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, 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.
Since the brain retains pictures more readily than abstract concepts, committing long lists of numbers, words and other information to memory requires the use of visual images. This means coming up with a mental picture to associate with each number between zero and 99 and, to digest numbers in even bigger chunks, an additional set of pictures for each three-digit number. When White sees or hears the number 24, he sees Chuck Norris; 752 is a gallon of milk, and 192 is Willie Nelson. For playing cards he uses a method called character-action-object, which means he has a person, verb and noun to represent each card.
In order to keep track of all of this information and recall it in a specific order, top-shelf memorizers use something called the "journey method." This means mentally placing each piece of information, and its corresponding visual, on a particular point along a pathway through a city or room. White's favorite journeys include his sister's house and the bar at Hooters. As he hears a story or a series of facts in a particular order, he imagines he's in one of those places, walking along and "filing" each fact in a couch or chair, bed or bar.
The use of visual cues as a mnemonic device is hardly new. The ancient Greeks called it loci, or a system for location. After the Greek poet Simonides became the sole survivor of a large banquet after the roof caved in, he is said to have recalled the names of all of the guests by remembering where each had been seated. Roman generals used the same method to remember the names of thousands of soldiers, and Roman orators used it to recall long speeches. In 1991, a business consultant and author named Tony Buzan took these historical techniques — and, by extension, what they say about the brain's capabilities — and turned them into a competitive sport by founding the first international memory competition in Great Britain. Since then, memory tournaments have popped up in several countries, and the World Memory Championship competition is held annually in Bahrain.
American memory contenders lag behind the world heavyweights, most of whom are British or German. Yet in the 13 years since the first USA National Memory Championship took place in New York, Americans have been setting better and better records. Many train year-round, incorporating physical and nutritional habits tailored to support the brain, and all this for an event that promises no monetary reward other than the price of an airline ticket to the World Memory Championship, boasts no fancy sponsorships and is regarded — if it is known at all — as an odd obsession in the obscure world of mental athleticism.
Ron White is the first to admit that memory isn't terribly sexy. "I always joke that the people I compete against played Dungeons and Dragons, live in their mother's basement and have invisible girlfriends, and I'm one of them," he says. Indeed, he wears thick, square, military-issued eyeglasses to study his cards and often dons headphones to better concentrate. Ben Pridmore, the British reigning world champion, cuts a curious figure in his photograph on the World Memory Championship Web site, peering out from behind a Lord of the Rings-like cloak. And while there's footage of past championships on YouTube, for most people, watching a group of thinkers poring silently over lists of numbers doesn't exactly carry the same thrill as seeing Lance Armstrong pushing up a hill past a clutch of cyclists.
Yet to Tony Dottino, founder of the USA National Memory Championship, memory duels are as worthy of attention as the Tour de France. "We're trying to get people to understand that you can get better at cognitive skills through practice, that a good memory is not necessarily innate," he says.
There's research that supports that view. K. Anders Ericsson, a professor emeritus of psychology at Florida State University who specializes in the study of exceptional performance in the arts and sciences, as well as in memory, points to a 2003 study that compared world-class memorizers with control subjects. The researchers concluded that the two groups had no differences in basic brain function or anatomy. What distinguished the world-class memorizers' brain scans was simply more activity in the parts of the brain tied to spatial memory, navigation and learning associations. That additional activity was linked to their training.
"The research seems to support the view that training is the primary reason people are able to develop these skills," says Ericsson, whose research formed part of the basis for writer Malcolm Gladwell's assertion in Outliers, a nonfiction look at what makes people successful, that mastering something requires 10,000 hours of practice. "That extends to other things like music. Most people assume talent is innate, but what we're finding is that it's explainable in terms of deliberate practice."
Given competitive memory's implications for broader learning and achievement, as well as preserving brain function with age, Dottino laments that he has yet to land major corporate sponsors for the USA National Memory Championship. (Deals with IBM and Pepsi fell through, he says.) "Here's something proving to help people in their cognitive function, and we can't find a company," he says, distressed. "Scott Hagood was a four-time champion, and he beat cancer. He should be a poster child for the American Cancer Society. We have a guy who uses his brain, and no one cares."
