His task list: Thirty minutes of cardio five days a week (to improve brain function and foster confidence). Weight training three days a week. Six hours of memory training five days a week. He took copious notes on the results. "I am attempting a new form of training for card memorization," he scribbled on December 1. "This is taking 4.5 seconds for every three cards. . . . Too long!" Subsequent entries list times, along with notes like "Perfect! No misses!" and "Full deck memorized 2:21.6." Because the brain retains images more easily than abstractions, it's best to memorize data with visuals. White has an image for each number between zero and 99—the number 14 is Drew Carey; 62 is Shania Twain. For cards he uses a method called character-action-object. The king of spades, for example, is Tim McGraw pulling a fan onto the stage. To keep facts in order, he creates a "journey," linking each piece of information to an image and placing it along a pathway. White's stomping grounds include his Dallas apartment, the nearby Hooters, and Billy Bob's Texas, a famous Fort Worth honky-tonk that features live-bull riding. As he memorizes, he imagines he's in one of these places, "filing" each fact on a chair or a table.
Not long ago, on a trip to Billy Bob's to watch Clint Black perform, White ran into a 30-year-old blonde named Julia. A petite divorcée with a thick Russian accent, she had been sitting in a bar called Cowboys a few weeks earlier, typing on her phone, when he had approached her for the first time. "If you're texting me," he said, "it won't work 'cause my battery's dead." On this night, he bought her a cocktail and steered her to a table.
White uses his memory skills every day. Go figure. He rarely jots down phone numbers or bothers to program them into his phone, and he almost never writes down directions or to-do lists. But his brain skills have little impact on the ladies. The mere question makes him laugh. To demonstrate, he leaned toward Julia and said, "Hey, do you think it's cool that I can memorize a 200-digit number?" Julia shrugged as if he'd just announced that he could "walk the dog" with a yo-yo. "Sure," she said flatly, turning to a friend. "When I first met Ron," she said, "I thought he was just a regular guy."
White is the first to admit that memory isn't exactly sexy. "I always joke that the people I compete against played Dungeons & Dragons, live in their mother's basement, and have invisible friends," he says. "And I'm one of them."
Sure enough, when Julia makes a wisecrack about her own memory, he points out that he's no Einstein. "I guarantee you," he says, "if you put as much time in as me, you'd be just as good." Julia doesn't look convinced.
But science does seem to back him up. K. Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University, cites a 2003 study that found that top memorizers' brains differed only slightly from those of control subjects. The whizzes had more activity in the regions tied to spatial memory, navigation, and associations—all functions of training. "Most people assume talent is innate," Ericsson says. "But we're finding it's explainable in terms of deliberate practice."
What White lacks in brainpower, he more than makes up for with good old American grit. When he isn't grinding through his training, he's reaching out for help. He first turned to David Thomas, the 2007 U.S. memory champion, who once owned the Guinness Book record for recalling the most digits of pi—he drew a blank at 22,501. At the national tournament in 2008, Thomas had offered to help any contender who was interested in his techniques. "And when you say that," Thomas says, "everyone says, 'Okay, yeah,' but no one actually does it." Except, of course, Ronnie White.
Thanks to Thomas, the Texan got some expert advice on how to master a "tea party" competition. Although it harks back to something 8-year-old girls like to do with their teddy bears, the name belies the challenge. Five people rattle off 24 pieces of information, including their addresses, dates of birth, phone numbers, and favorite foods. Competitors memorize the data in real time and then answer questions. "It's the most difficult event I've seen anywhere in the world," Thomas says. "They give you the information quicker than you can learn it." The solution, said the former champ, was to create a journey for each person, using a predetermined image for each state, for example, to help you recall the addresses.