The Biggest Memory Game of All

(Originally published in ChelseaNow, March 23-29)

"I like to think of today's event as the NBA finals combined with the Super Bowl and the World Series," said world-renowned memory expert Tony Buzan in his opening remarks at the 10th annual USA Memory Championship on March 10.

Before him in the auditorium of the Con Edison building on Irving Pl., a group of students, analysts, software engineers, and one journalist prepared to compete in a series of mind-bending events in the hopes of being crowned the strongest mental athlete in America. Seven hours later, the victor, 38-year-old David Thomas, was svitzing like a Chessmaster after a game-winning checkmate. Part of this was undoubtedly due to intellectual exertion, but the searing lights trained on him by HDNet and 20/20's television cameras didn't help.

Despite being slightly moist, Thomas acquitted himself well in his post-victory, on-air interviews. Of course, unlike the majority of the contestants at Saturday's memorization marathon, he's had some practice with the media. A native of Leeds, England who now resides in Sandston, Virginia, Thomas' remarkable memory has already earned him an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. In 1998, he broke the world record for memory by reciting 22,500 digits of the mathematical constant Pi in four and half hours.

Clearly Thomas, an International Grandmaster of Memory (one of 15 in the world), was the favorite at the USA Memory Championship. The contest is the brainchild of New York-based organizational consultant and neuroscience enthusiast Tony Dottino, who launched the competition in 1997 in the interest of helping others stave off memory loss through mental exercise.

Today it is the longest running national memory competition in the world, feeding champions to Tony Buzan's World Memory Championships -- the All-Star Game for muscle heads worldwide.

The stakes at this year's USA championships were high. Last year's winner, science journalist Joshua Foer (brother of New York lit star Jonanthan Safran Foer) got a book deal with Penguin Press worth a reported 1.2 million out of his victory. The as-yet-untitled book, due out in Fall 2009, will detail the techniques Foer used to recall the order of an entire deck of cards in one minute and 40 seconds -- a feat that earned him the US record. Who knows what the cards hold in store for Thomas?

Thomas himself took the challenge seriously. In the six weeks leading up to the competition, he spent three hours a day prepping for the Championship's seven events. And even this amount of study didn't guarantee him the win. The International Grandmaster lost the first event, "Names and Faces," which affords contestants 15 minutes to link the names and mugs of 99 people, but went on to win the second and third events: "Speed Numbers" and "Speed Cards." His position as a finalist secure, Thomas chose to bow out of the fourth event, "Poetry," which asks competitors to memorize a previously unpublished 50-line poem.

By 2 p.m., the pool of 43 contestants, ranging in age from 12 to 53, was pared down to a lean seven. In addition to David Thomas, the finalists assembled on stage included Penn State college freshman Erin Hope Luley, financial analyst Ram Kolli, software engineer Chester Santos, and high school students Ryan Kutzner, Jen Nauss and Brice Morey. The fifth event, "Words to Remember," which required contestants to memorize a list of 100 words in 15 minutes, saw the elimination of the two female contestants. In the sixth round, "Tea Party," the five survivors were asked to associate a collection of facts, including home address, favorite food and phone number, with the faces of five audience participants. The contestants were then quizzed on these particulars in random order.

Witnessing the staggering powers of recall on display, it was easy to assume that the mental athletes' prodigious memories were a fluke of nature (or perhaps a super power reserved for the 18-and-under set), but most of the contestants claim that their abilities aren't innate, but the product of intensive practice. How do they do it? Successful competitors all use a variation of what's called "elaborative encoding" -- a collection of techniques that stresses the importance of connecting disparate pieces of information with evocative images. According to advocates of elaborative encoding, the brain is only engineered to hold on to information that seems meaningful. So the trick to super-charging your recall is to correlate each fact with an image that has emotional resonance. Hence, when Ram Kolli needed to remember the Queen of Hearts, he said he pictured actress Salma Hayek.

Other contestants, like 16-year-old Tyrell Jackson, used a memorization method known as the "Roman Room." This technique requires users to pick a room -- most often their bedroom -- and memorize a series of objects in it. Facts are then assigned to places in the room. For instance, when Jackson wanted to remember the Ace of Spades, he pictured a single shovel sitting in the closet of his bedroom. The Bronx high school student learned the Roman Room method from Dottino, who joined forces with noted local educator Ramone Matthews to teach a six-week course on memory enhancement at Jackson's high school, Samuel Gompers Vo-Tech. The sophomore plans to use the technique to ace an upcoming A.P. Global History exam.

And he's not alone. All of Matthews' students are using elaborative encoding to give them a leg up. Matthews says that by retaining knowledge, his students gain a sense of intellectual ownership. Thanks in large part to Dottino's methods, Matthews says, "My students no longer see the world as four blocks in the South Bronx -- they see it internationally." Dottino himself is so convinced of elaborative encoding's potential to revolutionize education that he's working on a curriculum he hopes to one day introduce in middle schools and high schools across the country.

It's an ambitious plan, and one that's well worth implementing if David Thomas' story is any indication. Thomas' mental acrobatics may be earning him prizes and media attention today, but as a teenager and young adult, he claims he wasn't anything special. "I wasn't very bright," said Thomas. "In my twenties, I failed the firefighter's promotion exam twice -- and, trust me, it isn't a hard test." The drive to win that promotion is what prompted Thomas to pick up a book on memorization in 1996. Upon reading it, he realized he wanted to excel in life. Within eight months he'd earned third place in Buzan's prestigious World Memory Championship. Thomas feels that mastering memory techniques can work the same magic in other people's lives as well. He now makes his living as a memory expert and motivational speaker.

Only Thomas, Kolli and Morey made it to the final event on Saturday, Double Deck O' Cards. Each contestant was given five minutes to commit two decks to memory and then asked to orally recall them by turns. Thomas emerged the victor after just 31 cards. But even as he was accepting congratulations and his trophy, he was eager to preach his message. It isn't inborn talent, Thomas insisted. "You just have to have a solid system."

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