Tuesday, 28 June 2011

UK Riichi Mahjong Open 2011

Last year I went to the UK Riichi Mahjong Open, and wrote what turned out to be a fairly scathing blog post about it afterwards, which caught a fair bit of attention, no least because it was quoted heavily (and somewhat out of context) by the online Mahjong News magazine. Whilst my complaining was less a dig at the people there and the organisers, and more a somewhat dismayed observation that a group of people in Cambridge had apparently only taken six months to get to a standard above what apparently most of the UK had to offer, I stand by my comments. The standard at the tournament last year was generally pretty bad, and I don't think it'd take much practice and teaching to get someone to above that standard.

This year, however, was different. Maybe word has spread around better, or maybe the game is increasing fairly rapidly in popularity, but people were good this year. There were still a few players who really didn't seem to understand the entire defensive side to the game, but out of the fifteen people I played, and the nine of those who weren't from Cambridge, I'd say only one or two were noticeably not that great, and even those weren't hugely terrible. So pretty much the complete opposite of a year ago.

(Photo courtesy of Matthew Johnson)

The day involved getting up at 4:45am and walking to the station in pissing rain, because we had to be in Guildford for around 8:30am, and trains between Cambridge and Guildford involve going through London and take forever. The journey there was reasonable enough, we arrived in good time and got registered, and chatted to a few people.

I can't remember a huge amount from my games, other than I felt I played fairly solidly. I missed out on a potential yakuman by taking a poor decision early into a hand, and I also lost out on a fairly big seven pairs hand from taking the wrong choice in a 50/50 decision on my waiting tile. I didn't really screw up much, but I didn't get a huge amount of luck either, so I alternated between fairly nice wins and small losses. I finished a respectable eighteenth, which I was fairly happy with.

On the whole the tournament did a decent job of being able to play some real-life mahjong (as opposed to online stuff) with players of a pretty decent calibre, which is all you're really going to get from a one-day tournament. My only real complaint is that five games isn't anywhere near enough for the skill to filter through properly, and I think that those at the very top of the rankings are there because they are good players, but also because they got a fair helping of luck through the day. I don't think anyone would really argue otherwise either - the winner himself said pretty much the same thing on the train back to London.

That said, I don't really think there's much that could be done. Mahjong is inherently fairly luck based, and while Riichi offers a fair amount of scope for skill to make a difference, if the flow of the game isn't in your favour then you're always going to struggle to make headway. Being the best poker player in the world won't help you much if the best cards you're going to get all day are a pair of sixes. Five games was also a pretty exhausting feat mentally, especially at the speed generally played during the tournament, and I doubt that there'd be any way to meaningfully expand the tournament to increase the role of skill without adding extra days.

What was nice to see was the appearance of other UK mahjong groups besides the Guildford and Cambridge strongholds from last year. There was a group from Leeds, and also a group that I already knew about from Warwick. It'd be awesome if some sort of Saki-style team tournament was possible in the future, and more groups like that are only going to increase the standard of play. I can't say it with complete confidence, but I'd say the people who were from groups that played regularly and took things moderately seriously were far better than the people who were there as individuals and presumably play primarily online. My only real disappointment on the team aspect of things was that in a table with three Cambridge guys (including myself) and one from Warwick (who hangs out in our IRC channel a fair bit), the Warwick player was the winner, although he was somewhat assisted by a fairly epic string of good hands as dealer at the start of the game.

So yeah, despite leaving my room at 5am and not getting back until a little past midnight (mostly due to train issues on the way back), it was a pretty good day. Looking forward to next year, and with rumours that the European Open may possibly be hosted in Cambridge in the near future, I'd be looking forward to that a fair amount as well. It'd be pretty good if there could be some sort of regular UK tournaments which were a bit more often than once a year, even if they were hosted on Tenhou or something, but I guess that's probably a way off yet. Still, good progress on last year's standard and nice to see things are going in the right direction.

May Bumps 2011 - Day 4

The alternate title for this post being "better late than never". It's actually been a week and two days since Saturday of bumps, but in fairness I have spent that week being pretty drunk, searching for a place to live next year, and competing in the UK Mahjong Open (post to follow).

The focus for M2 on the final day was fairly simple. We knew FaT II were fairly slow, and we knew we could hit them. We also figured that Girton I behind us would be pretty quick, and that they'd probably expect us to bump FaT and as a result come out of the blocks as hard as they could to try and hit us first.

As it happened, things went pretty much exactly to plan for the first race. We went out hard, we hit FaT pretty much within the first minute of the race, at Grassy Corner, and Girton didn't get anywhere near.

Credit to Malcolm Scott for the video, and for NOT ACTUALLY GETTING THE BUMP ON CAMERA. Thankfully City of Cambridge RC were somewhat better at getting the action.

