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.

Among the 24 competitors were many local high school students
Among the 24 competitors were many local high school students

To attain the rank of grand master of memory, you must be able to perform three seemingly superhuman feats. You have to memorize 1,000 digits in under an hour, the precise order of 10 shuffled decks of playing cards in the same amount of time, and one shuffled deck in less than two minutes. There are 36 grand masters of memory in the world. Only one lives in the United States. His name is Scott Hagwood, and he's won every U.S. Memory Championship since he began competing in 2001. This past Saturday he was at home in Fayettville, N.C., putting the finishing touches on his first book about memory enhancement. That meant he was not in the auditorium on the 19th floor of the Con-Edison headquarters in Manhattan, and that meant that for the first time in five years, the gold medal of the eighth annual U.S. Memory Championship was anyone's for the taking.

There are five events in the U.S. Memory Championships. First, contestants are given 15 minutes to memorize 99 names and faces, and 20 minutes to recall them. Next, the contestants have to memorize an unpublished 50-line poem (this year titled, "The Tapestry of Me") in 15 minutes, followed by a series of random digits, a list of random words, and finally a shuffled deck of playing cards. The best memorizers in the world—who almost all hail from Europe—can memorize a pack of cards in less than a minute. A few have begun to approach the 30-second mark, considered the "four-minute mile of memory."

Austrian Grand Master Lukas Amsuess straining for a digit
Austrian Grand Master Lukas Amsuess straining for a digit

One of those individuals is Lukas Amsuess, a 22-year-old grand master and the male champion of Austria. Even though his scores couldn't be counted in the American championship, Amsuess had flown all the way from Vienna to compete as an unofficial contestant. He was accompanied by Edward Cooke, a 23-year-old grand master from England. They thought the competition would be a good spring training for this summer's world championships in London, which both hope to win.

They had also always wanted to see New York. (They visited the Empire State Building, where Amsuess successfully memorized an entire deck of cards on the 53-second elevator ride to the observation deck.)

Though every competitor has his own unique method of memorization for each event, all mnemonic techniques are essentially based on the concept of elaborative encoding, which holds that the more meaningful something is, the easier it is to remember. The brain isn't built to remember abstract symbols like numbers and playing cards, but if one can translate those symbols into vivid visual images, even the dullest series of binary digits can be made as memorable as your own address. The key is to develop a system that allows quick encoding and easy recall.

Some memorizers arbitrarily associate each playing card with a familiar person or object, so that the king of clubs is represented by, say, Tony Danza. The grand masters associate each card with a person, an action, or an object so that every group of three cards can be converted into a sentence. The first card of the triplet is encoded as a person, the second as a verb, and the third as an object. For example, when Cooke sees a three of clubs, a nine of hearts, and a nine of spades, he immediately conjures up an image of Brazilian lingerie model Adriana Lima in a Biggles biplane shooting at his old public-school headmaster in a suit of armor. The more vivid the image, the more likely it is not to be forgotten.

They memorize numbers much the same way. Cooke converts every two-digit number from 00 to 99 into a familiar object or person, so that every six digits form a sentence. When he sees 342102, Cooke imagines Frank Sinatra crooning the Britney Spears' song " … Baby One More Time" to an obelisk. When he's doing well, this translation is happening instantaneously. At his best, he can store about 300 digits, or 50 sentences, in his head in five minutes.

To keep all this information in order, memorizers have to link their images together in a chain. Some, like Cooke and Amsuess, use what's called the "journey method." They place their images at predetermined points along a route that they know well. Cooke's route begins at his favorite Oxford pub and ends at a nearby hotel. When it comes time to recall, he simply takes a mental stroll through his old college town and is able see each of the images in the place where he put it.

According to Harvard memory researcher Daniel Schacter, this method of using visual imagery as a mnemonic device was first employed by a Greek poet named Simonides in 477 BC. Simonides was the sole survivor of a roof collapse that killed all the guests at a large banquet he was attending. He was able to reconstruct the guest list by visualizing who was sitting at each seat around the table. What Simonides had discovered was that people have an astoundingly good recollection of location. In his book Searching for Memory, Schacter explains that this same technique was later used by Roman generals to learn the names of thousands of soldiers in their command and by medieval scholastics to memorize long religious tomes. During the 15th and 16th centuries, European mystics created elaborate "memory theaters" consisting of hundreds of fanciful locations in which mystical facts could be deposited.

Though mnemonics have a long history, competitive memory has been an organized sport only since 1991, when Tony Buzan, a business consultant and author of 82 books on the brain and memory, including the best-selling Use Your Head,organized the first international competition in England. Since then, national championships have sprung up in Austria, South Africa, Singapore, Australia, Germany, Malaysia, China, Japan, Mexico, and the United States.

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.

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