Saturday, December 11, 2010

John Bull in a China shop

So, I arrived in Guangzhou airport very late on Wednesday night, local time. There was someone with a big board saying "World Memory Championships" to guide competitors, but there was also the Japanese film crew to give me a lift to the hotel, so I went along with them. Unlike a lot of film crews, the director Naoko is an old hand at memory competitions by now, and so knows the right questions to ask to get interesting footage. We had a chat about the upcoming competition on the half-hour drive (plus the extra fifteen minutes trying to get the car away from the vast traffic jam outside the airport), and then when we finally got to the hotel the camera crew scurried inside to film me arriving and pretend they hadn't been with me on the journey. TV documentaries are full of this kind of dishonesty, and I think I should protest about it some time. I'm fed up of pretending to greet people at my door when they've been sitting in my flat for an hour or so planning out the interview.

Anyway, the Mount River Resort Hotel is a very nice building, surrounded by mountain on three sides and with a big reservoir at the front. The side of the mountain had been decorated by the world's biggest mind-map (on a big giant sheet), and the lobby was full of smaller mind-maps too. It's completely in the middle of nowhere, making it a hopeless place to go for a holiday, but a great venue for a competition like this. It's got nice bedrooms, big conference rooms and a lot of genuinely good art dotted around the place. The army of organisers were out in force, even though it was midnight, and they got me checked-in, registered and supplied with 'uniform' in short order.

Yes, uniform. It's not uncommon to get free T-shirts at memory competitions, but this one went a step further and provided trousers, jacket and baseball cap. I wholeheartedly approve of this - I own quite a few T-shirts already, but few pairs of trousers, and although the yellow plastic is a bit garish, I'm sure they'll find their way into my regular rotation. I wore the cap on top of my hat. Someone else gave me a can of tea, which was horrible but had to be drunk because it came from the sponsor.

Someone also came up to me to ask bewildering questions about how many cards were in my packs, and whether I knew it was supposed to be 52. It seems that in China, the idea of removing jokers from the pack is unfathomable, and people will automatically reply "54" if asked how many cards are in a pack (or a 'poker', as they call it). This also caused confusion when I was interviewed by Chinese TV later. Being more than half asleep at this point, I brushed them off and promised to deal with it in the morning.

My room was a luxury suite, horribly decadent though that is, decorated with some really nice little abstract sculptures. I went straight to bed and hoped that the late night would help get over jetlag.

I proved to be wrong in this, since I woke up at midnight on all subsequent nights and had a hard time getting back to sleep, but never mind. I woke up on Friday morning at seven o'clock, mainly because someone had set up an alarm call for me, possibly by mistake. Still, that's a good time to get up, giving me time to go down for breakfast before the opening ceremony.

Having set foot downstairs, I was mobbed by a horde of Chinese people (and occasional foreigners) with cameras, wanting pictures taken with me. This carried on pretty much constantly for the next five days, without so much as a pause for breath, until I'd had my photo taken with the entire population of the country, twice. It's like being a celebrity. Everyone was polite and waited their turn, except the owner of the hotel, who just grabbed me by the arm and pulled me away from my adoring fans to say hello to me. I also got a chance to say hello to the rest of the competitors - a whole lot of Chinese (about 100 altogether), a big squad of Germans and a few miscellaneous others. Britain had just two representatives, me and Andi, although at least we could boast six world championships between us. That was six times as many as the German and Chinese teams put together!

The opening ceremony was long, bilingual and attended by a surprisingly large number of Chinese dignitaries. It involved giant party poppers. The content of the speeches was largely the same as ever, with extra emphasis on this being the first ever World Memory Championship in China, a fact which apparently has 'unparalleled connotation'. The translations from one language to the other maybe weren't quite perfect - I'm pretty sure that at one point Tony was introduced as the 'lifetime president of memory sports country', which sounds like a nice place to live.

