White turned next to Navy veteran TC Cummings, who had used his own military experience to launch a consulting career in San Diego. Cummings talks passionately about applying the "success secrets known to SEALs to civilian pursuits." And so, while Karsten, the 2007 world memory champ, was juggling and practicing something called "happiness meditation," White was being steeled for mental warfare. "We looked to see where he could fail, and he said it was on the stage under pressure," Cummings says. "That translates to the field of battle. The more you sweat in times of peace, the less you bleed in times of war, so we wanted to increase the difficulty of his training."
For distraction, White reviewed his journeys in public or with friends' kids climbing on him. He memorized cards under water; with a special-ordered plastic deck, he practiced in the pool of his apartment complex. Discipline was a large part of Cummings' coaching. Was White reaching all of his goals? Was there any reason he doubted himself?
There was indeed: White consistently slept late. It bothered him: "If I can't even do that, how am I going to bring home the U.S. title?" Cummings' advice was to devise a slate-cleaning consequence to keep White from beating himself up. The next time he lingered in bed—on a 33-degree January day—White forced himself to swim a lap in the outdoor pool. Problem solved.
To safeguard himself against his other weaknesses—procrastination, beer, fatty foods, baseball, and women—he ramped up his regimen. As his training progressed, though, he grew discouraged. "The week off made me significantly slower!" he wrote after the holidays. "I really need to watch diet, as well. I had a tea with artificial sweetener today and can feel my head exploding. WATER! WATER!" A few weeks later he was even more frustrated. "I am in a mental slump," he wrote. "I can't focus, memorize, or sit still to practice. My mind is mush." To pump up White's confidence, Cummings told him to examine his life and list his accomplishments. "Reactively, we look for our failures," Cummings says. "It takes effort to look for the things we've done to make us worthy."
White had served in the military, spoken before thousands of people and memorized a 171-digit number in four minutes. He listed those things. He'd altered his diet and memorized a deck of cards under water in two minutes. He wrote that down. He also wrote, "I am the Nolan Ryan of memory."
When the 2009 USA Memory Championship opened on March 7 in New York City's Con Edison building, Chester Santos didn't consider White a threat. The 33-year-old defending champion soon realized his error. The year before, White had taken five minutes to memorize 20 playing cards; this time he memorized an entire deck in a minute 27 seconds. He broke the national record in the first round, while Santos—the man to beat in that event—clocked in at 2:09. "I didn't expect him to improve that drastically in one year—it's unheard of," Santos says. "I knew then that it was between me and him."
By the afternoon tea party, only five competitors remained. After the men and women took the stage and recited their personal information, Santos was asked for a person's hometown and immediately got a strike. Two more and he would be out. White, looking calm in his US NAVY T-shirt, rattled off his answers without skipping a beat. To Santos' astonishment, his rival didn't miss one question. Santos got his third strike when asked to name a favorite food. The correct response was paella, ravioli, and pizza, but after seeing the paella in his mind's eye, the next image was a blurry circle. Santos said sushi. "If I'd taken more time I would have seen that it was ravioli," he explains. "But I was rushed and just trying to hang on." When White learned that he was the new champion, he was happy, but calm. After all, he'd done the work, and he was . . . worthy.