My first run at the USA Memory Championships

1,000 Memories in 1,000 Hours

Only about 100 people in the world can memorize a shuffled deck of cards in under one minute. In early 2013 I tried to become one of them. After about 250 hours of training across three months I placed 5th in a worldwide $10k contest for beginners on Memrise.com, but ultimately failed to reach the 60-second mark.

A couple months passed before Joshua Foer, former winner of the USA Memory Championships and author of Moonwalking with Einstein, heard about my time and suggested via Twitter that I participate in the annual test of short-term memory in New York City. Although decent in one discipline, speed cards, I would need to train for others (including names and faces, numbers, and poetry). I decided to make the commitment. I was curious to improve my memory further and test my limits against others. A former teacher’s advice was in my ear:

Erik, take risks.

On March 29, 2014, I placed 9th/65 in speed cards and 17th/65 overall in my first shot at the USA Memory Championships. It was the result of much energy and dedication across about 1,000 hours of training. On the return flight home from New York City to Minneapolis, I considered another piece of advice from a former teacher:

The best advice I can give you is to periodically pause to reflect on your life.

This is my reflection.

A $10,000 interview

In late 2012 I watched Andrew Warner’s Mixergy interview with Tim Ferriss. After the episode, I bought Ferriss’s The Four Hour Chef to pre-read before gifting to one of my family members. It was in that brief 30-minute session that I stumbled upon page 609 in the appendix, which promoted the $10k contest on Memrise.com set to begin in February 2013. So, for starters, I must thank Andrew Warner, Tim Ferriss, and Ed Cooke (co-founder of Memrise.com) for introducing me to memory sports.

My training was then influenced heavily by Ed Cooke and Nelson Dellis. Ed, a British Grand Master of Memory, keyed me into such insights as “make your memories pop” or “make your scenes recognizable in a simple thought.” He even generously offered to do Google Hangouts with me. Advice as simple as training with two decks of cards instead of just one improved my times from over two minutes to around 90 seconds for a complete deck.

Later, after I decided to compete in the USA Memory Championship, Nelson, three-time USA Memory Champion, gave me training advice specific to each of the qualifying disciplines: Names and Faces, Numbers, Poetry, and Speed Cards. Lance Tschihart, who ultimately took 3rd in the event, was also instrumental in my preparation.

People don’t forget

In Superbad’s memorable soccer sceneSeth, played by Jonah Hill, tells Greg, played by James Franco, that

People don’t forget.

I’ve found that most of the time people don’t forget memorable moments. Day by day we each create stories about ourselves. We like being the hero in our own adventures. We revisit those moments that make us happy, that make us laugh, that remind us that we are loved.

But few people think they have good memories. It’s one of few areas more than half the people in a room won’t admit to being above-average in. Of course, there are many components of memory. I’ve gradually learned the basic difference between working, short-term, medium, and long-term memory. I don’t know the details but I did learn that vivid, surprising, and emotional images usually last longer than their counterparts.

The USA Memory Championship and other events around the world are measurable tests of working memory in addition to our short or medium-term memory. Mnemonists who excel in these competitions have honed personal systems of storing abstract symbols like numbers or playing cards into vivid imagery. Each event asks competitors to first memorize and then recall information. This is where medium-term memory comes into play.

The speed at which top mnemonists encode information improves with training. The better I know my system, the more time I can spend crafting an emotional, surprising, vivid association while in the heat of competition. When I see the Ace of Spades, 4 of Hearts, and 8 of Diamonds, in that order, I pretty quickly combine my personal associations to see Usain Bolt drinking a gallon of milk (think victory pose while chugging, wry smile, maybe winking at a nearby camera). Nearly unforgettable. Or this one: 2 of Diamonds, 6 of Spades, 4 of Spades. Anna Kournikova moonwalking on an orange popsicle.

But we do forget

Nelson Dellis was inspired to improve his memory grandmother after grandmother passed away from complications relating to Alzheimer’s (his charity, Climb for Memory, raises money for Alzheimer’s research by climbing Everest and other peaks). My grandmother also suffered the same fate, and so I too had personal motivation to dive into this fascinating world of the mind.

The debate continues on the usefulness of mnemonics, but the usefulness of a powerful memory is not disputed. Memory touches everything we do. Ed Cooke described it well:

Memory and perception are two sides of the same coin.

