Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Remembering Germany

The Experimenta (which is an extremely cool edutainmental science museum kind of place) was host to the usual huge army of Germans and one or two foreigners in the German Memory Championships - as well as fifteen adults (who included Julian Geiger, choosing to compete in the grown-ups' event instead of the juniors) in the Walter Matthau lab, there were 21 young people in the big square room called 'Kubus', also up on the fifth floor.

The adults' competition also featured the latest great graduate of the junior competitions, Christian Schäfer (who beat me last year and who I really didn't want to beat me again), old-timers like Ferdinand Krause (the only person there who'd been competing in these things longer than me - come back, Gunther, all is forgiven), hot favourites Johannes Mallow and Simon Reinhard, gigantic Fabian Saal, nearly-as-gigantic Nelson Dellis all the way from the USA, Boris Konrad who also beat me last year, and more.

Actually, I should list the 'more' too, because otherwise it sounds unfair. Annalena Fischer, Giselher Mandel, Dana Häußler, Carsten Diete, almost-newcomer Rebecca Ernst and total-newcomer Dennis Horst Proksch.

It's a long day's memorising in Germany - three half-marathons and an abstract images on the first day. We started at 8:30 with the images. I'm still in "doing a safe 300 and only making a couple of mistakes" mode, intending to expand it to attempting 375 at the world championships, but I ended up making six mistakes for a score of 264, while Hannes broke the world record with 385. This is a bit worrying. Christian came second with 291, which is a bit more worrying, and I got the bronze medal. We were awarded medals as soon as the results of each discipline were announced, which is much better than doing it in a protracted prizegiving ceremony at the end of the championship - take note, WMC organisers!

Then after that, we ploughed on with the 30-minute numbers, and I was hopeful that my new approach to it would get me a good score. I even thought that with a bit of successful guesswork, I might have only made a couple of mistakes and beaten the world record, but in fact I ended up with a score of 1124 (seven mistakes), while Hannes broke his own world record with a score of 1320, very closely followed by Christian's 1295 and Simon's 1260.

In my day, if you got a score over 1000 in 30-minute numbers it was astonishing. Now I was getting worried because I had at least three rivals who were all on top form. We had a lunch break - free lunch in the Experimenta restaurant. The funny thing about that restaurant is the security barrier. Everyone who comes to the Experimenta gets to wear a wristband with a barcode on it that lets you through the turnstile to get in. There's another turnstile to get in to the restaurant which allows anyone to go in whether they've got a wristband or not, but won't let you out again unless you scan your barcode! Okay, it's because there's an outside door into the restaurant and they don't want to let you into the rest of the Experimenta without paying, but it made me giggle to think of someone going in there, spilling tomato sauce over their wristband and being trapped in the restaurant forever.

That didn't happen to me, anyway, and we went back upstairs for binary digits. This is supposed to be my specialist subject, but somehow I just can't do it any more. Perhaps I was too worried about my rivals to concentrate properly, but I just got a rubbish score of 3115, when a good score for me used to be 1000 more than that. I still ended up in second place in the discipline, not too far behind Hannes's 3315 and ahead of Christian and Simon who each got just under 3000, but I just have to recapture my old form if I'm to have any chance of winning championships again. I've got a plan, too - I've been practicing speed binary these last couple of years, and I'm going to stop. I only ever used to practice 30-minute binary in the old days, and I think that'll help me build my scores up again.

The final event of the long day (luckily we were sustained by complimentary bottles of drink - fizzy water, of course, it being Germany, plus orange and apple juice - an apple a day to keep the Dr Gunther Karsten away, a bag of nuts and two little bags of gummi bears) was 30-minute cards, which really is my specialist subject. The room was really getting very hot and stuffy by that point - it was a lovely sunny day - but I don't really mind that, it's being cold that slows my memory down. I attempted 18 packs, knowing that I've always been successful with cards even when the other disciplines aren't working out for me. It worked again - I got sixteen packs, which wasn't so bad by my standards, and four-and-a-bit packs better than my closest rival Simon.

I'm still hugely better than anyone else at the marathon cards disciplines, and I don't entirely understand why. Perhaps I'm just naturally gifted. Or maybe I'm the only one who's really got the hang of that two-card thing I invented all those years ago. Anyway, after that, we got to go back to our hotels for a well-earned rest, while the hard-working arbiters marked our recall sheets.

