Brain Spotting

It's as British as your local allotment society - a group of Mensans limbering up at the bar with clever puns and impromptu odd-one-outs. They are here for the beer (no isotonic energy drinks for these mental athletes), and the IQ paper in the world's first Mind Sports Olympiad. "If it costs 6p for an apple and 28p for a mango" I think I heard one say, "what's the price of a fig and a coconut?" I would simply ask the greengrocer. And point out that he's undercharging for his mangoes. But then I'm no lateral thinker. And it's lateral thinking that this week-long event has set out to laud and honour.

Ajax and Achilles playing chess seems like a suitable image to inscribe on the Olympiad medals. A game of Twister just wouldn't have had the necessary gravitas. Besides, all 39 disciplines have been chosen because they test some aspect of verbal, inferential, analogical and spatial/diagrammatical skill. And over 2,000 mind sportsmen and sportswomen from all four corners of the world (including the Kenyan Scrabble team and the Azerbaijani Draughts Federation) have spent months revolving in electro-magnetic fields and floating in epsom salts by way of preparation. Let the games begin.

Except that there are still only two phone lines and one modem in the building. And the world's press are expected at any minute. CNN are coming, for goodness sake, and the coffee isn't even on order. It's a problem that the Mensans would appreciate - although they prefer men digging ditches and women filling baths - but Don Morris (the only Olympiad organiser worldly enough to understand how the earpieces and walkie-talkies work) seems rock `n' roll about the whole thing. He's organised Phil Collins' wedding and three James Bond premieres, so sorting out a few board games in the Royal Festival Hall shouldn't prove too much of a problem.

There's no march past at the opening ceremony. No eternal flame. And no living flag. Just Raymond Keene, grandmaster and Olympiad organiser, making the first move on a crystal chess set. Straightforward - it's your basic 1.P-Q4. He hasn't got his back to the board. He isn't even blindfolded. But in the cerebral world of Mind Sports, this still passes for a photo opportunity. The second move will be made at the end of the week, by the chess gold medallist. As the Fanfare For The Common Man fades, photographers scurry about. The chess draw is about to be posted. An anxious invigilator steps forward. "Anybody got any blu-tack?"

Prize money has attracted players from 58 countries. "I received an e-mail from the Latvian Draughts Federation" says David Levy, chess master and Olympiad organiser. "It said `A question for us arises about the probable prize money for one draughts event (first place). Sorry for quite a materialistic interest, but our wages are not average West European.' Other people wrote `I want to know the conditions'. What they meant was `Is there an appearance fee, and is our hotel paid for?' I just sent them a list of cheap accommodation (Tent City in Acton is still only £4 a night) and a note saying `the nearest underground is Waterloo'."

Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion, was invited. He refused. That man wouldn't even pop next door for £2,000 and a Concorde ticket. But there's a fair showing of gaming celebrities. Zia Mahmood, who once lost £10,000 on a hand of bridge, is here and wearing Armani. It's in stark contrast to the bri-nylon favoured by the English. He's not sure what country he's representing (born in Pakistan, now resident in Trump Towers), but he's playing duplicate bridge with admirers who call themselves Zia's Lovelies. He still dreams of bridge as an Olympic sport. I point out it's hardly a `sport'. Not very aerobic. The playboy smiles. "It can be - the way I play it."

Then there's Ron King - the Mohammed Ali of the chequers world. He's cracking his knuckles. "I am the greatest chequers player in the world - ever. You know what I say to the other players here? Don't look at the first prize. It's disrespectful. Concentrate on second, or I'm only going to beat you worse." They pay attention. King wins gold by Wednesday, and rushes off to defend his world title in Weston-Super-Mare. He's one of the new generation of Brain Stars, as the Olympiad likes to call them - intellectuals who are hounded by autograph hunters. "Look at Carol Vorderman" says Keene. "Very famous. She's just someone who knows her 19 times table".

