When I read the book “Moonwalking with Einstein” in 2014, I had no idea it would impact my life this much. I am no savant and definitely do not have a photographic memory. My memory journey started as an interest 4 years ago. I practiced simple memory techniques for a few months before competing in the 2014 World Memory Championship in China. I didn’t know what I was doing, made tons of mistakes, but met some of the best trained memories in the world. This led me to compete in the 2015 USA Memory Championship where I finished in 6th place. That was the moment where I foresaw my potential.
I’ve since been on the FOX TV show “Superhuman” (watch here) and on Indonesia’s biggest TV station in front of 20 million people (watch here). I also earned a bronze medal and US Record in the 5 minute Random Images event at the 2017 World Championships.
Friday the 13th Omen
The night before the championship, my fiancé Nicki and I were eating outside at a taco restaurant. I was blowing my nose when something hit my hand. I thought it was a rogue booger. I looked down to see bird poop. A little sparrow had been sitting on a light string right above me.
I told Nicki this was a good omen…that when the universe gives you something bad, it has to balance out and give you a positive.
Saturday, July 14, 2018 – The 20th USA Memory Championship
MIT’s Kresge Auditorium – Cambridge, MA
13 Mental Athletes (MAs) who qualified in Harrisburg, PA in March would compete.
I walked into Kresge Auditorium and sat down with fellow competitors Nelson Dellis (4-time champion), Ron White (2-time champion), Kyle Matschke, Tracy Miller, and Matthew Wilson.
I said “Ron, you look tired.”
He laughed, “No man! You’re just trying to get in my head. But John, you look horrible. I think you need to go to the hospital.”
I joked with him throughout the day, “Ron, did you get a nap in yet?”
I also told them about the bird poop omen and Ron one-upped me “I got hit by a car this morning.”
The Championship Format
13 competitors. 4 events. 1 champion.
In each event, 2-4 competitors would be eliminated until one remained.
The events: Words to Remember, Tea Party, Long Term Memory (new), and Double Deck of Cards.
Words to Remember
In this event, we’re given a list of 300 words and have 15 minutes to memorize as many as we can, in order. Then we go on stage and take turns saying the next correct word.
If you say a word wrong or forget it, you get a strike. 2 strikes and you’re out. 3 mental athletes would be eliminated.
In past championships, you were eliminated if you made only 1 mistake. This year, they changed it to 2 strikes, making it more forgiving.
The words were slightly harder than I expected. Words like “desire” and “intuition” come to mind since they’re harder to visualize or “see” in a story.
I don’t think this event has ever gotten past 100 correct words before it ended, so I chose to memorize 140 and review them a lot to be safe.
On stage, I chose to sit in the last chair so I said last (I was ranked 2nd and got to choose my seat 2nd). Nelson was the #1 seed and had chosen the 2nd seat which surprised me.
Very early on, I noticed that Nelson passed on a word and received a strike. I didn’t think much of it.
A couple rounds later, I heard someone on the other end say the wrong word and get eliminated. When I looked up, I saw that it was Nelson. I was COMPLETELY SHOCKED. Nelson is one of the best in the world at memorizing words.
I’ve looked up to Nelson for a long time. He’s been the face of USA Memory for years and is a 4-time champ…a force to be reckoned with. As a friend, I was devastated for him. I had wanted to face off with him in the final event to prove that I could hang with the best…but that wouldn’t happen today. He was out.
The final competitor was eliminated around the 68th word. I said all my words correctly. 0 strikes. On to the next round.
In this event, 4 “tea party guests” enter the stage 1 at a time. They each say 17 facts (see pic below) about themselves like their birthday, where they work, etc. Then, they come back on stage 1 at a time and we have to answer 1 question about them when it’s our turn. 3 strikes and you’re out. 3 mental athletes would be eliminated.
In the past, this event had become too easy. Guests shared fewer facts and MAs were given 15 minutes to review the information…which was a lot of time.
This year there were more facts, and we only 5 minutes to review. Plus, the morning of the competition, I learned that we would have to first memorize by only hearing the information. Not by reading it on paper like in the past.
I had asked about this twice before the competition to verify we could read the information on the screen, but they changed it in the end. I knew this would be difficult.
On stage, I kept my head down to focus on each guest’s voice, trying to store the facts they were giving us. But they all TALKED SO FAST. They had been told to talk slow and clearly, but they didn’t. One guy even said his zip code wrong and had to correct it…after I had already memorized it.
Each guest came back up to quickly say their info one more time. This time their facts were projected on screen for us to read.
Finally, we had 5 minutes to review all the info on paper. This is when I noticed that the woman who said her anniversary was 12/31/1994, had it written down as 12/31/1999. Another fact I had to quickly re-memorize. Not something you want to see when you’re already flustered.
Now it was time to see what we remembered.