I'm not really sure why Girton went that wide around the corner. The obvious answer could be that we cleared to the inside and forced them out, but we cleared to the inside specifically because I looked around when we made the bump and saw they were going wide, and that if we cleared to the outside of the river we'd probably crash straight into them. Maybe their cox anticipated us bumping out and was already going wide to avoid that, I don't know.

So we hit them, we did our best to stay out of harm's way on the inside of the corner, and then when everyone had gone through we moved across to collect our greenery, and parked on the opposite side of the bank. Right next to a wasps' next.

As it happens, Alex is fairly allergic to wasps, and as a result is also fairly prone to panicking when he sees one. Which meant that as a dozen or so wasps flew out at us, he shouted and flailed around a lot and got stung three times. There was some mildly frantic searching on the bank asking people for an EpiPen, we rowed back with just bow six, and spoke to the paramedic in Chesterton. Turns out that if he was going to go into anaphylactic shock then it would have long happened by then, and he was probably going to be fine. But we should be careful to note any heart palpitations or shortness of breath - not particularly easy to discern from the standard state while racing.

So somewhat distracted and slightly unsettled we got back in the boat, spun, and rowed up to marshall as the last boat in Division 1. And Pedro caught an absolutely phenomenal crab right before Ditton corner. In the two terms I've coxed him, he's never caught a crab, and he chose his moment to be in front of the biggest crowd that is ever likely to see him row.

The row itself wasn't particularly brilliant. It was OK, but we never really got close to Robinson, and I wouldn't say it was one of our best races ever. So not the best way to end the week, but the fact that we were even able to end the week that way, rowing over at the bottom of the first division, is a pretty awesome result.

M1 rowed over in second place, having apparently given Caius a fairly decent fight on the last day, and W1 comfortably rowed over to secure their second headship of the year. And we finished up three, at the bottom of Division 1 and having taken the M2 headship from First & Third Trinity. It's sort of the nature of bumps, but I don't envy whoever is going to be in that boat next year, because they'll have a tough spot to defend.

As far as I know, I won't be able to cox either Lents or Mays next year, because my course is going to shove me into placements outside of Cambridge and pretty much rule out any chance of being able to make outings consistently during term (there is still, quite annoyingly, no official word on this from the department though, so I'm not 100% sure to what extent it's actually the case). I'll hopefully be able to do Uni IVs again, and maybe Fairbairns (though nobody really gives a toss about that). If I can I'd probably hope to make the training camp too, though I'd most likely only want to go if there was actually a shortage of coxes. I'll definitely miss not doing it next year, but hey, that's life I guess.

Still, the races this year were great fun. I couldn't have asked for much more from my crew, and it was absolutely fantastic to take the M2 headship from FaT II, giving them spoons in the process, and to deny blades to our arch-rivals-of-sorts, Girton I, by forcing them to row over on the final day. It's been a good year for the club, and with two headships to retain for the women, and second place on the river in both for the men, it's set up to be a fairly good year next year too.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

May Bumps 2011 - Day 3

Today was something of a mixed bag for M2. We rowed over behind Robinson, losing our chance for blades, and the general feeling after the race was mostly one of disappointment and depression of having not hit them. We were a canvas off their stern for pretty much the entire duration of the reach and just couldn't quite rally that extra bit more to go for the kill. And to their credit, Robinson did a fucking good job of holding us at that distance for as long as they did. For every push we made, they had it in them to respond. In many ways it wasn't the failure that hurt, but the fact that we'd come so close to success and missed by literally a matter of inches. It was a hard-fought race in which we came close, and showed we were faster, but not fast enough.

Still, after a bit more time and proper reflection we're still in great shape for the week, and I've had easily taken moving up two in the first three days on Wednesday morning. Blades are fairly luck-based in bumps racing unless you really are miles faster than the crews around us, and as a second boat surrounded by first boats that was clearly never going to be the case. As Al said after we got back, the fact that we were disappointed at not being able to bump a fairly solid M1 crew is a good enough show of how much we've come along over the last few weeks.

We're still in awesome shape for the week, and Robinson had the graciousness of sending FaT II down into the second division for us tomorrow. They could really have fucked things up for us tomorrow if they'd rowed over, because we'd basically be faced with another tough day trying to hit them at the head of the division, with the added complication of Girton I behind us being fairly quick. As it stands at the moment, we should be quick enough to hit FaT II before Girton give us any trouble so long as we're relatively clean off the start, so it's still looking pretty promising for a good week and +3, which is a great result considering where we are. And if we do hit FaT II and get to be the sandwich-boat and row in the first division, then we'll see where we can get in the final race of the week. One bump away from the first division, from handing FaT II spoons, and from denying Girton blades. Bring it on.

