Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Another GM beats e4stat

E4stat played in the Philadelphia Open. I won a prize and gained a few rating points, but it was not because of this game. GM Bryan Smith gives a lesson on how to beat 2100 players; hopefully you can learn something from this.

[Event "Philadelphia Open"] [Site "Philadelphia"] [Date "2019.06.29"] [Round "2"] [White "Wilson, Matthew"] [Black "Smith, GM Bryan"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B57"] [WhiteElo "2112"] [BlackElo "2512"] [Annotator "Wilson,Matthew"] [PlyCount "92"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 Nc6 6. Bc4 Qb6 7. Nb3 e6 8. O-O Be7 9. a4 { This move is less effective if Black hasn't played ...a6. 9.Be3 is better. I forgot my prep. } O-O 10. Be3 (10. a5 {is more consistent}) 10... Qc7 11. f4 b6 (11... d5 { is playable, according to the engine:} 12. exd5 Nb4 $1) 12. Be2 Bb7 13. Bf3 Rac8 14. g4 (14. Nb5 Qb8 15. c4 {doesn't work} a6 {Stockfish's recommendation} (15... Nb4 { is in my notes, but Stockfish finds} 16. Bd2 { and Black shouldn't go pawn grabbing:} Rxc4 17. Na3) 16. Nc3 Nb4 17. Nd2 Rfd8 { and ...d5 is coming}) 14... Nb4 15. g5 Nd7 ({ Stockfish briefly likes a weird tactic:} 15... Nxe4 16. Bxe4 Bxe4 17. Nxe4 Nxc2 {. However, it soon realizes that this doesn't end well for Black} 18. Rc1 Nxe3 19. Rxc7 Rxc7 20. Qe2 Nxf1 21. Kxf1) 16. Bg2 Rfd8 17. Rf2 {A multi-purpose move. White can double on the f-file, swing the rook over to d2, or play Qh5 without dropping the c2-pawn. But these plans are too slow. Stockfish recommends 17.Nd4.} Nc5 18. Rd2 {Preventing ...d5} ({ After the game, I thought that} 18. Nd4 { was more accurate, but in my notes I realize that} d5 19. e5 Ne4 { is still miserable for White}) (18. Nb5 Qb8 19. Nxc5 bxc5 {is Stockfish's recommendation. It thinks that the position is equal since ...d5 is far less dangerous now}) 18... d5 {Oh...I guess I didn't prevent it after all.} ({ Stockfish points out that} 18... Nxb3 19. cxb3 d5 {is more accurate, since it prevents(!) White from playing c2-c3 in some variations}) 19. e5 $6 ({ I saw his trick:} 19. exd5 $6 Nxb3 20. cxb3 Bc5 $1 { and Black regains the pawn favorably.} 21. Bxc5 Qxc5+ 22. Kh1 Nxd5 23. Nxd5 Bxd5 24. Bxd5 Rxd5 25. Rxd5 exd5 {and Black is much better}) (19. Nb5 { was the only way to maintain the balance.} Qb8 20. c3 { Stockfish's recommendation} ({My notes dismissed 19.Nb5 due to} 20. e5 Ne4 { but Stockfish thinks that it's equal after the awkward 21.Re2. Instead, it thinks that Black should meet 20.e5 with 20...Nxb3 followed by ...Ba6, with a slight advantage.}) 20... Nba6 21. e5 (21. exd5 Nxb3 22. Qxb3 Bc5 $1) 21... Ne4 {and the engine goes to triple zeros land}) 19... Nxb3 20. cxb3 Bc5 21. Bxc5 $2 ({During the game, I saw} 21. Bd4 Bxd4+ 22. Rxd4 Qc5 $1 23. Kh1 Nc2 $1 { and White is busted}) (21. Bf2 Bxf2+ (21... d4 { leads to complications and throws away most of Black's advantage} 22. Nb5 Qe7 ( 22... Qd7 23. Nxd4 Bxg2 {(Stockfish's move)} (23... Nc2 {is in my notes, but I missed that} 24. Bxb7 $1 {wins for White}) 24. Kxg2 Bxd4 25. Bxd4 Rc2 26. Rxc2 Nxc2 27. Qxc2 Qxd4 28. Rf1 {Black retains the initiative, but White is hanging on}) 23. Nxd4 Bxd4 24. Bxd4 (24. Rxd4 $2 Rxd4 25. Bxd4 Rd8 26. Rc1 (26. Bxb7 Qxb7 27. Rc1 ( 27. Qd2 Nc6 28. Qg2 Rxd4 29. Rc1 Nd8 {and Black keeps his extra material}) 27... Qe4 $1 (27... Nc6 $2 28. Qf3 $1) 28. Rc4 Nc6 {and Black wins a piece}) 26... Bxg2 27. Kxg2 Qd7 (27... Qb7+ $2 28. Qf3 $1 { and tactics hold White's position together}) 28. Qg1 Qd5+ { and at the very least, Black can recover his pawn with a big advantage}) 24... Bxg2 (24... Nc2 25. Rxc2 Rxc2 26. Qxc2 Rxd4 {and White is okay}) 25. Kxg2 Qb7+ 26. Qf3 {and White hangs on}) 22. Rxf2 Qc5 (22... d4 $2 23. Nb5 Qe7 24. Bxb7 Qxb7 25. Nd6) 23. Nb5 Ba6 24. Bf1 { is bad for White, but it's better than what happened in the game}) 21... Qxc5+ $1 ({I was expecting} 21... bxc5) 22. Kh1 Qe3 23. Nb5 (23. Rd4 Nc2 (23... Nc6 $1 {is a much simpler refutation}) 24. Rd3 { leads to some very entertaining variations:} Qxd3 25. Qxd3 Nxa1 26. Qd1 { (My notes suggest 26.Ne2 as an improvement, but Stocky prefers 26.Nd1)} d4 $1 27. Ne4 (27. Bxb7 dxc3 28. Qxa1 c2 $1 {and Black wins}) 27... d3 28. Nf6+ (28. Qxa1 Bxe4 29. Bxe4 d2) 28... gxf6 29. Bxb7 d2 30. Bxc8 Nc2 31. gxf6 { and it looks like} Ne3 {wins, but White turns tables with} 32. Qg1+ $1) (23. Ne4 Qxf4 24. Nd6 Rc7 25. Nxb7 Rxb7 26. Rd4 {picks up the b4-knight, but if Black plays 23...Ba6, then it's clear that White is just setting traps}) 23... Ba6 $6 {A natural move that I passed over in my notes} ({Stocky prefers} 23... a5 $1 {The point is that after} 24. Qe1 Qxf4 25. Rd4 {, Black's knight is protected. So White can't save his f4-pawn and his position collapses.}) 24. Nxa7 $4 {I felt like I was almost in zugzwang. At the moment, ...Qxf4 is not a threat due to Rd4, but it seemed like every move worsens my position, e.g.} ( 24. Rd4 Nc2 25. Rd3 Qxf4 26. Rc1 Nb4 (26... Ne3 $1 {is even more powerful according to Stockfish} ) 27. Rxc8 Rxc8 28. Rd4 Rc1) (24. Rc1 Qxf4 {and now Rd4 hangs a rook}) (24. Nc3 Nd3) (24. Qe2 Qxf4 25. Rd4 Qxd4) (24. Rb1 Bxb5 25. axb5 d4 $1) (24. Qe1 $1 { was the only move} Qxb3 ({Stockfish prefers} 24... Qxe1+ 25. Rxe1 Bxb5 26. axb5 Rc2 {. White is clearly suffering, but there is still hope}) 25. Nd4 Qc4 26. Rad1 {Stocky's move. My notes originally suggested 26.Bf1, but then I noticed that 26...Qxf1+ was strong. White has lost a pawn, but he has a firm grip on d4 and he has mostly sealed up the holes in his position.}) 24... Ra8 $1 { I missed this idea. I thought he was going to double on the c-file} 25. Rd4 ( 25. Nb5 $4 {drops a piece}) 25... Nd3 26. Rxd3 Bxd3 27. Nc6 Re8 28. Qf3 { This is Stockfish's top choice, but now White goes down without much of a fight } (28. Qg1 {is recommended in my notes} Qxf4 29. Qxb6 {and White can dream of pushing his passed pawns. Of course it shouldn't work, but you have to create opportunities for your opponent to go wrong}) 28... Qc5 $1 (28... Qxf3 $2 29. Bxf3 {will be much harder to win. White will withdraw the knight to the wonderful d4-square.}) 29. Qxd3 Qxc6 30. Rd1 Rac8 31. Kg1 (31. f5 Qc2 { and White's "attack" is not going anywhere}) 31... Qc2 32. Qxc2 Rxc2 33. Bf1 Rec8 34. Rd4 g6 35. Rb4 R8c6 36. Bb5 (36. Rd4 Rxb2 37. Rd3 {is a slower death, but it doesn't give me any counterplay. With the text, I hope to pick up the b6-pawn and create queenside passers.}) 36... Rc1+ 37. Kf2 R6c2+ 38. Be2 { Losing a piece, but my position was already hopeless} Rxb2 39. Rxb6 { The bishop cannot be saved} (39. Ke3 Re1) (39. Kf3 Rc3+ 40. Kf2 Rcc2) 39... Rcc2 40. Rb8+ Kg7 41. a5 Rxe2+ 42. Kf3 d4 43. b4 Re3+ 44. Kg4 Rg2+ 45. Kh4 Rxh2+ 46. Kg4 Rhh3 0-1

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Grand Chess Tour - Croatia

The 12-player round robin begins next week. Magnus Carlsen has put a lot of distance between himself and his rivals, so he is the big favorite in the forecast.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Poikovsky Karpov tournament

Artemiev has gained a bunch of points lately; he is the top seed in the 10-player round robin.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Altibox Norway Chess

World Champion Magnus Carlsen has been performing very well lately. He enters the tournament as the big favorite.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Memory Competition (part 3)

One last post about memory. Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.


