Saturday, May 09, 2015

The extreme future

It's great to come back to work to find a hand-made poster taped to the wall of the office, cheering me on. (No, I don't work in a nursery school, though I can see how you might think that). But the XMT is always a huge success with "normal" non-memory people when they learn about it - they can and do follow the results with excitement, and understand what's going on! You can't really say that about the world memory championships.

So, if they do the automatic qualification and seedings for the 2016 XMT in the same way, the top eight will be Johannes, Boris, Simon, Alex, Christian, Katie, Jonas and Enkhjin. I'd have to match my just-for-fun training performance this year with the same kind of really-trying-to-qualify scores if I want to get into the second pot for the group stage draw. But it's a bit early to be thinking about that, who knows what new innovations might come along in the next twelve months?

Instead, I want to try to keep hold of the training enthusiasm the XMT has filled me with to practice for the more traditional competitions - hopefully, if I have any money, I'd like to go to the German championship in July, followed by the UK championship in August, and maybe get some half-decent results for a change. That will mean a lot of marathon-discipline practice between now and then, so let's see how it goes...

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Two days of extreme!

When we left our extreme memory heroes, the first day had just come to an end. Here's the ranking calculation (my own made-up calculation, nothing officially-endorsed about it) that I meant to post in the previous blog but forgot: 

Well, the memory part of the first day was over, anyway - a bunch of us followed it up with dinner at Olive Garden (I sampled a few cool American food franchises while I was out there - In-N-Out Burger, however much it sounds like it's promising us an immediate case of food poisoning, is actually really great!) before retiring to our hotel for the night. The hotel was the Doubletree Golf Resort we stayed at last year, although the name turned out to be a lot less appropriate than it used to be, as the golf course is closed. Keen golfer Simon was particularly annoyed by this, met the manager and demanded half the price of his room back, plus green fees at another local course and a free lunch. He got everything he demanded, too, and suggested I do the same - since I didn't have any intention of playing golf and indeed hadn't noticed the course was fenced off until Simon pointed it out, I thought that might be a bit too unethical of me, so I passed.

I'm starting to consider being a bit less ethical about things like that in future, though; I can't help thinking it'd be nice to have more money and fewer made-up-the-rules-as-I-went-along scruples that nobody else cares about...

Anyway, day two dawned bright and sunny, if a little damp - San Diego was apparently suffering a three-year-long terrible drought when we arrived, but it sorted itself out with some overnight rain that didn't bother anyone and cleared up during the daytime to leave things lovely and sunny for everyone. I approve of this kind of weather. We all made our way back to Dart Neuroscience for the excitement of the Round of 16. Germans have a word for that, incidentally - Achtelfinale - which sounds so much cooler. With four matches going on at once, this meant that the eight of us who weren't in the first four hemidemisemifinals were sealed away in the auditorium to watch everything (except the surprise task, which had to stay a surprise) on on the big screen. Which was awesome! It really was exciting to watch along and follow the developing excitement, and I've been told by numerous non-memory people that they enjoyed it too!

We watched Alex polish off Annalena 4-0 with some safe and steady scores; Katie brush aside Akjol in the same way including a 47 in words (on the second day, practically everyone copied my impressive score from day 1 - Boris, Christian and Hannes all did it!); Jonas also beat Ola 4-0 with some close contests including a names match that went to a replay; and the Battle Of The Johanneses end with a tighter 4-2, settled with an amazingly close names match - Mallow managed to stop his clock two hundredths of a second before the full minute was up, and thus beat Zhou's identical score of 17 names, taking him through to the quarter-finals!

The eight remaining extremers were set free from our isolation and took our seats to find out the surprise task. It turned out to be cards, just like normal, except with loud distracting music/conversation/noise blaring at us, and no earplugs/blinkers/distraction-minimisers allowed! Up against Enkhjin, I made the slightly dubious decision to go through the cards twice rather than once, only for him to do the same and stop his clock before me. I probably would have been fine with just looking at them once, with hindsight (Simon did just that, over at table 3), but there you go. As it was, we both recalled perfectly to give him a 1-0 lead.

