Behind the scenes at the World Memory Championships 2013

By - Wednesday 4th December, 2013

Liz Sheppard-Jones watches competitors flex their neurones and provides us with an exclusive look inside Croydon’s most brain-busting event this year

Croydon puts on a great show: competitors in the 2013 World Memory Championships are welcomed by councillor Yvette Hopley, Mayor of Croydon, and Matthew Sims, chief executive of Croydon Town Centre BID Ltd

November 2013, Croydon, South London. Welcome to the host town for the World Memory Championships 2013: 3 days of mind-to-mind combat between 120 competitors from 32 nations, all taking place at the Conference Centre in Surrey Street.

The key-note of the Championships is self-discipline. Memory competitors practice hard: anyone entering the Surrey Street crucible couldn’t fail to be aware of their focused seriousness. There’s human drama too, of course, and rivalries between the big personalities of mental athletics. The World Title is up for grabs and there’s shock on day one as German world number two-ranked Simon Reinhard, a key contender for the crown, withdraws. This clears the way for a fight between number four Ben Pridmore, former champion and the first person to memorise a deck of cards in under 30 seconds, reigning German World Champion Johannes Mallow, the ‘human hard disk’, able to memorise sequences of numbers thousands of digits long and favourite to retain his title, and Swedish number three Jonas von Essen.

The arbiters (judges) know who the key contenders are and their recollection sheets are flagged with blue stickers. Elite participants produce so much more data, memorising thousands of numbers rather than mere hundreds, that they require a separate marking team.

The huge silent room with its cameras and pacing invigilators is thrilling and nerve-wracking

I watch the one hour card memorisation event live. Some competitors are very young (there are Kids’ and Juniors’ sections in the contest, for up-to-12s and for 13-17s respectively) and the huge, silent room with its cameras and pacing invigilators must be both thrilling and nerve-wracking, so it’s striking how composed even then youngest and smallest remains. “neurones at the ready…” says chief invigilator Dominic O’Brien, “…and go!”

Memorising the cards: a competitor’s desk as the memorisation phase comes to an end

O’Brien, himself a four-times world champion, speaks in his address at the opening ceremony in Croydon Town Hall of his pride that the mental athletics community, once exclusively white and male, is now without bias in ethnicity, gender or age – as a glance around the room confirms. Measured at a neurological level, equality is as absolute as it gets. I then spy young Pakistani competitor Maheen Farrukh seated in the room’s prime visible location and as a result repeatedly attracting the attentions of the snappers, and wonder if this is chance or a smart move by the organisers to underline their point. The modern multi-cultural championships also accommodates those whose culture forbids traditional gambling cards. They use cards with the four elements of air, earth, water and fire instead.

In this very 21st century event, everyone is encouraged to share the experience with the world as it happens and reminded of the event’s Twitter hashtag, #wmc13. The championships go large in the Twittersphere, with world number five Boris Nikolai Conrad @borisnkonrad a particularly hot follow.

Measured at a neurological level, equality is as absolute as it gets

I want to watch the techniques of memorisation in action, but in truth there’s not much to see. Apart from one chronic foot-jiggler, everyone sits very still, picks up one pack of cards at a time and riffles through it, never lifting their eyes. Time-checks are given on the half hour of the one-hour memorisation period, then at five minutes and one minute. When time’s up, arbiters swiftly remove the cards while some competitors lower their heads to their desks to shut out distractions and retain focus.

Falling in the same November week that the Hammerson-Westfield development of Croydon Town Centre gets the go-ahead, staging the championships is a second shot in the arm for our borough, not to mention another welcome opportunity to garner positive headlines.

The opening ceremony in Croydon’s splendid Town Hall is hosted by Mayor of Croydon, councillor Yvette Hopley, and CEO of Croydon Business Improvement District, Matthew Sims, which sets the tone – this is something everyone is proud of. Overseas visitors bring no Croydon baggage, and therefore don’t experience Croydon negatively, so for the competitors (I have spoken to plenty) it is simply a welcoming place.

There’s been plenty of press coverage of these championships, and for me the slightly disparaging tone of the Telegraph’s report misses the point. Feats of memory aren’t about recalling a shopping list, but on another level of functioning altogether. Watching what the brain can do turns out to be exciting. In the words of Chris Day, general secretary of the World Memory Sports Council, the techniques of high level memorisation are “software for your necktop computer”. The memory athletes testify that human potential is infinite, and to my sometimes rather floppy cerebral disk, that’s a big deal.

So, Croydon should be proud to have so successfully staged the 2013 World Memory Championships. May they live long in our memories. And before I go, no small announcement: on Monday 2nd December, at 2200, a new World Memory Champion was crowned after an amazing performance: world number three from Sweden – Jonas von Essen!

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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