The 2019 National Memory Championship

            I had made it to the finals last year! This gave me a bunch of motivation. I had been training for about two and a half hours per day. But the national championship had a different format than the tournaments I was preparing for. Both of them had cards and numbers, but in the qualifier, we also had to memorize poetry and names. So I added those to my routine. But I only had a few months to train for names and poetry, so I knew I wouldn’t be great at them. However, I would run up the score in cards and numbers, where I had made enormous progress. I thought that I would qualify for the finals comfortably. If all goes well, I could even finish in the top 5. I faced a tougher field this year. All of the best memories in America were there except for former World Champion Alex Mullen. And only 8 of us would advance to the final. But I had improved so much that I was still very confident.
            The first event: Names. They passed out sheets with names and headshots. We had 15 minutes to memorize as many as possible. Then we got new sheets with just the headshots. We had to fill in the names from memory. I memorized 100 names. Decent, but not great. Four-time US champ Nelson Dellis set a national record by recalling 235 names – an astounding performance. But I didn’t need to beat Nelson at names. I just had to stay close to the top 8 and then compensate with cards and numbers. So far, it was going according to plan. I had been hoping to break my personal record (104 names), but 100 was good enough. It was way better than my performance last year, which was just 56 names.
            The second event: Numbers. We had 5 minutes to memorize as many as possible. In training, I was usually getting about 160-200. There were two attempts. My plan was to try 160 in the first round. That way I would have time to review it thoroughly and I should nail it. In the second round, we get a new sheet of numbers and I would shoot for 200. Only the best score counts. Because of that, it’s common to memorize a smaller amount in round 1. Once you’ve done that and secured a decent score, you can get ambitious in round 2.
            I turned the sheet over and started memorizing. The font was noticeably smaller than what I was used to. I tried not to let it bother me. The five minutes zipped by faster than I had expected. I turned in my sheet and then tried to write down the 160-digit number from memory.
            The small font, the pressure – it must have gotten to me. There were several places where I just drew a blank. And the scoring system severely punishes stuff like that. Make one mistake in a row of 20 digits, and you get zero points for that row. You have to get the row perfect in order to get 20 points. I messed up 2 rows. Five rows were perfect and in the last row, I only wrote down the first 14 digits because I wasn’t sure about the last 6. I scored just 114 points. That’s reasonable by the standards of the national championship, but I really needed to do well here in order to compensate for names and poetry. Defending champ John Graham memorized more than 300 digits.
            Then they passed out the second sheet of numbers. I tried 160 digits again, but I really needed to get it right this time. I was able to go faster; perhaps I had adjusted to the font size. I reviewed it twice. When I was writing the number down from memory, there was just one row that I was uncertain about. Was there a “1655” in the middle of that row or was it a “5516”? All I could remember is that I had made a mental note to be careful about that part. I put down “5516” on my sheet. I recalled the rest of the number comfortably, so I went back to double check. Then I erased the “5516” and replaced it with “1655.”
            It was 5516! No points for that row, but the other 7 rows were perfect. I scored 140. A bit disappointing. I was in 10th place and only the top 8 would advance to the final. One of the high schoolers had put up a phenomenal score in names and then there was a new guy who somehow memorized 260 digits in his very first tournament. There were still two more events in the qualifier, but suddenly I was not sure if I could make it to the final.
            Event #3: Poetry. They passed out sheets of paper with an unpublished poem. We had 15 minutes to memorize as much as we could. In a last minute rule change, the author read the poem aloud at the beginning. I knew that there was no way I could keep up; people read faster than I can memorize. I tried to ignore it and focus on the paper. I just hoped it wouldn’t throw me off. And given my precarious situation in the tournament, I really could not afford to screw up. I budgeted 9 minutes for memorization and 6 minutes for review.
            Time’s up! I handed in the poem and started writing down as much of it as I could remember. I was pretty sure that I had all the words right. But I was a bit unsure about some of the punctuation. Is there a comma at the end of that line? If I got it wrong, I would score zero points for that line; you only get points for the lines that are perfect. I had to make some guesses. Only a day ago I thought I would sail through the qualifier comfortably; now my sloppiness with punctuation might eliminate me.
            Event #4: Cards. We had to memorize a deck in five minutes or less. They were still scoring the poetry event, so I didn’t know where I was in the standings. I did know that I had to hit it out of the park in order to qualify. Just like last year’s situation, I thought. That was not very comforting. Last year, I screwed up the first deck. The pressure. But I had improved at cards and it was one of my strongest areas. But that’s what you told yourself before the numbers event and look at how that turned out. Take it slow on the first deck, make sure you get it right this time. I started my timer. I got through the deck and reviewed it. I put it down and stopped the clock. Immediately I was disappointed by what I saw. A minute and thirty-nine seconds?! In practice, I could go at least 15-20 seconds faster without losing any accuracy. The pressure – it must have gotten to me again. I didn’t feel nervous. But memorizing in a competition and memorizing at home are two very different things. If you look up a memory tournament and scroll down to the bottom of the standings, there will probably be somebody who memorized just 6 or 7 cards in 5 minutes. You know they can do better than that. But the pressure gets to people. I reviewed the deck in my mind while waiting for everyone to finish. Everything was clear. At least I wouldn’t mess up like I did last year.