Levy is probably a C-List Brain Star. When he's not playing chess or organising Olympiads, he is a computer scientist. He recently won $2,000 for designing a computer programme which could hold conversations with a panel of five human judges. Games players get terribly excited about the battle between man and machine. They love to hear how the chess computer Deep Blue beat Kasparov. Levy's programme has 60 different topics of conversation, and a database with a large range of synonyms to guide it from one topic to another. And, boy, has it got an impressive range of algorithms. But, like your average Mensan, you wouldn't want to get stuck in a lift with it.

Down in the Festival Hall ballroom, inventors are trying to interest passers-by in their new games. Bronia Grycz from the Czech Republic invented `Destiny' when he first saw photographs of Stonehenge. I think he explained that players are different planets revolving around the stones. You live as long as possible, attracting fortune (represented by a large-breasted woman) until you die. I must say, it grabbed me more than Owari. In Owari you capture the nuts of the Guillandria bush. Touch a nut, you've got to move it. One player mistakes my smile for naked excitement. "You know what we say? Anything can happen in Owari".

In Azerbaijan, they probably say the same about draughts. Everyone at an event like this knows Azerbaijan as the birthplace of Kasparov. And as an eastern bridgehead to the conquest of America in Risk, the game of world domination. But, after oil, draughts is Azerbaijan's greatest export. The draughts delegation had no trouble with visas. It was "momenta - yes!" according to the team coach. The government's sports committee are even paying their expenses, down to accommodation in the Strand Palace Hotel. The team don't mind that Guntis Valneris, the e-mailing Latvian, scoops the prize money. "We have one message - hoorah!" they say.

The Kenyan Scrabble team did have some last minute visa problems - and are three players down. So Francis Wachira is happy to be in London at all. English is Wachira's third language - but Spears don't produce Scrabble sets in Kikuyu or Swahili. Early on in the match, he is saddled with a `heavy rack' (big on consonants). Then a `Carmen Miranda' (I, I, I, I, I). While he considers his words, he deliberately points the tiles on his rack in different directions. Later, I ask why. "Witchcraft, my friend". I think he was joking. But it's not enough to win the £2,500 first prize - the highest Scrabble prize ever paid out in Britain.

Top Scrabblers traditionally come from data-rational occupations, such as computing. But, according to the Olympiad invigilator, a World Champion will need to have a vocabulary of nearly 250,000 words. Shakespeare, poor old devil, could only draw on 30,000. Of course, Scrabblers don't have to understand the meaning of what they're putting down - just whether it takes an `S'. Mark Nyman, the producer of Channel 4's word game Countdown, has bowled up. He's looking for new contestants, based purely on their ability with letters. "Great personality is all well and good, but it's not much use if all you're saying is `Consonant please, Carol'."

Dominic O'Brien prefers numbers anyway. He's Mr Memory. He drops his brain activity to five hertz - roughly equivalent to sleep - then runs through a practice deck of cards in 42.8 seconds. Each card represents a person. The queen of hearts is Lady Di. The ten of spades is Dudley Moore. If the ten of spades follows the queen of hearts, O'Brien pictures Lady Di playing the piano. Then he creates a scenario. "Yesterday it was Guildford High Street. Tomorrow it could be a house party in Spain." In the grand final he breaks the world record, memorising 4,000 random binary numbers. That's a long string of zeros and ones. And television producers are starting to look worried.

The act of thinking just isn't very televisual. "It's never going to be 'Great - the Mind Olympiad's on tv!'" says Howard Hill, producer for Worldwide Television News. He wants to bring the games to life on-screen with commentary and pull-down graphics. "It all needs to be a bit more funky." The PR company charged with selling the Olympiad really wants funky. "The power of the mind is just as sexy as a finely-tuned body" runs one of their press releases. "The sex organ that is easily the largest on Earth - not your genitals, your brain!" Then a young Eastern European girl walks past in the shortest of skirts. "It could be funky" says Hill. "If she ever becomes a grandmaster."

