Other wildlife gathered at Dart Neuroscience this weekend included 24 extreme memorisers, and a whole lot of other people working extremely hard to make a truly wonderful Extreme Memory Tournament 2016 happen! Let me start by directing you to the website with all the scores on it, and then thank from the bottom of my heart Nelson Dellis the driving force behind the XMT, Simon Orton the technical wizard who created and maintains the software, sidekicks and generally amazing people like Brad Zupp and Beth Lawrence, Jared Alderman (who took me to task for forgetting who he is two years in a row) and many many more, Dart people like Mary Pyc and Linda Soimany, the Washington University in St Louis people, our live-streaming-coverage commentators Florian Dellé and Max Berkowitz and plenty of others who made it possible. What a great show they all put on!
The competitors all gathered together on Thursday afternoon for the briefing (well, all except those who were still travelling the world and didn't arrive until the morning the tournament began), and those who were unfamiliar with the setup got to know how it all works while old hands like me just got to meet everyone again and chat about the world in general. Except bloody Brexit, I came to San Diego specifically to get away from talk about that, thank you very much. Nelson handed everyone a piece of paper with 1000 letters and numbers to memorise in advance, telling us it would be used in the final surprise task. I'm not sure how many people started memorising straight away, but I suspect most were like me in thinking they didn't have a chance of getting to the final, so didn't bother.
The competition location is really close to my hotel - in fact, I can see it from my bedroom window. You can't quite walk there in a straight line without some kind of mountain-climbing equipment, but even going around by the roads it's not a difficult walk.
Friday was the group stage, and my preparation for it included getting a really really bad night's sleep the night before. I don't know what it was, I think we can rule out nerves, but I just couldn't sleep at all. Memory competitions generally wake me up regardless, but I don't think I was at all at my best. Still, even if I had been at my best, I'm not sure I would have progressed to the knockout stages - I had thought my group wasn't particularly group-of-deathy, but it contained three very very tough opponents, as it turned out. We had reigning champion Johannes Mallow, who needs no introduction, Tsetsegzul Zorigtbataar (known as Tsetse or Sisi - I'm going to go with Sisi here, just because tsetse is a kind of fly that sucks your blood and gives you diseases), the latest new young star of the Mongolian memory team, and Jan-Hendrik Büscher, the latest new young star of the German team. I started okay, with a solid 31-seconds cards to beat Jan-Hendrik, but then followed it up by switching the order of two images and losing to him in the next round. After that I really wasn't on the pace at all - the only one I really totally messed up was cards against Sisi, but in all the others I was generally beaten just by virtue of not being as good as my opponents. I did a 44 in words, only to be beaten by Jan-Hendrik's 47, and was aiming for a fast time in cards only to be beaten by Hannes's 22.77 seconds. You get the idea. Hannes won the group with 10 wins, Sisi had 9 and Jan-Hendrik had 8, leaving me well and truly in the dust with three.
Group B, who played their matches simultaneously with us, was made up of Boris Konrad, Lance Tschirhart, Anudari Adiyasuren and Clay Knight. All four of them were gunning for the images record, and Lance snatched it at the last with an astonishing 13.91 seconds. Lance won the group in impressive style, with Boris second and the other two missing out on qualifying for the second day.
Group C was the one I'd identified as the group of death to start with, and so it proved, unfortunately for Johnny Briones who ended up against a seriously in-form trio of Simon Reinhard, Marwin Wallonius and Sengesamdan Ulziikhutag. Simon topped the group, winning 12 out of 15 matches, but didn't end up with any of the highest-score prizes this year, for a change, even though he was getting better scores than ever. The standard is just getting so high here, it's terrifying!
Group D was dominated by world champion Alex Mullen, but he was given a real run for his money by his fellow American, tiny little 15-year-old Everett Chew and Swedish superstar Yanjaa Altansuh. The three of them progressed to the knockout stage at the expense of Shijir-Erdene Bat-Enkh, with Alex along the way setting two flabbergasting new world records - 16.86 seconds in cards and 17.65 seconds in numbers! This is so far beyond the realms of what I thought was possible only a couple of years ago, I can still hardly believe it...
Group E was won by Purevjav Erdenesaikhan (Puje to his friends), who I think people thought of as just making up the numbers of Team Mongolia before he started producing amazing scores all weekend. Katie Kermode came in second, blowing away the rest of the world in names and words as always - 50 words in 53.65 seconds and 30 names in 60.00. Melanie Höllein and Wessel Sandtke were knocked out, but both contributed a lot to the fun of the weekend!
And finally group F went to Johannes Zhou, very impressively, ahead of Christian Schäfer and Marlo Knight, who left it until the last moment to secure his place in the final day's excitement, with XMT veteran Johann Randall Abrina missing out.
Saturday dawned, and after a good night's sleep I was in a much more sunny mood myself, ready to watch those knockout matches in the round of 16! As usual, it was done in two sets, with eight competitors being locked in a cupboard somewhere to stop them seeing the surprise task while the first four matches took place. We started out with Sisi v Everett, Lance v Marlo, Simon v Jan-Hendrik and Johannes Z v Katie, and after they took their seats, Nelson announced the first of this year's always-brilliant surprise tasks. This was simple, but fascinating - competitors had to recall their final numbers match from the previous day! When you consider that our memory techniques are geared towards memorising, recalling and then forgetting what we've memorised when it's no longer necessary, it was a real struggle to dredge those numbers from the recycling-bin department of my brain (I was playing along, to see how I'd do). I figured out that I would have got 21 of the 80 digits (and then I would have put zeroes in all the blank spaces and picked up another five or six points that way), which would have beaten Sisi and Everett, but lost quite heavily to some of the others. Nobody came close to a perfect 80, though. The winners were Everett, Marlo, J-H and JZ, meaning that the others got first pick of discipline in the next round as we went back into the standard five for the rest of the best-of-seven competition. Lance, though, hadn't quite realised that point, thought we were still recalling from yesterday, and had his equilibrium seriously thrown out by the whole thing.
Around that time, I went into the auditorium to join Florian and Max on commentary, and we had a great time! Chatting about every aspect of memory competitions past, present and future as we watched the action and cheered the competitors on. I hope it sounded as much fun to the listeners as it was to us! Marlo ended up beating Lance 4-0, Simon took care of J-H 4-1, Katie defeated JZ 4-2, including surpassing her own words record with an amazing 51.31, and Sisi beat Everett in a closely-fought and exciting battle, 4-3.
Then it was the turn of the remaining eight, who were released from the cupboard and pitted against each other in the same surprise task as before - this time we had three scores in the seventies! Some people just aren't as good at forgetting as I am, obviously. Alex demolished Senge 4-0, while Puje got the better of Boris (who tried fast times but made mistakes in images and then cards) by 4-1, Hannes beat Yanjaa 4-2 and Marwin came through 4-3 against Christian.
This left us with two Germans, two British, two Mongolians, an American and a Swede in the quarter-finals. Bear in mind that the first two years' XMTs had four Germans get to this stage, and maybe Florian's outlandish prediction of a completely non-German top three starts to seem a little more plausible...
Our quarter-final surprise task was another classic. Images, except that fifteen of the thirty images were playing cards. That's the kind of subtle change that really rattles me, and I expect I would have done very badly at it. My strategy, I think, would have been to use a single image for each card, rather than pairing them together (this is why I have images for three-of-clubs-and-three-of-clubs and so on), but mixing them up with random photos would be supremely distracting.
The pick of the quarter-finals was Puje against Alex. Having beaten last year's runner-up in the previous round, Puje presumably thought nothing of taking out the world memory champion; he won the surprise task comfortably. Alex then chose cards and won, then beat Puje at names, but then lost to an awesome 49 words and 22.74-second numbers. Alex chose cards again and won when Puje made a mistake in the recall, making it 3-3, but Puje held his nerve to win at images in the deciding match, going through to the semis 4-3. Simon held his nerve to beat Katie at words along the way to a 4-1 win, Hannes beat Marwin 4-2 and Sisi did the same against Marlo.