W1 were boring and rowed over and, major strokes of bad luck and twists of fate aside, it seems fairly likely that they'll secure the double headship tomorrow. M1 managed to bump up to 2nd on the river, behind Caius. It would be unbelievably sweet if we could blade to headship and take it from them on the final day, in the exact same manner they did to us in Lents, and I really hope that it's a hell of a fight at the top of the division. Even if we don't quite make it, then we've still put ourselves into second place for both Mays and Lents, and in a really good position to have a go next year.

Really looking forward to tomorrow, and even if things don't quite go how they ideally would for M1 and M2, it's still been a strong week and should be a great evening. Bring on tomorrow, and bring on Sunday.

Friday, 17 June 2011

May Bumps 2011 - Day 2

First things first, today saw me take the honourable achievement of first place in the Thursday BumpIt competition. Screw the actual races, screw the fact that I'm doing shite in the overall competitions at the moment, that is where it is at boys and girls. In the good ol' days that would have won me a t-shirt (which therefore puts it on a par at least with Robinson Head, except the prize is more desirable). Also there are some pretty good photos of the racing yesterday on this site, especially some well-placed action photos of Downing W1 taking headship (and kudos to Lizzie for seemingly being the only one to bother holding it up).

Also video up of our row through Grassy corner today:

2011 May Bumps day 2 M2 from Malcolm Scott on Vimeo.

It is apparently a long-standing tradition (well, since around 2007) that every year, in the top half of the Men's Second Division, Peterhouse will be hyped beforehand as a fast crew. They'll be predicted blades, and while they will be fairly quick during the races, they will never actually make any real progress over the course of the week, going up maybe one or two places at best. And while Peterhouse are not making any real progress up the river, there will be Downing II there to row over behind them as they either bump out or also row over.

There was a fair amount of support today from old boys (mostly Sam Davis) for us to hit Peterhouse. Again, they had been hyped beforehand to be quick, but the row-over on the first day suggested that yet again they probably weren't likely to make much progress up the charts. The difference this year being that we had the extra speed in the crew to actually go out and hit them, moving us up a second place on our second day.

The race performance itself was much better than yesterday. We were still a touch scrappy off the start, but settled into it better, and when we pushed out the corners things felt quick. We were on-station with them round First Post, made a move in the gut and closed them to a length, with the rest of the race basically being a long, hard sequence of pushes, with each move bringing us a bit closer, until we eventually broke them just before the Railway Bridge, after about twenty strokes of fairly significant overlap (during which I probably should have steered for the bump a bit more than I actually did) and tore a fair bit of paintwork off the underside of our bow in the process.

It was a good race, and full respect for Peterhouse for putting up the fight they did, because they looked to be cracking around Ditton but held on for a good distance longer, to the point at which they seriously weren't far off hitting Robinson in front of them. The bump places us second in the second division now, with a chance of becoming the sandwich boat tomorrow if we can go out and hit Robinson, and a real shot at perhaps moving into the first division, and taking the second boat headship away from First & Third II, who look to be coming down pretty hard.

W1 rowed over at head, and unless Pembroke are plotting a final-day blitz, it doesn't look like there's anything coming up to take that headship away in the final two days of racing. M1 also continued their progress up the division by smashing Pembroke M1 on the reach, with a similar level of carnage and attempted murder of the stern pair as W1 managed yesterday.

And on top of that, M3 managed the first Mays bump for the Downing M3 boat since the Thursday in 2008, and should probably go up more places over the final two days to make up for the free-falling in recent years. W2 rowed over, and I reckon they'll probably make up for falling just short in the first day and hit Clare W2 tomorrow.

In general it's been a pretty good first two days, and fingers crossed it'll keep going until an epic party on Saturday evening.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

May Bumps 2011 - Day 1

Project work got stupid for the last two weeks, which is why this blog has been totally neglected and hasn't seen a real post in over a month. I did actually write a fairly big post on Bitcoins but then I re-read it, decided it was fairly shit, and so didn't post it.

But now it is the time of May Bumps, where I can make fairly easy posts that at least half the people who read this blog give a shit about (and the other half completely don't).

A couple of weeks ago I made vague hand-wavey predictions to how M2 would do in the races this week. I basically said we could be fast, but that we needed to get the technique sorted and gel as a crew, or we probably would be aiming to hold station at best. I have to admit, until a week and a half ago I was probably leaning more to the side of restraint and pessimism, with the simple fact being that we didn't seem to have a particularly huge amount of speed, and being at the top of the second division and being surrounded by first boats, we'd need a huge amount of speed if we were going to move up much.

Then Leo came and shaped us a bit, and last weekend we did some sparring with M1 and we basically won. They were quicker, but they really weren't that much quicker, and in the first five or ten strokes we were actually the faster crew. We did a timed piece from the A14 Bridge to The Plough, and demonstrated that we maybe did have the speed to take some boats on.