Dottino's dejected tone vanishes when he talks about White, who's now training for the Bahrain world event in November. While placing at all in that tournament is a long shot given that guys like Pridmore can memorize a deck of cards in less than 30 seconds — almost a full minute faster than White's new national record of one minute, 27 seconds — Dottino says White's leap in performance between the 2008 and 2009 competitions dwarfs that of most Americans. Perhaps more so than any other competitor, White embodies the spirit of Dottino's event, as well as its future possibilities. First, White has owned a memory training business and worked as a public speaker and seminar leader for 15 years, teaching people how to keep track of names at networking events and entertaining crowds with his high-energy demos. (He regularly introduces himself to 100-150 people at a conference and then, after asking them to stand and cover their name tags, ticks off every one of their names.) His decision to join the Navy Reserve after 9/11 and his 2007 tour in Afghanistan further contribute to his status as a natural media darling and seem to have garnered the most attention for the USA competition since 2006, when a young freelance writer named Josh Foer parlayed his win into a $1.2 million book deal. Yet Foer, a Yale graduate from a well-heeled East Coast family, struck spectators and other competitors as arrogant, while White, who dropped out of college after earning a 0.9 GPA at the University of North Texas for two straight semesters, comes across as humble, friendly and eager to teach others his methods for success.
Most important, though, is this: By dedicating himself to a training regimen that was just as unusual as it was rigorous, White appears to be living, breathing proof that even a middle-class college dropout can, through heart and discipline, fashion himself into a master.
The son of a police officer and a Department of Public Safety employee, White wasn't known as the kid with photographic recall whom everybody copied during tests, or the lucky one who never studied but got all A's anyway. He worked hard, graduated 36th in his high school class of 550 and ran with a crowd of boys people called the "Brain Squad," but he was no Rain Man. His father, Ron White Sr., mostly remembers his son playing sports and loving major league baseball.
After graduating from North Richland Hills High School and enrolling in the University of North Texas, White got a job as a telemarketer selling chimney cleaning. One day, a customer he dialed was impressed with his persistence and asked him to work for his company selling memory seminars. White agreed, and once he began practicing the man's memory strategies, he was hooked. "I was fascinated by what the human mind is capable of if you train it," he says. After he was suspended from college because of his low GPA, he worked full-time and within two years started his own memory training company. For a few years he had to take odd jobs to pay the bills. It took the better part of a decade, but by 2001 he was making a living by leading memory training seminars and charging several thousand dollars for each speech he delivered about the power of memory and training techniques.
After 9/11, White decided to join the military out of a sense of patriotism. He enlisted in the Navy Reserve, and after continuing to develop his business while completing his military training, he was finally deployed to Afghanistan for eight months in 2007. Meanwhile, he entered the 2008 USA National Memory Championship, and while stationed in Kabul, he would return from a 12-hour shift, go to his bunk and practice memorizing images and numbers. It was during that time that he came up with a picture for every three-digit number.
One of the guys gave him a hard time for spending so much time holed up with his laptop. "He was like, 'At night hang out with your buddies, that's what you'll remember from your time here,'" White recalls. "Sometimes I wonder if I should have been more social instead of memorizing numbers, but I've reaped the benefits of it now." His superiors were so impressed with his ability to do security and intelligence briefings without notes that they had him lead a seminar for 40 other servicemen on how to better memorize the area's geography, tribes, languages and security information.
"He's modest, so at first I didn't know about any of the memory stuff," says David Dugas, an engineer who served with White. But it soon became clear that White had a skill. "We were tribal analysts, so with everything from memorizing other countries' military ranks to understanding tribal dynamics and making historical recordings of what we were doing there, it all played into memory enhancement. Ron was really good at that. If you needed a fact about something, his recall was amazing." Dugas says he has since used some of White's memorization techniques for graduate school exams and Navy tests.