That gave me the choice of discipline for the second round, and I opted for normal, quiet cards, doing a pack without any problems in 26.73 to make it 1-1. I had wondered whether Enkhjin would choose names next, which is usually a guaranteed easy win against me, and so nodded approvingly when he opted for images, his specialist subject which is very easy to make a mistake in at top speed. No mistakes here, though, and he blew me away with a time of 15.66. I went for numbers after that, and stopped the clock at my usual kind of solid speed of 31.24, only to realise that I hadn't paid enough attention to the last-but-one image (I read the last six quickly and say the names repeatedly to myself rather than taking the extra seconds to visualise them, but this time I didn't have a word at all for that penultimate one. Careless.) I took a guess, got it wrong and thus had three wrong digits, whereas Enkhjin had stopped the clock unnecessarily at 38.23 and misremembered one digit, but got away with both of these sillinesses to go 3-1 up. After that, he did go for names, and did remember more of them than me, winning 19-15.

I really have to learn how to do names better - I mean, looking at it now, there's a guy called Jay with a dark blue jumper and white collar which now when I look at it immediately makes me think of Mordecai the blue jay from Regular Show. Why didn't that occur to me at the time?

In any case, that gave Enkhjin the fully-deserved win, 4-1. As it happened, the other three matches all finished at that point too, a trio of 4-1 wins for Boris, Christian and Simon over Yanjaa, Marwin and Mark Anthony.

That took us into the quarter-finals, leaving me to cheer on Meddlers Katie and Alex, who both hadn't remotely expected to get that far - or at least were humble enough to claim as much, which is just as good. The surprise task here involved memorising a protein sequence, or in other words a lot of letters, on a grid. This one wasn't very visual, since they did the memory and recall on paper and nobody could see what was going on, but Alex and Katie both won theirs against those big big names of memory Johannes and Jonas (the competition had two Johanneses, one Jonas and one Johann, with no consideration at all for people who can't remember names. Luckily, we all had name-badges.) Boris beat Christian, Simon beat Enkhjin and we went back to the visual excitement of the regular five disciplines.

This time, Enkhjin did make a mistake in his super-speedy images memorisation, and although he was unlucky to stop his numbers clock fractions of a second after Simon, he did get them all right this time around while Simon made a rare mistake. That was the only point Enkhjin won, though, and hot-favourite Simon went through to the semis 4-1. Alex pulled off a big shock by beating Jonas by the same score, after Jonas tried fast times in both images and numbers without success, and couldn't keep up with Alex's 35-second cards. Katie fought valiantly against Hannes, intending to record good images times twice only to find he did it faster, and going out 4-2. The match between Christian and Boris was the most exciting of the quarters - particularly for Boris, who was in a state of wild, manic hysteria for most of the day (nobody could accuse him of not being passionate about competition!) A 21-21 in names which Christian won by virtue of stopping the clock just before the 60 seconds were up was followed by a 43-43 words in which this time Boris did the same thing! That made it 3-2 to Boris, and when he won at numbers to take him through to the quarters he screamed "JAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!", leaping to his feet, sending his chair flying, and giving everyone either a laugh or a heart attack, depending on their constitution.

After a break for lunch (in which I sampled a Cali-style burrito, which was delicious, and chatted with the St Louis academics who probed my brain however many years ago it was) we moved into the auditorium to watch the remaining games on the stage. This allowed them to project the surprise tasks onto the big screen - the one for the semis involved memorising a map with fictional towns, temperatures and weather-symbols. I couldn't help thinking that the temperatures would have been easy enough to remember perfectly in the time allowed, giving a better score than anyone managed, but it was probably different up on the stage and under pressure. As it was, Alex got a better score than Hannes, and Boris beat Simon (yelling "YES!" and running wildly around the room to celebrate it). When in the next match Simon chose names only to lose 19-17, the celebration this time was a squeal of "EEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!" and a mad-march-hare bouncing fit that nearly took Boris through the roof. That seemed to make him a bit more self-conscious, possibly because every camera and phone in the building was pointed at him from that point onwards to see what he'd do next - everyone was a bit disappointed with the more restrained happiness when he went 3-0 up and even when he sealed a hugely surprising 4-1 victory over the tournament favourite!

Alex, meanwhile, put up a fight against second-favourite Hannes, taking advantage of his opponent's mistakes to win at cards and numbers only to finally go down 4-3 on another cards - I doubt anyone in the world could do a fast time without mistakes under that kind of pressure.

Alex and Simon then contested the third-place play-off, which boasted the coolest and most original surprise task yet - blindfolded memorising of different textures, which then had to be rearranged into the right sequence! Extremely difficult, but a fantastic idea that I'd love to have a go at under tournament conditions myself some day! Simon won that, and took charge of things from that point on, winning 4-1 to ensure a German 1-2-3 in the XMT. Fantastic performances from both him and Alex!

