On this rainy November morning, they're all on hand: Some 64 competitors from 15 countries have gathered in the basement of London's Strand Palace Hotel for the 18th annual World Memory Championship. There's Ben Pridmore, the British favorite, who memorizes a deck of cards in less than 30 seconds. In a photo on the event website, he peers out from behind a Lord of the Rings-style cloak. There's Gunther Karsten, a German chemist who juggles to clear his mind, wears wraparound shades, and in his bio lists the following weaknesses: "restless, demanding, beautiful women" and "luxury cars." There's Taras Bulyga, an 18-year-old Ukrainian who practices 16 hours a day and memorizes by scent. The Chinese competitors wear matching tracksuits and carry mini Chinese flags.
The whole scene resembles a Revenge of the Nerds convention, except for one guy—a dude, really. Ronnie White, the reigning U.S. memory champion, is stocky and solidly built, with blond hair, a square jaw, and dimples. The 36-year-old Texan likes to wear Wranglers and cowboy boots. He eats at Hooters and talks with a twang. When he signed in the night before, a slight, wan British man greeted him with a wry smile. "So, it's Ronnie White," the Brit said, barely disguising a sneer. "You've come to see how the United States measures up against the world, have you?" In the next breath, the guy mentioned Joshua Foer, the 2006 U.S. memory champ and brother of the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer: "He thought he was good, but he wasn't that good."
White was jet-lagged and irritable, but he withheld a retort. He wanted to say, "Hey, the only reason you're speaking English and not German right now is because of us." His Wranglers and his fervent nationalism aren't all that set Ronnie White apart from this crowd. He lacks Foer's Yale pedigree. He's not a genius like Pridmore or an autistic phenom like Stephen Wiltshire, the artist who drew Rome from memory after flying over the city for just a half-hour. White was born to a cop and a driver's-license photographer for the Fort Worth DMV. He's a college dropout turned salesman and Navy reservist. And he's confident that old-fashioned determination and discipline will enable him to open a can of U.S.-grade whup-ass on these brainiacs. Back in 2007 he set his sights on the USA Memory Championship. He placed fourth in 2008. He then devised an innovative and grueling training regimen and returned a year later to win the title. There's no cash prize, but he was rewarded with a plane ticket to London.
So here he is, at 9:30 A.M. on November 12. The competitors sit at rows of tables in a basement conference room, and sheets of paper are placed facedown in front of them. The British announcer takes the mic. "Okay," he says, his face grave, "your minute of mental-preparation time begins now." White, wearing thick military-issue glasses and noise-canceling headphones, leans forward, takes a deep breath, and sinks into the silence. "Neurons at the ready," the announcer cries. "Go!"
Whatever interest Ronnie White had in school waned during college. During his sophomore year at the University of North Texas, he was suspended after earning a 0.9 GPA for two straight semesters. He never finished his degree, but he liked sales, and one day while working as a telemarketer for a chimney-cleaning service, he so impressed a customer with his persistence that he soon found himself selling memory seminars for the man. Eventually White started his own company. He got to thinking that this whole memory thing wasn't that hard. Actually, he began to master it, teaching people to memorize names at networking events and entertaining them with high-energy demos. He often introduces himself to the crowd at a conference, and after asking all 200 people to cover their name tags, he ticks off every single name.
In the wake of 9/11, he enlisted in the Navy Reserve and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2007. It was there that he decided to compete in the USA Memory Championship once he returned to the States. While stationed in Kabul, he'd wrap up a 12-hour shift, go to his bunk, and memorize images and numbers. His superiors were so impressed with his flair for doing security briefings without notes that they had him teach other servicemen how to better memorize the area's geography and tribes. Back home in Texas, after that fourth-place finish, White hired a former Navy SEAL to coach him on "mental toughness." Later that year he sat down in his Dallas apartment to plot his path to victory. He would record his journey in a notebook bound in soft black leather and titled, in gold lettering, THE JIM ROHN LEADERSHIP JOURNAL. White has long been a fan of Rohn, a millionaire motivational speaker. He opened the notebook and flipped past tips for becoming "wealthy, powerful, sophisticated, and influential." "Success," one read, "is neither magical nor mysterious," but rather "the natural consequence of consistently applying basic fundamentals." On a blank page, he wrote: "It is almost 90 days out from the USA Memory Championship, March 7th 2009, in New York. I will have achieved the goal of memorizing a deck of cards in one minute 30 seconds. I will have achieved the goal of memorizing a 167-digit number in five minutes. I will have achieved the goal of being USA Memory Champion."
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.
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.
Eight months later, in London, he feels distinctly less confident. The unfortunate truth is that after winning the USA title, White slacked off. In what is a common post-win phenomenon (think Michael Phelps), he struggled with motivation. Instead of maintaining his diet, he devoured buffalo-chicken sandwiches and French fries. He spent hours watching baseball and entire weeks ignoring calls from his SEAL coach. Sometimes he wished he'd never heard of the World Memory Championship. In the restless hours leading up to the tournament, a Jim Rohn quote kept coming to mind: "The keys to being successful are easy to do, but they're also easy not to do, and that's what gets most people." All White had to do was practice. But it was soooo easy not to. In one journal entry, he'd written: "I am very easily led off course by women—master myself; I sleep too late—master myself; I put off memory training—master myself."
With a month to go, he'd finally forced himself to resume training. He made jumbo-size lists of accomplishments and concocted new punishments for his misdeeds. (One self-imposed penalty was mailing a check to the American Civil Liberties Union.) He even reviewed mental images in a cemetery. "It was," as White puts it, "a reminder that hey, you'd better do it now, because one day you won't have the chance."
But in London he feels fuzzy-headed, which leads to a series of careless mistakes. During the most-numbers-memorized-in-an-hour event, he messes up the 390th digit and stops. Turns out you're allowed to continue. "That's my fault for not knowing the rules," he says. On the following day, he memorizes 12 decks in an hour—"I had 'em cold!" he'll say later—but during recall he's surprised to get a sheet of paper instead of more cards with which to reconstruct the order. Having to write the suits trips him up and he comes in close to last. On the final day, in his strongest event, he memorizes a single deck of cards in a personal-best minute 17 seconds. And this time he's given a new deck of cards to demonstrate his recall, but when an arbiter reviews the results, she uncovers a fatal flaw: He missed the 22nd card. When he sees his mistake, White feels as if someone has punched him in the gut.
For the second year in a row, Pridmore is crowned world champion. Two German competitors eclipse their compatriot Karsten to take second and third, followed by a tracksuited Weng Feng from China in fourth. White finishes 30th. As the contenders prepare for the awards ceremony, the dejected Texan plops down in a leather chair. "It's all about the training, and I trained for the USA like a madman," he says. "But you know, I came and got ideas for new strategies." Searching for the upside to his sputtering finish, he zeros in on something his SEAL coach said: "It's never about the end result; it's about who you become in the process." White has a gleam in his eye now. "You know what? I'm the most motivated I've been since March," he says. "I'm gonna give up alcohol, lose weight. I'm gonna defend my USA title and be a legitimate contender for the next five years." He's already got a plan: "I want to get a group of men and women to represent the U.S. well. I mean, I don't think I'm gonna win, but what kind of Rocky movie would that be? He loses, then comes back and beats the communists—it'd be like Rocky IV!"
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