After his startling win at the 2009 USA Memory Championship, Ron White, the Wranglers-wearing Texan profiled in our April issue, became famous in memory circles for his unusual training methods. While his counterparts donned noise-canceling headphones to pore over lists of numbers, he worked on "mental toughness" with a former Navy SEAL and prepared for the pressure of competition by memorizing decks of playing cards while under water in a pool. In the months leading up to the World Memory Championship, White abandoned the rigors of his training and finished a disappointing 30th. But last Saturday, he bounced back to retain his USA title at New York City's Con Edison building. Details caught up with him after his narrow win.
Details: So what was the championship like?
Ron White: It was way more intense than last year—the competition was way tougher. I was the man last year, and this year I did not dominate. There was a 26-year-old kid named Nelson [Dellis] from Florida, and he was steamrolling everybody. He broke one of my records.
Details: You were disappointed with your performance at the World Championship in November. What happened afterward?
Ron White: I didn't train real hard [for London], so I got there and I was just upset with myself the whole time. I was determined not to let that happen this year. I trained moderately, two to three days a week, until mid-January. Then I was like, "All right, man, let's do it." The last month was intense. I started jogging in place in my living room while I memorized cards; I did jumping jacks while numbers flashed on my computer screen, did the snorkel thing in the hot tub. I moved into a new building and was at the front desk talking to one of the girls, and she was like, "What do you do for a living?" I said, "I memorize." And she said, "Is that what you were doing in the hot tub?" I said, "How'd you know?" and she pointed to the security camera. [Laughs]
Details: What were your goals heading into the USA Championship?
Ron White: No. 1 was to win the tournament, which I did, but really I wanted to be better than last year. However, my times were worse. Normally, in the first trial of speed numbers [most memorized in five minutes], I go for 130 digits. It's easy but safe enough to advance, and then I go for a record in the second trial. Well, this time I screwed up and did 114. So I had to still play it safe. In [fastest to memorize a deck of cards], I did a minute and 44 seconds in the first round and made mistakes, so the second round I had to play it safe. I got two minutes and 13 seconds. That was horrible! But still good enough for second place. I only got 90 minutes of sleep last night. I was taking melatonin and Tylenol PM to sleep for a year, but I didn't want to take it because I didn't want to be cloudy headed. But I'm addicted to it! I literally fell asleep at 5:30 A.M. and woke up at seven. I woke up and said, "Let's just have some fun, because it's gonna take a lot for me to win, maybe a miracle."
Details: Were you nervous about being able to surpass last year's performance?
Ron White: Yes—last year nobody knew who I was—I flew under the radar, and by the time they knew who I was I'd won the tournament. This year I step in and all the cameras were on me, the expectation is so high—it's totally different.
Details: But you trained for that, right?
Ron White: Yeah, one thing I implemented into my routine is visualization. I'd visualize all six events until I got the trophy. It took me 55 minutes to do the whole thing. I'd lived it out every day in my head.
Details: So tell me about the competition.
Ron White: Once I got to lunch I was in the top three of seven. It was all twentysomethings. So I just said, "They're gonna be the hares and I'm gonna be the tortoise." I told myself to be conservative. They went for [really fast times] and two of them [made mistakes and were penalized]. At that point I needed strategy because my memory wasn't at full capacity.
Details: The toughest event is the "tea party," where five people take the stage and rattle off pieces of personal information and you have to memorize it and answer questions. You didn't miss one last year—which is unheard of. How'd it go today?
Ron White: That was really the turning point. Up until then, Nelson had rocked. He was up on stage teaching techniques, the media was asking him questions. But you could feel the momentum shift at the tea party. I owned it. It's all strategy. My memory's not better. Everyone missed two, and I didn't miss one. On the last event, the most cards memorized [from two decks] in five minutes . . . It was heartbreaking what happened next for Nelson. We'd been bitter rivals all day, but my heart broke for him. When you memorize a deck in the morning, you can start at the top or the bottom, it doesn't matter. This one you have to start at the top. My guess is he was rattled from the tea party, his nerves were getting to him, and he memorized a deck from the bottom up. So the three of us walk out on stage, they say, "Nelson, what was the first card?" He said 10 of diamonds. As soon as he said that, I knew. I wanted to win, but I hated to win that way. He handled it very well; he's a class act. So then it was down to me and Ram Kolli, and he made a mistake on the 57th card. My strategy was to know the cards, know 'em cold, to be the tortoise and let the other guys make mistakes. This is a story I'll be telling for 10 years—getting one hour of sleep and winning the memory championship.
Details: So what's next for you?
Ron White: I'm trying to find a sponsor for me and two other Americans to go to the World Memory Championship in China—me, Nelson, and Chester [Santos]. Last year I let other peoples' expectations of me become my goals and it created stress. They were like, "You're gonna win the world [championship]'!" I gained 20 pounds and was miserable. This year, I'm not gonna make any predictions for the world for a while. I just want to drink some rum and go to a baseball game.
Details: What was your prize for winning this year?
Ron White: They gave me a $500 gift certificate to buy books on this website. It's all math, chemistry, and physics. [Laughs] The founders always say, "We're not a bunch of nerds, we're just normal guys." And then they give out science books.