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Fierce rivalry in 'Olympics' for brainboxes

Aubrey de Grey
Aubrey de Grey, of the British Othello Federation: "You're not playing well"  

In this story:

'No real enemies'

'I wake beside Claudia Schiffer'

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LONDON -- Dominic O'Brien is one of the world's great sporting champions. True, he is not the fastest sprinter on the planet, nor is he especially proficient at pole-vaulting, synchronised swimming or Greco-Roman wrestling.

He can, on the other hand, memorise 18.5 decks of shuffled playing cards in an hour, and a random sequence of 2,079 binary numbers in half that time, enough to win him the Memory Skills gold medal at this year's World Mind Sports Olympiad. In the process he proved that sporting superstardom need not necessarily depend on having well-developed muscles.

O'Brien is one of more than 4,000 people currently competing at the Olympiad at Alexandra Palace, north London. The event, now in its fourth year, runs until August 28 and attracts contestants from as far afield as Japan, Australia, the United States and South Korea. This year's youngest participant is six, the oldest 88.

The list of 46 mind sports on offer reads like an extract from some obscure intergalactic language dictionary.

Alongside better-known events such as chess, scrabble, poker and crossword-puzzle solving, you will find such esoteric delights as Entropy, Oware, Continuo and Zatre. Fancy a spot of Shogi? The Olympiad is the place for you. Hopelessly addicted to Twixt and Settlers of Catan? Here you can indulge your obsession to the hilt.

"It's the largest event of its kind in the world," said organiser Tony Corfe. "We've already had 4,200 people competing in different events, and by the end I expect that figure to be closer to 5,000."

Lady Mary Tovey, secretary of the Olympiad, added: "It's getting bigger every year. People love it. The energy is palpable as you walk around. You can almost touch it."

'No real enemies'

Sports are open to allcomers, with beginners' events running alongside professional championships. Entry fees range from 13 to 25 ($19 to $35) per event, with most offering nothing more by way of a prize than the honour of being crowned World Rummikib Champion for a year.

Competitors are allowed to enter as many tournaments as they like. This year one man is participating in 18 separate sports (the most any athlete has ever taken part in at the Olympics is a paltry five events).

The competition takes place in a vast exhibition hall. Ostensibly everything is friendly and relaxed, with none of the confrontational atmosphere you get at more physical sporting occasions.

Beneath the tank-tops and baseball caps, however, the fires of competitiveness are raging.

"There are no real enemies here," said Stefan Meyer-Kahlen, 32, the reigning World Computer Chess champion. "We all talk and have dinner together. Everyone wants to win, however. When things aren't going well it can be very frustrating."

Backgammon-player Graham Brittain, 39, agreed: "I love backgammon. It's an incredibly exciting game, very volatile, always throwing up new situations. If I lose, however, it's sickening."

'I wake beside Claudia Schiffer'

This year's competition has already produced several stars, not least Dominic O'Brien, whose victory in the Memory Skills World Championship was his seventh world title (The Memory Skills World Championship started in 1991).

In order to win gold he had to take part in 10 memory tests spread over two days, in one of which, the speed-memorising, he set a new world record (316 consecutive numbers memorised in five minutes).

"I remember things by personalising them," explains O'Brien, 43. "With playing cards, for instance, I memorise each one as a face. The queen of hearts I think of as Claudia Schiffer, the ace of clubs as Nick Faldo."

"To get them in sequence I then imagine a journey, say from home to work, and fit the different people into that journey. So for example I wake up beside Claudia Schiffer, get out of bed and trip over Nick Faldo. It's very effective."

Other players who have made their mark at this year's Olympiad include Maguy Higgs, who won gold in the Creative Thinking Championships (tasks included redesigning Europe in such a way as to eliminate disease, poverty, ethnic conflict and bad weather), and nine-year-old chess player David Howell.

Last year Howell became the youngest chess player ever to beat a grand master, and this year was one move away from repeating the feat.

"I made the wrong move," he sighed, chomping morosely on a large ham sandwich. "Rook to A5. Very silly."

The event is not all about competition. You can learn new sports as well. I spent a happy hour being initiated into the mysteries of Othello by Aubrey de Grey, chairman of the British Othello Federation.

"It's an extremely subtle game," enthused de Grey, 37, who has been playing for 22 years. "And to be perfectly honest," he told me, "You're not playing it very well."

Preparations are already under way for next year's event. "We're hoping to break the all-time record for the number of competitors at a single Olympiad," says Tony Corfe. "They got 11,300 at the Atlanta Olympics. If we can get the sponsorship we should be able to beat that.

"It's a wonderful way of bringing together different people from different countries and backgrounds," said Lady Tovey. "And it's been proved that playing mind sports can help improve your physical co-ordination. Look at Lennox Lewis. He plays chess and that's done wonders for his strategy in the ring."

Mental muscles flexed at Mind Sports Olympiad

British Othello Federation
Wold Chess Federation
Mind Sports Olympiad
Mind Sports Olympiad

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