The U.S. Memory Championship
There was to be a new event at the 2006 U.S. Memory Championship, one never before experienced in the history of memory competitions. It was clunkily called “Three Strikes and You’re Out of the Tea Party,” and it had been dreamed up specifically to please the producers from HDNet, the cable network that would, for the first time ever, be airing the contest on national television. Five strangers, posing as guests at a tea party, would walk onto the stage and tell the competitors ten pieces of information about themselves—their addresses, phone numbers, hobbies, birthdays, favorite foods, pets’ names, the make and model of their cars, etc. It was a test as true to the demands of real life as there had ever been in a memory contest. I had no idea how I would prepare for it, and frankly I hadn’t thought much about it until just a month and a half before the contest, when Ed and I spent a pair of evenings on a transatlantic telephone call inventing a system that would allow me to quickly and easily file away all of that personal information in a specially designed memory palace set aside for each of the strangers.
I had constructed five imaginary buildings, one for each of the “tea party” guests. Each was built in a different style, but with a similar floor plan based around a central atrium and satellite rooms. The first palace was a modernist glass cube in the manner of Philip Johnson’s Glass House; the second was a turreted Queen Anne of the type you see all over San Francisco, with lots of frilly scrollwork and ostentatious ornamentation; the third was Frank Gehry-esque, with wavy titanium walls and warped windows; the fourth was based on Thomas Jefferson’s redbrick home, Monticello; and there was nothing special about the fifth except that all the walls were painted bright blue. Each home’s kitchen would serve as the repository of an address. Each home’s den would hold a phone number. The master bedroom was for hobbies, the bathroom was for birthdays, and so on.
Three weeks before the contest, after reviewing the scores I’d been sending him, Ed phoned to tell me that I needed to stop practicing all other events and begin focusing exclusively on the tea party. I rounded up friends and family and had them make up fictional biographies for me to memorize in my painstakingly appointed new palaces. Several unromantic dinners with my girlfriend were spent with her in character, telling me stories about her life as a Nebraska farmer or a suburban housewife or a Parisian seamstress, which I then recalled for her over dessert.
Then, one week before the championship, just at the moment when I wanted to be training hardest, Ed told me I had to stop. Mental athletes always halt their training a week before contests in order to do a spring cleaning of their memory palaces. They walk through them and mentally empty them of any lingering images, because in the heat of competition, the last thing you want to do is accidentally remember something you memorized last week. “Some competitors, when they get to a really high level, will not speak to anyone three days before a contest,” Tony Buzan told me. “They feel that any association that enters their head could interfere with associations they form in the contest.”
The plan had always been for Ed to be ringside at the U.S. championship. But shortly before the contest, he shipped off to Australia, where he’d been offered a unique opportunity to do philosophy research at the University of Sydney on the phenomenological issues raised by the sport of cricket. (He believes that the sport contains even better examples than chicken sexers or chess grand masters to illuminate his thesis that our immediate perception of the world is powerfully shaped by memory.) Suddenly it was no longer certain that he would be able to make the much longer and more expensive trip from the other side of the earth.
“Is there any way I can mediate your disgust at my potential nonappearance?” he asked in an e-mail a couple days before the contest. The emotion I was feeling was not so much disgust as panic. Though I’d told everyone I knew that I was approaching the contest as little more than a whim—“a strange way to spend a weekend morning” was how I put it to a friend—the jokes I sometimes made at the expense of this “kooky contest” concealed the truth that I was dead set on victory.
Ed’s last-minute decision to stay in Australia meant that I was on my own to worry about the other competitors, to speculate on how intensely they’d trained over the last year, and to wonder whether any of them were preparing to surprise us by unveiling a new technique that would take the sport to a level I could not reach. There was Ram Kolli, the cheery and insouciant defending champ, who I knew was the most natural talent of the group. If he had decided to train as hard as a European, the rest of us wouldn’t have a chance. But somehow I doubted he had it in him. Mostly I fretted about Maurice Stoll. If anyone might have committed the time to developing a Millennium PAO system like Ed’s, or a 2,704-image card system like Ben’s, I suspected it would be Maurice.