In the afternoon, I had a chance to walk up into the town. From the hotel to Guangzhou city centre starts with empty wilderness, then gradually turns into the suburbs, full of little shops and people selling things from garages, and then the buildings gradually get bigger and you're in the city. It's really great to walk around and see the sights.

But then it was time for the first day of competition. We started, as always, with abstract images, and my having actually done some practice for once in this one helped me get a score of 294. Pre-competition favourites Johannes Mallow and Wang Feng set the top scores, with 365 and 360 respectively, opening up a lead over everyone else which they held all the way through the next three days. Li Wei, one of the 'new' Chinese competitors (by which I mean the people I hadn't spoken to before) got third place.

The competition room, incidentally, was big and sufficient for the 126 competitors, without seeming too overcrowded. The desks had been provided with flimsy stand-up cardboard partitions which fell over in a slight breeze, but some genius among the organisers had the idea of weighting them down by sellotaping those cans of tea to the bases, which worked perfectly. This kind of clever thinking on the part of the arbiters was much in evidence all weekend. To drink, for those who don't like cold tea, there were also bottles of something that looked like water but tasted nasty. It came in three varieties, all nasty, and had big posters placed around the room advertising its many good points. Some kind of energy drink, I think, but I can't remember what it was called.

As another example of the clever organisation, the top competitors were grouped into a 'hot zone' at the front centre of the room - everybody who expected to set a good score in any of the ten disciplines had to sit in this area, under the watchful gaze of Dominic (official cheater-spotter-in-chief), or not have their score counted. I didn't hear of anyone being caught cheating, so perhaps the elaborate anti-cheating precautions (something about photocopying the answer sheets and locking them in a safe so nobody could tamper with them during marking, too) worked. Or maybe people just don't cheat at these things.

So anyway, I was fairly happy with my images performance, and starting to feel more confident as we went into binary. However, my lack of preparation caught up with me there, and in the discipline where I always come top, I had a pretty lousy score of 3105. That's a thousand and more less than I expect to get on a good day, and turned out to be only the fourth-best overall (after Wang, Hannes and Gunther) when we got the final scores. Hour numbers, to finish the day, went about the same way, except that I never get the highest score in that one, thus leaving me even further behind.

When the scores were announced the next morning, several things became clear. Firstly, the weekend was turning into the Wang Feng Show - he had the top score in binary with 3555 (a long way behind my best score, so I'm still apparently the best in the world at that one if I bother to practice), and the top score in hour numbers with 2280 (new world record). Hour numbers seems to be a Chinese speciality - Liu Su had the second-best score, also beating the previous world record, with 2180. No non-Chinese competitor has ever beaten 2000. I got 1516, which is rubbish, but not as rubbish as I might have feared, having not done any training in the hour-long disciplines for a very long time. It was clear at this point that it would be Wang and Mallow fighting it out for first place, and that I needed to buck my ideas up if I was to have any hope of finishing in the top five or so. Simon Reinhard had the third-best hour numbers (1960) and was clearly on much better form than he had been in Germany. Gunther had had an unexpectedly bad hour numbers and was lagging some way behind the leaders, while Andi, despite having come to China confidently expecting to take home some of the prize money, clearly wasn't going to be in contention.

The first day's events had been an hour behind schedule before it even started, and in the best tradition of memory championships, got later and later as it went on. When the second day followed the same pattern, it was obvious that there was going to be a problem - CCTV News was scheduled to do a live broadcast of the hour cards in the afternoon (not the whole hour, obviously, just a snippet) at the time when it was supposed to start. Discussions rumbled on the whole morning about what to do about that. Meanwhile, we eventually started with the names and faces, about which the only interesting thing to say is that most but not all of the Chinese competitors are as bad as me at that. Simon got the best score (157), followed by Boris Konrad (140) and Zheng Caiqian (107). Wang Feng's score was just 47, mine was 64, Hannes got 72.

