Mind Games

Meet Ron White, the Texas-born memory champ you'll never forget.

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.

Ron White submerged himself in water while memorizing a deck of cards in two minutes and five seconds.
Patrick Michels
Ron White submerged himself in water while memorizing a deck of cards in two minutes and five seconds.
White trained all year after coming in fourth the year before in the USA Memory Championship.
Courtesy of Ron White
White trained all year after coming in fourth the year before in the USA Memory Championship.

At the same time, in his mind he walked through his apartment in Euless, Texas, 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 SEAL concept 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 National Memory Championship on March 7. After coming in fourth last year in his first try for the title, White, a Grapevine, Texas, 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 competitions.

His trip to the championship began with a simple series of declarations. Back in November, White sat down at the kitchen table of his apartment to plan the closing months of his training regimen. The notebook that would become the ultimate record of his success or failure was bound in soft black leather and titled, in gold lettering, The Jim Rohn Leadership Journal. He has long been a fan of Rohn, a self-made millionaire and motivational speaker, and White's bookshelf is lined with dozens of filled Jim Rohn Leadership Journals.

White opened the new one and flipped past the opening pages. There was a quote. "Be a collector of good ideas, but don't trust your memory," it read, ironically. "The best collecting place for the ideas and information that come your way is a journal." There were also the usual Jim Rohn tips for becoming "wealthy, powerful, sophisticated and influential." "Success," for instance, "is neither magical nor mysterious. Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying basic fundamentals."

On the first blank page, White wrote with a black felt-tipped pen:

"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 shuffled 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."

Then he listed the action items: Thirty minutes of cardio exercise five days a week. Weight training three days a week. Daily vitamins. Six hours of memory/brain training a day, five days a week.

White is a college dropout, a Navy veteran and a businessman, and he's out to prove that memory, and most anything, really, comes down to discipline and practice and not innate talent. He wants to show that he's not unremarkable and that no one else has to be, either. For months, he was one of 52 competitors nationwide who spent hours each week in quiet concentration, waging an uphill battle against that most basic and inevitable of human tendencies, that of forgetting. In each session, they pushed themselves to memorize longer and longer tracts of data before reaching that dispiriting moment when the mind at last goes blank.

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