My experience at the 2018 USA Memory Championship Qualifying Round


After my dismal performance in my first USA Memory Championship in 2016, where I finished 35th, but had a great time and met a lot of great people, I knew I had to redeem myself. There was no 2017 competition, as the organizers were busy overhauling the way the championship worked, but I was excited to head back this year and give it another shot.

I had been working on the core disciplines when I could find the time, and was having fun playing in the fairly new Memory League online, which offers a nice software setting to play against other Mental Athletes from around the world. Memory League grew out of the Xtreme Memory Tournament, which was formed by 4-time USA Memory Champion Nelson Dellis, among others. Memory League’s events are all 1-minute games, and I admit I didn’t work much on the longer disciplines that are featured in the USA Memory Championship, but in the last couple of months I started working on the 5-minute and 15-minute disciplines.

First, some background on the USA Memory Championship. It is now in its 20th year. In its first three years, the championship was won by Tatiana Cooley. The next four years were won by Scott Hagwood, a thyroid cancer survivor who became fascinated with memory techniques when investigating possible ways to stave off possible memory loss caused by his cancer treatments. His book, “Memory Power”, was the book I first read in 2015 that spurred my interest in the field. In 2006, the event was televised by HDNet and won by journalist Joshua Foer, whose year long fascination with the field culminated in his surprising victory. He would go on to chronicle his journey in his fascinating book “Moonwalking with Einstein”.

In 2009 and 2010, memory expert, Afghanistan war veteran, and speaker Ron White would win the championship. If you’re not familiar with him, check out this wonderful thing he does where he memorizes the rank, first name, and last name of all the US soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan: Here is his impressive “Superhuman” performance:

In 2011, Nelson Dellis, a mountain-climbing former software developer began his run and won four of the next five USA Memory Championships. Here’s a clip of Nelson showing how to memorize all the winners of the Best Picture Academy Award:

In 2016, young Alex Mullen, a medical student who had already won the World Memory Championship (and has now won it 3 times), would take the victory. Here is Alex showing off his incredible card memorizing skills on FOX’s “Superhuman”:

The Championship, until this year, consisted of a day-long affair which featured four disciplines in the morning, after which the top 8 finalists advanced to the afternoon round, which consisted of three elimination events that resulted in an eventual last-man-standing champion. Here’s a fun little video of the championship, featuring the year Nelson Dellis took over the torch from Ron White:

With this year’s event, they are still doing the four morning events, but instead of having an afternoon finals round, they are planning a big event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston in July. So the finalists (from the adult competition), are being joined by four high-school students from the best high-school teams (they have their own competition), and will be competing in at least five events, some of which are similar to the previous competitions, and some completely new events. So I was kind of excited to have a chance, albeit small, of going to MIT and competing in this new event.

The first event of the morning was Poetry, in which you are given a poem, newly written for this event, and are given 15-minutes to memorize it, then 20-minutes to try to replicate it from memory by hand. The scoring on this is brutal. You are given a point for every word, punctuation mark, and capital letter you get in the right sequence. Spelling counts. Any mistake gets you ZERO points for the entire line of poetry. My mistake in 2016 was trying to memorize too much of the poem, with the result that I made way too many mistakes, like writing “the” for “that”, or missing a comma, or something similar. That year I scored a miserable 54. This year I had a new strategy: memorize less, but concentrate on getting the words and punctuation exactly right. It paid off with a much improved 134, which wound up being good enough for fourth place in the adult event. Nelson Dellis topped the scoring with 206.

The next event was Speed Numbers. Here you are given five minutes to memorize as many random digits as you can, then you have ten minutes to try to recall them by writing them down in sequence. Here again the scoring is brutal. Each row contains 20 digits, and even a single mistake nets you ZERO for that row. In 2016 I scored a very amateurish 60. I felt more confident in this event this year, as in training I have been able to do 160 digits in the comfort of my own home in my PJ’s. But the nerves hit me hard here at this event. The stress of being in the competition, surrounded by other athletes, people walking around you, and cameras and bright lights just a few feet away, made my hands shake and my heart rate skyrocket. Pros like Nelson Dellis and Ron White are used to having cameras pointed right at them. Me, not so much. We were told beforehand that the event was being filmed by a show called “CBS Sunday Morning”. I probably would have preferred not knowing that.

