What was it like to compete in my first memory tournament? A once in a life time experience 🙂
It was 2008 and my first memory tournament but the story started years before. I don’t know exactly when but a few years prior I had seen an online story about something called the USA Memory Championship in New York. I read the amount of numbers that the participants were memorizing in 5 minutes and I was frankly FLOORED! I thought…no WAY! Then I saw they were memorizing decks of cards in 2 and 3 minutes. I immediately thought there was no way I could compete and these guys were geniuses that were out of my league. Keep in mind at this point I had been teaching memory seminars for 12 or 13 years and I still thought these feats were unreal.
However, it started eating at my mind. I thought, ‘How can you keep walking on these stages to teach memory seminars saying you are one of the top memory guys in the USA if you won’t compete against the best?’ This competitive drive and desire to truly be the best fueled me.
I was also fueled by a desire to overcome an honest but incredibly large mistake that went to the core of my integrity. In 2001, I read in the Guinness Book of World Records that Gert Metring had memorized a 27 digit number and the numbers were flashed on the screen for 3 seconds. When I read this I interpreted it to mean that the numbers were flashed on the screen for 3 seconds per digit or a total of 1 minute 21 seconds. I contacted Fox television and I broke that record in the Dallas Fox studio. It was a BIG day for me! As you can imagine on all my marketing material, websites, CD albums, books, YouTube videos I declared I broke a Guinness World Record. Then in 2004 I actually made my way to submit it to Guinness and they rejected my claim saying the digits were not flashed 3 seconds per digits but all digits in 3 seconds. I was crushed. But more than crushed I was humiliated, embarrassed and felt like a fraud. I had been living a lie for 3 years!
I was being introduced as the guy with the Guinness Record. I went out of my way to delete the record off all my CDs, books, websites, materials, etc. However, with the internet…the damage had gone viral. To this day when I encounter the claim somewhere I make a point to set the record straight. But this mistake was at the core of my integrity and I viewed the USA Memory Championship as a way to avenge the mistake and recapture my integrity.
I really only trained for one event and that was the numbers event because I have always been a numbers memory guy.Â For years I had memorized a 40 digit number for groups in my speeches.
To train for this number event I created a memory system that had a picture for every 3 digit number from 000-999. I had had pictures for every 2 digit number 00-99 for years but 3 digits was a new arena for me. It takes a LOT of time to create images for every number from 100-999! That is 899 pictures! I created a Power Point presentation with 899 slides! I went on Google and found images for each number. For example my picture for the number 707 is Casket so I went on Google and found an image of a casket and put it on the slide. When does a person find time to do this? When you are deployed to Afghanistan! 🙂
During my deployment to Afghanistan in 2007 I would work a 12 hour shift in my Naval Intelligence job and then in the evenings as I returned to my rack (military speak for bed), I created and memorized this 899 slide Power Point presentation. It really helped pass the deployment time and gave me a good sense of accomplishment. I returned from my deployment Dec 20th, 2007 and had about 2.5 months left to train. To be perfectly honest my training was not very well structured, planned or documented. My mind was still mush from my deployment and I was reintegrating with society and ending the relationship with my girlfriend that had strained during my time away. I remember being in Europe with the girlfriend and she was asleep in bed and I was laying beside her staring at the wall but looking over her head. She awoke and saw me and said, ‘What are you staring at?’ I said, ‘Oh…just practicing my numbers.’ I was reviewing the numbers in my head from 100-899.
I had the numbers down pretty well but wasn’t good at cards still. I had no system. During that European trip on a train I attempted to memorize a deck of cards for the first time. I had no method at all so I just assigned a number to every card since I already had pictures for numbers. Then I attempted to memorize the deck. It took me a little over 6 minutes, but my girlfriend was impressed! And she didn’t impress easily…at all…
March 2008 rolled around soon enough and I found myself in the waiting room with the other contestants. I had read their names online but seeing them in person was almost like meeting celebrities, kind of humorous now because they have become my friends. I will never forget meeting Chester Santos (he actually won that year) and David Thomas. David was the 2007 USA Memory Champion, a British man who was also a US citizen he was attending this year as a spectator. He asked me, ‘Are you going to win?’ It was a confident and almost cocky question the way he said it. I replied, ‘Well, I am going to do well and have fun but I don’t know how to do cards.’ He replied, ‘Well that is the most important one!’ Uggh….he was right….