Our semi-final line-up, then, consisted of the 2014 and 2015 XMT champions, the seasoned German veterans Simon and Hannes, going up against two very young, very new Mongolian memory masters in Sisi and Puje. Their next surprise task was a doozy (as the Americans say) - memorising the order of 31 random 1-second sound clips (clanking, screaming, shattering, a laser-gun sound of someone saying "pew pew pew!", all kinds of things). The Mongolians proved superior at the soundbites, but while Puje followed it up with a thumping 4-0 win over Hannes, Simon went on to book his place in the final with four consecutive wins over Sisi.
This year, the third-place playoff and grand final took place on the following day, Sunday, which is a good change - last year especially, I think everybody was completely worn out by the time they got down to the final. This year, they were able to go into it fresh! We started out (eventually, after a slight technical problem during which Nelson kept everyone entertained by telling a bad joke - don't give up the day job, Nelson) with Hannes against Sisi for third place. Their surprise task was yet another stroke of genius - memorising a path moving around a 20x20 grid. It provoked interesting discussions about the best way to approach it; do you use a strictly scientific system, or are you more guided by the patterns the line makes on the paper. Myself, I used a combination of both, and I think that's the way the competitors went, too. Their first attempt was actually a dead heat, but Sisi won the second comfortably.
Hannes then chose cards, and won with a safe time, without too much difficulty. Sisi then chose images, and Hannes stopped the clock fractionally before she could - 18.53 seconds versus 18.96. There were quite a few neck-and-neck finishes like that this year, actually! But Hannes was unsure about the order of four of his images, and kept changing them back and forth... only to settle on the wrong sequence in the end. 2-1 to Sisi. Hannes chose numbers next, but had a blank on two images, so ended up 3-1 behind, and Sisi polished him off with a win in names, to take a well-deserved third place in the tournament!
I remind you that I was in group A with both these two, so I hope that goes some way towards excusing my failings on the first day.
And so we came to our grand final! Best of 9, here, with two surprises. Simon and Puje started out with another of those ingenious tasks - this time, they had to choose another competitor from the audience to assist them, then work as a team to memorise a 1000-digit number in one minute, and then recall it, head-to-head, one digit at a time, first mistake loses. Simon picked Alex and Puje picked Senge, but in the end they only got to the seventh digit before Puje made a mistake, which is a bit of an anticlimax - the kind of thing that's always bound to happen with first-mistake-loses competitions, I know it's happened many times in the US Championship before now.
Could Puje (after, remember, beating Boris, Alex and Hannes) add the ultimate scalp to his collection by beating Simon? Or would Simon's all-round class prevail. Puje picked numbers (strategic; easiest discipline for your opponent to make a mistake in), and Simon did a fast time of 20.85 seconds but struggled with the recall. While Puje, who took the full minute to memorise, rattled off his numbers but made one typo to give him a score of 79, Simon was struggling with two of his four-digit images. He remembered one in the end, but for the final gap he spent the whole recall time playing with different possibilities. None of the answers he filled in, deleted and filled in again was the correct one, but one of the permutations he was playing with was only one digit different from the correct answer! Which gave him a score of 79 and the win for stopping the clock first! And luck was with him; that was the final answer when the recall time finished. 2-0 to Simon. There followed an equally thrilling cards - this time, Puje stopped the clock 0.3 seconds before Simon did, only to make a mistake in the recall and go 3-0 down.
Then it was time for the last of the day's surprise events, and sadly this was the one that didn't really work - they had to recall bits of that alphanumeric 1000-character sequence, again head-to-head one character at a time, and again more often than not it didn't go farther than the first answer. The big problem was that Puje, coming from a country that uses a different alphabet, was clearly at a big disadvantage, and there were serious difficulties and confusions with pronunciation. It was sort of unsatisfying for everyone, this time. That's a problem with the XMT, of course - non-English-speakers are handicapped by the predominantly American-English names and the distinct possibility of not-quite-perfect translations of the words, as well as difficulty understanding the often complicated surprise task rules (although, granted, the only one to seriously misunderstand them this year was native English speaker Lance...), but if you remove any language-related tasks from the surprises it severely limits the options there. It's a bit of a conundrum, but it didn't significantly affect the outcome today. Simon took a 4-0 lead into the next contest, images, and won it when Pure made a mistake in his recall. All hail the now two-time Extreme Memory Champion, Simon Reinhard!
