No rest from mental fight

The organisers of the first Mind Sports Olympiad believe that thinking can broaden the mind. William Hartston is not so sure
"I opened as usual with 1.e4, but was rather surprised when he replied with `n15' and told me this was the Go tournament. Thinking quickly, I played T23 and informed him that I had sunk his battleship, which would have been fine if he hadn't passed me the doubling cube and used all his seven letters in forming the word NO-TRUMP on a triple word score. Luckily for me, he fell down a snake the next move and I was back in the game."

At least, I think that was what the man in the Meatloaf T-shirt said as I passed him at the Mind Sports Olympiad at the Royal Festival Hall. Or it may have been half a dozen other chaps in six other T-shirts. Sprawled over six floors of the building, the Mind Sports Olympiad comprises competitions in 39 different games. From well-established international mental sports such as chess, draughts, bridge and backgammon, through the oriental world of Shogi, Go and Chinese Chess, the African Oware (in which the players appear to be absent-mindedly shifting olive stones between cocktail dishes), there is also room for Scrabble, Skat (a card game popular in Germany), Jigsaws, Othello, Rummikub, Speed Reading, memory and IQ tests, and a host of things I had never seen before, with names such as Abalone and Fanorona. There is even a Hare & Tortoise competition. My money's on the Tortoise.

With 1,000 entrants signed up before the event began, and another 250 enrolling for competitions on the first day, the event has surpassed expectations. Thanks to sponsorship from the Swedish insurance giant Skandia, the total prize fund is over pounds 70,000 with an additional pounds 35,000 in goods.

Organisationally, the whole thing appears - perhaps inevitably - rather shambolic. Apart from the medal ceremonies, with their garish trumpet- fanfare-adorned pomp, there was little sign of any co-ordination between the various events. The banners festooned around the building confirmed that everything was part of one unified event, but the only real confirmation was the constant sight of harassed-looking members of the organising committee, either collapsed in the press room or, more often, wandering up and down the stairs taking to each other wearily through earpieces. But perhaps the Olympic Games themselves are much the same.

By holding so many events under one roof, and attracting several world champions, even in events that most of us didn't even realise held a world championship, the first Mind Sports Olympiad has undoubtedly succeeded in one objective: this is the greatest Gamesfest ever seen in Britain. But there must be considerable doubt about whether the event has supported the organisers' underlying beliefs about intellectual games.

The event was the brainchild of Tony Buzan, a lecturer and consultant who runs courses designed to enhance people's mental capacities, and chess grandmaster Raymond Keene. Both have long propagated the view that intellectual games are good for you. "Mens sana in corpore sano," says Buzan whenever he is given the chance. One of those unhealthily fit-looking 55-year-olds who bound around exuding energy, Buzan maintains that physical and mental fitness go hand in hand. At the Festival Hall this week, however, "mens sana in pot-belly protruding between jeans and T-shirt" might have been a more appropriate motto.

The question is whether playing intellectual games really helps develop the mind for more practical purposes, and the evidence is less clear than the Mind Sports proponents like to believe. Take the world memory champion, Dominic O'Brien, for example, who is hoping to confirm his supremacy in the Memory event at the Olympiad. Able to memorise an entire pack of cards in 40 seconds flat, or a string of some 200 digits, or reel off the answers to all the questions ever seen in Trivial Pursuit, he is clearly a bright chap. Fit, well-dressed and having a wide range of interests, he stands out from the average group of contestants. Having trained himself to perform these prodigious feats of memory, he now does it for a living. And that is the great sorrow of intellectual games.

Just think of all those great minds battling away on the South Bank - people who are the best in the world at their particular areas of mental expertise. And what do they choose to do with their finely honed minds? They play draughts, remember long strings of digits, and shuffle olive pips.

Why do these fine minds not offer their services to London Underground, to help them put up signs at sensible places in Waterloo station so that people can find their way to the South Bank in the first place? Why do they not design an all-British Millennium Dome?

The answer is that playing games well is not good for you at all. It's playing games badly that helps mental development. Learning a game is mind-stretching, but once you have gained sufficient expertise at chess, bridge or gin rummy, all you're doing is improving your skills in one narrow direction. It's the losers at this Olympiad who deserve the medals.

William Hartston will be giving contestants silly things to do in the Mind Sports Olympiad Creativity competition this morning.