            I got it right. Though it was slow by my standards, a minute thirty-nine might be enough to propel me to the final. My dreams were still alive. As with numbers, there were two rounds and only your top score counts. Since I had already secured a good result, now I could go at top speed with the second deck and not worry so much about making a mistake. I zipped through the deck and reviewed it quickly. Usually “top speed” means under 70 seconds for me. But in a competition, there’s so much pressure… I stopped the clock. A minute and twenty-five seconds. Mildly disappointing. I recalled the deck perfectly. Now we just had to wait for the judges to tally up the scores. Maybe I would make it to the final. Maybe I wouldn’t.
            During the lunch break, I talked to a few of the other competitors. Some of last year’s finalists stumbled in the cards event. The pressure! It affects everyone. When I finished up lunch, the organizers were still working on the results. All I could do now was wait and hope.
            A spreadsheet appeared on the big screen. “The names highlighted in green are the finalists,” the organizer said. I was sitting in the back and couldn’t read it. I got up and went over for a closer look. Predictably, the “Big Four” made it. That’s defending champion John Graham, 4-time champion Nelson Dellis, world record holder Lance Tschirhart, and Livan Grijalva. I knew I couldn’t beat them. New-guy-who-memorized-260-digits-in-his-first-tournament made it. A pair of outstanding high schoolers qualified. And so did Matt Wilson! I finished 7th.
            When they passed out the awards, I got a special mention. The announcer told everyone about the Boston Globe article I appeared in last year. I reenacted the pose in my famous photo.
            But there was not much time to celebrate. The final would begin shortly. They took the finalists to a separate room and handed us a sheet with 300 random English words. We had 15 minutes to memorize as many as we could. Then on stage, the finalist in the first seat would say the first word. If they got it right, then the next person would have to say the next word. But if the first person screws up, they’re out. In that case, the second person would have to say the first word. This continues until 3 people are eliminated.
            I was prepared for this event. You never have to memorize all 300 words; in the past, enough people would mess up early on that it never went past 100. But the field was stronger this year. In training, I had been targeting 120 words in order to be safe. But I had lost confidence after my performance in the qualifier. At the last moment, I decided to do just 100 words. Then I would have plenty of time to review and I should nail it. The 15 minutes flew by. We went back to the stage and took our seats.
            I was a bit slow at recalling the first words, but then I got into the groove. The new guy stumbled quickly. In his training, he had focused on the qualifier, so he was not ready for this event. Seven finalists were left. Only five of us would advance.
            It was John Graham’s turn. The defending champion. He hesitated. You only have 15 seconds to answer. I know he can memorize a ton of words. But on stage, in front of a large audience, facing high expectations…the pressure is so huge. He drew a blank. The champ was eliminated!
            I only had to outlast one more finalist in order to advance. Whenever it was my turn, I recalled everything quickly and accurately. But I only knew the first 100 words. Would that be enough in today’s hypercompetitive championship? Around the 95th word, I realized that I might be in trouble. No one else was stumbling.
            Livan correctly recalled Word #101. He passed the mic to me. My turn. “That’s as far as I got – I’m out.” I got down from the stage. I left the room to get some water. A few kids in the audience congratulated me. I have fans!
            Seventh place in the qualifier, sixth in the final. That sounds great, but I’m mildly disappointed. Officially, the Random Words event finished when I was eliminated, but they kept going to see how much everyone had memorized. One of the finalists messed up in the very next round. So if I had memorized just two more words, I would have outlasted her. And the pressure got to me in the qualifier and I didn’t do as well as I had hoped. The 1655 will haunt me for a while. They say that baseball is a game of inches. I feel the same way about memory tournaments. I knew I was not going to win the championship. But finishing in the top 5 was very much within reach.
How far could I have gotten? On a good day, I might have forced a tiebreak (but it’s more likely that I would have collapsed under pressure). The next event was the Tea Party. Six “tea party guests” read a script with a bunch of personal information. Name, birthday, phone number, etc. The finalists had 15 minutes to memorize it all. They could also review a sheet with the same information printed on it. In training, I had struggled with this event. But at the last minute, the organizers changed it to just 5 guests instead of 6. However, the finalists still had the full 15 minutes to memorize. Due to that rule change, I might have survived this event if I hadn’t been eliminated earlier. Livan was eliminated quickly, but Lance, Nelson, and the two high schoolers advanced.
The last event was the Double Deck. The finalists would have 5 minutes to memorize 2 decks of cards. Even at my slow pace of 1 deck in a minute twenty-five, this isn’t hard. But in the tiebreak, I would have been busted. There would be two decks again, but this time we would only have 3 minutes. That is beyond me. Memorizing a deck in 1:25 is very different from memorizing 2 decks in 2:50. It doesn’t scale up like that. For example, memorizing a single card in 1 second is easy, but doing 52 cards in 52 seconds is not. I can’t do 2 decks in 3 minutes. But Lance memorized a single deck in under 30 seconds(!), so he could do it. My plan had been to do a deck and a half and hope my rivals stumbled.
The high schoolers were knocked out quickly. Only Lance and Nelson were left. I was almost certain that it would go to tiebreaks, but Nelson messed up on the 102nd card. The pressure! Lance became our very deserving national champion.