The real test was today, and that's where the nerves seemed to be too. The way bumps racing works puts a lot of emphasis on the first day. If you bump then you'll be likely to keep the momentum up and have a fairly good week, and if you get bumped (and it's not down to an equipment failure/crab/bad luck) then the next day you're unlikely to claim the place back, and suddenly the week feels very much in the hands of damage limitation.

I don't know if I'd just forgotten how bad it had been in the past, or if it really was worse than normal, but I was absolutely nervous as fuck today, from pretty much the moment I got to the boathouse to around a minute after the starting gun went. I would say forget past races, forget exams, forget important presentations I've had to give - in that eerie ten seconds of silence before the starting gun I was more nervous than I've ever been in my entire life. There was mild joking and banter when we were marshalling, but to be honest, I was completely bricking it. I wouldn't be surprised if most of the other guys were as well. The combination of the importance of the first day with not really knowing how fast we were compared to the crews around us really made it fairly tough.

Because of carnage during earlier divisions they were running late, meaning we didn't get any practice starts on the row up. I didn't say anything, but in my experience the first attempt at a start in the day is generally pretty crap, which is why I really don't like not being allowed at least one practice on the way up, but that's how it was. And boy was that first start a pile of crap (this being the start of the actual race).

It felt scrappy, it felt nervous, it felt panicked. Al taking a pretty big air-stroke for the second stroke of the race didn't help much either. Al asked for a second rhythm call, I gave it, and things calmed down a little, but they were still all over the place into First Post corner. We were still quick, and we moved up quite a bit on Selwyn I in front of us, but it definitely wasn't pretty. From what I could gather from what Al could gasp out between strokes, LMBC II weren't far off us behind, which probably didn't help the panic much either. It certainly didn't calm me down, because I can see fuck-all happening behind us or how far people are from our stern.

It stayed in the scrappy-but-quick state through the Gut and around Grassy, where our extreme spacking was captured fairly well in a photo by City of Cambridge RC:

We might not be one of the best crews on the river technically, but we can definitely manage to row a lot better than the bunch of doyles in that photo. It sums up the quality of the race until that point pretty well. What it doesn't show is the ten seconds prior to that photo where I had my heart in my mouth because I was concentrating on Selwyn a tad too much, and very nearly took the corner too tightly and crashed us into the inside bank. We were a matter of centimetres off clipping the foliage there, and I definitely didn't feel at the time like we had the stability (or space behind us) to cope with strokeside's blades catching on some branches.

Anyway, coming out of Grassy we had a fairly good rally, and then it suddenly clicked together a lot more. Plus LMBC II ran wide, giving us a fair bit of breathing space behind us, and it probably helped calm the panic a bit. We picked up some good speed out the corner, and started to really reel in Selwyn. It felt like the whole Plough Reach was just a continuous call to keep pushing hard and go for the kill. It's bloody hard from the coxes seat to have any decent judge of how far off they are, especially given that I can't see where my own bow is, and from about a quarter of a length away the best judge of distance I can really give is "we've almost got them". They held off us fairly well, to the point at which we seemed to start pushing them into hitting Peterhouse, but thankfully Ditton corner came to our rescue.

As info for non-rowers, boats slow down a fair bit with the rudder on, meaning that at the entrance to a corner the boat behind has the advantage because they'll be putting their rudder on later, and therefore braking the boat later. There was just enough space to get on the inside of Selwyn for the corner, and we had overlap, which meant I could go pretty much straight on into the corner and clip them as they steered round, which is exactly what happened.

After hitting them, there was the standard mix of joyous celebration and panicked GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE WAY, which wasn't helped by the fact that we were trying to clear to the outside while still overlapping Selwyn, which meant it took a bit longer than it perhaps should have done, but we did get out of the way.

It was far from our best row, but we got the result tomorrow, and Peterhouse seem to be pretty hittable based on how far off Selwyn they were today (ie. less than their station distance). I'd say as long as we fuck up only as much or less as we did today then things are looking fairly good for tomorrow, though the conditions will most likely be different (ie. even more windy/wet) and bumps racing generally isn't that predictable. Still, currently looking good for the week, and Girton seemed a fair bit slower than I expected them to be, even if they did eventually bump LMBC II.

W1 did a decent job today, bumping Pembroke pretty hard to go head of the division. There's still three days left, but I'd expect them to hold it for the rest of the week, though I doubt the crews behind will make it particularly easy. M1 bumped Jesus after a pretty tough slog to the railings, moving up to 4th, and it'll probably be a fairly hard-fought fight with Pembroke tomorrow. M3 were a bit unlucky to be forced to row-over in a division where pretty much everyone else bumped out, and from the race reports (and photos) W2 got pretty damn close to a bump before they ran out of steam and eventually got caught by Hughes Hall. Still, on the whole not a bad set of results for the senior crews. Really looking forward to the rest of the week.