Meet Ron White, the Texas-Born Memory Champ You’ll Never Forget

By Megan Feldman Thursday, May 14 2009

Standing chest-deep in the hotel pool, Ron White felt foolish. Were the people on lounge chairs near the deep end watching him? Well, screw it. If he cared what a few strangers thought and let it get in the way of his training, how would he possibly bring home the national title for competitive memory?

White, an all-American-looking 35-year-old with strawberry-blond hair, blue eyes and dimples, had traveled to Australia to deliver a speech on memory, and, as usual, he dedicated his free time to becoming the No. 1 memorizer in the United States. He put on his mask and snorkel, breathed in and out a few times and grabbed the deck of plastic playing cards from the side of the pool. He started his stopwatch and submerged himself. If he could memorize the order of this deck in close to two minutes underwater, he had it made. Trying to keep his breathing steady without letting it distract him, he flipped through the cards. Each one evoked an image in his mind: the king of hearts was his mother, the jack of hearts was Madonna singing, the five of spades was a friend named Sally whispering into a flip chart.

At the same time, in his mind he walked through his apartment in Euless, and as the picture for each playing card flashed in his mind, he placed it on a piece of furniture. In this way, he would be able to recall the order of the entire deck by mentally making his way through the apartment and seeing the images he’d placed throughout. Finished, he emerged from the water and checked the order of the deck against his memory. He had it down, and the stopwatch read two minutes and five seconds. Yes! That was his record! If he could do that underwater, he’d put the other competitors to shame on dry land at the USA National Memory Championship.

Memorizing cards underwater was an idea he had in conversation with a former Navy SEAL he’d hired to coach him on mental toughness and the psychology of excellence. The exercise, which stemmed from the SEALconcept that “the more you sweat in times of peace, the less you bleed in times of war,” was emblematic of the passion and discipline that would set White apart from his competitors at the USA Memory Championship on March 7. After coming in fourth last year in his first try for the title, White, a Grapevine native, arrived in New York a transformed man. He breezed through the daylong series of mind-benders without getting eliminated, set two national records—one for memorizing a deck of cards in one minute and 27 seconds and another for memorizing the most numbers in five minutes—and turned heads by blowing past his previous performance by a margin rarely seen in competitive memory.

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