No significant change to the best scores today, but Sisi got a perfect 80 numbers to nudge her up just a bit:
And those final Elo ratings everyone's* been talking about!
(*THREE people have now expressed at least polite interest in them!)
|6||Jonas von Essen||54||1509|
|21||Mark Anthony Castaneda||45||1381|
|27||Ola Kåre Risa||37||1354|
|40||Johann Randall Abrina||42||1240|
Simon stretches away into a huge lead at the top, with his all-round awesomeness and tendency to win everything! Note that he and Hannes have each reached two finals and one third-place match over the three years the XMT has been running, but while Simon almost always wins his knockout matches 4-0 or 4-1, Hannes is much more likely to go through with a 4-3 win - that's why he's played 13 more contests than Simon. This system penalises Hannes quite harshly for losing eight of his last nine games (in the semi-final and third-place match), and he slides to 9th place overall, which is perhaps rather unfair. Puje, meanwhile, soars up to second place and Sisi jumps into the fray in fourth.
At the other end, poor Johann is penalised for having competed in more games than the others at the bottom - he really deserves a reward of a few bonus points for competing in all three XMTs, even if he's failed to get past the group stage each time. I myself have plummeted down to 32nd place, which is really quite alarming.
|4||Mark Anthony Castaneda||10||1478|
|15||Jonas von Essen||11||1409|
|19||Ola Kåre Risa||9||1388|
|30||Johann Randall Abrina||9||1366|
I think you have to have played about 20 games for this kind of ranking system to really be any kind of meaningful, so the individual discipline rankings are something of a work in progress. But they do highlight who's good at a discipline and who isn't - Simon can usually be relied on to win a cards contest, and Katie I'm sure would admit it's very much not her strong point.
|13||Mark Anthony Castaneda||3||1415|
|17||Jonas von Essen||4||1397|
|29||Ola Kåre Risa||3||1355|
|35||Johann Randall Abrina||6||1315|
The numbers are even smaller and less meaningful here, since there was no images discipline in 2014, but Simon secures his place at the top of this list again, fighting off some strong Mongolian opposition.
|2||Jonas von Essen||14||1512|
|7||Ola Kåre Risa||9||1428|
|21||Johann Randall Abrina||9||1388|
|31||Mark Anthony Castaneda||11||1365|
And who's top in names? Three guesses. Even losing to Katie in the quarter-finals didn't knock Simon off the top spot there. Meanwhile, Clay has been going around claiming to be the worst in the world at names, but he'll need to go some to catch up with me in that department!
|16||Ola Kåre Risa||7||1409|
|17||Jonas von Essen||9||1409|
|35||Johann Randall Abrina||9||1357|
|40||Mark Anthony Castaneda||9||1310|
Numbers is the one discipline to keep Simon off the top! Instead, Hannes holds off the challenge of Puje, with Christian not far behind. Down at the bottom, Boris is surprisingly lowly-ranked; he lost four out of four this year.
|3||Jonas von Essen||11||1520|
|16||Mark Anthony Castaneda||8||1391|
|19||Ola Kåre Risa||7||1387|
|40||Johann Randall Abrina||9||1280|
Simon tops the table again with words, and I'm really quite annoyed at being so close to the bottom myself; I have managed some good scores here and there, after all!
|9||Jonas von Essen||5||1414|
|20||Mark Anthony Castaneda||4||1371|
|21||Ola Kåre Risa||2||1369|
Here we reach the point where there are so few matches as to make the numbers almost entirely meaningless, but it does show up Hannes's problems with surprise tasks - of the thirteen he's faced, he's won one (the noisy cards in 2015) and lost twelve. Simon, meanwhile, has won ten and lost three.
All hail Simon once again, all hail everyone else who competed, helped out or attended! Roll on the next XMT!
(And stay tuned for an announcement about that, if you're British!)