Ten years ago, the world of memory competitions was a very different place. For one thing, there were hardly any of them! For years, since it was founded in 1991, the World Memory Championship was the one and only competition in the world. The German championship came along after that, the US Championship followed, and by 2003 there were also little competitions in Australia, Austria and the Czech Republic, plus the all-new North and South German competitions and a separate event in England at the Mind Sports Olympiad (created not so much out of a desire to provide another memory competition as by a fight between rival mind sports organisers). But that was it. You couldn’t really do a world tour of championships, and you couldn’t discuss memory techniques on a forum like this one, because they just didn’t exist in those dark ages!
The 2003 World Memory Championship took place from October 3-5, in the Prince Hotel and Residence, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This was the first time it had been outside London, and was made possible by young Malaysian entrepreneur Lim Teck Hoe, throwing money both at the competition and at Tony Buzan in hopes of reaping the financial rewards that come from hosting a World Championship of any kind. In years to come, this formula would be repeated with Bahrain and China, and I’m sure someone else in some other country will come and do the same again soon! Any offers?
At this time, with the idea of a World Ranking List still in its infancy, the acknowledged best memorisers in the world were Dominic O’Brien, eight times world champion and until 2002 regarded as entirely unbeatable; Andi Bell, who in 2002 had won the championship with a performance much better than Dominic had ever produced; Dr Gunther Karsten, multiple German champion and seen as the man who could maybe break the English stranglehold on the world championship one day; Jan Formann, Danish-German eccentric genius who could produce some unheard-of results in the numbers disciplines; and Dr Yip Swe Chooi, Malaysian guru who had impressed everyone not only with his own performances but with those of his young students at memory competitions over the previous couple of years. Some day soon, people said, Malaysians will be unstoppable at the world memory championships. Maybe in 2003, seeing as the World Championship is moving there!
Well, actually, Dr Yip didn’t turn up for the 2003 championship. He always did say that he only came to competitions because his students needed an escort, and that obviously wasn’t necessary in Kuala Lumpur. None of his awesome students were there either, in fact - there were 20 Malaysians and 6 Indonesians at the championship, but all of them were very young beginners, who didn’t produce any exceptional results.
The rest of the 46 competitors (all the press releases said 53, even after the event; that was, as usual, the number of people who registered, not the number of people who turned up) came from all around the world. Four from England, four from Germany if you count Jan, three from Austria, two each from India, South Africa, Australia and China and one from the USA. Let’s look at each in turn.
Team England consisted of Dominic, Andi, me and Ed Cooke. Ed, or Ted as he was calling himself on-and-off at the time, was new to memory competitions that year; an outgoing eccentric, he livened up all the meals and breaks between disciplines with his latest mad ideas - crazy challenges like the notorious drinking and memorising test, putting cards on the handrail of an escalator to be memorised as they came past, and so on, with ideas for chapters of my book “How To Be Clever” (which, ten years later, I still haven’t properly written) like “How To Really Insult Someone”, and general insanity like that.
Andi, meanwhile, was taking everything a bit too seriously. Since winning the world championship in 2002 (he also won in 1998, but that was in Dominic’s absence, and 2002 was the one that ‘really’ counted, to him and to everyone else), he’d felt aggrieved at not being treated like a world champion by the people in charge. Press releases then, as now, tended to focus more on Tony Buzan and Ray Keene than on the people who competed, and there was a general feeling that Dominic O’Brien was an ‘insider’ in their little clique, and Andi very much wasn’t. There had been a major kerfuffle about the speed cards world record - when the rules were changed (from reciting the cards out loud, to rearranging an unshuffled deck), they’d decided that the old world record didn’t count, and the new world record was a much slower time, done by Steffen Bütow under the new rules, than the 34 seconds held by Andi. Andi had seen that as the final straw, announced on his website that there were no world records, since there wasn’t anyone competent to measure them, and a lot of things like that.