Speed numbers, and in the first trial I went for my usual safe 360, but had a mistake and ended up with a score of 320. It could be worse. There was then a long, long pause before the second trial - seeing that it was going to take much longer than planned to mark the first trial, I went away and got some lunch while everyone else was waiting around. This didn't seem to help my concentration, because I made a complete mess of the second trial and couldn't improve my score. I didn't wait until the end of the recall period, left early and went up to my room for a power-nap. Well, I was feeling tired and thought it might help. Other competitors had insisted on having a 90-minute lunch break, despite how far behind schedule we were, so I knew I had plenty of time.

I went back downstairs to find that Wang Feng had not just improved his already impressive score, he'd shattered the world record and memorised a perfect 480 digits. Dominic was staring at his recall paper as if unable to believe it, and I can't really blame him. 480 is within the bounds of possibility, but I've never managed it, even at my absolute tip-top best. Johannes was second with 393, and Li Wei bagged himself another third-place position with 324, just ahead of both me and Simon on 320.

Anyway, it was now past time to start the hour cards, the TV cameras were waiting, and we hadn't even done the historic dates yet. After a bit of consultation with the top competitors, it was agreed to do the dates the following morning, and crack on with the cards.

Knowing that I'd done surprisingly well in 30-minute cards in the last two competitions, even when I'd been doing badly in everything else, I had reason to be confident about this one. And this confidence proved justified - I attempted a safe-ish 30 packs, and recalled them all almost flawlessly, with just two packs that somehow didn't seem right, but I couldn't quite reconstruct a correct sequence. That was more than anyone else had attempted - like binary, my system and years of practice seem to still make me the world's best in this one. I went to bed at the end of the second day feeling a bit happier about the way things were going.

The following morning, we had the announcement that I'd broken the world record, with 28 packs. As Tony built up the tension with his announcement of the scores, the crowd of Chinese competitors (and I swear I'm not making this up) started chanting "Ben! Ben! Ben!" I felt quite bad about this. Clearly they'd been waiting all weekend for me to do something spectacular, and all I'd done for the first two days was produce mediocre results. Still, this one discipline out of ten at least gave them something to cheer about.

It was also announced that the live coverage on CCTV (there was also an interview with me, filmed during lunch on the first day) had been a rousing success. At first it was announced that it had been watched by 20 million viewers, which seems pretty respectable for a news channel (there are a lot of TV channels in China, about two dozen under the CCTV - China Central TV, not closed-circuit - label alone). A bit later, Tony told us all that in fact it had been watched by one billion people, a figure which was later revised in the press releases to 1.5 billion. Personally, I find it just a teensy bit unlikely that the entire population of China, plus an extra 200 million or so, chose to watch a news channel's reporting of a minority sport, but never mind. It sounds impressive in a press release, if you don't think about it too hard.

But anyway, I had won the hour cards with 28 packs, followed by Liu Su with 23.5 and Wu Zhenhui with 21-and-a-bit. Wang had 21 exactly, and Hannes 20. So, as we worked out the scores so far, I was a way behind the leaders, but not as far behind as I'd expected.

The postponed historic dates came next, and they went the way they always do nowadays - Hannes beating the world record with 120, and me not far behind with 101. However, our usual dominance was spoiled by Boris, who's clearly been practicing, who got second place with 104. Wang Feng, who despite some evidence to the contrary is human after all, only had 79. He was still quite comfortably in the lead, though.

Random words came next, and the words this time were unusually difficult ones - long and uncommon words, which I'm all in favour of, but it's not what we normally get. The translations, incidentally, were apparently very good. The difficulty level was consistent across all languages, and I didn't hear any complaints about spelling mistakes. Simon didn't seem to have any problem with the difficulty level, winning by miles with 271 (new world record, I think), ahead of Boris with 199 and Zheng with 183. The two leaders and I all had roughly the same score, not far behind that.