The evening before the championship, Ed e-mailed me one last piece of advice: “All you have to do is to savor the images, and really enjoy them. So long as you’re surprising yourself with their lively goodness, you’ll do just fine. Don’t at any stage worry. Take it easy, ignore the opposition, have fun. I’m proud of you already. And remember, girls dig scars and glory lasts forever.”
That night, I lay in bed obsessively marching through each of my palaces—first forward and then backward—and worrying about Maurice. I couldn’t sleep, which, as Maurice himself had observed at the previous year’s competition, is for a mental athlete “like breaking your leg before a soccer match.”
When I finally did get to sleep sometime around three a.m., with the assistance of some Tylenol PM, I had a terrifying dream in which Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, my king and queen of spades, were riding around a parking garage for hours on a pony, the seven of spades, trying in vain to find where they’d parked their Lamborghini Countach, the jack of hearts. Eventually they and their horse melted into the asphalt, while Maurice Stoll looked on with a sinister Dr. Mengele cackle. I got up four hours later, bleary and dazed, and accidentally shampooed my hair twice—an ominous portent if ever there was one.
The first person I ran into when I got off the elevator on the nineteenth floor of the Con Edison headquarters was Ben Pridmore. He had flown in from England for the weekend solely to scout out the American field. At the airport in Manchester, he had splurged on a last-minute first-class upgrade. “What else have I got to waste my money on?” he asked me. I looked down at his half-eaten leather shoes, whose soles were now almost entirely detached. “Good point,” I said.
“The first event hasn’t even started, and I’ve already lost,” I told Ben. I explained about my insomnia and my redundant shampooing, and he seemed convinced that I had done myself no favors with those sleeping pills, whose chemicals, he said, were probably still swimming around in my bloodstream.
I downed two tall cups of coffee and, in truth, felt more jittery than tired. Mostly I just felt stupid for having so catastrophically screwed up the most important thing I needed to do in order to be competitive. Meanwhile, Maurice walked in wearing a Texas AM Aggies baseball cap and a paisley shirt, looking far perkier than he had last year. And frighteningly confident. He recognized me from across the room, and strode straight over to shake my hand and introduce himself to the legendary Ben Pridmore.
“You’re back,” Maurice said to me. It was an assertion, not a question. To the extent that I had a strategy, it was to sneak up on Maurice and surprise him. But apparently he’d already been briefed on me. Somebody must have informed him that I’d been training with Ed Cooke.
“Yeah, I thought I’d try competing this year,” I said nonchalantly, and pointed down at my name tag, which read “Joshua Foer, Mental Athlete.” “It’s kind of like a journalistic experiment.”
I asked, “How are your numbers looking this year?” I was probing him to see if he’d upgraded his system.
“They’re good. And yours?”
“Good. What about cards?”
“Not bad. You?”
“I should be all right in cards,” I said. “Still using the same systems as last year?”
He shrugged a nonreply and asked me, “How did you sleep last night?”
“How did you sleep?”
Why was he asking me that? How did he know about my insomnia? What kind of head games was Maurice trying to play? “Remember, last year I didn’t sleep so good,” he continued.
“Yeah, I remember that. And this year?”
“This year, I slept just fine.”
“Josh needed sleeping pills,” said Ben helpfully.
“Yeah, well, they’re basically a placebo, right?”
“I tried to take sleeping pills one time in practice, and I fell asleep the next morning memorizing numbers,” said Maurice. “You know, lack of sleep is the enemy of memory.”
“Anyway, good luck today.”
“Yeah, good luck to you, too.”
New this year was the gaggle of TV cameras buzzing about the room and the play-by-play analysts—the boxing announcer Kenny Rice and his color man, the four-time U.S. champ Scott Hagwood—perched in front of the stage on director’s chairs. Their presence lent the contest the surreal quality of a mockumentary. Did I really just hear Rice describe the contestants as having “taken mental prowess to a whole new level”?