Tony Buzan sent him a really unhelpful letter threatening to find Andi guilty of bringing the sport into disrepute and install Dominic as the 2002 World Memory Champion instead. This, it was generally felt, was ridiculous - the idea that the WMSC can decide who is the world champion based on something other than who won the world championship didn’t really catch on - but Andi’s major problem came from misunderstanding the final sentence, which had been provoked by his saying he wouldn’t come to the 2003 world championship: “In any case, please return the trophy to us, so that we can pass it on to the new champion.” There was a permanent trophy in those days, given to each year’s winner to keep for a year. Andi took that request to mean that they were indeed stripping him of the title, rather than just wanting to give the trophy to the 2003 winner, and blew his top. He’s still got the trophy today, unless he sold it on eBay. But he did come to the 2003 championship after all, convinced as always that he’d win with ease.
Dominic, meanwhile, wasn’t as into memory championship as he once was - his career as an occasional TV star and writer was still going fine despite losing in 2002, and since he’d won so many times before, did he really need to keep up with the training and improvement? He was a bit of a subdued presence in Kuala Lumpur.
As for me, I’d recently come up with the ‘Ben system’, and this would be its first World Championship workout. It wasn’t completely ready yet, but my win at the MSO competition in August, beating Doctors Yip and Karsten, had got me all fired up to see how I could do against the world’s best.
Team Germany was Gunther and arguably Jan (he wanted to be considered German enough to compete in the German championship, but still a bit Danish too; Gunther, who was very proud of always winning the German Championship, thought it should be restricted exclusively to genuine Germans), plus Jan’s German wife Christina Braunger and young memory prodigy Christiane Stenger. The big explosion of Germans who still dominate the sport today came about over the next couple of years - Boris, Johannes and Simon all made their debuts not long after this championship. Gunther’s wife Michaela had previously been a regular at memory competitions too (she was Czech and didn’t make any claim to be German), but she missed this one, staying at home to look after their newborn baby daughter.
Team Austria was Astrid Plessl, Lukas Amsüss and Bernhard Röschel, all of them young students. Astrid had come sixth in the previous year’s world championship, but far enough behind the top five that nobody really paid attention to her. (Well, to her results, anyway - she was famously good-looking, and a lot of people paid attention to that…)
Team India was John Louis and Nishant Kasibhatla, who had both been around for a couple of years, chasing the Grand Master title to aid their careers as memory trainers. The 2003 WMC was the last event with the old GM Norms - 713 numbers in 60 minutes, 365 cards in 60 minutes, under 3 minutes in speed cards - before they were increased to the higher level they still are today, so a lot of people were keen to achieve the norm before it was too late!
Team Australia consisted of Tansel Ali and Metin Hassan, a fun-loving pair whose main entertainment was buying a load of black-market DVDs in the city and very nearly getting caught up in a police raid.
Team South Africa was Kevin Horsley and Trevor Nell, who’d both been doing memory sports for a few years and found travel to Malaysia was actually quite a lot easier than travel to London.
Team China was Zhang Jie and Mao Hua Wang, two very small, smartly dressed young people who were China’s first exploratory feel at memory competitions. Obviously the Chinese were impressed with the stories they told when they came home, because it all got very big over there a few years later. They took a lot of photos, especially of Kevin, who was apparently ‘very handsome’ by their standards.
Team USA was Scott Hagwood, the American champion. British Airways had for years sponsored the US Championship, with flights to London for the winners, and for some reason they didn’t see a problem with continuing that sponsorship even when there was no British connection at all, so Scott got himself a free flight to Kuala Lumpur.
Team Malaysia/Indonesia, to be honest, I know nearly nothing about. They didn’t mingle very much with the international competitors. The best of them was Ivy Chong See Mun, a young girl with a teddy bear mascot that liked to pose for photos wearing accessories borrowed from all the other competitors, like my hat. Yudi Lesmana, who made his debut in 2003, returned to the world championship last year, and is still enthusiastically involved with memory competitions.
