The South Bank Brain Show

The 1st Mind Sports Olympiad will be the highlight of a summer of games-playing. William Hartston looks forward to the finest collection of anoraks the world has ever seen.

For the nation's games players, the millennium will be arriving three years early. This summer promises an unparalleled orgy of game-playing throughout the land. From 11 July until 30 August, Leicester City Gallery has chosen board games as the theme of its major summer exhibition, with game-related art, art-related games, and activities for all. Meanwhile, Highclere Castle, near Newbury, is holding a Family Games Festival on 17 August, with giant Jenga, among other things both big and small, in the castle grounds. Furthermore, 100 years of draughts-playing will be celebrated in the the English Centenary Open Draughts Championships from 25-29 August in Weston-super-Mare.

All these events, however, will be dwarfed by the biggest gamesfest ever to hit these (or perhaps any other) shores. The long-awaited 1st Mind Sports Olympiad will take place at the Royal Festival Hall from 18-24 August, with as wide a range of games of skill imaginable.

Besides the ultra-mainstream games of chess, bridge and backgammon, there will also be draughts, shogi, Scrabble, Chinese chess, Go, gin rummy, mahjong (Chinese rules) and Othello. For the purer competitive thinkers, there will be competitions for mental calculation, speed reading, creative thinking, crossword puzzles, computer programming, memory and IQ tests. And for the dedicated games-players, we are promised jigsaw puzzle competitions, Continuo, Rummikub, Mastermind, Skat (German rules) - indeed everything from Abalone to Zatre. Contestants who fancy their game-playing versatility may enter the Pentamind or Decamentathlon events, featuring five and 10 separate mental competitions respectively.

There will be two playing sessions every day, from 10am to 2pm and from 4pm to 8pm. The major sports, such as chess, bridge and Go, will run for five days, while minor games will be decided in competitions lasting only one or two days. Thanks to sponsorship from the financial services company Skandia, the 1st Mind Sports Olympiad will have a total prize fund of pounds 100,000, of which pounds 10,000 will go to the open chess tournaments.

The principal organisers of the event, Tony Buzan, Raymond Keene and David Levy, have all made their marks in various areas of mental competition. Buzan is the inventor and chief exponent of Mind-Maps, a technique that enables the hard-of-thinking to get their brains in order by doodling their thoughts on paper in an organised manner. Raymond Keene is a chess grandmaster and entrepreneur, and David Levy is the chess-player/computer scientist who usefully supplemented his income - until Deep Blue came along - by betting professors of computing that their toys would not beat him at chess. Together they bring to the organisation of this event an unrivalled combination of talents in the field of mental competition. They have been trying for several years to get this concept off the ground. Now they have succeeded, game-playing may never be the same again.

As the first of its type, the quality of the competition remains a great unknown. World champions in several of the more curious games have indicated that they will be present, but whether the events will approach the status of true world championships or will just be seen as an opportunity for some competitive fun will only become clear as the entries roll in. The sponsorship from Skandia, however, does at least guarantee that the more serious potential contestants may be tempted by prizes considerably higher than those usually on offer for the more arcane games.

Will this be a great celebration of the power of the human mind, as the promoters are clearly trying to portray it, or will it be the greatest collection of anoraks that London has ever seen? When traditional game- players meet high-profile organisation in the splendid setting of the Royal Festival Hall, the probable answer is that it will be both. If all goes according to expectations, this will be both a mental marathon to rival the event that blocks the capital's streets every spring, and will also be the greatest Nerdathon since train-spotting began.

Prospective entrants, or anyone in search of further information, should contact David Levy on 0171-485 9146 or consult the web site of the event at: http://www.mindsports.co.uk

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