Unlike the international competitions I’d been to, where competitors spent the moments before a contest isolated between a pair of earmuffs or juggling to warm up their brains, the U.S. competitors all milled about making small talk, as if they were about to take a test no more demanding than an eye exam. I sequestered myself in a corner, inserted my earplugs, and tried to clear my mind like a proper European mnemonist.
Tony Dottino, a slim, silver-haired, and mustachioed fifty-eight-year-old corporate management consultant, stood at the front of the room to introduce the contest. Dottino founded the U.S. Memory Championship in 1997 and has run thirteen of them ever since. He is one of Tony Buzan’s American disciples. Dottino makes his living consulting with companies like IBM, British Airways, and Con Edison (hence the unlikely location of the championship) about how their workforces can be made more productive through the use of memory techniques.
“You are the folks telling people in our country that memory is not for geeks,” he declared. “You will be the models that people will come to follow. We’re like little infants in terms of writing the history of these events. You”—he pointed at us with both index fingers—“are writing the history books.” I tuned out for the rest of his speech, put my earplugs back in, and took one last walk through each of my palaces. I was checking, as Ed had once taught me, to make sure all of the windows were open and good afternoon sunlight was streaming in, so that my images would be as clear as possible.
Among those of us who would contribute to “writing the history books” were three dozen mental athletes from ten states, including a Lutheran minister from Wisconsin named T. Michael Harty, about a half dozen kids from Raemon Matthews’s Talented Tenth, and a forty-seven-year-old professional memory trainer from Richmond, Virginia, named Paul Mellor, who had run a marathon in each of the fifty states and had been in New Jersey the previous week teaching police officers how to quickly memorize license plate numbers.
The big guns were all put behind desks in the back row. These were the folks that Dottino had predicted might make a run at the title. I was flattered to be counted among them, albeit in the last seat at the end of the row. (Dottino and I had spoken several times over the previous year, and I’d kept him updated on my practice scores, so he knew I had a sporting chance.) The lineup included a compact thirty-year-old software engineer from San Francisco named Chester Santos, who goes by the nom de guerre “Ice Man,” which hardly befits his soft-spoken, aw-shucks manner. He’d finished in third place the previous year. I had a strong suspicion that Chester didn’t like me very much. After I’d written my original article for Slate about the previous year’s U.S. championship, I was forwarded an e-mail he’d penned to Tony Dottino. In it Chester complained that my piece was “HORRIBLE” because I had made Lukas and Ed “sound awesome,” while the U.S. competitors came off as “complete amateurs and slackers.” That I now had the impudence to go head-to-head with him after just a year’s training must have seemed like the ultimate insult.
From the sidelines, I heard Kenny Rice say, “It must be intimidating, much like the weekend athlete who wants to take on LeBron James in a game of one-on-one.” I figured he was talking about me.
Though every other national memory championship in the world is sewn together from approximately the same standard set of events, according to the same standard set of rules established by the World Memory Sport Council, the United States does things slightly differently. In the international events, everyone’s scores are added up at the end of the tournament to determine the winner, but the U.S. championship is less straight forward. It consists of a preliminary morning round of four classic pen-and-paper disciplines—names and faces, speed numbers, speed cards, and the poem—that are used to select six finalists. Those six finalists then compete in the afternoon in three unique television-friendly “elimination” events called “Words to Remember,” “Three Strikes and You’re out of the Tea Party,” and “Double Deck’r Bust,” which whittle the field down until there is only one United States memory champion left standing.
The first event of the morning was names and faces, which I’d always done pretty well with in practice. The point of the game is to take a packet of ninety-nine head shots and memorize the first and last name associated with each of them. One does that by dreaming up an unforgettable image that links the face to the name. Take, for example, Edward Bedford, one of the ninety-nine names that we had to remember. He was a black man with a goatee, a receding hairline, tinted sunglasses, and an earring in his left ear. To connect that face to that name, I tried to visualize Edward Bedford lying on the bed of a Ford truck, then, deciding that wasn’t distinctive enough, I saw him fording a river on a floating bed. To remember that his first name was Edward, I put Edward Scissorhands on the bed with him, shredding the mattress as he paddled it across the river.