After returning from Afghanistan in December 2007, White continued training for the 2008 USA National Memory Championship, competed in the event in New York and came in fourth. He wasn't terribly disappointed. He'd scarcely been back from the war for three months, and at least it was an opportunity to get a sense of the competition. He resolved to train much more seriously for the next one — 2009 would be his year.
White embarked on his training schedule and kept meticulous notes on each day's results. "I am attempting a new form of training for card memorization," he scribbled on December 1, 2008. "Running through the cards saying only the character/action/object. This is taking about 4.5 seconds for every three cards...This is too long!"
On the next few pages, he drew models of his journey locations, including furniture and architectural features. There's Hooters, his friend Wendi's house and his sister Michelle's house. The subsequent pages are filled with lists of times for memorizing numbers and cards, along with notes like, "Perfect! No misses!" and "Full deck memorized 2:21.6 No errors."
In addition to slogging through his daily practice, he reached out for help. If there was one thing White knew, it was that if he was going to have a shot of beating the top three competitors in 2009, he wouldn't be able to do it alone. To White, memorizing a deck of cards in less than three minutes — let alone the national record of one minute and 40 seconds — seemed impossible, and that was just the beginning. After that, he'd have to muster the skills to avoid elimination in the final rounds. He sent world champion Ben Pridmore a message on Facebook and was delighted to get some tips in return. Pridmore's most important piece of advice was to trust himself and his mind. Too many people, said Pridmore, second-guess whether their brain has captured a card, linger too long and take too much time memorizing the deck.
According to Ericsson, coaching is a crucial part of developing mastery. Studies of chess players and doctors, for example, show that those who continue to practice without getting critiqued plateau instead of improve, he says.
White contacted Dave Thomas, the 2007 USA National Memory Champion and former Guinness Book of World Records holder for memorizing and reciting the most digits of pi. (He tapped out at 22,500.) At the 2008 championship, which he'd attended as a spectator, Thomas had offered to help any of the 2009 contenders who were interested in his techniques.
Thomas, who's British but was able to compete in the American tournament because he has a green card and has lived part-time in Manhattan, was surprised when White e-mailed him and said he wanted to learn from the best of the best. "I'd said if people wanted to know how to win the U.S. championship to let me know," Thomas says. "And when you say that, everyone says, 'Okay, yeah,' but no one actually does it." Except, of course, White. After e-mailing with him, Thomas determined that White "had huge desire, good natural ability, but relatively weak strategy."
One of the things he advised White on was how to win the Tea Party, which is the second-to-last event in the tournament and, contrary to its name, the most deadly. White was eliminated in the Tea Party in 2008. It entails five people rattling off 15 pieces of personal information, including their addresses, dates of birth, phone numbers and favorite foods. The competitors must commit the information to memory in real time and then answer random questions about each person. "It's the most difficult event I've seen in memory anywhere in the world," Thomas says. "They're giving you the information quicker than you can learn it." Among the advice he gave White was to create a long journey for each person and to have as many predetermined images as possible (a picture for every state in the country for the address portion, for instance). "Some of the competitors just don't do that much work," Thomas says. "And it's not hard, it's just a question of preparation."
Winners in years past had survived the Tea Party on luck. Both Foer, the Yale grad who won in 2006, and Chester Santos, a software engineer from San Francisco who won in 2008, played to their strengths and dedicated their time and effort to the information that was easiest for them, hoping not to get asked to recall things that stumped them. They lucked out. To Thomas, this was a weak and defeatist strategy that left too much to chance.
White took Thomas's tips and ran with them, listing his visual cues for the Tea Party in his journal. He also heard about a former Navy SEAL who'd used his military experience to create a business and personal life-coaching company in San Diego. He called and hired the man. T.C. Cummings, a strapping guy with bleached blond hair who leads what he calls Mind of a SEAL success trainings, has a Web site emblazoned with images of radiant light and a graphic of a dolphin leaping past an ancient pyramid. He talks passionately about building confidence and applying the "success secrets known to SEALs to civilian pursuits."