Much of the event is a blur for me. I just tried to keep a low key, I didn’t want anyone to know that I taught memory seminars for a living. The less people knew about me the better. On the application we completed I said I was a ‘Sales Trainer’ not a memory speaker and I went by Ronnie White instead of Ron White as I do when speaking. I wanted no one to make any connections. Less pressure, less stress, less attention. However, I had under estimated Chester Santos. In the restroom I encountered Chester and he said, ‘You must be pretty good at the number even. That is what you hold the Guinness Record in!’ Dang it…
Dang it on many levels. Dang it that I wasn’t under the radar and dang it that Chester had found this event in my history that I now viewed as a black mark.
I don’t recall my score in the names and faces but I think I was in the top 10 or so. In numbers, I was very proud to recall 120 digits and that was good enough for second place! This was my one event and my one time to shine. I was happy with that score. Then the dreaded cards event. I believe I memorized only 10 or so cards in 5 minutes. It was awful. I attempted 26 cards or so but made a mistake very early on and your score stops at your first mistake. After the first 3 events, I was in 8th or 9th place. The top 7 were selected to advance to the finals. I HAD to make the finals and my only chance was to score well in memorizing a poem. I had NEVER attempted this and developed my strategy on the fly but I memorized 99 words and that was good enough to advance me to the playoff round.
I was very pleased to move past the first event of the ‘playoffs’ and that is the random words event. If you ask me this is the MOST DANGEROUS event of the entire tournament. Every other event a mistake here or there is not lethal. In this event if you say operate and the word is operation (as Paul Mellor did) you are ELIMINATED from the entire tournament. This is a 100% perfection event and I don’t think enough people take it seriously. I advanced past this event and made it to the deadly Tea Party event.
There was now only 5 left of the original 50 and I was one of them! I was actually satisfied at this point and maybe that was the problem. My killer instinct was gone.
In the Tea Party event I had no strategy at all. For this event 5 people walked up and said their name, birthday, city, state, zip, phone number, pet name and color, 3 hobbies, favorite car and 3 favorite foods. Then these 5 people would circle back through and the 5 participants left were quizzed on their data. I had no clue!!
I started just having fun with it. They called up the 5th person first and to be honest I hadn’t gotten to memorizing the data about the 5th person. So on his birthday I guessed June 5th, 1952 (or whatever I said). It was wrong but when it came back to me and asked his favorite car I gave the same answer. Everyone laughed and I was just having fun. I knew I was done and I was. I was eliminated here.
I spent the rest of the tournament wandering around and watching Chester and Ram battle it out for the top spot. Chester Santos was crowned the USA Memory Champion and it couldn’t have gone to a nicer guy. I didn’t take the Tea Party very seriously because I knew the final event was cards and I wasn’t good at cards. With that said, I believe they only got to the 20th card at most that year in the cards event (you are given 5 minutes to memorize 2 decks). So in theory if I hadn’t mentally given up in the Tea Party who knows what could have happened that year….As it stand I finished in 4th place overall in 2008.
A really important conversation occurred after the event was over, I was talking with David Thomas and he was commenting on participants who never seem to learn from their mistakes year to year and boasted that he had the strategy to win it all. He said, ‘I would coach anyone to win this thing and I have offered but no one will take me up on the offer.’ That stuck in my head. For weeks and even months I replayed what David had said. Was it more important to me to win on my own? Or get a coach and win with a strategy that couldn’t lose?
It was a tremendous experience. I walked around and chatted it up with the competitors. One of my biggest mistakes was one of the couples in the audience invited me to dinner and I spent the dinner with 2 strangers instead of building friendships with my fellow competitors. Other than that regret, 2008 was a time for me to get a feel for how the tournaments worked but it really inspired me shoot for #1 in 2009.
A few months later, I knew it was time to email David Thomas and I emailed him. I explained to him why I must win to avenge my integrity and I reminded him of his offer to share his strategy with anyone who would ask. Much to my surprise Mr. David Thomas (former Guinness Record holder for knowing Pi to 20,000 digits) was eager and willing to help..
So the training for 2009 begins….
Look for my post on the 2009 USA Memory Championship soon