstract images I got a passable 158, then an entirely acceptable 3650 or so in binary. We haven't had the scores for the other disciplines yet, but I think I got about 90 in names and faces, which is as good as I ever get. Then in speed numbers (tiredness and lack of training catching up with me by this point) I was thrown into extreme confusion by Warren saying "Neurons on the ready... get set... go!" instead of the standard formula without the "get set" in the middle and spent about two minutes thinking of nothing but the "get set" and not memorising any numbers. I eventually pulled myself together and got 216, by guessing and luck, and then in the second trial attempted 360 and probably made enough mistakes that I won't improve on my score.

Finally it was 30-minute cards, and I laid out my 18 packs on the table, but as soon as I'd started to memorise I could tell it was going to be an unmitigated disaster if I attempted to look at them all. I decided to play it ultra-safe and just do 12, and I think I got them all right. With 25 minutes of recall time to spare, so obviously I was playing it a lot safer than I needed to, but never mind.

So I'm in actually okay shape to maybe win the thing after all, touch wood. My main rival is Boris, and I will need to do something fairly good tomorrow to beat him, but we'll see. Anyway, time for more poker. It's London Lowball tonight, and I'll try my best to lose more quickly.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

No more pencils, no more books

Hooray, no more work until next Tuesday! Down to London tomorrow for some good old-fashioned MSOing and memorising and not watching telly (that always used to be an important part of a week at the MSO, although of course it was more of a big thing in the olden days before BBCi and things like that). I won't be blogging, either, so you'll all just have to do without my daily updates yet again. But when I come back, well, I'll start blogging again. Hooray.

Monday, August 23, 2010


I didn't bother to check the exact dates until tonight, thinking it was later in the week, but in fact the Saturday and Sunday just gone were the 10th anniversary of the first memory competition I ever took part in. It was the World Memory Championship 2000, and the scores are still hanging around on the internet here!

I think 16th out of 21 competitors was pretty good, all in all, considering that I had never used a memory technique before the evening of the first day. Let's be nostalgic and look back a decade to see what things were like back then...

The first thing of interest is that the WMC was just a two-day event back then. Starting at 10am and carrying on until 7:30 in the evening each day. The hour-long marathon disciplines had shorter recall times - I think it was 75 minutes, but I'm not 100% certain - which cut the overall championship length down a bit, and of course there were fewer competitors, so less organisational hassle for everyone. It expanded to a three-day event with longer recall times in 2002.

Dominic O'Brien won quite easily, as he always did back then, with Andi Bell coming second, getting great scores in some disciplines but bad ones in others, which was also quite traditional by that time. And Gunther won the binary and spoken numbers on his way to third place, which he also always did in those days. The World Memory Championship was a little bit stuck in a rut in 2000. It shook itself out of it in 2002 and 2003 with some status-quo-smashing performances.

Whatever happened to... Well, Dominic is still hanging around, albeit as an organiser rather than a competitor (although he still hasn't "officially" retired, you know), Andi pops up from time to time (he won't be in London this week, but apparently he's still planning to be in China), Gunther is still ever-present and still at the very top of the memory world, but what about the rest of those 21 participants ten years ago? Daniel Corney now calls himself Daniel Tammett and writes books about how great he is. Rob Carder last competed in 2002, but kept in touch with things on internet message boards until a few years ago. You never know, he might pop up again some time. Dr Yip is still teaching small Malaysians about memory skills and is sure to turn up at a competition again one of these days. Tom Groves I saw in New York a couple of years ago, and Graham Old has a blog on the internet somewhere that I should go and check out while I'm thinking about it. It'd be good to see them both at another championship. Michaela Buchvaldova is now Mrs Dr Gunther Karsten, and so still involved with championships interspersed with motherhood. I haven't actually heard anything from Christiane Stenger for quite a while, but I think she's still technically a memory celebrity in Germany. Then we have four Malaysians - Dr Yip's class of 2000. I know nothing about them and none of them ever came back to a memory competition. The next year, though, there were some really really talented youngsters who came along with him! I'll write about that next year, maybe. Tatiana Cooley was the American champion - we haven't heard from her for a while, and I have no idea what she's doing now. That great berk Ben Pridmore is still turning up to competitions, but nobody likes him, so that's enough about that. Hew Kian How got the booby prize from Dr Yip that year, then we have Harald Lammermeyer who I think I know, but I can't remember what he looks like or what kind of person he is. I've got a bad memory. Edison Hong won a trip to London by coming third in the US Championship, he was a friendly and fun young high school student, but he didn't carry on with the memory sports thing after this. And the last two are more Germans, I think, but I don't remember them.

And look at how rubbish those top scores and world records were! Except the poem one, that was really really cool, until the likes of Astrid came along a few years later and blew it away.

I'm still meaning to write a book called "Noughty Memories" about all the memory competitions of the 2000s, you know. I'll get round to it one day, possibly after I retire.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Get your kicks on Cycle Route 6

I'd assumed it was going to be rainy and miserable again today, but in fact it was sunny and hot and just plain gorgeous all day long. It's real MSO-week weather - when I used to go to the MSO regularly, it was always baking hot for the whole week. I don't think the MSO saw a drop of rain until it had been running for five or six years.

So after a really quite fun photo session and interview this afternoon, I went out for a bike ride and followed the cycle route all the way from Beeston to Derby without getting lost this time. It's really great, it takes you on a long, winding scenic route through all the nice parts in between the two cities and almost none of the nasty parts. I'd recommend it to visitors who want to see the beauty of England at its finest but can't afford the DVD.

And then I got the train back home, because there is such a thing as too much exercise.