And then it was time for the grand final - best of nine, this one, with two surprise tasks! The first of these was the textures again, and Boris's fingers proved the more sensitive. Hannes chose cards next, and won it despite neither of them managing to put the deck back together in full. It's very, very difficult to produce good results on such a big occasion, the tension was almost unbearable! Boris then won at names, and Hannes at numbers. The second surprise task was to memorise car licence plates - the name of the state and the six-or-seven-digit/letter registration number. The recall was done in US Championship style, with them reciting one state/letter/number in turns, and Hannes had a lot of difficulty with it, losing out on all three to Boris. We went into images next, but Boris's fast time was too fast for him to be able to recall. Hannes then won at cards to go 4-3 up and when Boris chose names for the potentially final matchup, Johannes chose that moment to produce a personal best, 22, to top Boris's 19 and become the new Extreme Memory Champion!

Just to prove that my arbitrary 100-points-for-the-best-score-in-each-discipline really does show who is the truly worthy champion, those 22 names nudged Hannes into first place on the spreadsheet, too! 

What an amazing and extreme competition it was! Huge thanks are owed to Nelson, Simon Orton and all the huge number of people who worked to make it such a big success! Here's to next year... hoping that I qualify for it, at least...

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Extreme '15!

I'm on my way home from San Diego, after a day exploring the city - lots of good comic shops around here! After two days of extreme memorising in the hot sun, it's a bit of a drag to be going back to rainy old England. Maybe I'll just stay here and assume someone'll give me a pile of money.

Anyway, we all gathered in the same venue as last year, Dart Neuroscience, only this time we had four tables on the go at once instead of two, to cope with the expanded number of competitors and disciplines. Being in Group F, I got to watch the first four groups in action before having to face my first match - groups A and B kicked off with cards and then images and most people were playing it safe as they warmed up. The ones who didn't (Simon with a 27-second pack of cards, Yanjaa and Enkhjin with super-fast images) all made mistakes. Group A included fellow Team Britain member Katie (still politely cursing being drawn in a group with Simon), while Group B had our other battling Brit, Marlo, as well as Memory Medley Member Lance.

To explain, there's a group of us called The Memory Medley who have got together on Facebook to swap daily training scores, tips, friendly banter and general motivation. It's a select group of ten people who happened to be around at the time we decided to create it, but it's been a huge help in keeping me fired up and regularly training. Five of us were in the XMT - Katie, Marlo, Lance, me and Alex. The other five Meddlers are Phill, Clay, Kevin, Sri and AB, and they were sending electronic good wishes and support to San Diego throughout.

Groups C and D then had names and numbers, the highlight being a nearly-perfectly-recalled 20-second numbers time from Johannes M, before the final two groups got to sit down in the hot seats and test our skills with words and then cards.

There were spectators on all sides, and quite close too - the screens they were watching had a ten-second delay to reduce the possibility of cheating, which worked very nicely without any problems; as with last year, only more so, the coverage in the venue and online was wonderful, keeping everyone fully up to date with what was happening at any given moment.

My first opponent was Alex, who I'd previously listed among my Group Of Life on the grounds that he's 'not quite up to my level in all the disciplines'. I was mistaken about that, it turns out - I'd now describe him as someone who's actually a little bit better than me at practically everything. He won the words match, 42 to 36 (I'm significantly better at words now than I was last year, after some good improvement in training, but 42 was the highest score I'd managed in my practice sessions, and scores in the thirties were more normal), but then I came back and won the cards with a time of 29.18 seconds. I've got to a point in the training where I can do cards at that speed and get all 52 correct nine times out of ten, which I'm very happy with. That time put me on top of the best-scores leaderboard - the highest score in each discipline on day 1 took home a big cash prize, but I was pretty sure 29 seconds wouldn't be enough to take it; the days when that was an amazingly exceptionally fast time are long gone, I'm afraid. The others in Group F, Johannes Z and Tsogbadrakh, had also won one apiece.

And so it went on - I was confidently expecting not to have an easy time of it in the morning; two of my three names matches came in the first five. When I went up against Tsogo in names I thought I might have a slight chance, since he's not so great at it either, but he did in fact win 14 to 12. On the other hand, I had thought he might well beat me at numbers, but he took it slowly and still made mistakes, letting me get the win there. In Group A, the group of names experts, Simon had recorded a 23 to beat Anne and Katie a 22 to beat Yanjaa. Over in Group B, Jonas did the first sub-30-seconds numbers time.