It is humid. Certainly too humid for anoraks. So the mental athletes are coming smart/casual. They seem to sweat more than physical athletes. And wash less. The smell on level one (chess/abalone/rummikub) is unbearably male. The female of the species has - by and large - chosen to stay away. "Mens sana in corpore sano" says Buzan, the creator of Mind Maps and Olympiad organiser, whenever a microphone is near. He maintains that physical and mental fitness go hand in hand. He obviously hasn't been up to Magic: The Gathering on level five, where sallow-skinned youths look like they could all do with a plateful of vegetables and some natural light.

Magic: The Gathering is a card game that satisfies all those latent Tolkein fantasies. It's played mostly by boys not yet old enough to shuffle. "Jungle worm! Talk about trample! Klang!" says the young chap with the peach fuzz. He's lost again. "Same old story" he says. "Lots of venom, not enough forests." It's difficult to see how the Olympiad can stand up its claim to be the Global Intellectual Battlefield when boys are winning medals simply because they've got Pestilence. Or Enormous Growths. Enormous Growths are oversized rats, by the way. And even Ajax and Achilles would have drawn the line at winning like that.

Magic: The Gathering illustrates the Olympiad's image problem. Try as they might, the organisers can't dispel the image of mind-sport sorts as geeks who can't park a bike straight. And the biggest problem is the Mensans. "IQ of 195, but can't turn on a light" Levy whispers to me over lunch. Then wishes he hadn't. Lange-Eichbaum, a German psychiatrist, emphasised the importance of inner conflicts as stimulants to great achievement. A personality happily adjusted to its environment and never stirred to action by opposition and frustration is doomed to obscurity. Mensans have the worst of both worlds - frustrated and obscure. If there is a Mind Sports pecking order, Mensans are definitely at the bottom.

Creative Thinking, well now that's a different matter. Less of an air of skull measuring and brain weighing about it. Just ask William Hartston, who trained as an industrial psychologist and set the Creative Thinking paper. He did a test with Mensa members to try and work out why they are such chronic under-achievers. "It was amazing how many hadn't actually bothered to read the instructions. Or turn over the page to see the rest of the questions. Some even forgot to put their name on the top and a stamp on the envelope. Creative Thinking is more practical. It's about IQ plus experience."

Creative Thinking is that strain of intellect that lies at the heart of humour. "Lead a person up one path, build up their expectations, then derail them" says Hartston. Boom, boom. First question is `List as many uses as you can for a soft-boiled egg'. One man writes `To throw at a hard-boiled dictator'. Another suggests slicing the white and the yolk separately, and then making a draughts set. They escape the notion of egg as a breakfast food. They think texture. They think shape. One poor chap thinks too much. When he finds he has missed an important question, he screams and punches the wall. Security is called.

Levy knew his concept of `mental athletes' could be attractive to sponsors. But, understandably, the sponsors took some convincing. "Business was always stricken by palsy of the right hand at the last minute". In fact, it took Levy 11 years ago before Skandia, the Swedish financial services company, saw the potential. Skandia are big on Intellectual Capital. Look at City companies, they say. Their tangible assets might be small, but their value on the stock market is big. That differential is down to human expertise - or Intellectual Capital. And the company could see the Olympiad would be full of Intellectual Capitalists.

For the duration of the Olympiad, Skandia set up a Brain Cafe - actually a few computers with a flapjack stand. Keene is relaxing in a one corner, in a deck chair, facing a video wall of ambient images. You wouldn't know it, but the man is actually playing chess with the people 20 feet behind him. A little beared fellow runs between the two groups, with their moves scribbled on bits of paper. When you're a grandmaster, you can visualise a chess board in your head. In the other corner, a man is playing chess over the internet with a man in China. It's his fourth coffee, and he looks totally wired. He's been sat there for three hours.

These are virtual athletes, and the internet is their natural medium. The world record number of internet hits for a single event was the Garry Kasparov v Deep Blue chess challenge in May, with nearly 22million visits. The game, which lasted less than one hour, attracted 12 million more hits than the entire Atlanta Olympics. This is where the Olympiad's future lies. Eric Schiller, who moderated the Deep Blue contest, ran the Mind Sports' hugely successful internet chess challenge. Some contestants probably cheated (by running chess programmes on their computer), and they all used nicknames to conceal their identity. But maybe next year Squit, Bughouse and Crafty will see fit to identify themselves.

