Brainiacs Compete to Clinch US Memory Championship Title

by VR Sreeraman on  March 12, 2008 at 2:24 PM Lifestyle News
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The 11th annual USA Memory Championship this year gathered 43 competitors, the youngest aged just 14, displaying some astonishing mental gymnastics.

The spectacle is a curious one: a room full of people, jaws clenched, eyes rolling and lips silently reciting.
Brainiacs Compete to Clinch US Memory Championship Title
Brainiacs Compete to Clinch US Memory Championship Title

Competitors describe it as nerve-wracking, packed with tension and adrenaline. As a spectator sport, it leaves something to be desired.

The qualifying rounds involve competitors memorizing 99 names and photographs, then rows of 20-digit numbers, the order of a pack of playing cards and finally a 50-line poem.

"The thing with competitions is that there is no outlet for all that stress and pressure and adrenaline. You've got to do the deep breathing, concentrate and focus on the mental imagery," said former title-holder David Thomas.

Different people use different techniques, explained this year's champion, Chester Santos, a 30-year-old software engineer who had flown to New York from California to compete in his sixth games.

"I used to use a technique that everyone else seems to have used today, which is just one image per card and you link that along a journey," the so-called "Roman Room" technique, he explained after winning the card round.

But instead, Santos adopted a "person, action, object" technique.

"For example, the seven of hearts is this girl from the tennis club and she had some pillows, which is the queen of spades, and she was washing them, which is the seven of spades," he said.

"I think the general population would label me a nerd," he added.

US Navy intelligence officer Ronnie White, 33, from Texas, who made the final five, used a similar system for the numbers round.

"I just got back from Afghanistan and I select landmarks from around the base that I served on that really stand out to me. I have images for the three digit numbers and I place them all around this base in Kabul," he said.

"So for the number 228, I visualize my colonel wearing neon shoes. He's like a real serious, in-your-face guy, so it kind of made me laugh to see him wearing neon shoes. I could get a ribbon taken away from me for saying that."

For former champion Thomas, who holds the US record for memorizing rows of numbers and can recite the value of the mathematical constant pi down to 22,500 digits, there is nothing inherently special about the mental athletes.

"It's a question of using techniques. Anyone can do it," explained the former firefighter from Leeds, England, who has since taught his techniques to more than 25,000 people and is hoping to get his own television show.

Winning the competition has guaranteed the future of several former champions, at least two of whom have gone on to sign million-dollar book deals.

For Thomas, 39, and attending as a spectator this year, honing the gray cells is about more than just winning competitions. People use his "brain training" techniques to memorize lists of clients or product details, he says.

He acknowledges that the thinkers' Olympics draws a certain type of crowd. "It attracts its fair share of social misfits," he confides.

Thomas says he's just as likely as anyone else to forget someone's birthday. "I've got a trained memory, but if I don't apply the techniques, I forget like everybody else." He says he still writes a list when he goes shopping.

For many of the competitors, the championship is a serious endeavor. Santos spent more than three months in an intense training program, working his brain for two hours every day and adopting a strict alcohol-free regimen.

"I was dedicated because I've been so close to winning for so many years. I've gotten third place for four of the last five years. I really wanted to try to win it this year," he said.

"I read a lot on what food's good for your brain, so right now I try to eat no sugar. I stay away from the cookies," he said. But Thomas played down the importance of diet. "I don't eat particularly well, which is why I'm so fat."

At the end of the sudden-death rounds, it was Santos who clinched the title, earning him a place at the world championships in Bahrain, where he will face some tough competition, notably from more experienced European competitors.

"I don't think I can win. Those guys have been at it for about 10 more years than the US and that makes a difference," he said. "I'm definitely the underdog," he added. "I don't even know where Bahrain is."

Source: AFP

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