Don's diary: games and gold medals in Mind

October 17, 2003

All keyed up for tomorrow's start of the Mind Sports Olympiad - an annual games festival in which all the contests are thinking games and competitions using other mental skills. Anyone may enter, from beginner to grandmaster.

The idea was inspired by my enjoyment of competing in the Chess Olympiad, the biggest social event of the chess calendar. The first Mind Sports Olympiad took place in 1997 at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

This year, we moved the event to Manchester, our new permanent home, at the invitation of the Manchester Conference Centre at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, with support from the city of Manchester.

Watch today's poker tournament. Poker has taken over from chess as our most popular game at the Olympiad, but we play without money because the Gaming Act classes poker as gambling. We know better - poker is a game of skill.

Our 32 starters look to be a friendlier bunch than typical casino players and include a few youngsters. An eight-year-old girl from Bristol outlasts two-thirds of the adults in the field.

Woken at 2am by security guards who have found a young, impoverished East European games fanatic sleeping in a lecture theatre.

We take pity on him and pay for him to spend the night in a student residence hall. Later in the day, we decide to subsidise his stay after explaining to him that next year if he plays, he pays.

The first day of the memory skills championship. The German champion (and world number three) has entered as practice for the world championships in Kuala Lumpur. He sets a new world record, memorising 3,180 binary digits without a single error - almost half what the Sinclair ZX81 computer could store. But this is just one of six memory tasks, and in the overall reckoning he is placed third.

One hundred Caribbean dominoes players in bright uniforms arrive with busloads of supporters for the noisiest tournament of the Olympiad. In anticipation, an alcohol licence has been secured for their playing room, and the Umist catering manager has curried goat and jerk chicken on the menu.

Caribbean rules allow players to signal to their partners which dominoes they hold and which they want their partners to play. The cacophony in the playing hall is deafening, as players slam their dominoes on the table and jump in the air shouting and screeching. But it is all good-humoured.

The creative thinking world championship proves as entertaining as ever. The tasks, which are set by Bill Hartston, "Beachcomber" in the Daily Express , include designing a new system of punctuation in response to an imaginary government edict to replace the antiquated system of commas, full stops, colons, question marks and so on.

Another task is to find uses for all the Saddam-like moustaches recently shaved off the upper lips of the male Iraqi population.

Two candidates, including the eventual gold medallist, suggest using this mountain of hair to disguise weapons of mass destruction.

David Levy is the founder and chief organiser of the Mind Sports Olympiad, hosted by the Manchester Conference Centre at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

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