The Memory Competition (part 2)

Click here for Part 1. After this, there will be one more blog post about memory, and then we will go back to writing about chess.


The 2018 National Memory Championship: Finals

I had barely qualified and knew that I didn’t have the best memory in America. I trained harder than ever, but most of my rivals were still well ahead of me. My goal was to survive Round 1 to prove that I belonged there.
But my biggest worry was about the night before the tournament. Would I sleep? Two weeks before, I had traveled to a chess tournament and didn’t sleep at all. I tried another tournament in Chicago a week later. Almost no sleep! I forced myself to play a game anyways. That was a very unwise decision. It was so hard to calculate anything. I ended up drawing against a much weaker player. My doctor prescribed some pills to use when traveling. “These will knock you out,” she promised. I wasn’t certain. Would they really work?
I stayed in a beautiful hotel close to the MIT campus. Right before bed, I took a pill. A few minutes later, a muscle would occasionally twitch. Is that supposed to happen? The next thing I remember is waking up after getting the best night’s sleep that I had ever gotten in my life. That’s exactly how you want to feel before a competition! I downed some oatmeal and walked to the auditorium on campus. Most of the other competitors arrived around the same time. We had come early in case the media wanted to talk to us. If I thought I had a serious chance of winning, I would have declined. Just get some extra rest and focus. But since I was almost certain to lose, I thought I might as well enjoy the time in the spotlight. Alas, the media had no interest in talking to Guy Who Finished Ninth. So instead I chatted with the other competitors. The first event wouldn’t start until a few hours later, so no one seemed too tense yet.
Lunch was different. A quiet and serious affair. Round 1 would start almost immediately afterwards. Focus. Get in the zone. I don’t even remember what I ate. My thoughts were elsewhere.
The finalists from the qualifier were joined by a wildcard nominee and a few stars from the high school championship. Thirteen of us in all. They lead us downstairs. We each had a sheet with 300 random English words. Memorize as many as possible in 15 minutes. Make 2 mistakes and you’re eliminated. I tried to sit away from everyone else so that there would be no distractions. Concentration is critical. Like most of the competitors, I had earplugs to block out any distracting noise.
We turned over our sheets and started memorizing. There was no way that I could get through all 300 words. But I didn’t have to. In the past, knowing the first 100 was always more than enough. But in the past, you were eliminated after just 1 mistake. Maybe we would have to know more than 100 this time. I tried 104, since I knew I couldn’t do much more than that. Words like “climb” and “laptop” were easy, since they are very visual (memory techniques are all about visuals). I struggled to come up with an image for “intuition.” I went with Jose Capablanca, a former world chess champion known for his excellent intuition. I reviewed the sheet twice. They lead us up to the stage.
The wildcard was in the first seat. He had to say the first word in the list. Then the second person had to say the next word, and so on. I was tenth. Recalling a list words in the comfort of my apartment is not so bad, but recalling them on stage could be very different. Bright lights, a large audience and the media, and with only seconds to state the right answer. But my nerves were steady. Professors are used to performing in front of large groups of strangers. I closed my eyes to better focus on the images in my mind. There was a scoreboard with the number of mistakes that each of us made. I was going to ignore it. Just make sure you get the word right when it’s your turn. That’s all that matters.
My plan to ignore everyone else was almost immediately derailed. Four-time national champion Nelson Dellis was the first to be eliminated. My eyes popped open. He had won the qualifier and he owned several national records. How on earth was he the first one to go?! Focus, Matt. I closed my eyes again and got back in the zone. I just had to outlast two more competitors.
When it was my turn, the next image and word sprang to mind quickly. Someone else stumbled and got eliminated. I didn’t know who it was. It didn’t matter to me – just get your word right when it’s your turn. Now I only had to outlast one more rival and then I could go on to Round 2.
