How to win the U.S. memory championship.

Notes from different corners of the world.
March 16 2005 12:57 PM

Forget Me Not

How to win the U.S. memory championship.

Moonwalking With Einstein is Joshua Foer's new book on memory and the brain. It was inspired by an essay Foer wrote for Slate in 2005, about a select group of memorization "grand masters" competing to perform extraordinary feats of recall. What is "elaborative encoding?" How do you internalize the precise order of a deck of cards? To refresh your memory, we've reprinted the original article below.

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The top competitors at the international level exercise their memory—and in some cases, also their bodies—rigorously. "It's very much like training for the Olympics," says Buzan, who stresses the need to be physically as well as mentally fit for competitive memory. The best grand masters will spend several hours every day preparing, he says. Dominic O'Brien, an eight-time world champion from the United Kingdom, is said to begin his intense training regimen six months before every world championship. Though there's little money to be won in competitive memory (total prizes at last year's world championships were just ₤3,000), several of the top memorizers have been able to parlay their success into book deals and business consulting gigs.

But that's the European memory scene. Here in the United States, the top competitors don't take things quite as seriously, and that's reflected in the United States' fourth-place ranking in the world behind Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Of the top U.S. competitors, few readily admit to beginning training more than a week before the national tournament, and most don't even follow memory expert Frank Felberbaum's advice to eat a meal of wild Alaskan salmon (high in omega-3 fatty acids) the night before competing.

The contest itself unfolded with all the excitement of, say, the SAT. Contestants sat quietly at tables staring at sheets of paper, then scribbled answers that they handed off to judges. During the speed cards event, each memorizer pored over a shuffled deck of cards for up to five minutes and then was handed a fresh deck to rearrange like the original. After each event, scores were quickly calculated and displayed on a screen at the front of the room. There was a lot of dramatic temple massaging and nervous foot tapping and the occasional blank stare of defeat but none of the public agony of a basketball game or spelling bee.

Of the 24 "mental athletes" competing at the U.S. championship, the most feared by far was Tatiana Cooley-Marquardt, a stay-at-home mom and self-proclaimed "Queen of Memory" who won the first three U.S. championships but hadn't competed since being dethroned by Hagwood four years ago. In the meantime, she had married and had a kid.

U.S. Memory Champion Ram Kolli trying to recollect a random word
U.S. Memory Champion Ram Kolli trying to recollect a random word

Cooley-Marquardt, who was tall, pretty, and fashionably dressed, claimed not to have practiced at all during the weeks leading up to the competition, and she may have suffered for her insouciance. She was able to win only one event, the poem, and trailed a 24-year-old Capital One business analyst from Richmond, Va., named Ram Kolli all day. In the final standings, Cooley-Marquardt came in a distant second, and Chester Santos, a software engineer from San Francisco, placed third. Kolli walked away with a round-trip ticket, courtesy of British Airways, to the world championships in August and a small Oscar-like trophy. The tournament wound to a close with several celebratory speeches by the competition's organizers. Tony Buzan proclaimed that "America is now entering the top league."

The European visitors might beg to differ. Though Amsuess and Cooke's scores weren't officially tabulated, it was clear that Cooke would have destroyed the American competition. In the random words event, he managed 150 words in five minutes, 50 more than the best American score. In the speed numbers event, he memorized almost twice as many digits as the next best American competitor. German-speaker Amsuess did not fare as well. He botched the names and faces event and performed poorly in the poetry and random words competitions because he didn't recognize several words like "yawn," "ulcer," and "aisle." And in speed cards, his best event, he clocked an impressive 45 seconds—almost four times faster than the best American—but lost out on a heap of points because he reversed two out of the 52 cards. Not dejected all, he loosened his tie, left the building, and walked to a nearby pub, where he memorized a deck of cards for the waitress and got three free beers in return.

Joshua Foer is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.