"One of the things we did was look and see where he could fail, and he said it was on the stage, under pressure," Cummings says. "That translates to the field of battle. We know that 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." To get used to memorizing under pressure and amid distraction, White would go through his journeys or memorize numbers with his friends' kids climbing all over him or in public where people were watching. He came up with the idea of memorizing cards underwater. He would find during the competition that while the other mental athletes were unnerved by the cameras and the noise, he was calm and collected.
Not surprisingly, discipline and integrity were a large part of Cummings's coaching. Was White fulfilling all the training goals he was setting? Was there any reason he doubted his own ability to deliver on his promises to himself? There was one thing. He was consistently waking later than he intended to in the mornings. "If I can't even do that, how am I going to bring home the title for being No. 1 in the U.S.?" White says.
Cummings's solution was to come up with a consequence that would "wipe the slate clean" and keep White from beating himself up so he could move forward with a clear conscience. The next time he slept in — on a 33-degree day in January — White forced himself to swim a full lap in his apartment complex pool. "When I got out, I totally felt like I'd paid the price," White says. "I didn't oversleep again."
As his training progressed and he sought better and better times, however, he grew discouraged for other reasons. "What a lesson I learned," he wrote after the holidays. "The week off made me significantly slower! I really need to watch diet, as well. I had a tea with artificial sweetener today and can feel my head exploding. WATER! WATER! It took me one full minute longer to memorize a deck of cards...No more time off." A couple of 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."
Cummings coached him to build his confidence. He told him to look back over his life and list the accomplishments, from the smallest to the biggest, that made him worthy of winning. "Reactively, we look for our failures," Cummings says. "So it takes intention and effort to look for the evidence showing all the things we've done and are currently doing to make us worthy."
White, ever eager and dedicated, dove into his past and went digging for successes. There was the time he beat his friend Brian McMahon at the bench-sit — a quadriceps workout that entails squatting with back against the wall — in sixth-grade P.E., for example. He squatted, sweating and gritting his teeth, legs shaking, until Brian's legs buckled. He listed that in his journal. He'd served in the military, spoken before thousands of people, memorized a 41-digit number in four minutes and built a successful seminar business. He listed those. He'd altered his diet, memorized a deck of cards underwater in two minutes and five seconds and visualized himself winning the USA National Memory Championship. He wrote all of that down. He also wrote, "I am the Nolan Ryan of memory."
He came up with motivational mantras for the times he doubted himself. His favorite was inspired by one of the Indian characters in the Mel Gibson film Apocalypto. "I am Ron White, and this is my forest," he'd say to himself. "I am not afraid." The others included, "I am calm," "I am worthy of winning," "My brain operates fast" and "I am the 2009 USA Memory Champion — Congrats, Memory Champion!"
A curious thing happened in the final weeks before the championship. While in the beginning he felt he absolutely had to win the 2009 tournament to live with himself — Thomas recalls him writing in an e-mail that he "wouldn't die a happy man" if he lost — the closer it got, the more confident he was that he would win, but the less he felt he had to.
"He realized he'd already won," Cummings says, addressing a subtle but crucial achievement paradox. "When he started he said he had to win, but we know that when we get attached to an outcome, we become dependent on that result to dictate how we feel about ourselves. In the end, he'd already achieved all that he wanted to achieve, and the title would be gravy. It's never about the end result. It's about who you become in the process."
It was during the fastest-to-memorize-a-deck-of-cards portion of the 2009 USA National Memory Championship at New York's Con Edison building that Chester Santos, the 2008 defending champion, realized that White would be a formidable foe. The 32-year-old software engineer and University of California at Berkeley graduate had never seen anything like it since he began competing in the tournament in 2003. After taking a full five minutes to memorize just 20 playing cards the year before, this time, White memorized an entire deck in one minute and 27 seconds. He broke the national record in the first round, while Santos — usually best at this particular event — was sticking to his safe first-round score of around three minutes.
"I didn't expect him to improve that drastically in one year. It's unheard of," Santos says. "At that point, I was like, 'Wow, this guy's serious.' I knew then that it was between me and him."
After starting out in the morning's qualifying rounds with some 50 competitors — those events included memorizing poems and photographs of people and their names — by the first afternoon event, only seven competitors remained. This year, like the year before, both Santos and White were among the final seven. And for both men, the biggest challenge of the day would be the Tea Party. If any of the last five mental athletes missed more than two answers, they would be disqualified.