These scores weren't announced until quite late in the day, though - by this time computer problems and the hurry to keep up with the schedule had made score-reporting suffer rather, and competitors could be seen making calculations with pen and paper to see what the actual scores were. This, again, always happens at the world memory championships, and it's just part of the fun.

Then came spoken numbers, and again it went quite well for me. I got a perfect 100 in the first trial, a pretty good 123 in the second and a slightly-more-pretty-good 150 in the third. There's usually at least one of the three where I mess things up and forget an early digit somewhere. Wang Feng, again, was even better, getting the top score yet again with 200. Gunther, who'd had an unexceptional championship, was second with 161.

And so we come down to the speed cards. The final discipline, everyone's favourite, and the promise of an exciting conclusion! After a lengthy period of working out the scores, complaining that the officially-announced scores weren't right, getting them fixed and so on, we could see the situation was like this:

1) Wang Feng 8247
2) Johannes Mallow 7989
3) Simon Reinhard 7609
4) Ben Pridmore 7579
5) Gunther Karsten 6067

In other words, I was safe in the top 4 (unless Gunther was going to do a time faster than 20 seconds, which he wasn't). So there was no point in me doing a 'safe' time of one minute or so, I might as well just go for something fast. But how fast? I was just under 45 seconds behind Wang (that is, if he completely failed to memorise a pack both times, and I did a pack in just under 45 seconds, I would win), whereas a 25-second pack would still not be enough if he did anything under a minute. It made more sense to concentrate on beating Simon's time and taking third place, and maybe in the process stealing second from Hannes, who's not as hot as the other three of us when it comes to speed cards. But how do you plan to beat Simon's time when he's capable of 22 seconds? I decided to just go for 30 seconds or so, and see what happened.

What happened was I stopped the clock at 32 seconds, but got the recall wrong. Simon, trying for 25 or so, also didn't get it. Hannes did a safe 1 minute or thereabouts, and Wang... did 27 seconds without showing the slightest sign of pressure. Really, he never showed any sign of pressure all through the three days, he was consistently brilliant all along, and he's a very worthy world champion.

Safe in the knowledge that he was already the unassailable champion, he followed it up in the second trial with 24.21 seconds - now that's just showing off. I decided to go slowly and carefully and just make sure I got some kind of time on the board. My continual failures at speed cards was starting to get on my nerves. I went very slowly, as it turned out - 37.56 seconds - but the recall went smoothly and easily, and I got it all right. That breaks that pattern, at least, and maybe in the next competition I can actually do a fast pack again. Luckily for me, Simon had again failed to memorise his pack, landing me in third place overall. Hannes had 46.01 seconds for a comfortable runner-up position.

Full scores can be seen here, if you're interested.

So, we have a new world champion, with a score far higher than ever recorded before, and a new number one on the world ranking list (Hannes held that position for a world-record shortest period of three weeks). I'm down to number 3, for the first time since before the world championship 2004. My third-place score, incidentally, was higher than the score I won the world championship with last year - it's not that I'd got worse, it's just that I hadn't got better as much as you have to do in memory competitions if you want to stay at the top.

All through the competition, I'd been comparing Wang's scores with the scores of best-possible-me, that mythical figure who gets the score I would be capable of in each if I was achieving what I know I'm currently capable of under optimal conditions. I think Wang beats him by a slender margin of about a hundred points. I believe that I can win the title back next year with a lot of hard work and a new system for numbers, but I'll talk about that in more detail in future blogs.

All that was left was the closing ceremony, which started about an hour and a half later than it was supposed to, and went on for a long, long, long, long time. The room quietly emptied as it dragged on past midnight - I stayed to the end, but I was pretty much asleep in my chair. The problem was a) that everything was done in two languages, and b) the translator was sadly a long way out of her depth. I did feel sorry for her, but it was not a riveting spectacle.

