A competition to remember

It’s no easy task to promote a sport that even your national champion admits is about as fascinating as watching paint dry.

“I don’t think it could be more boring if it tried. Think of a roomful of students sitting their exams and you’re getting close,” Josh Foer said on Saturday, shortly before being crowned Memory Champion of the United States.

Action? Chess is a ceaseless whirlwind of movement by comparison. Punishing training regimen? Half-an-hour a day for the truly committed.

And yet competitive memorising may well be following in the steps of scrabble and high school spelling bees as “sports” that have garnered an unlikely mainstream audience by exploiting their quirky, if not downright geeky nature.

In its favour is the fact that what the memorisers, or “mental athletes” as they prefer to be called, actually do is undoubtedly impressive.

For the qualifying round of Saturday’s national finals in New York, competitors were asked to recall the names of 99 people after looking at their photos, memorise 25 rows of random, 40-digit numbers and remember, in correct sequence, the order of a shuffled pack of 52 playing cards.

The maximum time alloted to each task ranged from 15 to five minutes.

Where the marketing concept runs into a brick wall is that the visible exertions involved include nothing more exciting than the odd sigh, groan or, when the tension becomes unbearable, contemplative scratch of the head.

“It’s not ice hockey,” said Darrell Ewalt, an executive producer for HDNet, the national, high-definition format TV network that decided to take a stab at covering the championship.

To solve the problem of the event’s inherent tedium, Ewalt got together with the organisers and introduced an elimination format into the post-qualification rounds, with the competitors on stage, demonstrating their recall prowess verbally rather than in written form.

For concerned purists like Britain’s Ben Pridmore, who holds the world record for memorising a pack of card in 32,14 seconds, such racy innovations risk severing the competition from its traditional roots.

“For me, the ideal is a load of people in a room staring at pieces of paper for hours,” said Pridmore, who was attending the US event as an observer.

“But then I’m an accountant, so I probably see things differently,” he added.

Competitive memorising is all about seeing things differently; using techniques to attach memorable images to random words, numbers or playing cards that make them easier to recall.

“Michael Jackson smoking a hamburger,” says Foer as he lays down a king of hearts, king of diamonds and king of clubs.

“The fact that it’s absurd makes it easier to remember,” explains Foer (23) who has a mental bank that associates a specific person, action and object to each and every card in a deck.

Memorising three cards at a time, he takes the person from the first card, the action from the second and the object from the third to complete his surreal final image.

Technique is everything, with none of the competitors claiming naturally powerful memories.

“When I get introduced to somebody at a party, I never remember anything about them,” Pridmore said.

Most contestants employ a second technique known as the “loci method” whereby they deposit their images along an imaginary pathway which they then retrace during the recall process.

German-born Maurice Stoll from Texas, who was the favourite coming into the US championship, said his greatest enemy was lack of sleep due to pre-competition nerves.

Last year his insomnia drove him from his hotel at 2am to a late-night bar where he downed several beers with tequila chasers.

“Good for sleeping. Not great for recall,” Stoll (30) admitted. “This year I stuck with water.”

The 2005 world championship, held in Oxford, England, was won by a German, Clemens Mayer — a fact that Stoll attributes to a particular national aptitude.

“Germans are good at staying focused even when things are boring,” he said.

In the end, the New York event proved to be anything but boring, with the new TV-friendly format adding a touch of theatre that genuinely gripped the audience.

“I think it was a great foundation,” said Ewalt. “It’ll grow and grow.”

Organiser Tony Dottino said he hoped TV coverage would help counter the image of memorisers as slightly weird and socially inept.

“These people aren’t geeks,” he said. “They’re normal people with normal jobs.”

Foer offered a different description when he contemplated going up against the world’s top competitors at the 2006 global championships in Malaysia in September.

“I’ve got no chance,” he said frankly. “I think some of them are extra-terrestrials.” – AFP

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