Santos had noticed at lunch that just like him, White was pacing back and forth, practicing his mental journeys so he could assign each piece of personal information to its place. When it was time for the Tea Party, the five men and women came onstage and read their lists of personal information. Then, sitting in a row of chairs onstage, the competitors did their best to recall the answers. Santos was asked one person's place of residence, couldn't remember it and got one strike right off the bat. White, looking calm and confident in his white Navy T-shirt, rattled off an answer to every question he was asked. While most of the competitors paused for a long moment before answering, his replies came quickly. When asked for one person's favorite hobbies, he answered without skipping a beat. "Her hobbies are traveling, cooking and miniature golf," he said, to applause.
To Santos's astonishment, White didn't miss one question. "I've never seen that before," Santos says. Even the year he won the title, Dave Thomas missed two.
Santos got his third strike when asked to name one person's favorite foods. It was a problem of an improperly formed mental picture. The correct answer was paella, ravioli and pizza, but after seeing the paella in his mind's eye, the next image was a round, blurry object that he couldn't identify. After that came the pepperoni, so he got pizza right, but for the middle one he said sushi. "If I'd taken more time I would have seen that it was ravioli, not sushi," he says. "But I was rushed and just trying to hang on."
In the initial moments after his elimination, Santos was upset. "This sucks," he thought. "Stupid Tea Party." But a few minutes later, when White breezed through the last event — memorizing two decks of cards in five minutes and then repeating them in order — and was named the new national champion, Santos was happy for him. "I didn't feel bad losing to him because he really put in the time, and he deserved it," he says. "It's a great illustration of how you can improve your memory with practice. I mean, he memorized more than 1,000 decks of cards since December. I trained hard, but not like that."
For his part, when White heard the announcer say, "Our new champion is Ronnie White from Texas," he was happy and grateful, but he was also calm. He knew he'd clinched it earlier. After all, he had done the work, and he was worthy.
On an afternoon in late March, White sat at his kitchen table memorizing decks of cards. He wore his special military glasses and headphones, which help him concentrate but also remind him that compared to being at war, "this ain't nothin'." His brow was furrowed in concentration, and he already noticed the toll the past few weeks of rest had taken on his times. His USA National Memory Championship trophy — an eagle alighting on two crossed American flags — sat on the counter nearby, near shelves filled with mementos from Afghanistan and his travels to Asia and Australia to lead memory seminars.
He was giving himself until April 1 to rest and catch up on business, and then he would devise a training schedule to prepare for the World Memory championship in November. "I'm not aiming for the world title," he said, shuffling the deck of cards. "The record for memorizing a deck is 27 seconds, and I just have to accept that that's not a record I'm going to own. My goal is to get under a minute."
No American has ever even finished in the top ten in the world championship. Thomas, the 2007 USA National Memory Champion, attributes this to a fundamental difference in character. "The thing with Americans is, they have more passion and energy than, say, the Brits and the Germans, but it's more short-lived, flash-in-the-pan. They'll throw themselves into something wholeheartedly, but if it doesn't work quickly, they'll stop."
White has a long way to go to prove that theory wrong. The World Championship runs three days, "a true marathon," as Thomas says. Each event is much longer, such as the most packs of cards memorized in an hour, which according to Thomas requires around 12 separate journeys. White will have to study the record holders' times and strategies, but he'll have to avoid psyching himself out by focusing too much on his competition. When, in preparation for the USA championship he looked over the other competitors' bios on the Web site, he began comparing himself with them and immediately grew anxious. "This guy's gonna kill me," he'd think to himself. "His name is Nth? He must be brilliant — his name sounds like a frigging algebra formula." The important thing is to focus on his personal goals.
"I'm not expected to come in the top ten, so top ten would great; top five would be fantastic," he said. "I'm training for No. 1 knowing full well it's not plausible. It's like a high school baseball team beating the Yankees." He shuffled another deck of cards and looked up. "But then again, you never know."
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