A high schooler messed up and was knocked out. I had sailed through Round 1 with no mistakes! During the break, I took a short walk. I had achieved my goal! If I somehow survived Round 2, that was just an added bonus. We’ll worry about winning the championship next year.
I returned to the auditorium.
“Good luck,” a woman said as I went down the stairs.
“Thank you,” I replied.
“I’m also from Missouri, so I’m rooting for you,” she said.
I have fans!! How cool is that?!
Round 2 was the Tea Party. Four “tea party guests” told us personal information about themselves. Name, birthday, job, etc. Make 3 mistakes and you’re out. The event would end when the 10 remaining finalists were winnowed down to 7. I had barely trained for this event, but I wasn’t nervous – the mission had already been accomplished.
The tea party guests talked so fast! I was overwhelmed. I hardly caught any of it. We had five minutes to study the same information written on paper, but it was still overwhelming. I knew I was busted. But I don’t lose motivation when the situation is hopeless. As chess players know, keep fighting hard even when the position is lost; maybe the opponent will make a mistake. I blocked out the rest of the world and focused all my attention on the sheet. Soak up as much information as possible. The Boston Globe noticed the intense concentration on my face and they decided to put my picture in the paper! The headline was "Competition Puts Their Memory to the Test". I’m famous!!
It turned out that many of the competitors were just as overwhelmed as I was. I botched the first question, but my rivals were also making mistakes left and right. One of them didn’t get anything right. He was the first one to go. Then a former national champion stumbled. It suddenly occurred to me that I might actually survive! I only had to outlast one more rival. I was still struggling and making mistakes, but I got one correct answer. Then I had to recall the name of one of the tea party guests. In my mind, it was blended with the names of the other people and a muddle of other semi-memorized information. I got it wrong. I was eliminated. The round ended and the 7 remaining finalists proceeded to Round 3.
I could relax. I had accomplished my goal and had been so close to making it through the next round. I took a seat in the audience and watched the rest of the finalists sweat through Round 3.
The organizers had dreamed up a new form of mental torture for this round. “Long Term Recall.” A month earlier, they had sent out spreadsheets with a vast amount of information. The Academy Award winners, the Football Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the periodic table of elements. That was too much for me. I only got through about half of it. It was good training, but I really hope that I never have to do that again. So even if I had survived Round 2, I would not have made it much further. The wildcard was swiftly eliminated. However, a pair of high schoolers performed very well; it took a long time to knock them out. John Graham, the second seed from the qualifier, advanced to the last round. He was joined by prodigy Claire Wang and newcomer Avi Chavda, who had been seated next to me in the qualifier.
In Round 4, they had 5 minutes to memorize two decks of cards. Claire stumbled quickly and was knocked out. Avi seemed to be recalling the cards easily while John took his time before answering. I wondered if it would go to tiebreaks. At this level, memorizing 2 decks in 5 minutes is not very hard. But Avi messed up in the second deck, so John Graham became the national memory champion.
Nice work, John. I’ll try to beat you next time! We went out to dinner with the other competitors and the organizers (they’re wonderful people). Our generous hosts from MIT paid the bill. Since the tournament was during summer break, I got to stay in Boston for a few extra days and enjoy the history and art in the city. There is so much to do in Boston! This is the second time I have visited and I’ve only seen a small fraction of the city. No one recognized me from the Boston Globe photo; I guess I’m not really a celebrity yet 😃
Farewell, Boston. I hope I get an excuse to visit you again!

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Memory Competition (part 1)

GM Timur Gareyev used memory techniques in order to set his blindfold chess world record. I also have an interest in memory and I compete in tournaments. This my story from last year's championship. Next week, I'll post an update with this year's event. To regular readers of this blog: don't worry, I'll go back to writing about chess tournaments soon.

