He is the chief arbiter of memory sports and Tony Buzan’s right hand: Phil Chambers spoke with us about the early days of the sport. He is also looking into a bright future where many of our dreams might come true. Read more about what the World Memory Sports Council has in mind for the mental athletics.

The most impressive thing is the rapid progression in the sport and seeing what the human brain is actually capable of.

Memory-Sports: How did you come to memory sports?

Phil Chambers: The main introduction to memory sports was at the World Memory Championship. I was in the ‘Use Your Head Club’ at university. Through that I met someone called James Lee, who was involved in the tournament. He was one of Tony Buzan fellow advisers apparently. So I was invited to watch the competition. I did and enjoyed it, took part in the second year myself, become involved in the marking and from then on I did more and more. Eventually I ended up as chief arbiter as I am now.

Memory-Sports: So you competed once yourself?

Phil Chambers: I did competed in just the card events. That was in 1994 where I became seventh in Hour Cards, with two decks. That was good at the time – now that’s nowhere near good enough. I’m now ranked 551, because your rankings go down, if you not compete. And I haven’t since then.

Memory-Sports: How did it happen that you became an arbiter?

Phil Chambers: I was involved at a time when memory events first started with many competitors but certainly not enough qualified arbiters. So people from the audience where involved in the marking. I was frustrated at the time because the scoring was very paper based. So I introduced the idea of calculating the results with spread sheets on a computer and automate the process. Since then I worked my way through and became chief arbiter.

Memory-Sports: You have seen the sport from nearly the beginning. What is the most impressive thing in its evolution?

Phil Chambers: I think the fact is that at every World Championship at least one record has been broken. It shattered the predictions the psychologists did in the first year of the competition. They said it is impossible to come anywhere near to the results we have now in Spoken Numbers. Within a few years those ultimate barriers were broken. So the most impressive thing is the rapid progression in the sport and seeing what the human brain is actually capable of. Far more than anybody believed is ever possible.

Ben Pridmore and Phil Chambers at the Cambridge Memory Championship

Ben Pridmore and Phil Chambers at the Cambridge Memory Championship

Memory-Sports: Are the top athletes already close to their limits?

Phil Chambers: I don’t think so. As people get more and more sophisticated systems, such as Ben Pridmore’s count system, which is very effective especially for cards, I think there will be an increasing in “mental technology” if you like. Eventually we will come to a point such there is in physical sports, where a limit has been reached. Until that point comes we’ve got plenty of room for improvement.

Memory-Sports: Do you think that it only depends on the technique or is there a certain skill involved?

Phil Chambers: The most likely thing is, that there is about 90 percent technique. If you look at the top memorizers, they are the people with the best technique – not necessary people with a natural brilliant memory. Ben for example claims to be absent-minded and yet is world champion. So I think technique is the biggest thing. But you also need the natural determination drive to actually implement and practise those  – and also put in the time and effort to achieve the ultimate heights.

Memory-Sports: A point against that argument would be Clemens Mayer who used only a second level Major System.

Phil Chambers: Clemens obviously did extremely well. Maybe he had more ability to form strong images. A good imagination, hence him using less sophisticated techniques in a more effective way but I still believe that technique wins out over natural memory most of the time.

I believe that technique wins out over natural memory most of the time.

Memory-Sports: Since you are an arbiter, you probably have seen people cheating at memory events. Can you share your experience with us?

Phil Chambers: It’s very rare. Memory is one of the most honorable sports. 99.9% of all competitors are totally honest and wouldn’t even dream of cheating. But there happened a few instances in the past where competitors have attempted to cheat. Generally it seems that they are under particular externally pressure.

One example was a competitor in an National Championships. The person involved was the oldest competitor in that event and hence the media had a special focus on him. He hadn’t had much time to practice the techniques so was doing badly. So in one discipline he hid some notes of the answers during the memorisation phase. We spotted this and had a quiet word. He apologised and clearly regretted the incident so we didn’t score him for that discipline.

Memory-Sports: Can you please explain how the World Memory Sports Council works?

Phil Chambers: The WMSC comprises of Tony Buzan as the founder and president, myself as chief arbiter and Chris Day as secretary. We also have Dominic O’Brien and Ramond Keene (Co-founder to the World Memory Championships) in very valuable an advisory capacities. The Council encourages advise from the outside. So if we have a potential change of rules, the top competitors in the sport are consulted. We try to be as open and transparent as possible. But nevertheless we take the ultimate decision within the Council itself.

Memory-Sports: The committee is pretty small, but there are plans to create national committees all over the world, right?

