Far away from the western hemisphere, on the other side of the planet, a beautiful piece of land harbors an incredible flora and fauna. The Romans called it “terra australis incognita” – “the unknown land of the south”. Nowadays it’s not that unknown anymore and so it’s not that inconvenient that excellent memorizers like (nearly) 36 years young Simon Orton hold up the Australian National Flag to the world of memory sports. The four times Australian champion is the founder of the Memory Sports Statistics – the official home of the world memory ranking list. Further more he is also the creator of the Online Memory Challenge. Memory-Sports.com spoke with him about the Australian community and his influencing websites:
The advantage of my Online Memory Challenge is that you don’t have to remember a password. You can put all your energy in memorizing the numbers and words.
Memory-Sports.com: When did you first hear about memory techniques?
Simon Orton: I bought the book ‘How to develop a perfect memory’ by Dominic O’Brien. That was ten to twelve years ago. I saw the book in a shop and found it interesting but I had no intention whatsoever to compete in a tournament. When I first found out about the Australian Championship, that was at the beginning of 2003 and the competition was in August. So I trained about six months for it.
Memory-Sports.com: What is your favourite discipline?
Simon Orton: Speed Cards, although I’m not great at it. It’s fast, it’s colourful and I think it’s easier for non memorizers to understand what you’re doing. I guess it’s kind of an impressive party trick.
Memory-Sports.com: How would you describe a memory championship to outsiders?
Simon Orton: We have ten disciplines, each testing a different area of memory. In general we have a limited period to memorize as much as possible. And then we get points for how much we can recall.
Memory-Sports.com: Do you think that typical championships are interesting for visitors?
Simon Orton: Probably not, unless they know the people who are competing. My Mum has come down with me for the Australian Championship a couple of times. And even for her it’s not that exciting. The scores are interesting, but watching the competitors for half an hour isn’t.
Memory-Sports.com: Do you have any suggestions to make a competition more fascinating for visitors?
Simon Orton: I guess the shorter disciplines are more interesting. The long recall periods, where there is nothing happening, are pretty boring. I remember my Mum once said: ‘After about twenty minutes one of the competitors stretched his arms – that was the highlight of the discipline’. Things like Speed Cards and Spoken Numbers are good to watch, because people get involved.
Memory-Sports.com: What do you think about the American system with the heads-up situation in the Championship Round?
Simon Orton: I guess that’s a good approach. But it may be more luck involved in something like that. But it’s definitely more interesting for spectators.
Memory-Sports.com: You have been Australian Champion three times in a row. Why didn’t you compete last year?
Simon Orton: It was a combination of reasons: One was the cost of getting to the championship. Another one was the training time. If I went to the championship, I would want to do better than the year before. And that would take a reasonable amount of training. I didn’t have the time to put that effort in. But I think another reason was that I didn’t really felt challenged and wanted to let someone else win. I lost the motivation after winning three times in a row.
Memory-Sports.com: Are you thinking about competing this year?
Simon Orton: I’m thinking about it, but I haven’t decided whether I will or not. The same consideration would apply, I guess. With the Online Challenge I got more training this year – that’s much more than I normally do. So yeah, I probably would like to go back to compete.
Memory-Sports.com: How is the Australian community?
Simon Orton: Small – small, but a good group of people. There are really only a handful of people who compete regularly. I just see them once a year because they live in different states in Australia. But it’s always fun to catch up with them.
Memory-Sports.com: Why are there only so few competitors in the Australian Championship?
Simon Orton: I think I have just been too dominant and obviously intimidated everyone. 😉 The last time I competed in 2007 there was a lot more publicity. They hired a PR person and I had quite a few Interviews and TV appearances after winning. That was good but the next year in 2008 there were only two Australian competitors. For some reason the promotion of the Australian Championship isn’t working at the moment.
“I like Speed Cards because it’s fast, colourful and easier for non memorizers to understand what you’re doing – and it is an impressive party trick.”
Memory-Sports.com: Let’s come to your website, the Memory Sports Statistics. How did it start?
Simon Orton: Ben Pridmore suggested the idea for a site with a page for each competitor, showing their personal details and best scores in each discipline. That was in 2005 when Ben started the Yahoo Memory Sports Group. Soon after that I started putting together a database of all the results, because they hadn’t all been in one place. And once I had the database, the next logical step was to make a site to show all these results. It all happened about three and a half years ago. Gradually I added bits and pieces here and there since then.
Memory-Sports.com: Do you work on the website just by yourself?
Simon Orton: Yes. A lot of people helped me in the beginning, mainly in terms of providing the competition results. But it’s just been me doing the work on the site.
Memory-Sports.com: You have not just the one and only official ranking list in the world. There is a Score Calculator, you can compare competitors with each other and you inform about battled and upcoming championships. Any other plans for features like this?
Simon Orton: I had a few ideas but lately I have been focussing on the Online Challenge site. One of my ideas was a Grandmaster page, which would show who is a Grandmaster. And for the competitors who are not yet Grandmasters, how many of the three requirements they already have. I think that would be a good addition. The other thing I had thought about is translating the site into different languages.
Memory-Sports.com: Tell us a little bit about your Online Challenge.
Simon Orton: The idea is that people from around the world can compete simultaneously on the Online Memory Challenge website. I started it at the end of 2007. It worked well, but the first version wasn’t very flexible and had just three disciplines: Words, Speed Numbers and Speed Cards. Since then I build a second version of it, which included the training functionality. People can now train on the website any time they want. And I included Binary Numbers as well. It’s been something I have enjoyed working on and it has become quite popular. I have about 50 registered competitors and 30 regular competitors. Over the last year I was working on that in a lot of my spare time.
Memory-Sports.com: How does it work exactly?
Simon Orton: The regular competition is every Sunday at 10 AM Greenwich Mean Time. But just in the last couple of weeks I opened it up, so that competitors can schedule competitions at any time they like. Since then there have been a lot more challenges, sometimes once a day and sometimes even more than once – in general maybe three or four times a week. Whoever is available at the time can compete. There is also a ranking list with the idea to compete regularly.
Memory-Sports.com: So if I want to compete against a friend on the other side of the world, I can create a challenge and begin?
Simon Orton: That’s right. The other thing is the option to receive an email, when anybody is creating a challenge and be informed about the time. So if you are available you can come and compete.
Memory-Sports.com: Can everybody join a competition?
Simon Orton: Yeah, I tried to cover most of the common languages in the world. The random words can be in Chinese, Japanese, Russian, French, German – there are about eleven languages available. The idea is that everyone interested in memory sports can compete. I don’t think we have anyone from China yet, but we have a competitor from Japan, plenty of Germans, Russians and a couple of English.
Memory-Sports.com: What do you say about the easy way to cheat in such a competition?
Simon Orton: There are definitely some elements of trust in there. But since there is no prize money, there is no great incentive to cheat. People keep it honest in general – I don’t think anyone’s been cheating so far. But certainly it’s very easy to cheat if you want to.
Memory-Sports.com: What can I do, if I want to join the challenge?
Simon Orton: You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and just send me your name. I will set you up as a competitor and email you a personal link to the challenges website. The site for outsiders is this. The registered competitors have an extra ID at the end of their link, which tells the system who they are. If you are not registered you can still see the challenges as they happen as a spectator. But you can’t do the training and compete. The reason I’ve done it like that, is that I don’t know how to make a login page. But the advantage is that you don’t have to remember a password. You can put all your energy in memorizing the numbers and words.
Memory-Sports.com: Good one, Simon! Thank you for your time.