There was a bit of a fuss about some other competitors who turned up on the first day and wanted to be allowed to compete, but were told they couldn’t, since they hadn’t registered. As there were seven fewer competitors than the organisers had been expecting, you’d think they could have bent the rules and let these other people in, but they didn’t.
The chief organisers were Phil Chambers and Jennifer Goddard. Jennifer introduced herself to me by asking if I observe the shabbat, and offering to organise things around that where possible. I explained that I’m not Jewish, I just like to wear a big black hat and a beard, but thanks for the offer. The main problem with staging the world championship was getting 800 packs of cards through the Malaysian customs. Not unreasonably, they assumed that the only reason someone could want 800 packs of cards was to set up an illegal casino, and were very reluctant to let them through. I don’t know what happened to the cards after the championship; perhaps Lim Teck Hoe really did set up an illegal casino. Well, if you’ve got all those cards and nobody else is able to import them into the country, it sounds like a great business opportunity!
There were plenty of other people buzzing around, too. Japanese TV were there, despite the lack of Japanese competitors, and very interested in everything that was going on. There was a horde of other arbiters who, as usual, were locked away in a darkened room marking papers, and were seldom seen by anyone. There was an artist producing pencil sketches of everyone and then trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to sell them at the closing ceremony. Mine was quite good, actually, I should have bought it. The artist completely failed to notice that Jan Formann’s unusual glasses were supposed to spell ‘LOOK’, with the lenses forming the Os (it took me a while to work it out, too - they weren’t very O-shaped), and drew the L and K as randomly-shaped extra bits of frame.
The hotel was within walking distance of an excellent shopping centre, next to the Petronas towers. If you wanted to walk there, you had to put up with the staggering heat and humidity outside, but it was worth it. Andi, indeed, went jogging every day, and between the weather and the uneven pavements, it’s a wonder that he survived. I’m not really the jogging type myself, I was more impressed by the Burger King. You can’t get a bacon double cheeseburger in Malaysia (it’s a Muslim country; bacon is frowned upon), but you can get a mushroom double cheese, which is absolutely delicious. At McDonald’s for breakfast, you can get a sausage and egg McMuffin, in which the sausage is made from chicken, but tastes exactly like the ones made from pork that you can get in non-Islamic countries. I guess that ‘sausage flavouring’ is made from something entirely artificial - that’s probably why it tastes so good.
I arrived at 7pm on the Wednesday night (the competition was Friday, Saturday and Sunday), and thought I’d successfully beaten jetlag by taking a flight from England at 10pm and not sleeping. I hadn’t, though - I woke up at 2am every morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. The exact same thing happened to me in China, too, and I wish I could get around it somehow. The competitor briefing was on Thursday afternoon, and nothing really memorable happened there - Andi didn’t turn up, but that was nothing new.
The dress code for the championship was ‘smart’, which different people interpreted in different ways. Andi wore jeans and a t-shirt, Dominic wore his dinner jacket and bow tie for the final day. I wore a shirt and tie, which I really don’t like doing. Most other competitors grudgingly put a tie on, but I think most of us fell some way short of ‘smart’.
And so on Friday, we began with the Poem. Rather than a Tony Buzan masterpiece as usual, we got a sample of Lim Teck Hoe’s creativity, called “The Days Ahead”. It was… strange. And the translation into English was rather awkward. Astrid wasn’t bothered by the German equivalent at all, though - she got a score of 345, completely smashing the previous world record of 260, and the 1000-point standard of 300, to notch up 1149 championship points right away. For a little while, I’d been famous as the best in the world at the poem, but I could only manage a score of 209, good enough for fourth place behind Christiane and Ivy. Is there something to be said for the theory that women memorise poetry better than men? Probably not. The prize ceremony didn’t yet have the tradition of bringing the top three in each discipline onto the stage, so this female domination didn’t get the fuss made about it then that it would in 2003.