They randomly chose the fourth guest (from the above picture) to quiz us on first. I found out later, that everyone thought he was the most difficult to remember…including myself. Great!
I sweated this event out. I didn’t feel like I remembered everything as solidly as I normally do in training.
I answered my first 2 questions correctly, but missed my 3rd question – “What are his 3 favorite foods?” I remembered he liked green chiles and korean tacos, but in the moment forgot avocado toast! Damn you avocado toast! Strike 1 for me.
Luckily though, almost everyone else was struggling. Tracy and Ron were knocked out. Before I got asked my 4th question, Matthew was the last one eliminated. Tuan Bui, a high school student, was super impressive and the only one without a strike. It was a quick event. I survived and that’s all that mattered.
Long Term Memory
This was a brand new event this year.
Exactly 1 month before the competition, all the MAs received a spreadsheet with the following information:
- The Periodic Table (all 118 elements and their symbols, atomic numbers, atomic masses, boiling points in Kelvin, state at 20 degrees Celcius, year discovered, and discoverers)
- The Pro Football Hall of Fame (all players inducted, year inducted, position they played, years they played)
- The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (all inductees, year inducted, a song they’re known for, who inducted them)
- The Academy Awards (all best pictures, best actresses, best actors – by year)
We had only 1 month to memorize ALL of this. THOUSANDS of pieces of information (numbers, names, etc). This was my life for an entire month. It was wicked.
On stage, we would be asked random questions about this information. Each round the questions would get more complex, until 4 people were eliminated. 2 strikes and you’re out.
Oddly enough, I was the most confident in this event. I fully believed that I knew this information better than all of the other MAs.
I answered questions like:
Who won Best Picture and Best Actress in 1980?
Answer: Ordinary People, Sissy Spacek
What element has an atomic mass of 4, what is it’s boiling point, and who discovered it?
Answer: Helium, 4 K, Ramsey, Cleves, & Langlet.
I knew my stuff and didn’t miss anything. I was also impressed with the other MAs. Grace Smith, a high school student, did extremely well even though she was eventually eliminated. Martin Schneider, a new competitor and MIT student, Tuan, and Kyle were also eliminated.
I was on to the final round along with Avi Chavda, a physician and impressive first-time competitor, and Claire Wang, a rising 13-year-old phenom from Los Angeles who was featured on a TV show called “Child Genius”. I knew before today that Claire would make the final event. If she keeps training she’ll win this one day.
Final Round: Double Deck of Cards
In this event, 2 decks of cards are shuffled together. We have 5 minutes to memorize all 104 cards in order. After that, the three of us take turns saying the next correct card. If you make ONE mistake, you’re out. Last MA left is the new champion.
On stage, I put my Sox hat on and pushed the bill down to block out the audience as I memorized. I had practiced this event countless times, but never in front of hundreds of people.
During the 5-minute memorization, I looked over all the cards a few times and felt that I knew them all in order.
I picked up my mic and stayed in my zone by looking straight down at the floor.
Claire was asked what the first card was, “10 of hearts.” Here we go…
I paused each time it was my turn to make sure I said my cards correctly. If I slipped and said “10 of clubs” when I meant to say “10 of spades,” it would cost me everything I had worked so hard for.
Early on, Claire made a mistake and said the wrong card. She was out.
As Avi and I took turns saying cards, I walked through my hometown movie theater in my mind’s eye, seeing the card images that I had stored there during memorization. They were all strong and vivid. I knew I had this, as long as I stayed calm and focused.
After seeing a Nissan Element drive over navy beans and crash into a sycamore tree (this was my imagery to remember the sequence: 10 of spades, 2 of clubs, 8 of spades, 9 of clubs, 7 of diamonds, 3 of diamonds), I said the next correct card “King of Hearts.” That’s when Avi paused on the 62nd card.
Did he forget it?
I waiting to see if he’d say “Ace of Spades” (the next correct card), but he said something else. I don’t even remember what he said. I just knew that I had won.
I looked up for the first time to see the cheering crowd and congratulate Avi on his incredible first-time performance.
I was the 2018 USA Memory Championship!
I had envisioned this moment so many times that I couldn’t tell if it was real this time. I was beside myself.
I grabbed a mic and successfully recited the remaining cards in order.
Chester Santos, a former champion and sponsor of this championship, awarded me with a $2,000 prize and I was given the beautiful seahorse trophy.
Daily training, vision, hard work, and belief in myself have worked wonders for me. I plan to keep improving every day.
I’ll start to shift more of my focus into my new memory business/website while still training for the next competitions (possibly 2018 World Championship in Vienna, Austria and the 2019 USA Memory Championship).
Alex Mullen, Nelson Dellis, Ron White, Claire Wang and everyone who competed this year – I hope to see you at the championship next year.
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