I used a different trick to remember Sean Kirk, a white guy with a mullet, sideburns, and the cockeyed smile of a stroke victim. I paired him up with the Fox News anchor Sean Hannity and Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, and painted an image in my mind of the three of them forming a human pyramid.
After fifteen minutes of the contestants staring at those names and faces, a judge came by and picked up our packets, and handed us a new bunch of stapled pages, with the same set of faces arranged in a different order, and this time, with no names attached. We had fifteen minutes to recall as many of them as possible.
When I put down my pen and handed in my recall sheet, I assumed my score was going to be somewhere near the middle of the pack. The names of Sean Kirk and Edward Bedford had come right back to me, but I’d blanked on the cute blonde and the toddler with the French-sounding name, and a handful of others, so it was hard to imagine I’d done all that well. To my surprise, the 107 first and last names I was able to recall were good enough for a third place finish, just behind Ram Kolli, who memorized 115, and just ahead of Maurice Stoll, who did 104. The winner of the event was a seventeen-year-old competitive swimmer from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, named Erin Hope Luley, who’d managed an impressive 124 names, a new U.S. record and a score that would have gotten a nod of respect even from the top Europeans. When her number was announced, she stood up and waved sheepishly. I looked over at Ram, and caught him looking back at me. He lifted his eyebrows as if to say, “Where’d she come from?”
The second event of the morning was speed numbers, always my worst. This was the one event where Ed’s coaching had given me little advantage—because I had largely ignored Ed’s coaching. He had been prodding me for months to develop a more complicated system for numbers—not quite the “64-gun Man of War” Millennium PAO system he had spent months working on, but something at least a step ahead of the simple Major System that most of the other Americans would be using. I’d indulged him and developed a PAO system for all fifty-two playing cards, but I never got around to doing the same for every two-digit combination from 00 to 99.
Employing the same Major System as the rest of the mental athletes, I used my five minutes of memorization time to go for what I figured was a very safe ninety-four digits—mediocre even by American standards. And still I managed to get the eighty-eighth digit mixed up (instead of Bill Cosby, I should have seen a family playing an oversize version of Milton Bradley’s Game of Life). I blamed my poor showing on Maurice, whom I had heard even through my earmuffs gruffly yelling, “Enough with the pictures already!” at a press photographer who was circulating in the room. Still, my eighty-seven digits left me in fifth place. Maurice had banked 148, a new U.S. record, and Ram had finished in second with 124. Erin was way down in eleventh place, having remembered just fifty-two digits. I got up, stretched, and had a third cup of coffee. “They’re known as MAs, or mental athletes,” I heard Kenny Rice earnestly tell the camera, “but at this point in the competition, MA could stand for something else: mental anguish.”
Though I’d been operating with inferior mnemonotechnics in the numbers event, when it came to speed cards, the next challenge, I was the only competitor armed with what Ed referred to as “the latest European weaponry.” Most of the Americans were still placing a single card in each locus, and even the guys who’d been competing for years, like Ram and “Ice Man” Chester, were at best turning two cards into a single image. In fact, only a couple of years ago it was entirely unheard of for anyone to be able to memorize a whole pack of cards at the U.S. championship. Thanks to Ed, the PAO system I was using packed three cards into a single image, which meant that it was at least 50 percent more efficient than what was being used by any of the other Americans. It was a huge advantage. Even if Maurice, Chester, and Ram were going to wipe me in the other disciplines, I hoped I might be able to run up my score in speed cards.