There were, however, lots of medals, trophies and big cardboard cheques - mine added up to $11,200, which is pretty incredibly awesome for a third place and an unusually low number of top-three finishes in individual disciplines. It always astonishes me when people are prepared to give money to people who memorise numbers. It just seems contrary to all common sense, but I'm not complaining. (I haven't actually got the money yet, so I will be complaining if I don't, but that doesn't change the fact that I'd gladly do this kind of thing for free if the prize money wasn't there).

Very nice trophy, incidentally - we're back to the silver-effect cups rather than the stylish glass things, but this one was a nice-looking one, with red, white and blue ribbons too. The 'permanent' trophy from last year didn't make a reappearance, though. The medals were also nice, and fancier than the usual ones. Ray Keene said to me "I think that's jade, you know," which made me think "oh yes, that makes more sense, I was wondering why they were decorated with green plastic..."

The team competition, which was taken very seriously by the Germans and Chinese, was eventually won by Germany. I'm thinking that the rest of the Chinese team will be inspired by their world champion's performance and will fight back next year. Team Britain (me and a half-hearted Andi who completely skipped two disciplines and didn't make much effort in some of the others) managed third place, and (Andi having already left by that point) I waved the certificate around with a certain amount of embarrassment.

Here's a news report about the competition.

After that, it was a day of exploring Guangzhou, and then a day of travelling home. I did get to share part of the journey with Andi, giving us the opportunity for a chat about the strange media interviews you occasionally get when you're a world memory champion. There aren't many people you can talk about that kind of thing with. My mind was already plotting new systems and how to come back and win next year. It's early days yet, but I think that motivation problem might have been solved...

Thursday, December 09, 2010


No time to write a full report of the world championship tonight, I'm afraid - it's the office Christmas do, in (funnily enough) a Chinese restaurant. Having eaten genuine Chinese food for the last week, I'd prefer somewhere else, but never mind. The account of the other things I've done for the last week will have to wait until the weekend, assuming I can still remember it then.

But among the things I've resolved to do before the next world championship (and there are many such things, and a lot of them involve memory training) is learning Chinese. Even if the next world championship isn't in China after all, it's a thing that I feel I should do. All through the WMC, Chinese competitors' names were horribly mispronounced by the non-Chinese-speakers, and the non-Chinese-speakers had their names similarly mangled by the Chinese-speakers. Everyone needs to have some kind of crash course in pronunciation before next time, it will make communication so much easier.

We need to ask Martian Kid for help, I think. The best cartoon I found on Chinese TV (I had surprisingly little time to watch cartoons all weekend) was an educational show involving five children called AA, EE, II, OO and UU, with the appropriate vowels on their shirts and hats, who have surprisingly exciting 3D-computer-animated adventures with a Martian kid, a robot and their enemy, a purple bear. Interrupting these adventures at regular intervals are 2D segments titled "Martian kid teachs your English" (sic), in which the audience are taught a few English words and the cast enact scenes illustrating them in memorable ways. I tried to use it to learn some Chinese words, but didn't get very far. The sports-themed one, having illustrated the English names of a wide range of games (but not memory), intriguingly ended by presenting the phrase "Both are hurt", without elaborating further. Is that really the number one phrase you use when talking about sporting contests?

Also, I've had 32 pageviews here today from Moldova, which I think deserves a hello. Hello, Moldova!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Have you heard the one about the Englishman, the Chinaman and the German?

I haven't, but I'm pretty sure the Englishman has the worst of it. But I'm home now at last, after two long flights (Guangzhou-Dubai and Dubai-Birmingham, setting the clocks back four hours for each one), I've had no sleep for a day and a half by my body clock, I've had about half a dozen breakfasts in that time, and I'm very confused about what time and date it is at the moment. There will be sleep, followed by full reporting of the 19th World Memory Championship as and when I can fit it around the excessive work I'm going to need to do at my day job for the next two days.

In summary, Wang Feng is awesome. Johannes Mallow is also awesome, and I was a lot less non-awesome than I expected to be, so I'm a quite satisfied bronze-medallist right now. Thanks for all the messages of support and congratulation, everyone!