In the first trial I tried to go for what I thought was going to be a “safe” 140, yet I totally blanked on several numbers, and got a miserable score of 40. Fortunately, you get two trials on this event, and they use the best score. I took a little walk, cleared my head, and just tried for 100 on my next trial. This time, the numbers were all crystal clear during recall, and I scored the full 100, an improvement over my 60 from 2016. My score here was only about twelfth best, but my combined score for the first two disciplines had me in the top eight. Nelson Dellis scored an astounding 325 here. Second place was John Graham with a solid 190.

The next event is Names and Faces, and it is the only event where I had a respectable score in 2016. You are given 15 minutes to memorize the first and last names of people presented to you as color head-shots. Then you have 20 minutes to recall them by writing their names beneath their photos (after they’ve been thoroughly scrambled, of course). You get a point for every successfully spelled first name and a point for each successfully spelled last name. In this regard, the scoring is so much more lenient. In 2016 I scored 102, and this year I was able to up that to 117. That was about sixth best. Nelson scored an amazing 217, breaking his own USA record of 201.

So after the first three events, I knew I was in the top eight, but I needed to have a respectable score in the last event, Speed Cards. I dreaded this event, because in 2016 I totally messed this up. You are given a maximum of five minutes to memorize the sequence of a shuffled deck of playing cards. You then are given a new deck with cards in ordered sequence, and you must rearrange this deck to match the deck you just memorized. After this, an arbiter stands with you as you check your reassembled deck against the control deck to prove you memorized it correctly. Your score is based on how many cards you successfully memorize in sequence. During the verification, however, your scoring stops at the very first mistake, so if you miss the 20th card, your total score is 19. However, since many athletes these days memorize the deck in less than five minutes, you get ranked on your speed (amongst all those who memorized all 52 cards).

In 2016 I was not able to successfully reassemble my deck on either of my two attempts. Recently, at home I have been able to memorize a deck in around two minutes, but I have been very inconsistent. Here at the competition, I knew I needed to have a reasonable score to have a shot at making the finals. I told myself I would do a “safe” 3 minutes, giving myself time to review the deck. It turned out even this was optimistic. During reassembly of my deck I totally blanked on the sequence of the 10th and 11th cards, so I scored a miserable 9. I took another short walk, drank some water, and told myself that for my last trial I was going to take one additional review, even if it meant using all five minutes. As it was, this time around the card sequence seemed to stick in my brain better, but I took one last review, going backwards to ensure I knew it well, and stopped my timer at 3:35. If you stop your timer before 5 minutes have elapsed, you can’t start your reassembly until the 5 minutes is over, so that meant I had 1:25 to review the sequence in my head. The sequence of the cards seemed crystal clear. When the recall period began, I put the cards in order in about 4 minutes, then reviewed the sequence not once, but twice. When the arbiter arrived and started checking my deck against the control deck, I was still sweating it, but after the 52nd card turned over and matched the control deck, I knew I had a shot of making the finals.

We had a nice box lunch provided by the organization, then we all gathered back in the competition hall to hear the results. First place was no surprise: Nelson Dellis. He was called onstage, and given the “Golden Ticket” to the July Finals at MIT. He now has a chance to become the only five-time winner of the USA Memory Championship. Here is his fantastic appearance on FOX’s Superhuman:

Second place was no big surprise: John Graham from Utah, who has been a finalist in this competition before, and has seriously upped his game. He scored a fantastic 181 in the Names event, and a fast 60 seconds in the Speed Cards. He made a wonderful appearance on FOX’s “Superhuman”, as well:

Third place went to mental athlete and magician Livan Grijalva from New York. Livan has finished as high as third place in a previous USA Championship. Livan had the best Speed Cards time of the day with a zippy 54 seconds.