Then we moved on to the first ‘real’ memory event (as in, the disciplines that you can use systems and techniques for), 30-minute binary. Back then, Gunther was the undisputed world’s best at binary; his world record was 3190. I’d always hated it until I came up with the ‘Ben system’, but now I loved it, and wanted to break that record one day. My score was 2975, a personal best and oh-so-near to that 3000-point level that only Gunther was able to beat. He got 3009 to win the discipline. How things have changed - it’s ten years later, and a score of 3000 is nothing to the top competitors. Third place was Jan, with 2715, and then came Andi and Dominic with 2295 and 2232 respectively. It was still normal to convert the binary digits into decimal numbers, back then; I think the top competitors have all moved away from that now.
And finally for day one, Hour Cards. Getting more than 20 packs was almost unheard-of - Andi had done 23 once, but almost everyone else was a long way behind that. I was happy with my performance, getting 18 - this had been a main reason behind the ‘Ben system’, because I’d decided 10 packs was the absolute maximum it would ever be possible to do with my old system. When we returned to the competition room the next morning to get the results, I found out that was the third-best - Andi had done 21 packs, and Jan 20.
So at the end of the first day, it was very close at the top of the leaderboard. Astrid had 2328 points, I had 2286, Jan was on 2081, Andi 2027, Gunther 1981 and Dominic 1871. It was very exciting, and generally felt that any of those six could be the winner - the 2002 competition had been a runaway win for Andi right from the start, and before then Dominic had always been comfortably in charge, so this kind of six-way fight was something totally new and exciting! And calling it a six-way fight was maybe a bit unfair on Christiane, Lukas, Ed and Christina, who rounded out the top ten and weren’t too far behind.
Day two started off with names and faces. Andi was always the best in the world at that, traditionally, and he did set the top score with 129.5 (they didn’t round up to the nearest whole number in those days). Astrid, though, was right behind him, with 123.5. It was a bit annoying, really - in the days when I was really good at the poem and not at anything else, I wanted to be the first person to get good at the system stuff and win the championship with the added edge of being good at the ‘natural memory’ things (except names, obviously). And here Astrid was, doing exactly that! Third place went to Scott Hagwood, another ‘natural memory’ man, with 107.
Speed numbers, discipline number five, is perhaps the one where scores have increased the most sharply in the last ten years. Going into the competition, the world record was 316, by Dominic. In this competition, Jan broke the record with 324. A year later, I nudged it up a bit further, to 333, but then it all got a bit crazy, and nowadays you have to get 500 if you want anyone to take you seriously. Still, Jan’s score was easily enough to win here. Christina was second with 288 (they obviously practiced together to get so good at it), and Gunther third with 280. The other leaders were all in there too - Andi had 276, Astrid had 260 and I got 240, and there was still really nothing in it in the overall standings.
We moved on to historic dates, which was a brand new discipline back then, and one which nobody had really figured out yet. Gunther’s world record was 51, but it was considered unusual for anyone to get over 30. I got 60 in this one, to the bafflement of all - enough for 1200 millenium standard points, which put me up in the lead, just ahead of Astrid. Yes, I felt bad about the scoring system being so flawed, but Astrid had done the same in the poem, after all… Gunther was second with 49, and Andi third with 40.5. Again, there was no rounding-up back then, and also no rule that you couldn’t score lower than 0, even if your ‘minus half a point for wrong answers’ total would put you into a negative. Two Malaysian competitors ended up in negative points in the historic dates.
Finally on day two, it was Hour Numbers. I really thought I’d made a bit of a mess of it, numbers never having been my strong point, but I still went to bed thinking I could still win the championship. That night, when I woke up at two o’clock in the morning as usual (I really don’t get it - it’s not like 2am in Malaysia corresponds to the usual time I wake up in England) I spent way too long daydreaming about winning the competition, rather than trying to get back to sleep again. I did eventually drop off, and was happily dreaming about being interviewed on GMTV about my triumph, when the phone by my bed rang.