Each competitor was assigned an individual judge with a stopwatch, who took a seat across the table. Mine was a middle-aged woman, who smiled as she sat down and said something that I couldn’t make out through my earplugs and earmuffs. I had brought along my black spray-painted memory goggles for speed cards, and up until the moment a freshly shuffled deck was placed on the desk in front of me, I was still weighing whether to put them on. I hadn’t practiced without my goggles in weeks, and the Con Edison auditorium was certainly full of distractions. But there were also three television cameras circulating in the room. As one of them zoomed in for a close-up of my face, I thought of all the people I knew who might end up watching the broadcast: high school classmates I hadn’t seen in years, friends who had no idea about my memory obsession, my girlfriend’s parents. What would they think if they turned on their TVs and saw me wearing huge black safety goggles and earmuffs, thumbing through a deck of playing cards? In the end, my fear of public embarrassment trumped my competitive instincts, and I left the goggles on the floor by my feet.
From the front of the room, the chief arbiter, a former marine drill sergeant, shouted, “Go!” My judge clicked her stopwatch, and I began peeling through the pack as fast as I could, flicking three cards at a time off the top of the deck and into my right hand. I was storing the images in the memory palace I knew better than any other, the house in Washington, D.C., that I’d lived in since I was four years old—the same house I’d used to remember Ed’s to-do list on the rock in Central Park. At the front door, I saw my friend Liz vivisecting a pig (two of hearts, two of diamonds, three of hearts). Just inside, the Incredible Hulk rode a stationary bike while a pair of oversize, loopy earrings weighed down his earlobes (three of clubs, seven of diamonds, jack of spades). Next to the mirror at the bottom of the stairs, Terry Bradshaw balanced on a wheelchair (seven of hearts, nine of diamonds, eight of hearts), and just behind him, a midget jockey in a sombrero parachuted from an airplane with an umbrella (seven of spades, eight of diamonds, four of clubs). Halfway through the deck, Maurice’s Teutonic wail once again penetrated my earmuffs: “No walking!” I heard him yell, presumably at another photographer. This time, I didn’t let it break my focus. In my brother’s bedroom, I saw my friend Ben urinating on Benedict XVI’s papal skullcap (ten of diamonds, two of clubs, six of diamonds), Jerry Seinfeld sprawled out bleeding on the hood of a Lamborghini in the hallway (five of hearts, ace of diamonds, jack of hearts), and at the foot of my parents’ bedroom door, myself moonwalking with Einstein (four of spades, king of hearts, three of diamonds).
The art of speed cards is in finding the perfect balance between moving quickly and forming detailed images. You want to catch just enough of a glimpse of your images so as to be able to reconstruct them later, without wasting precious time conjuring up any more color than necessary. When I put my palms back down on the table to stop the clock, I knew that I’d hit a sweet spot in that balance. But I didn’t yet know how sweet.
The judge, who was sitting opposite me, flashed me the time on her stopwatch: one minute and forty seconds. Not only was that better than anything I’d ever done in practice, but I also immediately recognized that it would shatter the old United States record of one minute and fifty-five seconds. I closed my eyes, put my head down on the table, whispered an expletive to myself, and took a second to dwell on the fact that I had possibly just done something—however geeky, however trivial—better than it had ever been done by anyone in the entire United States of America.
I looked up and quickly glanced over at Maurice Stoll, who was stroking his goatee and seemed agitated, and I felt an unseemly satisfaction in the trouble he seemed to be having. Then I looked over at Chester and got nervous. He was smirking confidently. He shouldn’t have been. He had clocked in at a lethargic two minutes and fifteen seconds.
By the standards of the international memory circuit, where thirty seconds is the best time, my minute and forty seconds would have been considered middling—the equivalent of a five-minute mile for any of the serious Europeans. But we weren’t in Europe.
As word of my time traveled across the room, cameras and spectators began to assemble around my desk. The judge pulled out a second unshuffled deck of playing cards and pushed them across the table to me. My task now was to rearrange the unshuffled pack to match the one I’d just memorized.
I fanned the unshuffled deck out across the table, took a deep breath, and walked through my palace one more time. I could see all the images perched exactly where I’d left them, except for two. They should have been in the shower, dripping wet, but all I could spy were blank beige tiles.
