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November 7th, 2009


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12:55 pm - One Man Mindzine
This is a summary of some of the most exciting developments in the world of mental sports at the moment. I wrote a similar piece last year and thought at the time that it might be a one-off, but if lots of interesting events happen at this time of year every year then perhaps there is the scope for this to become something more like an annual piece - at the risk of it reporting on the same events each year!

Coming up soon, in progress at the moment, or just having completed, depending upon how quickly I finish this piece, are the World Puzzle Championship, the World Othello Championship and the World Memory Championship. The intersection of the latter two is, as ever, the lovely Ben Pridmore, who writes about the start of the Othello event, which takes place this year in Gent, Belgium.

The World Memory Championship is back in its faute-de-mieux location of London this year after the original sponsor in Bahrain pulled out. There are no cash prizes this year, but very generous sponsorship for 2010 means that 2009 can offer prizes of accommodation (and, for the top performers, travel) to the 2010 event and still claim to have the most valuable prize fund yet, beaten only by that for next year's event. Hmm-mmm. I can only theorise why the Bahrain sponsor pulled out (readers with long memories, which may not be the same thing as competition-honed memories, may recall that I like everyone I've met in the memory world except for two specific egomaniacs) and hope that next year's Chinese sponsors do not do likewise. Ben Pridmore suggests Memory-XL may be providing some sponsorship which is not being publicised, for some reason.

Florian Dellé and Simon Orton have the excellent memory-sports.com blog (of which one highlight, among many, is video of Ben Pridmore memorising a pack of cards in under 25 seconds) and should be updating live from the event; a poll therein unscientifically proposes Ben Pridmore as the favourite to repeat his title, and while I wouldn't read too much into a flip one-liner, Ben professes his own confidence. Good luck to all, though I don't think there's too much doubt where my rooting interest lies.

I can't immediately recall a World Puzzle Championship with as strong an online presence as this year's Turkish event, so many congratulations to the organisers there, who have long been very strong participants in the puzzle movement. Probably their most significant innovation has been the series of Oguz Atay Puzzle Contests taking place online over the preceding months, so us sub-championship-level competitors finally have a season that's more than one contest long. They claim the final OAPC will take place while the World Puzzle Championship itself is in progress, but I hope there will be sequels to the OAPC, maybe with a different name, before long. Would-be participants who want to practice for the annual qualifying test should consider them excellent practice. The official site is being updated while the event is in progress, which earns thumbs aloft, and motris has posted great reports of his first day and his second day.

Even with that said, I'd still like to see World Puzzle Championship web sites improve further still, with the target having to be round-by-round score updates being made available online as soon as they're available to the participants, live coverage of the play-offs (I'd like video or audio commentary, but I'd settle for a minute-by-minute update) and I'd like to see interviews with participants and captains along the way. (Though participants and captains might not necessarily want to be distracted between rounds to give interviews...) The only open question is who's going to win the event: the WPC site has this page with participants' recent past form; it's hard to see past the usual suspects.

Also on the puzzle front, motris two weeks ago reported from the US Sudoku Championship, which he won in 2007. This year he was the first to finish the final, but didn't spot that he had made three errors, so Tammy McLeod ended up as the first all-correct solver, continuing the tradition of Google employee success. Probably the most interesting story is that of the third-placed finisher in the final, whose play in the final was so far in standard from his standard of play to reach the final that accusations of malpractice have been made. Cheating would be impossible, or at least very hard, in the grand final where everything is visually above board; cheating in the qualifying round to reach the final (where even third place is worth $3,000) might be possible. Perhaps from now on the qualifying rounds might generate nine qualifiers, not three, for the advanced division finals with (off-stage?) closely supervised semi-finals whittling the nine down to three. (I'd prefer "3 from one semi-final of 9" to "one from each of three semi-finals of 3", but either could work.)

The really interesting thing about this allegation is that the name of the third-placed finisher has shown up on the radar in the past in connection with suspiciously wildly inconsistent previous performance at chess, which made the New York Times when it happened. Investigations are on going: motris has more and more, and the situation has even been reported in the Philly Inquirer (tournament sponsor), the AP wire and America's NPR.

Mention of chess leads us to the Tal Memorial 2009 tournament, taking place in Moscow at the moment, which is going to be the year's strongest event, a round-robin between ten of the thirteen highest-rated players in the world. It includes current world champion Vishy Anand, but it doesn't include current world #1 (and Anand's opponent in his upcoming world championship match, a defense "on the road" - so to speak - in Sofia next April) Vesselin Topalov. All five games in the first round were drawn, with the highlight among them being a six-hour struggle between past world champion Vladimir Kramnik and probable future world champion Magnus Carlsen. Magnus is, fairly narrowly, so far the best-developed of the 1990 vintage of chess prodigies and can handle himself on TV better than most, even at the age of just 18 (and 11 months); while he approached the top without it, his recent coaching from Garry Kasparov can't have hurt, and last month he earned an outstanding 8/10 to destroy a very strong field in the Nanjing Pearl Spring tournament.

Magnus hails from Norway, an excessively civilised nation which is currently running extremely well in the world of mind sports, with another young Norwegian recently winning the World Monopoly Championship. The interesting thing from an organisational viewpoint is that the BBC report suggests they were using the Monopoly speed die, an innovation introduced in the Mega Monopoly variant in 2007 that reduces the number of turns on which players do not land on property that will lead to money changing hands, speeding up the game. This raises the question of what constitutes Monopoly canon these days; if the world championship uses the Speed Die, then why should anyone play without it? I had thought that Monopoly was a sufficiently established classic proprietary game, if that's not a contradiction in terms, that a rule change would be unlikely to be accepted as canonical as it might be in, say, chess. However, games seldom stop evolving; chess' timing procedures regarding very long games change over time, Monopoly brings in its speed die and the World Series of Poker introduces a six-month pause within the Main Event.

Speaking of which, the World Series of Poker's Main Event reaches its conclusion this weekend, with the final table being played among the players who have become known as the November Nine from midday Pacific time today. All players are guaranteed - and have already received - over a million and a quarter US dollars, with a relatively shallow increase in the prize structure to about double that for fourth, about triple that for third, just over five million dollars for second and just over eight and a half million for the winner. Another delay has been built into the tournament structure, so that when the nine have been reduced to two, play is suspended until 10pm Pacific time on Monday night; I would be amused by the second and third stacks both being all-in on one hand, then both being eliminated at once to confound their plans. Darvin Moon has over 30% of the chips on the table and almost a 2:1 chip lead over any other player, but is so lightly regarded that he's no more than a fairly slight favourite in the betting. Phil Ivey, despite being third shortest stack with only about 5% of the remaining chips, is sometimes as short as fourth favourite in the nine-runner field.

Endgames: link of the indeterminate time period is Tao of Poker, a blog that's my first choice for ramblin', gamblin' tales of fear, loathing and poker in Las Vegas and beyond. Hardly an unknown gem from the rough, but still my first choice to get the feel for poker. Earlier this month I learnt that Liverpool FC manager Rafa Benitez was caught up in Stratego fever growing up in Spain in the '70s, and he's still associated with the game today. Separated at birth: Extreme Makeover: Home Edition's moody carpenter Paul DiMeo and World Series of Poker commissioner Jeffrey Pollack.

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