In this report I write about the Mental Calculation World Cup 2010. Since the readers of this article are partly from the world of mental calculation and partly from memory sports I have tried to write this text in a way that both kinds of readers as well as the interested public can follow my thoughts and impressions.
June 5th – 7th the fourth Mental Calculation World Cup (MCWC) took place in Magdeburg, Germany in the course of the festival “Wissenschaftssommer 2010” which can be translated as summer of science 2010. Ralf Laue has organised the event every second year since 2004. Everybody interested in participating could apply for the world cup. Ralf Laue and his team selected the 40 best suited participants from nineteen countries to join the event at Magdeburg University. During the selection process Ralf and his team considered not solely previous results in mental calculation competitions but also results in other mental contests such as memory sports. My results from the World Memory Championships 2009 in London in combination with my training results in mental calculation were good enough to qualify myself for the fourth Mental Calculation World Cup. Thirty-three competitors from thirteen countries finally entered the competition. Unlike the World Memory Championships competitors of the Mental Calculation World Cup could choose in which disciplines they wanted to participate. Women and men as well as adults and children competed in the same contests. And let me tell you in advance that was a wise decision!
Being a competitor in the fourth Mental Calculation World Cup was very comfortable. The information presented on the website (http://www.recordholders.org/en/events/worldcup/index.html) was and is correct, easy to find and has been put there early in the process before the competition. Any rare mistakes found on the website or in the different language versions of the book of rules were corrected very soon after Ralf noticed them. Ralf has done an excellent job with the website considering his limited resources. However, Ralf would appreciate it if somebody would join his team to improve the quality of the website further. The communication between the organizing team around Ralf Laue and the competitors was very good. Ralf informed all competitors regularly about changes and updates. The event included accommodation, meals, a guided city tour, entertainment elements and lots of inspiration, interesting contacts and fun. The registration fee was zero Euros! In addition to this (pun intended) all the competitors had the opportunity to learn from each other. In summary the organisation of the competition was excellent.
All participants were picked up on June 5th 2010 (which was a Saturday) at Magdeburg central train station. After a short stop at a nearby café Bernd Reichel, a member of the supporting team, transported the competitors with a small shuttle bus to the hotel “Sachsen-Anhalt”. By the way Magdeburg is the capital city of Saxony-Anhalt and is situated at the river Elbe.
The competitors had some time for the hotel check-in and for acquainting themselves with their rooms. I stayed in a nice double-bedroom which I had all for myself. I used the time to inspect the room for its suitability for the method of loci, a method widely used in memory sports. All competitors got a welcome package including a name tag, a T-Shirt, some ball pens, a map, information about Magdeburg, the Otto-von-Guericke University and the night of science and a CD-ROM with articles from former Mental Calculation World Cups. Competitors met in the lobby of the hotel at 4:30 p.m.. The only person I already knew was Gunther Karsten (world memory champion in 2007) who was a member of the jury at the Mental Calculation World Cup. Mingling with the other mental calculators was easy and fun. The first person I talked to was Alonzo Lopez from Spain who could speak German quite good. Alonzo had travelled to Magdeburg to show his skills in memorizing 1 minute binary numbers (this discipline is not an official part of the MCWC).
At 4:45 p.m. we entered a big shuttle bus to be transferred to the city where we were to watch the recreation of a famous experiment by Otto von Guericke made in the 17th century. Guericke had shown that the vacuum within two copper hemispheres is so powerful that eight (later even twenty-four) horses do not have the power to separate the two hemispheres. Unfortunately we were late and the experiment was shorter than expected so we could not watch it.
Not being able to watch the hemisphere-experiment gave us the opportunity to be earlier at the restaurant. Before I came to Magdeburg I thought I was well prepared due to my experience in memory sports and some of my training results in mental calculation. As I soon found out before, during and after the dinner my preparation for the Mental Calculation World Cup was next to nothing.
At the restaurant I first spoke with Jan van Koningsveld. In the last three championships Jan became second in the overall rankings. Robert Fountain from Great Britain won the contest 2004 and 2006. 2008 Alberto Coto from Spain was the best calculator in the overall results, although Jan won the disciplines calendar calculation and square roots. In January 2010 the world record for the day of the week computation was 59 dates in minute. Before dinner Jan told me that he had broken this record on 12th March 2010 with 70 dates in one minute. For Jan training serves as a benchmark for the brain and he feels the flow when jumping to the next mental plateau. However, this time Jan was not in a good physical shape so he was not sure if he could perform very well. In the beginning of his mental calculation career he started for the Netherlands. After being married to a German woman and becoming father of now three kids (the youngest one can barely calculate) Jan decided to start for Germany which is possible because Jan has two citizenships.
Next eleven years old Priyanshi Somani from India got the attention of me and everybody else. Between dinner plates and surrounded by fully grown mental calculators Priyanshi calculated as fast as a thunder and with the precision of a computer. In less than five minutes she added thousand digits without a single fault. Furthermore in just 373 seconds Priyanshi extracted ten roots of six-digit-numbers to the 5th decimal place, once again without a single fault. By the time dinner was ready it was clear that we had great expectations (greetings from Charles Dickens by the way) for her. When adding numbers Priyanshi made finger movements. In fact it is not uncommon for great mental calculators to use body movements while calculating. Priyanshi explained to me that she used an imaginary abacus for calculating. She has learned using it outside the regular school curriculum. Priyanshi had trained mental calculation for about three to four years with the support of her whole family. It turned out that Priyanshi, although unknown to me and the other guys, is the Malaysian child champion. Her tip to improve in mental calculations: “practise is important”. However she told me that she practises regularly but not very much (compared to what top-athletes in memory sports reported to me). I assume that the use of an imaginary tool involves additional centres in the brain and that it improves imagination skills as well. Priyanshi was excited about the next two days.