I can’t see it, I whispered to myself frantically. I can’t see it. I ran through every single one of my images as fast as I could. Had I forgotten a giant pair of toes? A fop wearing an ascot? Pamela Anderson’s rack? The Lucky Charms leprechaun? An army of turbaned Sikhs? No, no, no, no.
I began sliding the cards I did remember around with my index finger. In the top left corner of the desk, I put my friend Liz and her dead pig. Next to her, the Hulk on his bike, and Terry Bradshaw with his wheelchair. As the clock ran out on my five minutes of recall time, I was left with three cards still on the table. They were the three cards that had disappeared from the shower: the king of diamonds, four of hearts, and seven of clubs. Bill Clinton copulating with a basketball. How could I have possibly missed it?
I quickly neatened up the stack of cards into a square pile, shoved them back across the table to the judge, and removed my earmuffs and ear plugs. I had it nailed. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind.
After waiting a moment for one of the television cameras to circle around for a better angle, the judge began flipping the cards over one by one, while, for dramatic effect, I did the same with the deck I’d memorized.
Two of hearts.
Two of hearts.
Two of diamonds.
Two of diamonds.
Three of hearts.
Three of hearts ...
Card by card, each one matched. When we got to the end of the decks, I threw the last card down on the table, and looked up with a wide, stupid grin that I tried and failed to squelch. I was the new U.S. record holder in speed cards. The throng that had gathered around my desk applauded loudly. One person hooted. Ben Pridmore pumped his fist. A twelve-year-old boy stepped forward, handed me a pen, and asked for my autograph.
For reasons that were never made clear, it had been decided that the three top finishers in the first three events of the morning would be given a bye, and wouldn’t have to compete in the final preliminary event of the morning, the poem. Despite my low score in numbers, my record performance with the cards was enough to leave me in second place overall, behind Maurice and ahead of “Ice Man” Chester. We were all going straight to the quarterfinals. The three of us left the competition hall with Ben Pridmore and walked over to the Con Edison cafeteria, where we sat at the same table eating a cordial, and mostly silent, lunch. When we returned, the three of us were joined on the stage by Ram, the forty-seven-year-old fifty-state marathoner Paul Mellor, and seventeen-year-old Erin Luley, who had set a new United States record—her second of the day—in the poetry event, while we were out of the room.
Now that there were only six of us left, the competition shifted to its second phase, designed to amp up the drama for the benefit of the television cameras. Nifty 3-D graphics were now projected onto a screen in the front of the room, and theatrical lighting poured down on the stage, where there were six tall director’s chairs for us to sit on, each with a lapel microphone resting on it.
The first event of the afternoon was random words. In a typical random words event at a typical national championship, the competitors would have fifteen minutes to memorize as many words as possible from a list of four hundred, then a short break, and then thirty minutes to write as many as they could remember in order on a sheet of paper. It’s not exactly a spectator sport. For the U.S. championship, it was decided that everything would happen on stage, with the hope that this might lend the event some of the hand-wringing, agonizing screams, and other kabuki antics that make the spelling bee such compelling theater. The six of us were to go in a circle, one by one, each calling out the next word on the list we’d memorized. The first two mental athletes to miss a word would be knocked out.
The list was a collection of concrete nouns and verbs like “reptile” and “drown,” which are the easiest to visualize, mixed in with a few harder-to-imagine abstract words like “pity” and “grace.” Whereas your objective in a normal random words event would be to memorize as much as possible, and perhaps be a little reckless about it for the sake of packing your memory palace to capacity, Ed and I had reckoned that the rules of the U.S. championships meant that a wiser strategy was to memorize fewer words—I went for a mere 120—but make sure they were 100 percent right. We figured most of the people on the stage could probably remember more words than me, but also that somebody was going to freak out and try for more than he or she could handle. I would not be that guy.
