The Mind Sports Olympiad continues onward. And online.

Throughout August, players from all over the world are participating in more than 90 tournaments featuring close to 50 different games.

There is poker — several different variants, in fact — hosted on PokerStars (click here for more information, including a schedule).

There are other traditional favorites like chess, backgammon, Go, bridge, and draughts. Games like Acquire, Catan, Quoridor, Entropy, Agricola, Lines of Action, and Hive are in the line-up as well, along with many more.

There is a ton of excitement, too, surrounding this 24th annual running of the MSO and the first ever to happen entirely online.

Last week I had a chance to chat with MSO organizer and owner Etan Ilfeld to talk about the history of the games and how things are going this time around.

The MSO goes virtual, and the whole world comes out to play

“Every year is always different,” says Ilfeld. “We’re always adding games or alternating certain games every other year.”

Of course this year, a global pandemic presented a new and different challenge to the global competition.

Typically each year finds players from 40 or more countries traveling to England to play games in person over the course of 8-9 days.

Players competing in a recent Mind Sports Olympiad

Out of necessity, this year the competition has been moved online. In other words, rather than players coming to the MSO, this year the MSO has found a way to bring the games to the players.

Ilfeld, a USCF chess master and games aficionado, has been the chief organizer of the event for more than a decade. Thanks to some great planning and partnerships with a number of platform providers, the MSO has not just survived… it has thrived.

The schedule is actually similar to most years, only stretched out over a month with fewer games going on each day. As Ilfeld explains, games have been scheduled to be somewhat “time zone-friendly” both to Europeans and players in the Americas.

“I thought it was pretty creative… to design a program this year that was accessible to as many people as possible,” says Ilfeld.

In fact, nearly every game normally featured is on the schedule again. Also, whereas usually there is a nominal fee, all of the events are free to enter.

Ilfeld says the number of players and countries being represented is way up this year. The MSO site was visited by more than 125 different countries during just the first week of this year’s events.

“The whole ethos of the MSO is to try to get people to learn new games,” Ilfeld says. The move online appears to have encouraged a lot of players to do just that.

Online option opening up new possibilities for the MSO

“I had actually thought about having an online event a number of years ago,” explains Ilfeld. For various reasons the MSO never tried it, but now that they’ve been forced to do so, they are embracing the idea — as have the players.

In many cases, the online games are faster-paced than their live counterparts, as one might expect. The move online has even made new game types possible, such as a version of Bullet Chess in which each player only has one minute total to make all of their moves (!).

Players can also play in multiple events at once, something that some occasionally tried to do during the early days of the MSO, though eventually were stopped from doing so.

Ilfeld mentions how during the first week he was watching two-time defending Pentamind champion Ankush Khandelwal play both backgammon and chess at the same time.

Two-time Pentamind champ Ankush Khandelwal is well acquainted with playing online

“I think going forward I envision us perhaps having two cycles per year — one online and one in person,” Ilfeld says. “Of course then we’ll have to talk about which one has the Pentamind World Championship. Will there be an online champion and an offline one? We’ll have to see!”

Three characteristics of a Mind Sports champion

The Pentamind to which Ilfeld refers is the foremost of the “meta-game” championships for which players are competing. There are other meta-game competitions as well, including champions in the Eurogames, the Modern Abstract GamesBackgammonChess, and the Amateur Poker World Championship.

In the Pentamind, players’ five best scores in five different games are used to determine who among them is Pentamind champion.

It’s a lot like the pentathlon where players have to be able to demonstrate a variety of skills in order to earn a spot on the medal stand. Or, if you like, you might think of games like H.O.R.S.E. or the 8-game mix. The best players in those games have to be able to do well in many different poker variants, rather than specialize in one or two.

That said, there are certain qualities that transcend all varieties of competition, traits that winning players possess and demonstrate no matter the game. As someone who has watched Pentamind winners compete over the years, Ilfeld has some ideas about what it takes to win the Mind Sports Olympiad’s most prestigious title.

I gave him a bit of a mind challenge by asking him to name three skills or characteristics the top Pentamind performers all seem to possess.

1. Tenacity

“One is tenacity,” Ilfeld begins. “When you lose, especially. Some people when they lose, they don’t want to do it anymore. The real champs, when they lose, they say, ‘how can I come back stronger?'”

He connects tenacity to competitiveness, more generally speaking, although the point here is having a certain kind of persistence that gets especially motivated when a person comes up short.

“They learn from their losses,” explains Ilfeld. “They realize there is value there. If you’re going to learn, it is usually from your losses.”

2. Focus

Of course, being motivated to learn and try harder is one thing. Being able to concentrate your energies to do so is another.

“The ability to have incredible focus… that is paramount,” says Ilfeld, settling on a second key characteristic of winners.

“You have to be able to focus and see all of the opportunities in front of you,” he adds.

All of the Pentamind champs have shared this ability to focus, thereby giving themselves the best opportunity win.

3. Love for the Game

Ilfeld’s third characteristic again has a lot to do with motivation.

“I think you really have to have a love for the game,” he says. “Maybe there are some people who can do well without that, but it is the love and compassion for the game that really enables you to go the distance.”

“Our champions not only love the games, but they all have an innate curiosity to learn more. That love of games fuels that, too. They are always analyzing and examining the games.”

The greatness of games

Ilfeld’s three qualities of a mind sports champion seem equally applicable to the MSO’s chief organizer, too.

Etan Ilfeld, MSO Managing Director

He tenaciously helped turn what could have been a lost year into a huge positive for the Olympiad. Ilfeld also clearly possesses both focus and a great love for the MSO.

“It’s something I love to do,” he says, referring to his role organizing the MSO schedule and being part of “this incredibly quirky and unique world.”

“It’s a labor of love always a highlight of my year — creating great games and great tournaments.”

While games invite us to compete with one another, they also bring us together — one of several reasons why Ilfeld loves them.

“Games are amazing,” he says. “They are social, which I think is very healthy. Also, there is so much research about how exercising your brain is good for you. All games do that.”

“They are also a form of play, a form of expression,” he says. “Humans need to express themselves. Games are awesome for that, too!”


Be sure to check out the Mind Sports Olympiad website for a full schedule, up-to-date standings, and information about registering for the games (it’s easy).

You can also follow the action via live streams featuring expert commentary on Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook.

Finally, for the next three weeks you can see for free the excellent documentary Pentamind: The Ultimately Mind Sports Championship streaming on YouTube. Check it out!

Some live streamed Speed Scrabble from a few nights ago

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