March 27, 2023

Mind Sports Olympiad – the World Cup for brainiacs

Keep it friendly but competitive…

The Mind Sports Olympiad is a competition for games of mental skill, aka a World Cup for brainiacs. It has been running since 1997 and the 2013 edition is being held at the University of London from 16-25 August 2013. Open to anyone who wants to enter I thought I’d go along and see what’s what.

I reached the third floor of the ULU building on Malet Street, walked out of the lift and was immediately asked if I wanted to audition for Countdown. That’s how everyone who attends the is event is regarded – potential Countdown material.

‘No thanks,’ I said.

I have seen the Channel 4 programme and although I can easily make lots of words from the selection of letters they give, they are usually along the lines of me, dog or she. Undeterred the Countdown girl asked the same question of the man who had arrived with me in the lift. He didn’t want to be on Countdown either, although his reason was different. He’d already been on it.


Lots of different games are played at the Olympiad, including Chess, Monopoly and Diplomacy. When I visited there were three games underway: Scrabble, Backgammon and Settlers. I have no idea what that is either, but it involves octagonal-shaped cards and Monopolyesque buildings. The games were being played in a wooden-floored room with strange black markings on the ground. National flags fluttered – as much as flags can flutter inside – down the walls.

The Backgammon pros arrived with their boards, folded up and looking like wooden briefcases. There were so many Scrabblists they needed more boards, and had to resort to the pile that no one wanted to use. Because, it turned out, they have ‘feelie’ letters, so players could tell which was the blank. Not that anyone would resort to such behaviour.

Before I arrived I thought there would be lots of spectators at the Mind Sport Olympiad. Maybe there’d even be a Barmy Army supporters’ choir singing songs about the performances… He rolls to the left, he rolls to the right, that Mitchell Johnson knows how to roll dice… What I didn’t expect was to be 50% of the crowd. The Scrabble room was soon silent, people raising the bag of letters above their heads to pick out their new letters.

I went to the other room to experience backgammon as a spectator sport. Unfortunately watching people play backgammon isn’t as gripping as it sounds. I decided to come back and experience another sport during the week.

I returned on Tuesday evening to see what was happening. The Mind Sports Olympiad is far better than the Olympics in that you can just turn up without a ticket and be guaranteed to get in. There’s no applying months in advance in the hope you’ll get a ticket for anything. Of course, on the downside cribbage is never going to be as exciting as the 100 metres.

Photo 4

James v James, Tetris

Tuesday was Tetris night, one of the most popular video games of all time. Although bear in mind that all time in the video game context goes back to about 1970, so it’s not quite as impressive as it sounds. I’ve never watched Tetris on the big screen before. It’s more of a spectator sport than backgammon, although I’m not saying that it will attract people away from footie. Played as a two player game on the Wii the competition got going with James versus James, which was easy to remember. Each match was the best of three games, so they could be lengthly when you get two experts together.

Other games that can be played at the Mind Sports Olympiad include Mastermind, Gomoku and Poker. You can see the full list here. The most unusual is Diving Chess. Competitors are allowed to think for as longs they like, with one proviso. They have to be underwater. As soon as they breathe they have to move. I am not making it up.

University of London Union

Malet St


Until Sunday 25th August

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