After our fifteen minutes of memorizing, we went person by person across the stage announcing the next word from the list: “sarcasm” ... “icon” ... “awning” . . . “lasso” . . . “torment” . . . When we got to the twenty-seventh word, Erin, who had just that morning memorized more poetry than any American mental athlete ever before, floundered. The word was “numb”—the other five of us all knew it—but for some reason she couldn’t see it. She collapsed back into her chair, shaking her head. Nine words later, Paul Mellor mistook “operation” for “operate”—a classic rookie error. Most of us—and especially the producer from HDNet, which was televising the scintillating proceedings—had been braced for a bruising battle of attrition past at least the hundredth word. It was hard to figure how the event could have ended so early. Even someone who has just learned the principle of the memory palace is usually able to memorize at least thirty or forty words on a first attempt. I suspected that both Erin and Paul had misjudged the rest of the field and overreached. Which meant Ram, Chester, Maurice, and I had slid into the final four on the unforced errors of others. Which meant I was one tea party away from the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship.
A tall brunette in a summer dress walked onto the stage and introduced herself. “Hi, I’m Diana Marie Anderson. I was born on December 22, 1967, in Ithaca, New York, 14850. My work number, but please don’t call me there, is 929-244-6735, extension 14. I have a pet and her name is Karma and she’s a yellow lab. I have some hobbies: watching movies, cycling, and knitting. My favorite car is a 1927 Model T Ford. It’s black. When I eat, I have pizza and jelly beans and peppermint-stick ice cream.”
While she spoke, Ram, Chester, Maurice, and I had our eyes closed, furiously painting images in our memory palaces. Diana’s birthday, 12/22/67, became a one-ton weight (12) crushing a nun (22) as she drank a fruit shake (67), which I placed in a freestanding claw-toothed bathtub in the bathroom of my Victorian palace. For her birthplace and zip code, I walked over to the linen closet and imagined a monster truck tire (14) rolling over the ledge of one of Ithaca’s famous gorges, and landing on a couple of fellas (850). Four more tea party guests appeared on stage, and read off equally exhaustive biographies.
The contest was called “Three Strikes and You’re Out,” which meant that the first two contestants to forget three pieces of information would be eliminated. After giving us a few minutes for the curve of forgetting to work its magic, the five tea party guests came back onstage and started quizzing us about themselves. First, we were asked for the name of a young woman with blond hair and a baseball cap, the fourth of the five guests. Chester, sitting at the end of the row, knew it: “Susan Lana Jones.” Maurice was then quizzed on her date of birth, which he didn’t know, and which made me wonder if he hadn’t been bluffing about his good night’s sleep. One strike for Maurice. Fortunately, I did know her birthday. I pulled it out of the stark marble sink of my modernist palace. It was December 10, 1975. Ram knew her place of residence: North Miami Beach, Florida, 33180, but Chester couldn’t remember her phone number. One strike for Chester. And neither could Maurice. Two strikes for Maurice. The camera zoomed in on me, waiting for me to call out the ten digits, plus extension. “I didn’t even try to remember her phone number,” I said, looking straight into the lens. My strategy had been to focus on everything else, and just hope that those long numbers would be someone else’s problem. One strike for Josh.
The game continued like this, until it got back to Maurice, who couldn’t come up with even a single one of the woman’s three hobbies. In fact, he might as well have been taking a nap while they’d been reading off their bios. He had three strikes. He was out.
The other three of us remained on stage volleying biographical details back and forth for several more rounds. Eventually it came back to Chester to recite the work phone number of one of the tea party guests, including the area code and three digit extension.
Chester grimaced and looked down. “Why do I always get the phone numbers? Are you kidding me?”
“That’s just the way it worked out,” said Tony Dottino, who was standing behind a podium at stage left, acting as game show host.
“Come on, nobody knows the phone numbers.”
“You’re a numbers guru, Chester.”
If I’d been sitting in Chester’s chair, I wouldn’t have known it either. It was dumb luck that Chester had ended up in that seat and not me, dumb luck that he got his third strike before me, and dumb luck that I was now on my way to the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship.
