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Spoken Numbers

Edited Transcript of Facebook Live, Phil Chambers 24/5/20

I’m going to talk about the Spoken Number discipline in the World Memory Championships. Spoken number is delivered with one digit every second, hearing it just once and then writing down the digits in order after that. There are three trials. First trial in the World Championships is 200 digits, followed by 300 digits and then finally 547. Because it’s sudden death, at the first mistake we stop marking. This means you have to make sure you get your early digits correct. Of course, if you get the first digit wrong, even if you get everything else right subsequently from that, you’ll still score zero. Obviously in the early trials, try to get some points on the board, then you can go all out for death or glory in the final of the three attempts. In the early days, the numbers were read out on a microphone by Jeffrey Mallion.

Jeffrey was the chief arbiter at the time, ran front of house and was MC for the championships. He would read numbers out on a microphone at one digit every two seconds as accurately as he could manage. One every two seconds was much easier and eventually it was deemed to be too easy. That’s why we’ve now reduced it to one second and of course transferred over to a computer reading the numbers, rather than a person. This way you get perfect accuracy no matter where in the World the event is, with the same voice and the same pattern of exactly one every second – No variations. That’s obviously very important for a level playing field around the world. They’re always only in English. The reason for that is we had a disaster many years ago. We tried to do simultaneous translation. People had headsets on and we had four laptops, each one with a different language. The competitors would tune to the right channel for their particular language.

We borrowed a couple of the laptops, set it all up ready to go and started playback. Unbeknownst to us, one of the laptops had a clock app which announced the time of day. Half way through the spoken number in German, it said, “It is 12 o’clock.” Of course, that completely threw their concentration at the unexpected noise. In the rules of the championship if there is an unexpected disturbance, you stop recording, wind back and then continue. Because we weren’t monitoring all the channels and since only one channel was affected we didn’t notice it. At the end of the memorization phase, all the Germans put their hands up and said an interruption occurred in our recording. Everybody else, writing their numbers down were oblivious to the issue. We had a problem. Should we abandon the attempt and start again, which is not fair then to everybody else who’d done the first attempt? Or just give the Germans a retest and let everybody else’s score stand. The Germans said that’s not fair because we’ve used up our best journey when we were trying to memorize the first attempt. So we came to a compromise in the end. What we did is, we said to the Germans, “Okay, we’ll do it again with you and we’ll take the best of two. Depending on whether you’ve got your best in your attempt when it was interrupted or on your second attempt, we’ll take the best of those two”, which they accepted. 

To avoid a recurrence of this kind of problem we decided that actually, especially as the competition expands with many, many more people, it is unfeasible to wear headphones to hear the recording. It’s shouldn’t be too difficult for competitors to learn the numbers from zero to nine in English. They are memory competitors after all. So that’s why it was decided now it will always be in English. We thought it best not to have extra complexities which we don’t actually need in the competition. Now, one digit per second in English with 200, 300 and 547 digits. Although even that’s becoming too easy now because Ryu Song I, World Champion last year from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, got a perfect score in all three trials. Everything we gave her, she memorized.

Obviously will we continue to increase the number of digits next year to be ‘World record plus 20%’ as it was before. If she’s able to do that perfectly, then other competitors will catch up and it then becomes too easy to do it, at one digit per second. We need to then think of a new standard. We obviously won’t change the rules until January, 2021 at the absolute earliest. We just need to think about can we do it faster? Is there some other way of doing it so it remains a big challenge? 

That’s the only thing I have to say about the spoken numbers. There’re no techniques I can give you to help you with it. It’s just a case of concentrating and getting your early points on the board before you then try your second and third attempts. 

Next week we’ll talk about the final discipline, Speed Cards. Until then, thanks for listening. 

Have a good weekend. 

Bye for now.

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