Buzan is convinced that we are entering a new era of the mind. A lecturer and international arbiter of mental world records, he animates with massive great hand gestures that might look to scale when you're at the back of the hall, but could frighten small children close to. "Brain is increasingly becoming the focus in our society" says Buzan. I move out of the way of his hands. "Not brawn. Take Michael Jordan. The world's wealthiest athlete. He's worth $200million, and everyone thinks he's enormously wealthy. But Bill Gates is worth $40billion. The point is that you earn more from the brain than the body - and by a huge multiple."

It's a good point. Society needs its thinkers. The Bankers' Trust, an American Merchant Bank, used to recruit solely from Ivy League colleges. A few years back, they opened up corporate recruitment to include chess grandmasters. Companies have recognised that these days want lateral - not linear - thinkers. The question is whether they want someone who can capture the nuts of the Guillandria bush? Or recall pi up to 40,000 decimal places? I doubt it. Those people have chosen to improve their skills in one narrow direction. As Hartston says, "Playing games well is not good for you at all. It's playing games badly that helps mental development."

Maybe that's why Allan Blewitt showed up. He's playing Rebecca Faulkes, the youngest competitor in the chess tournament. Experts say that, one day, she will reach the rank of master. Today she's having trouble reaching pieces on the other side of the board. She is six, and giving Blewitt (who grudgingly concedes that he's 27) a sound beating. Blewitt tells Faulkes to sit properly on her chair. Faulkes is bored with it all. Too easy. "When Kasparov plays" says Blewitt "he bangs the piece down, gets up from the table and slams the door on his way out." Blewitt tries the gambit. It doesn't work. The pair meet 16 times in the tournament, and Blewitt wins only once.

He should try jigsaws. Pundits are expecting a boat, or a nice historical building, but no. This is 500-piece Total Jigsaw, so it's all seas and skies in a variety of pastel colours. The other competitors left 90 minutes ago, but Peter Wood from Hastings puzzles on. He doesn't care. He only entered for something to do in the morning. He is happy to chat away while he pieces together a particularly troublesome wave. His secret? "Tip the pieces out of the box. And get a big table." But he has another secret. There are three competitors in the jigsaw. The only way Wood can fail to take home a bronze is to leave it in the cloakroom by accident.

The closing ceremony is an endurance test in its own right. There's no podium to wave from, and no national anthem to cry along with, so the photographers are praying for a Black Power salute to liven things up. It doesn't happen. The organisers create a bit of a stir by mis-reading the results for the Go competition, and giving the medals to the wrong people. Everyone wants to know what metal the medals are made of. It transpires that the gold, silver and bronze aren't even plated. The foreigners wear theirs with pride, but the Brits can't wait to put them in their pockets. Even at a Mind Sports Olympiad, Brits can't bear to look too clever-clever. Apart from the Mensans.

This Olympiad was a promising dress rehearsal. Air conditioning would be nice next year. And spitoons for the Chinese Chess players - the Peking delegation disturbed the Speed Readers with their catarrh. More sponsorship will mean that the IQ tests can be translated into several languages. And commentary delivered to spectators through ear-pieces. The event can be properly promoted. Especially in the Spanish-speaking world. A sympathetic journalist, who was scheduled to write something rousing in El Pais, got thrown out by his girlfriend. So the feature was never written. You'll be pleased to know the journalist has now recovered, but he's taken up solitaire.

"The Olympiad has marked a return to the Greek idea of competition" says Buzan. "Back then, the winner was always congratulated - `Thankyou for being the conduit. Thankyou for showing us how the Gods might do it'." It's just difficult to imagine the Gods being bothered with finishing a jigsaw. It was a good-natured week. And if sponsors really are sick of steroid-bound athletes, they could do worse than this lot. No `brailling' in the Scrabble, where competitors feel the outline of the tiles in the bag. No `coffee-housing', where opponents distract each other with small talk. And not one positive drug test all week.

 
 
    © Richard Johnson 2000 - 2009