Total Recall

Remembering the 2003 USA Memory Championship.

Total Recall

“It would be easier to find people to get up onstage naked than to find people willing to enter a memory competition,” says Tony Dottino, founder and chairman of the USA Memory Championship (Memoriad), the Olympics of thinking games. According to Dottino, attracting competitors to the Memoriad is the single greatest challenge for the event’s organizers, who hold the annual championship in late winter or early spring at the ConEdison Building in New York City. “Memory is one of those things people are afraid of, because most folks—especially as they get into their forties—believe the myth that they are going to start losing their memory.”

Nevertheless, on March 1, ten memory enthusiasts ranging in age from 15 to 44 completed the daylong competition, paying an entry fee of $25 for the privilege of working through five grueling events: Names and Faces, Random Words, Speed Numbers, Poetry and Speed Cards. Dottino is convinced fear of embarrassment and the pressure of testing your memory in front of an audience both play a role in holding down the number of entrants. “All they can think about is, ‘I’m going to put my brain out for public display? I’m going to be ranked in front of a national television audience?’,” he says. Even the competitors (referred to as “mental athletes” by the emcee) acknowledge that handling the pressure is a key factor in how you fare. “It’s so much easier to do these games when you are by yourself,” says Chester Santos, a graduate student from Golden Gate University in San Francisco who finished third in this year’s competition.

The Memoriad was brought to the United States in 1997 by Dottino and Tony Buzan, the founder of the World Memory Championship and best-selling author of Use Your Perfect Memory. In fact, the U.S. version has many of the same events and is designed to prepare its contestants for the experience of competing in the World games. “The World [championship] has ten events [over two days] so we selected five that we thought would give our competitors a sampling and a base of experience to build on,” says Dottino.

However, the ultimate goal of both competitions is the same—to deliver the message that there are steps an individual can take to improve his or her memory. “You are warriors of the mind leading a global initiative,” intoned Buzan as he addressed the contestants during a break between the third and fourth events. Dottino’s messaging was less grandiose: “We’ve learned that the attitude we have, and the initiative we take, makes a world of difference as to whether or not we live the prophecy that our memories are failing,” he says.

For those of you who have trouble recalling names or locating your car keys, the competition presents a daunting series of challenges. In the first and arguably easiest event, the so-called mental athletes have 15 minutes to memorize 99 color head-and-shoulder photos of different people, each with a first and last name written below the picture. Afterwards, the contestants are given the 99 photos again (in random order, without the names), earning points for each first and last name correctly recalled. Then, in Random Words, contestants have 15 minutes to memorize, and 20 minutes to recall a list of several hundred random words.

In the afternoon, the participants have 15 minutes to memorize an unpublished 50-line poem, then re-write it exactly as written, with points awarded for each punctuation mark, capital letter and correctly spelled word. According to Scott Hagwood, 40, a chemical engineer from Fayetteville, North Carolina, who has won the last three U.S. championships, the poem presents the greatest challenge, in part because there’s no way to prepare for it. “Spelling and punctuation is key,” he begins. “It’s also difficult because you can practice the cards and numbers, but when it comes to seeing raw words…. ”

Entering the last two events, it appeared Hagwood might relinquish his title, threatened by the strong early showing of Ram Prasad Kolli, a 22-year-old graduate student from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. In particular, Kolli excelled at Speed Numbers, in which the contestants are given five minutes to memorize a random, computer generated thousand digit number (25 rows of 40 digits). In the ten-minute recall period Kolli remembered the first 92 digits in sequence, while Hagwood could recount only 84 digits. For reference, the current world record is 316 numerals, achieved by world champion Dominic O’Brien in 2000.

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