Now that dinner was ready I realized that I was hungry. Before I could take some soup I was in conversation with Hua Wei Chan from Malaysia who likes to challenge himself. As the Malaysian competitors in memory sports, who I met at the World Memory Championships 2009 in London, Hua Wei is a very friendly person. He told me that my Chinese pronunciation is very good. This might be true since I studied sinology at university including written tests in Chinese but my vocabulary right now is limited to “ni hao” and similar stuff. However, Hua Wei told me that if you go to Malaysia or China people are happy even if you can say just a few words. So for all of you who will join the postponed World Memory Championships in Guangzhou, China in December 2010 it might pay off to invest a few hours to learn some Chinese.
Hua Wei, who is a much more experienced calculator than me, had not prepared for the day of the week computation. I decided to teach Hua Wei the doomsday method by John Horton Conway in a similar way I did during the closing ceremony at the Nintendo Memo Masters in 2009 in Hamburg, except that I also had to teach him how to calculate all the years from 1600 to 2100. Hua Wei grasped the idea quickly. I promised Hua Wei, that if he would train the method for about half an hour he would not finish last in this discipline. Priyanshi’s brother Chirayu Surat (I hope I got that name correct) and her father Satyen Somani (a kind man) joined our table. Chirayu who said that mental calculation is nothing for him accidentally overheard my conversation with Hua Wei. He immediately understood the concept. However, it became clear that 30 minutes training during dinner was not enough for both of them to substitute several years of training like Priyanshi had.
The evening continued and Gerald Newport from the US explained some mathematical stuff to me. The methods he uses seem to be very accurate but also very hard to apply. I found out that memorizing the squares of 1 to 100 is the absolute minimum for a contest such as the Mental Calculation World Cup but Gerald seemed to master the squares from 1 to 1000 (or he just can calculate really quickly). However, it became clear that he is a very versatile mental calculator. Gerald recommended to me the book “What is Mathematics? An Elementary Approach to Ideas and Methods” written by Richard Courant and Herbert Robbins. This book was quoted by Einstein as “easily understandable”. I have been compared to Einstein by German TV but after skimming “Dead Reckoning – Calculating without instruments” by Ronald W. Doerfler I doubt that I will understand the whole book without serious effort. After all I might be a good mental calculator some day but since I graduated in Business Administration and not in Physics or Mathematics I am not very used to read mathematical language. However, the book is worth a try for beginners in mental calculation like me. One book I can recommend to any newcomer in mental arithmetic (even those without any mathematical background) is written by Arthur Benjamin and Michael Shermer called “Secrets of Mental Math: The Mathemagician’s Guide to Lightning Calculation and Amazing Math Tricks” (also available in German). However, this book is only an introduction which does not fully cover all areas in the depth needed for the Mental Calculation World Cup.
At 8:45 p.m. Matthias Kesselschläger (2006 he was the MCWC-winner in calendar calculations with 35 dates in one minute) asked me to go with him aboard the science boat “MS Wissenschaft”. On the boat young and old people could experience science in a playful way. In a separated room there was an opening show for the mental calculation contest. Dr. Solka demonstrated some magic and calculation tricks. You can find more information about his presentations at http://www.dow.de.ki/. Obviously he has written a whole ebook about the calculation of calendar days (in German language). Since Ulrich Voigt author of the well researched book “Das Jahr im Kopf” says that Solka’s book has some new aspects it might be worth a look, but 95 Dollar for a pdf-file is a bit expensive in my opinion. If you can understand German I can recommend for beginners the chapter “Kalenderrechnen” in Dorothea J. Seitz (Youth World Memory Champion 2008 & 2009) first and recently published book: “Memo Master: Gedächtnistraining mit der Jugendweltmeisterin”. I purchased the book for 12 Euros last week at the airport where the cover with the binary numbers grasped my attention. The book is written in a way that everybody can understand it.
After we heard enough theory it was time to practise. Freddis Reyes Hernández from Cuba attempted to break the world record in the day of the week calculation. Freddis had never before joined a Mental Calculation World Cup. Because his trip from Cuba took some time he did not sleep within the last 24 hours. In the ten attempts available, he raised the bar to incredible 74 calendar dates in one minute. Just for comparison: the current Memoriad Software engineered by Melik Duyar has a maximum of 75 answer fields. Melik told me later that he will release a new version of his very good software in the future. So before the forth Mental Calculation World Cup had even started with Priyanshi, Gerald and Freddis three stars nobody in Europe had even heard of before demonstrated their impressive skills. At 10:30 p.m. we had to take the shuttle bus home.
One huge difference to Memory Championships is that participants can train their brain until the last minute. When Robin Wersig offered Stefan Lehman (both German) to explain a method for extracting square roots which is not even written down in any book I spontaneously joined the two of them. Robin had learned the method from another successful participant of the Mental Calculation World Cups (I think it was Robert Fountain). The method involved more basis knowledge than I had at this time. It was clear to me that once I can master this complicated method it is much more suited for mental calculation than the method I had trained before. On the other hand Priyanshi is very fast with the simple algorithm she had learned just three weeks before the Mental Calculation World Cup. However, these results are probably influenced by her imaginative abacus. After an exciting but also exhausting first day I finally went to bed realizing that the competition would be harder than I had expected.