Those arbiters, as always, worked very hard and did a great job. They were primarily Klaus Kolb the instigator of the whole German Memory Championship history, and Gaby Kappus the competitor-turned-excellent-organiser. There were also the usual mob of helpers who stayed in the back room marking papers and get no credit, poor things, and Michael Gloschewski the man behind www.memocamp.com, which was broadcasting the results live to the world. Memocamp also provided the results announcements - unlike the World Championship, where we get Tony Buzan reading out the top ten and creatively pronouncing foreigners' names, then a piece of paper pinned to the wall for everyone to crowd around, the German Championship does multimedia displays with a computer and projector. However, it's fair to say that it wasn't an unqualified success this year - every announcement of scores came with a lot of um-wait-a-minute changes of display options and resizing of windows that somehow never quite managed to fit everything on one screen and make it readable. But still, technology is the way of the future!

After a surprisingly good night's sleep and a really great dream about Doctor Who, it was back to the top floor for the spoken numbers. I'm not the world's best at spoke numbers in English, but in German it's even more confusing. Especially if the voice is a dull monotone that makes "null" and "neun" sound quite similar. Well, that's my excuse anyway - nobody else had much of a problem. Still, out of the three attempts, my best score was 72. Luckily, my rivals were all trying to break the world record and falling short - the top score ended up being Giselher with 140.

Onwards to historic dates, another of my specialist subjects! And another horrific failure on my part, for some reason I can't quite work out. My head must just not have been in the right place. I got 72, a long way behind Hannes, who always wins dates, and just a little bit further behind Christian, who unexpectedly won it this time. Not another German who's better than me at dates! Dates was always my thing!

By now I was well adrift of the leaders and trying to keep pace with Christian, who's nineteen years old and shouldn't be beating me at memory things. I've been doing competitions since he was eight. That's depressing. Still, the next discipline wasn't going to be the one where I caught up - good old names and faces. The less said about that the better, except that it was Simon's turn to try to catch runaway leader Hannes, winning with a new-world-record 155, way ahead of everyone else, even Boris.

Then we went on to speed numbers, and I really wasn't concentrating right by that point. My 'safe' 360 was riddled with errors and ended up scoring 253. Still, you get two attempts, and the second one was scheduled for straight after lunch.

It turned out that the arbiters were a long way behind with the junior competitions and hadn't marked our papers during lunch. Someone needs to whip them harder, or not let them eat anything themselves until everything's been checked and triple-checked. Poor arbiters, I do feel sorry for them. So we did the random words instead. I only got 170, which isn't great but could be worse. Boris, names-and-words-master, set the top score, just narrowly beating Simon into second place. Christian got a low score in this one, which gave me hopes of maybe catching up with him after all.

He did, however, end up with the top score in speed numbers, while I didn't manage to improve on my lousy score. So now we're going into the speed cards, and I'm languishing in fourth place.

As always seems to happen, I was a long way clear of fifth place (Boris), so couldn't find any justification for doing a super-safe slow time to make sure of fourth. And at about 300 points behind Christian, I still had a chance of snatching third. With a super-fast time, indeed, I had a chance of overhauling Simon, and even Hannes if he completely failed to do anything at all.

I did a more-or-less-safe 35 seconds in the first trial, and hoped my rivals would all make mistakes. They didn't - Hannes did a safe 47 seconds, Christian a safe 51 and Simon a safe 32. 32 seconds is 'safe' for him nowadays. I'm jealous.

So I was still behind Christian and needed to improve drastically while still hoping he didn't improve on his time. I decided to go all-out for a world record, but stumbled over the third card ("wait, why did I just memorise that as the ace of clubs when I know it was the ace of spades? Go back and check - yep, ace of spades. I'm an idiot. Where was I?" sped through my head in a couple of seconds, which is never a good start). After that, though, it went smoothly, and I was pleasantly surprised to still stop the clock at 23-point-something seconds. Not a world record, but it would have been a personal best. However, the recall wasn't all there, I had a big gap in the middle that I couldn't fill. So instead I went over to see what Simon had done, to find that he'd broken his own world record. 21.19 seconds!

I've beaten that in practice, but he does it so much more consistently than me. Can I ever get my favourite record back? Anyway, that was just enough to snatch first place away from Hannes. All hail (or Heil-bronn) the new German Champion! I was fourth, behind Christian. Just a hundred points behind, but still behind.

That win also nudges Simon up to second place on the world ranking list, and shunts me back down to fourth. With Christian lurking right behind me, ready to leap ahead of me at the World Championship, no doubt. I've got to improve!

Okay, practice time! I've got a new training regime planned out, and maybe I can stick to it. I just wish I could forget that I've been World Champion already. If I could only replicate the enthusiasm and desire to win that shines eerily out of the eyes of Simon, Hannes and Christian!

Here's Gaby's slideshow:

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