On Saturday I spent the entire day spectating at the USA Memory Championship. It’s an event I look forward to all year. There are several events (Names & Faces, Speed Numbers, Poetry, and Speed Cards), which are the qualifying rounds. Eight competitors with the highest number of points move onto the afternoon Championship rounds (Words to Remember, Tea Party, and Double Decker Cards). The last competitor standing is the USA Memory Champion.
Nelson Dellis, the 2011 & 2012 Champion, was the heavy favorite to win. He runs a non-profit organization that raises money for Alzheimer’s disease by climbing Mount Everest. Still the field is quite deep with several former champions, including Ron White (2009 & 2010 Champion and 2011 & 2012 runner-up) and other previous competitors who had done very well.
In Names & Faces, competitors had a long list of names and faces that they had to remember. In Speed Numbers, they had a long list of numbers that they need to recall in exact order. Their score is determined by how many numbers they can remember without making an error. In Speed Cards, they need to remember the order of a randomly shuffled deck of playing cards. It’s one of my favorite events and the current record, which is held by Nelson Dellis, is one minute and 3 minutes. As impressive as that is, the world record is under 22 seconds. (Go click on the link and watch the YouTube clip. It’s incredible!).
The afternoon championship rounds are more fun for spectators to watch, so I invite my friends to come see this portion with me. The entire event is free and held at the ConEd building near Union Square. In Words to Remember, the top 8 competitors are given 200 words that they need to remember in strict serial order. The first three to miss are out. The next event is Tea Party where five “guests” come up and give random facts about themselves (Where they’re from including zip code, phone number, favorite foods, hobbies, and favorite car). There’s always a little girl who comes up to speak and she’s always a crowd favorite. In this event, competitors are allowed to have three misses.
They continue until only thee competitors remain. Then it’s the final round of Double Decker Cards, where the competitors need to memorize two decks of shuffled cards. They take turns stating which card was next until only one remains. This event is my favorite and a crowd pleaser.
The atmosphere in the final rounds can be intense. Competitors have only 15 seconds to give a reply and if they hesitate, the crowd immediately hushes up and wills them silently to conjure the answer. If the correct response comes forth, we let out a big sigh of relief and cheer. If an incorrect answer or no response comes out, then we groan in disappointment.
Last year, the final round had gone on for a while before Nelson Dellis came out triumphant. This year was a different story. Unfortunately he got distracted or wasn’t quite as focused and accidentally slipped out a different card. In disbelief Ram Kolli uttered the correct card and was named the USA Champion. This was a monumental upset.
I watched all this unfold in amazement. Dellis seemed so unstoppable. He was the top competitor in many of the individual events. He was so calm and poised. He won with ease last year.
But it’s moment like this that brings out why we watch competitions. To see people who devoted their life to a certain endeavor, to compete at the highest levels, to observe them perform what seems to be inhuman feats, and to witness the unexpected.