Fourth place went to Ron White, 2-time winner of this thing who was competing for the first time since 2013. He didn’t quite hit his former high marks, but he’s still a force to be reckoned with. He had a great Names score of 151, and a very nice Speed Cards round of 1:59. At one time, Ron held the USA record in that event, at 1:27.

I was stunned when my name was called for fifth place. I walked gingerly onto the stage and proudly took my Golden Ticket. Sixth place was newcomer Avi Chavda, a brilliant young Sports Medicine physician from Dallas. Seventh place went to young Claire Wang, who is only about 14 years old. She apparently was a competitor on the Lifetime Network show “Child Genius”, where she finished 3rd in Season Two: Her mom was with her and took a photo of her with every mental athlete that made the finals. Eighth place was another young newcomer, Matthew Wilson from Missouri. I don’t know a thing about him except that he sat with me during lunch and asked a lot of great questions.

I was bummed about my friend Kyle Matschke, a statistician who is employed by Pfizer, and also enters play-by-play into MLB’s wonderful At-Bat app. Kyle apparently had finished ninth. Also just missing the finals was Luis Echeverria, a great young guy from California who is a mental coach with a wonderful YouTube channel called “AE Mind”, and won the first season of FOX’s “Superhuman” with a tremendous performance of recalling audience names. Luis finished 10th.

But wait! There was a scoring snafu. The points were computed incorrectly on the Speed Cards event. Once the scoring was fixed, Avi Chavda moved up to Fifth, Claire Wang was Sixth, I was moved down to Seventh, and Kyle Matschke now made the finals in Eight place! Since the organizers had already given Matthew Wilson a Golden Ticket, they decided to still let him compete in the finals, although his place was now technically ninth place. Whew!

During the afternoon, we heard a wonderful presentation from a doctor from MIT who is involved in preparing this new finals event to be held in July. Lots of great information and lots of great interaction with the crowd.

That evening I had a great Italian meal with Nelson, John, Livan, Ron, Kyle, and 2008 Champion Chestor Santos, who doesn’t compete anymore, but brought a competitor he is coaching (who wound up finishing in 12th place). Livan and Chestor are also magicians, and after the meal they treated us to some of the most amazing up-close slight of hand I’ve ever seen. Ron White regaled us with a crazy story about meeting David Blaine. Nelson talked about some of his Everest expeditions (he’s climbed Everest three times, almost reaching the summit on each attempt). Here is just one of many of his Everest videos:

So that’s it. A seven hour drive to Harrisburg, PA and a seven hour drive back to Kingsport, TN, but it seems worth it. Now to train for the July MIT event. I hope I can perform well, but more importantly, I hope the event will be well-received by the public and cause an increased awareness of the power of memory techniques.


Fantastic article, Tracy! There should be more such sum-ups like yours after memory competitions!

Wonderful story! Great achievement being 7th in the competition. I really enjoyed reading your experience. The mix up with the scores moved you down to the 7th position, but you are still in the Top Ten!

I’m suprised Alex Mullen didn’t compete this year - I guess he’s probably back in med school now.

Was Ram Kolli there? (I’m guessing not, as you didn’t mention him, though he was a former champion in I think 2013). He did a stint on Superhuman too. So did Johnny Brionnes, who I think is Parkouristx on these forums and wrote a blog post last year about practicing his part for the show. Ron White was also on the first Superhuman show with Luis.

You mentioned that Claire is the youngest competitor to get to the Top 8. I wonder why she didn’t compete in the high school championship instead…

I’m going to go see if the CBS footage is on their site or Youtube.

Good luck at MIT this summer!

Yeah, I think med school issues caused Alex to have to forego this competition. Ram Kolli was not there, nor was Johnny Briones (Parkouristx). I think Claire just wanted to compete in the adult section, because she knew she could do well. Also, I think she is not part of a High School Memory team. I have not yet seen any CBS Footage, but hopefully that will be released soon.

what a wonderful article about the competition, it was such a great time and everybody did such a magnificent job, can’t wait to see how this years competition goes, looking forward to seeing a few familiar faces again and seeing how things go this year, take care everyone