The 2018 National Memory Championship
By Matthew S. Wilson

The journey began in early 2011. I was a first year grad student at the time. I was browsing the news online and there was a New York Times article about memory. Some guy named Joshua Foer had won a national memory tournament and wanted to tell us about it. I started reading the article.
            As I was reading, two things came to mind. First of all, a better memory might help me pass the very difficult qualifying exams (about half of last year’s class had failed, forcing them to drop out of the Economics PhD program). Second, I wonder how my memory would stack up against a former champion? He talked about memorizing the sequence of an entire deck of 52 playing cards. So I found a deck of my cards in my apartment and shuffled. The first few cards were pretty easy. Anyone can memorize 5 cards without much effort. But by the time I got to roughly the 20th card, it was tremendously straining. There was no way I could get through the entire deck. I stopped and tried something similar to his technique. He had a system that assigned each of the cards to a celebrity or someone he knew; then he mentally placed all the images into a building he was familiar with. I had no interest in developing such a system; I was just wondering if his principles would help me get through the qualifying exams. So instead I placed images of the cards into my parent’s house. Something like the King of Spades knocking on the door, which was answered by the Five of Clubs while the Eight of Hearts swung from the chandelier, etc. It took a long time to get through the whole deck. But I was stunned at how easy it was to remember it all. I was hooked.
            I practiced nearly every day. At first, it took more than 5 minutes to get through half the deck. When I tried to cut that down to 4 minutes, I felt rushed. But I progressed steadily. In less than six months, I was already memorizing the whole deck in under 5 minutes. My efforts started bearing fruit in Spring Quarter 2011. My GPA shot up to 3.9!
            After I passed the qualifying exams – a long story for another time – I decided to keep practicing. My results were good enough that maybe I had a chance at the national memory championship if I kept improving. But I was stuck in a routine where my training was only with decks of cards. For competitions, I would also have to memorize numbers and names and other things. I started with numbers a year or two later, but even then, my main focus was cards.
            Fast forward to late 2017. My memory had been on a plateau since 2014. I had been thinking about going to the national championship for years, but I never got around to it. It was always on the East Coast; the distance deterred me. I had signed up for a memory competition in Canada but cancelled because there was a chess tournament on the same weekend. So I registered for the national championship and figured that I could withdraw if something else came up. I didn’t buy my plane ticket yet.
            In mid-January, I realized that the tournament was just two months away. It was time to get serious with my training. I had only been doing cards and numbers; I needed to memorize poetry and names as well. My friend Joey Frantz recommended a poetry book. For names and faces, I signed up on Memocamp, a memory training website.
            I had a good chess tournament at the end of January, but after the euphoria faded, I was back to being depressed over my failing job search (another long story for a different time). But after a few weeks, I started seeing almost daily improvement in my memory. It was exciting. I forgot(!) that I was supposed to be unhappy about my failed career. As the memory tournament approached, I compared my scores to the results from previous championships. The top competitors would advance to the finals. And one of them will be crowned as national champion. Though I was improving quickly, it didn’t look like it would be enough to qualify for the final. If I matched my best recent results in training for all four events and if the finalists from 2016 failed to improve and if there weren’t any newcomers who could beat me, then I might just barely qualify. There was certainly a chance that I would collapse from the pressure of competing in my first memory tournament. Also, I often don’t sleep very well when I’m not at home. To make matters worse, the first event (poetry) began at 8:45am Eastern Daylight Saving Time. That’s 6:45am Central Standard Time (the event was just a week after the clocks were changed). And I am not a morning person. It was a long shot.
            I had a plan to make the most of my chances. First, gradually go to bed earlier. For a couple of weeks, I moved my schedule back by 5-10 minutes each day. Second, I arrived at the hotel two days early, just in case I didn’t sleep well on the first night. Then there was the plan for the 4 events in the tournament. For random numbers, my practice results were probably on pace to qualify. For poetry? Probably not. For names and faces? Definitely not. Stay within striking distance for numbers, poetry, and names. Then run up the score in my strongest area: cards.
            The big day arrived. I didn’t sleep as well as I would have liked. But I felt okay. To save time, I ate a breakfast bar during the announcements. Good news: Alex Mullen wasn’t there. He was the world champion and he can memorize a deck of cards in under 20 seconds. If he’s absent, the rest of us have a better chance. Unfortunately, Nelson Dellis and a few other stars were present. But there was more good news. According to the website, only the top 7 would qualify for the final, but in the announcements, they changed that to the top 8. And I wasn’t feeling nervous. I still had a chance.
            We had 15 minutes to memorize a poem. Then we had 20 minutes to write down as much of it as we could remember. But when recalling the first stanza, I realized that I was not 100% sure how to spell “easel.” I had never been a good speller. Due to the way the scoring works, a little error like that can be costly. I guessed. I got it right. The rest was fine except for one thing. I wasn’t entirely sure if a certain line ended with a period or a comma. I had to make a guess. The remainder of the 20 minutes was spent cleaning up my handwriting; I didn’t want to risk losing any points if they misread something. I felt that I could have done a bit better. But my performance was still reasonable. I just had to stay close to the top 8 for now. Then in the final event (cards), I would shine and hopefully catch up.