“Hello?” I said, blearily. “Hi, Ben, it’s Phil Chambers,” said the voice on the other end. I looked at the clock. Ten minutes after the start time for the first discipline of the day. “We’re just about to start, are you…?” Phil continued. I jumped out of bed, glanced at the alarm clock (contrary to legend, I didn’t forget to set it, nor was it affected by the power cut the hotel had apparently had during the night - it was my own battery-powered clock, which went off at the same time every morning unless I specifically told it not to. I’d just slept right through it.), pulled on a shirt and tie and maybe even some trousers (can’t be sure, I was still mostly asleep, but nobody screamed when I went downstairs) and hurried to the competition room.
Andi greeted me with the reassuring news that they’d delayed the start by another five minutes, so I was fine. They announced the scores of the hour numbers, and Jan had set another new world record of 1920, very slightly more than Gunther’s previous record of 1914. Andi and Gunther were joint second with 1640. I’d got a score of 1500, better than I thought I’d done, and Astrid had only got 960.
Overall scores with three disciplines to go, then: I had 5081 points, Andi had 4830, Astrid 4770, Gunther 4727 and Jan 4577. Dominic was a quite distant sixth with 3969, but history meant that nobody could really write him off. Exciting stuff, such as had never been seen at a world championship before!
Random words came next and yes, it turns out that waking up ten minutes before you memorise things is not the best strategy. That and the tension definitely got to me, and I ended up with a score of 72, when I normally expected at least a hundred, and hopefully rather more. Andi seemed to be feeling the pressure too - words was one of his specialist events, he still held the world record of 182 (soon the new generation of Germans would completely blow that away), but here he could only manage 129. Astrid had the best score of 164 (was she now the favourite to win?), Dominic was second with 138 (the start of a comeback?) and Gunther third with 134 (he’s still close behind the leaders, you know!)
Spoken numbers, back then, had a world record of 128, jointly held by Jan and Dominic. It was only three years since we switched to one digit per second, instead of one every two seconds. Three trials, as usual, 100, 200 and 300 digits, and on the first trial Andi, Dominic and Jan all scored a perfect 100. Nobody improved on that in the second trial, but in the third, Andi was the best with 140, Gunther had 131 and Astrid, eventually, got a score of 126 - she had to ask for it to be corrected, it turned out she’d written a German-style 1 that an arbiter had misread as an English-style 7, but Andi still wasn’t happy as everyone quickly calculated and re-calculated the scores they needed in the speed cards. He told me, quite loudly, that of course he didn’t ever bother to double-check his results, even though the arbiters probably made no end of mistakes - the tension of the close competition was getting to everyone on the final day. I myself hadn’t been able to get a score better than 40, so I was having to give up on that GMTV interview. To this day I’ve never been on GMTV, in fact!
Going into the speed cards, then, Astrid had 6212 championship points. Andi had 6174, Gunther had 6064 and I was on 5812. Jan was probably too far behind on 5449 to be in contention, and Dominic had 5221. There was another close fight behind him between Christiane, Lukas, Nishant and Ed, but they were a way behind the top six.
Speed Stacks timers hadn’t yet been introduced to memory competitions. The speed cards was timed by an arbiter standing behind each competitor with a stopwatch. It sounds unbelievably old-fashioned and inaccurate now, but that’s how we did it! The world record back then was 34.03 seconds, by Andi - nobody else had ever done under 40. We all knew there wouldn’t be a world record here; in a close competition like this, it’s all about making sure you score more than your opponent. That means ‘safe’ times, and in those days, ‘safe’ for the best competitors was about a minute.
‘Safe’ for me, though, was 1:42.8 - I really wasn’t confident of doing under a minute with my still-new system. I got my safe time in the first trial, and looked around to see what everyone else had done. Gunther had tried for 58.3 seconds but made a mistake; even so, he was still a measly 11 points ahead of me in the championship total. Andi had done 58.0 seconds, Astrid had 1:04.6. That meant Andi was winning the world championship by 19 points!
