Mental athletes tune up for Mind Games

THE MIND SPORTS Olympiad kicked off at London's Kensington Olympia yesterday with the world's premier mental gymnasts flexing their brain cells in preparation for nine days of gruelling competition.

They will be tested on their ability to remember sequences of numbers, packs of playing cards and people's names.

Quietly psyching himself up was Dominic O'Brien, the five-times world memory champion. He was munching a leaf from the sacred gingko tree and shuffling a pack of playing cards, while wired up to his computer to watch the right and left sides of his brain thinking.

"Training is as meticulous as for any physical sport," says the former dyslexic, whose amazing ability to remember number sequences has had him banned from casinos. "Goethe had a gingko tree in his garden and ate a leaf a day to improve his memory. If it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me."

Mr O'Brien's bizarre training methods underline just how competitive mind sports have become. At 42, he is trying to wrest back the title after missing out last year. He announced his intention to take part only last week. "I wanted to keep them guessing, like a football manager announcing his line-up just before kick-off," he said.

The football analogy is apt: serious contestants in all 40 games will be at the peak of physical fitness too - Mr O'Brien, who can remember a deck of cards in 38 seconds, jogs three times a week and plays golf.

Mental gymnasts, however, claim they do not resort to mind-enhancing substances, apart from coffee, tea - and oxygen. All faculties need to be fully operational. Fish (its oils are good for the brain) and pasta (good for stamina) are essential parts of the diet.

Their phenomenal powers of recall rely on imaging - the number 10 is represented, for example, by a picture of Tony Blair, seven by James Bond and so on. Typically these images are taken on a journey round a golf course and meet on different fairways to create a memorable "story".

The games at the MSO fall into two categories. There are tests of strategy and tactics such as chess, shogi, Scrabble, draughts, bridge, Othello and go; and there are games that test mental skills such as memory, speed reading, mind mapping, creative thinking, and even pub quizzes - chaired by Magnus Magnusson. More than 5,000 contestants from 60 countries will be competing for prize money of pounds 100,000.

"Historically mind sports have suffered from being seen as both elitist and trivial," said MSO organiser Tony Buzan, inventor of the concept of mental literacy. "Ruling families such as the Aikido in Japan kept their games secret so that they could maximise their authority. In Britain chess was taught only at private schools. And people pooh-pooh crosswords for being a waste of time.

"But we need to play mental sports. They are gymnasiums for the mind. They train the brain to think tactically, strategically and creatively, and they teach us how to win and lose. There is medical evidence too that exercising our mental muscles increases longevity and keeps Alzheimer's at bay."

The screen culture and greater leisure time have helped to hasten the spread of mind sports. A masters' chess match, for example, will typically get 50 million hits on the internet. And virtual tournaments have brought the game to hundreds of thousands of new players: at any moment 15,000 people are playing chess electronically.

Workshops at the MSO will teach people new games. But novices will be hard pressed to emulate Demis Hassabis's feat last year. When the 22- year-old software genius from Finchley, north London, arrived at the MSO he didn't know how to play bridge. By the end Hassabis, who was a chess master at 12, had won a silver medal in bridge to add to his seven in other games. His ambition this year is quite simply to become the world's best all-round mind sports player ever.

Woody Allen once said that the brain was his second favourite organ. But the appeal of mind sports is growing so fast that they may soon oust their more brawny rivals. Games have never been so serious.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent