Tough-Minded: Sizing Up the Mental Athletes at the USA Memory Championship

Nelson Dellis at the USA Memory Championship

Nelson Dellis at the USA Memory Championship.

The demographic makeup of the competitors in the 17th USA Memory Championship was, mostly, unsurprising. Among the participants—“mental athletes,” in their parlance—were a neurologist, a couple of inventors and software engineers, a statistician, an unemployed guy, a 24-year-old memory coach and a 59-year-old mnemonician (a refined, middle-aged way of saying memory coach). And as is requisite at any sufficiently nichey, nerdy gathering, a wunderkind: 13-year-old Shashank Rao, whose self-described profession was “eighth grade, Montgomery Middle.”

But the two remaining finalists onstage, by the time the competition had funneled down to its final round one recent Saturday afternoon, didn’t much look like you’d expect. Twenty-one-year-old Johns Hopkins engineering student Alexander Mullen and 29-year-old mountaineer Nelson Dellis were handsome, by all appearances well-adjusted, young men. They’d each spent five minutes memorizing two full decks of playing cards, and they made rattling off the order of suits look, well, cool.
It had been a long, wearying day for the 30-odd individual competitors and eight teams in the windowless auditorium on the 19th floor of the Con Edison building. Starting at 8:30 a.m., they had memorized 100-plus names and faces, whole sheets of random digits, an unpublished poem complete with punctuation, and shuffled decks of cards. The best among them had undertaken three further championship rounds in the afternoon.

It’s a rare sound to hear—six-dozen decks of cards being shuffled simultaneously, not unlike a huge flock of birds all taking flight at once. Many of those doing the shuffling didn’t hear it, though: Noise-canceling headphones are very popular among the memory-Olympiad crowd, as are blackout masks of the type usually worn by fussy people pretending to sleep on airplanes.

But that’s about it, as far as accessories go; memory is a pretty low-budget hobby, particularly considering the party-trick dividends it offers in return. When well-meaning friends exhort him to show off something he has memorized, Mr. Dellis told us, he just recites pi, which he knows “to like a thousand places.”

Still, even competitive memory has its limits. “I’ve forgotten my mom’s birthday,” Luis Angel Echeverria, the memory coach, confessed.

Elsewhere, we happened upon another competitor, 29-year-old doctoral candidate Steven Bhardwaj, and his friend Arrik Leman, who hadn’t registered in time for this year’s competition (which was because the site was poorly organized, Mr. Leman insisted, and not because he had—you know —forgotten).

“Arrik was just telling me about how the Rubik’s Cube has grown and improved,” Mr. Bhardwaj said, by way of greeting. There is, apparently, some overlap between memory folk and the “cubing” community.

“On a 5-by-5, there’s 94 pieces, and I had two wings that were off, for a blind solve, and it was over four minutes under the North American record,” Mr. Leman said. “One of these days, I’ll get it.” We nodded enthusiastically, despite having no idea what “wings” might be.

“There’s a Polish guy who memorized 41 and solved them in an hour,” Mr. Leman continued.

“41 whats?” Mr. Bhardwaj asked.

“Cubes.”

“Oh, cubes,” Mr. Bhardwaj said. “It’s all cubes, right.”

“It’s over 800 digits,” Mr. Leman said.

In the end, Mr. Dellis came out on top, after calling to mind a queen of diamonds. It was an especially sweet victory since, after two consecutive national wins in 2011 and 2012, he had come in second place last year. The year 2013 had been a tough year all around: He had tried and failed to scale a mountain, too, as he explained while accepting his prizes, including a Montegrappa pen with a neuron-inspired overlay and a crystal seahorse meant to represent the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center.

After the trials of memory came all the work of the gracious champion. For nearly an hour, everyone wanted a piece of Mr. Dellis: well-wishing spectators, fellow competitors seeking autographs and a pretty woman with a film crew, who asked him to memorize a deck of cards live on tape.

“We could sell that on eBay now,” her cameraman ventured, when Mr. Dellis tucked the gum he was chewing into a piece of paper.

“A bunch of us are going. You’re going to party, right?” a friend asked Mr. Dellis, as he gathered up his things and prepared to leave the room in which he had once again been crowned a victor. Mr. Dellis was, indeed, going to party, at a bar around the corner with some other mental athletes.

“I’ve spent all day memorizing,” he said. “And then I go and drink so I can forget.”