So everything came down to the second trial! Gunther clearly thought I wouldn’t do better than 1 minute, and recorded an extra-safe time of 2:21.8. I went just as fast as I could, and successfully got 53.5 seconds - enough to move just ahead of him into third place! But up at the front of the room (I was near the front on the right, Gunther somewhere in the middle, Andi and Astrid both up at the front-left), it was even closer - Astrid did a time of 1:00.8, and Andi did 0:57.4. Two very slight improvements, but significant; if they were both correct, Astrid would be the world champion by 3 championship points! But alas, her sixth card was wrong. Andi’s were all correct, and he became the 2003 World Champion, in the closest and most exciting competition ever!
1 Bell, Andi 6701
2 Plessl, Astrid 6673
3 Pridmore, Ben 6367
4 Karsten, Gunther 6276
5 Formann, Jan 6061
6 O’Brien, Dominic 5757
7 Amsuess, Lukas 4969
8 Stenger, Christiana 4795
9 Kasibhatla, Nishant 4514
10 Cooke, Edward 4225
11 Braunger, Christina 3821
12 Hagwood, Scott 3475
13 Ali, Tansel 3369
14 Roeschel, Bernhard 3276
15 Ivy Chong See Mun 3239
16 Louis, John 3222
17 Wong, Wan Jiun 3214
18 Horsley, Kevin 3081
19 Prapti Hartiningsih 3058
20 Yudi Lesmana 3044
21 Nell, Trevor 2952
22 Zainuddin, Mohd. Helmi 2525
23 Wiwik Setyowati 2522
24 Zhang Jie 2448
25 Nur Izzati 2413
26 Hassan, Metin 2120
27 F. Metta Amelya L 1892
28 Nor Liza 1757
29 MaoHua Wang 1748
30 Edmund Kwok Wen Hui 1741
31 Marlina Chrischahyani 1686
32 Cheng Jun Lai 1469
33 Nurul Syahida 1459
34 Nurul Jamilah Joffri 1357
35 Mohamad Abiabhar 1194
36 Kathiraven 1111
37 Syed Faizal 983
38 Cheng Hoow Chiong 976
39 Mohd Zulhelmi 948
40 Mohd. Fadzli 904
41 Hoh Lee Peng 797
42 Nila Perangin Angin 795
43 Omar B Muhamed 774
44 Nadzmi Nadzim 583
45 Christina I. Tjahjadi 381
46 Nurzulaiqah Zulklifi 171
The prizegiving ceremony came with a nine-course banquet. Ed and Trevor kept up a game of ‘I went to Kuala Lumpur and I brought…’ throughout the meal, getting up to a list of about 100 unlikely objects. The prize ceremony was a little bit low-key, choosing to focus on the wonders of the Malaysian organisers rather than the competitors. This wasn’t really motivated by vanity so much as by necessity - Andi wasn’t there. Tony explained that he was “busy with press interviews”, but generally tried to gloss over the whole embarrassing thing. Astrid and I came up onto the stage, looked awkward for a moment as we received our big trophies (made from Malaysian pewter), and then sat down again.
Tony went on to announce that the championship had been such a huge success that it would be held in Kuala Lumpur again the next year! It wasn’t - Lim Teck Hoe’s business enterprise didn’t take off like he’d hoped, he fell out with Tony over claiming to be a higher level of Buzan Licensed Instructor than he was, and a planned revival in 2006 didn’t work out either.
Where are they now? Andi tried to launch his own rival memory championships in 2004, it didn’t really work out, and he more or less settled his differences with the WMSC and still comes to occasional championships today. Jan was Andi’s loyal sidekick during that brief rebellion, but dropped out of the memory competition circuit soon after. Astrid once again came second in the world championship the following year and eventually drifted out of the picture without ever officially retiring. Gunther kept on going until eventually winning the world championship at last in 2007. This was Dominic’s last competition until his return at the UK Championship last year - I hope we’ll see more of him as a competitor in future!
For me, 2004 was a great year, and maybe I’ll write about it in another article some time…