I lost my next names contest to Johannes Z, which was expected, and then lost to him at images too, when he stopped the clock at 22.22 before I'd got to the end of mine (and I was going fast, too!) and recalled perfectly. Boris had already set a time of 19.29 seconds to top the leaderboard there. My last match before lunch was another images round, against Alex this time, and here I managed to stop the clock at 23.55 and get them all right. On the other table, JZ did 21.24.

That left me stuck at the bottom of the league table at the half-way point:

But that was okay, as I kept telling everyone - it was very close, I'd had the difficult matches, there would be a nice run of images-cards-cards-numbers after the break and I would soon catch up. With the hectic pace, it was hard to keep up with what was happening in the other groups, but Simon to nobody's surprise was romping away with group A, winning all his matches, while Katie was keeping pace nicely with Yanjaa in the fight for second place. In Group B, Marlo was struggling while Jonas and Enkhjin were proving very difficult to beat. Group C was finely poised, but Boris was keeping the challenge of Mark Anthony and Akjol at bay. Johannes M was topping group D without too much difficulty, although fellow XMT veterans Ola and Marwin were pushing hard. The surprise package of the morning was Annalena, who had won all seven matches in Group E - with a lot of luck, she insisted, but it put her in a totally comfortable position heading into the afternoon.

The afternoon went as well as I could have hoped for me - I beat Tsogo at images when he tried a fast time but got the recall slightly wrong, then beat him and JZ at cards with super-solid 31-second times before rounding up that nice run of four "good matches" with a win in the numbers too when JZ mixed up his recall. It all sounds simple now I look back at it, but in each of my matches against Tsogo I made a last-second change in the recall when I remembered just in the nick of time the right sequence of things. It certainly gave the spectators a bit of excitement!

That left me much more relaxed going into the final four games (words-names-numbers-words), but even that doesn't explain the performance I managed to produce in the first words match against Tsogo. I somehow remembered nearly all of the 50 words much more smoothly than I ever have before, getting 47 of them right and not being too far off with the others (along the lines of remembering at least what letter they started with...). 47 is a staggeringly huge score of the kind that only the real words experts manage to produce - it didn't quite top the leaderboard, since Simon had done a 48, but it was sitting proudly up there in second place. I heard later that the Mongolian translations weren't very good, with misspellings and such, but my conscience is clear there - my freakish result would have won against pretty much anyone, even if they had the best translation the world has ever seen.

Still in a buoyant mood about that, I went into a double-header against Alex in high spirits, only for him to comfortably beat me in names and then in numbers with an excellent table-topping 25.70 seconds. Looking at our league table, I consciously registered for the first time that even though I'd achieved pretty much everything I'd been aiming for, Alex had been good enough to beat me into first place - all he had to do in the final match was beat Tsogo at words to confirm it, leaving me and JZ fighting mainly for pride (my tie-break was good enough that even if he beat me, I would end up second if I didn't get an amazingly disastrous score). Alex did win, and so did JZ (36 to 35), leaving the final group standings like this: 

Johannes M knocked Alex's score off the top for numbers with 21.01 in his final match. Simon, to nobody's great surprise, took three of the best-score prizes, just like last year - cards, names and words. In images, though, it was Enkhjin who blew everyone else away - having tried super-fast times twice and not quite got the recall right, he successfully did 14.40 seconds on his final attempt; nearly a full five seconds better than anyone else had managed! This was a little bit concerning, because my second place in Group F meant I would be facing him in the round of 16. My group-of-life pick, Alex, would go up against my other group-of-life pick who had exceeded expectations, Annalena.

All the results can be seen on the excellent website, which I hope you were following all the way through the day (or night, if you're in Europe). Katie had triumphantly gone through to the round of 16 in second place in her group; Marlo and Lance had sadly narrowly missed out in theirs, on tie-break score in Marlo's case. My Excel analysis of everyone's best scores showed my opponent Enkhjin as the fourth-best performer, although I couldn't feel too bad about finishing second, because the top three were the usual suspects Jonas, Johannes and Simon, who Alex could expect to meet in the quarters, semis and final if he could win through!

It's time for me to get back to England, though - all the thrills and spills of day two will be reduced to boring bloggery for your reading displeasure when I get back home!