Phil Chambers: That’s true. The idea is to set up national sports councils in every country where is a reasonable number of competitors. For example there is already a national council in Germany and Australia. We are aiming to set up others around the world as the sports grows. There are a certain amount of national tournaments under the guidelines of the World Council. They represent the sport in those countries. The people who compete at these championships are members of that particular body which will then feed into the World Championships, the world rankings and so on. The idea was to distribute the running of national events to the national councils around the world.

Phil Chambers in Poland

Phil Chambers in Poland

Memory-Sports: How can you become an arbiter?

Phil Chambers: There are four levels of arbiters. You start of under the supervision of a higher level arbiter doing markings and being involved in running of a national or local event. And once you successfully marked competition papers in that event, you become qualified to be level one. Then you can go and work at other national and international events in that capacity but still under supervision of a higher level. Once you worked both behind the scenes as well as announcing in the competition room itself at a national event and at least once at a World Championship, you become a level two arbiter. That means you can supervise the level one arbiters and actually run a tournament yourself in your own country. In addition to that, if you set up a competition in another country then you become level three. Currently the only level three arbiter is Jennifer Goddard from Australia who worked at the Australian Championship, Thailand and the World Championship as well. And then myself as level four, the chief arbiter, who overseas the other arbiters below that.

Memory-Sports: So what can I do if I am interested in becoming an arbiter myself?

Phil Chambers: Either contact your local memory council or the World Memory Council. Or you just come to an event, ask to volunteer as an arbiter and we can give you some training and involve you in the marking of that initial event.

Memory-Sports: The memory championships are growing all over the world. There are upcoming national tournaments every year. But there is still a lack in visitors. It is just not very interesting to watch. What are your plans to improve that situation?

Phil Chambers: One of our plans to the future is to involve technology. Such as laptops for example where the data you enter is instantly relayed to a screen. So you can present that data in many different ways which makes it a much more exiting spectator sport. One of the ideas that Dominic O’Brien had, is to have a little animated character. For example a little Ben Pridmore, running along a track, as he enters his binary digits. So the character progresses along the track and immediately if he enters a wrong digit he falls over and has to pick himself up and then carry on. That makes it much more visual, much more engaging. And you can compare competitors live as they competing and see how well they are doing. You don’t have to wait for the scoring. During the memorization process there is not much to see except for Speed Cards. It’s just like watching an exam. But once you’ve got that engagement and that excitement, I think that would build interest for visitors and the media. It would be far easier to understand what is going on in the sport.

One of the ideas is to have a little animated Ben Pridmore, running along a track, as he enters his binary digits.

Memory-Sports: With technology the chance for fresh new disciplines arises. Have you put some thoughts into that?

Phil Chambers:  Yes, certainly new disciplines can be built in. But we have to reflect historically the system prior to the new technology. So those new disciplines have to be additional and separate from the main ten disciplines that have been solid within the World Championship. Another addition which comes with the technology is the removal of geographical barriers. That way you can have simultaneous tournaments in multiple places around the world. The data is collated centrally via the Internet and can again be displayed live to visitors. As long as you have an arbiter presence in a location to make sure nobody is cheating, there is no reason why you couldn’t have someone in China compete against someone in Europe at the same time.

Memory-Sports: What do you think about the US Memory Championships? They have a special championship round which is more interesting for spectators.

Phil Chambers: The USA needed to raise media interest in order to run the event. And the only way they could do that is to make it more media friendly like a game show. The problem with that is that it brings an element of chance into the competition. Especially if you have the play offs between competitors sitting on the stage. So a competitor could move himself out the contention before the question reach actually someone in the line. Therefore another one could win the competition through that chance rather than the own achievement. In that sense there are disadvantages to it. Also it means that they’re competing in a different framework to the rest of the world. Hence they can’t be included in the world rankings based on their performance in the American National Championship. I can see why they did it and I also see that it has value. But in order to be effective world wide you have to receive the same type of questions in the same way to be able to compare the performances between each other. A lot of the American champions are now going to the World Championships to test themselves on the world stage and see where they stand globally.

Memory-Sports: The UK Memory Championship is one of the biggest championships in the world and was created by Tony Buzan himself. What can we expect from this years event?

Phil Chambers: We will have parallel lectures as part of the competition. So visitors can come and learn about memory from Dominic O’Brien, myself and possibly Tony Buzan as well. Also we possibly going to run a Speed Reading event in parallel, but that is not confirmed as yet. And the Staunton Memorial Chess Tournament takes place that weekend as well.

Memory-Sports: What can we expect from the World Memory Championship this year?

Phil Chambers: There will be an announcement in the next few weeks with all the details for the 2009 competition. Although the winning bids recently have come from Bahrain we are very open to bids from other countries for 2010 and beyond. We will consider any serious proposition from a country that feels they can match the fantastic support that we have had from Bahrain. Obviously we want to make the event as entertaining and valuable for everyone as possible.

Memory-Sports: Thank you for your time.