A ten-minute pause was announced before the final event, “Double Deck’r Bust,” in which Ram and I would each have five minutes to memorize the same two decks of playing cards. Maurice grabbed me as I walked off the stage and put his arm around my shoulder. “You are the winner,” he said in clipped English. “Ram cannot do two decks. It is certain.” I thanked him curtly, and tried to make my way through the crowd to get out of the room. Ben greeted me at the bottom of the stairs with an outstretched palm waiting for a low five.
“Cards are Ram’s worst event,” he said excitedly. “You’ve got it in the bag now!”
“Come on, man, what are you trying to do, jinx this?”
“All you’ve got to do is half of what you did this morning.”
“Please don’t say that. You’re bringing down some serious evil eye over here.”
He apologized and left to find Ram to offer him his best wishes.
From the sideline, Kenny Rice continued his play-by-play analysis: “We are nearing the deciding moment here in the U.S. National Memory Championship. Ram Kolli won this event last year. Can the twenty-five-year old from Virginia pull off the repeat, or will it be the newcomer Joshua Foer, an Internet journalist who has covered the event before? Now he’s here trying to win it. This last event, ’Double Deck’r Bust,’ is a mind-against-mind battle.”
I knew, despite the bad karma, that Ben and Maurice were right. Ram could barely memorize a single deck of cards in five minutes, much less two. Under the sweat-inducing lights, eye to eye with the lens of a television camera, I knew that all I had to do was not choke, and that silver hand with the golden nail polish would be mine.
The first thing I did after sitting down and putting in my ear plugs was shove the second deck aside. Since I only needed to memorize one more card than Ram, I decided I would get to know the first deck as thoroughly as I possibly could. I spent the five minutes looking at those fifty-two cards over and over again, breaking only to take a quick peek at Ram, who was sitting at the table next to me. He was holding up a single card and studying it like some sort of rare insect. Oh my god, that guy doesn’t have a chance, I thought.
After five minutes of memorizing, there was a coin toss to determine who would go first during recall. Ram called tails. It was heads. It was up to me to choose whether to start, or let Ram.
“This is important,” I whispered, loud enough to be picked up by my lapel microphone. I closed my eyes and walked as fast as I could through the deck, checking to see if there were any gaps in my memory palace, places where for some reason an image hadn’t stuck, as had happened earlier that morning. If there were, I wanted Ram to be accountable for those cards, not me. Finally, after a long pause, I opened my eyes. “I’ll start.”
I thought about it a second longer. “No, no, no. Wait. Ram can start.” It might have seemed like one last little bit of psychological gamesmanship, but in fact I’d realized I couldn’t remember the forty-third card in the deck. I wanted to make sure that that one would be Ram’s responsibility.
Dottino: “Okay, Ram, it’s to you for the first card.”
Ram twiddled his fingers for a second. “Two of diamonds.”
Then me: “Queen of hearts.”
“Nine of clubs.”
“King of hearts.”
Ram looked up at the ceiling and leaned back in his chair.
I could see he was shaking his head. No freaking way, I thought. He looked back down. “King of diamonds?”
Now I was shaking my head. I knew he was out. On the fifth card! I looked over at Ram in shock. He’d blown it. He’d overreached. Maurice, sitting in the front row, smacked his forehead.
“We have a new United States memory champion!”
I didn’t stand up. I’m not even sure I breached a smile. A minute earlier, all I had wanted was to win. But now my first emotion was not happiness or relief or self-congratulation. It was, I was surprised to discover, simply exhaustion. I felt the sleeplessness of the previous night wash over me, and kept my head buried in my hands for a moment. People watching at home probably thought I was overcome with emotion. In fact, I was still stuck inside my memory palace, floating through a world of impossible images that seemed for a brief moment more real than the stage I was sitting on. I looked up and saw the kitschy, two-tiered trophy twinkling at the edge of the stage. Ram reached over to shake my hand and whispered in my ear, “The fifth card. What was it?”
I dropped my hands, turned to him, and whispered back: “The five of clubs.” Dom DeLuise. Hula-hooping. Of course.