I’m glad to have spent the time training for and competing in the USA Memory Championships. It was a record-breaking year. Most competitors, most teams, first corporate team, and three new national records (Johnny Briones in Speed Cards, Nelson for Names and Faces and Numbers). Each competitor brings their own motivation, but I liked Nelson’s story and was eager to help him with his latest project, the Extreme Memory Tournament.

This unprecedented event is a made-for-TV (and internet via live-streaming) showcase of the top 16 international memory stars. I recently interviewed the people behind the event, including Nelson, neuroscientists at Dart NeuroScience in San Diego and doctors at the Department of Psychology Memory Lab at Washington University in St. Louis. I also asked four of the top 16 mnemonists in the world what they expect from this never-before-seen event.

Since I am on a bit of a high coming back from my first memory competition, I am thankful for the chance to continue writing about the sport.

Memory paths

In two week’s time I’ll complete my “spring tour” of the US with a visit to San Francisco. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the Extreme Memory Tournament down in San Diego, but my goal is to see friends, contacts, and a few companies that I don’t cross paths with in Minneapolis. In addition to memory training, I started several projects including an iPhone game and a blog on pop neuroscience in 2013. Recently I began a journey in Java programming with the aim of building my iPhone game out on Android devices.

But what I most want to do is lend a hand in the startup scene. I know I’ll need to work hard to earn my keep. So while I’m looking forward to seeing some friendly faces, I’m hoping to meet some new people, too.

But speaking of friendly faces, I am quite looking forward to a throw-back basketball game with Shaan Puri, Rishi Taparia, Tilo Artiga-Purcell, Scott Crider, and others. I played high school ball with Shaan in Beijing and with Rishi in Indonesia and tried to hold onto the glory days in college intramurals alongside Tilo and Scott (soccer was my main game in college).

You know, memory is strange sometimes.

I remember battling Rishi in a no-rules 1-on-1 format to win my spot on the Varsity team (read it helped me win my spot). I later won a spot on the end-of-season IASAS tournament travel team, the first freshman from Jakarta International School to do so in 25 years.

Few people asked me how I did that, or why I chose basketball when I could have easily made the Varsity swim team instead. But I knew it was the year I spent in the gym at almost every break, lunch, and spare moment throughout 8th grade. I had asked for a basketball for Christmas that year and wore it out. Words from my 8th grade PE teacher, Mr Collette, also pushed me forward:

I think with hard work you can make the team.

It’s amazing what just a few words from someone you respect can do for your confidence and your work ethic.

When you reach your limits, laugh and keep going

Here’s the main thing I learned from this mini-journey: When you reach your limits, laugh and KEEP GOING. Embrace exhaustion. Laugh when you get there. Recognize your accomplishments. Take one step further and look upon the new horizons you’ve created. The limits are only in your head. Life is about stretching your limits, time and again.

I like how Vince Lombardi put it:

[A man’s] greatest fulfillment … is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle — victorious.

Although I spent about 1,000 hours in training ahead of the USA Memory Championship, the effort was only possible with help and support from others. Here are just a few:

Ed Cooke: for mindset on training.

Joshua Foer: for a nudge on Twitter.

Nelson Dellis: for advice on memory performance strategy.

Lance Tschihart: for being a confidant on mnemotechnics.org.

Ben Pridmore: for lending me his book on mnemonic techniques.

Luis Angel: for inspiring YouTube videos on memory.

The Memory Community on mnemotechnics.org: for detailed tactics.

Nate Uzlik: for keeping me accountable and giving me invaluable tips on visualization (crucial in my 9th-place final speed cards run at the USA Memory Championship).

Scott Sherman: for suggesting I use Lincoln Inn as a memory palace.

Scott Crider: for being the first to try speed cards after I explained it and completing a deck of cards!

Co-workers at Target: for lunch-time practice runs.

System Dev team at Target: for the 250+ of you listening to my TED-talk on this topic.

Friends: for understanding I couldn’t make every social event while in training.

Ryan: for relentless encouragement.

Mark: for his family Christmas letter call out.

Mom: for standing over shoulder while I trained (to simulate tournament conditions) even though she was on vacation to visit me.

Dad: for a stream of articles and phone conversations about motivation.

When you reach your limits, laugh and keep going.

Title Photo Credit: FLICKR