            Event #2: Speed Numbers. We had 5 minutes to memorize as many random numbers as possible. Then we had 10 minutes to write it all down. I collapsed. The pressure must have gotten to me. I only did half as well as I did in practice. To make matters worse, the guy sitting next to me memorized more than 100 digits. And he was a newcomer. I had expected that the stars from the previous championships would fill most of the top 8 spots, but if this new guy also gets a spot, I’m probably eliminated! Fortunately, there was a second chance at this event; we got another sheet of random numbers and only your top score counted. I steadied my nerves and memorized 103 digits in 5 minutes. When I finished writing them down, I was nearly certain that I had nailed it. It was perfect. But my neighbor edged me out, memorizing 104. My chances were slipping away.
            Then an MIT professor gave a presentation while the organizers tallied up the scores. I was around 10th place so far. That’s okay. Just survive until we get to the cards.
            Then we had 15 minutes for the names and faces event. We were given sheets of color photos; their names were printed below their picture. There was a rustling of papers as the competitors turned over the sheets. Just try to ignore it. I tied my personal record. Fifty-six points. (1 point for each first name, 1 point for each last name). But it wasn’t good enough. Some of my rivals were scoring more than 100 points.
            Speed Cards: the final event of the day. Memorize the order of 52 playing cards in 5 minutes or less. Not many people can do that. But in practice, I was doing it in about a minute and a half. This was my opportunity to stage a comeback and qualify for the final. I got through the deck in 2 minutes and 9 seconds. Slow! But there would be a second chance and only your top score counts. And it was possible that 2:09 would be good enough. Or maybe not – my neighbor’s timer beeped when he stopped the clock. He, too, could memorize a deck in under 3 minutes. If he finishes ahead of me, it’s going to be harder to qualify. I reviewed the deck in my mind while waiting for the rest of the 5 minutes to elapse. Everything was clear. Almost. After the Six of Spades, there was the Three of Hearts. But was this pair placed before or was it placed after a certain sequence? I wasn’t entirely sure. I guessed.
            I was wrong! This mistake happened on the sixth card in the deck, so I was credited with memorizing just five cards. Totally embarrassing! And this was supposed to be the event where I would shine. Yes, there would be a second chance, but I was almost surely busted. The gentleman sitting next to me memorized his deck perfectly. He also bested me in numbers and poetry, I’m bad with names – he’s got to be ahead of me. And if he qualifies, and if the former champions qualify, and if the other stars qualify, there isn’t much space left for me. Maybe I can overtake him if I go at top speed. At my best, I can get through a deck in under a minute. But then there is a very high chance that I’ll make another mistake. It was too risky and besides, I knew at the beginning of the tournament that I probably wouldn’t qualify. I had really really wanted it, but I had been prepared for failure. Finishing in the top 10 would still be respectable. At the very least, it was possible to avoid humiliation and correctly memorize more than 5 cards!
The decks were shuffled and we tried again. I wished that I could go to the bathroom first, but now I just had to ignore it. I was extra slow and careful. After going through the deck I reviewed it twice. I put the deck down and stopped the timer. Two minutes and forty-nine seconds. Very slow by my standards, but it could still provide a big boost to my score. But only if I didn’t make any mistakes. I reviewed the deck in my head while waiting for the rest of the 5 minutes to pass. There was a very tiny bit of uncertainty about one part. Everything else was clear.
At the end, I raised my hand and a judge came over to check. I had recalled the deck perfectly! She recorded my result. I raised my arms in victory. Now we just had to wait for them to calculate all the scores.
The two former champs would certainly qualify. Avi (the guy sitting next to my right) had probably defeated me in every event. Then there were a couple of experienced competitors at the tables in front of us who sounded confident; from what I overheard, their scores seemed higher than mine in several of the events. But if we add all that together, only 6 or 7 of the qualifying spots would be taken. Is it possible that I finished in the top 8?
We all had lunch together and chatted. Then we returned to hear the results. Now I was nervous. I thought that they would start with 8th place and then build up to 1st place; that seemed like the most dramatic way to do it. But they started with 1st place. Former champion Nelson Dellis had the highest score. No surprise there. A few other stars qualified, Avi qualified. But two of the other finalists had not been on my radar screen. Add them to the other people who would probably qualify, and all 8 places would be filled. I thought it was over.
“In eighth place – also a newcomer –” the announcer began.
“ ‘Also a newcomer’? I’m a newcomer! Is it me?” I thought.
“Matthew Wilson!” the announcer said.
I had done it! I walked up to the stage. After a few more remarks, the announcer passed the mic to the finalists. Starting with me. I hadn’t prepared for this. I was just surprised and happy. “So glad to be here – didn’t think I would make it to the final – this is awesome!” –my victory speech.
But there was one more plot twist. I stuck around to watch the conclusion of the high school team championship. Then there was an announcement. They had miscalculated Kyle Matschke’s score; actually, he was the one who finished 8th and I was 9th. Would they take my spot away from me?
“ –so we will proceed with 9 finalists instead,” the announcer concluded.
I was still a finalist! You could say that I qualified due to a scoring error. But if I had done as well in the cards event as I had in practice, I may have edged him out. In July, we will reconvene in Cambridge, Massachusetts and compete for the national championship.