For this champion, life is (mostly) a memory game

MEMORIES: Competitors in this year's U.K. Open Memory Championships, held in London.
MEMORIES: Competitors in this year's U.K. Open Memory Championships, held in London. (World Memory Sports Council)
By Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi and Justin Moyer
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

LONDON -- It's ill-attended, competitors are few, and the talent it showcases is less a preternatural gift than a parlor trick. But the World Memory Championships' U.K. Open has one invaluable asset: a dude who can memorize the order of 930 binary digits in five minutes, the order of 364 playing cards in 10 minutes, and 19 randomly generated numbers in 15 minutes.

Most people can't remember their 16-digit credit card numbers.

"This is a niche thing," says Ben Pridmore, Britain's reigning memory champion. "It something everyone can do, but it is something that not everyone wants to do."

A 33-year-old accountant from Derby, England, Pridmore beat all comers at the U.K. Open, held over two days last month in an airy room overlooking London's Paddington station. As commuters bustled below sporting BlackBerrys and iPhones -- 21st-century technology dedicated to making human memory irrelevant -- 13 contestants from as far away as the Philippines and one 11-year-old German boy flaunted their abilities to remember as much as possible sans PDAs.

"It is quite intense," says Pridmore, smartly clad in a fedora and a faded cartoon T-shirt. Behind dark-rimmed spectacles, his eyes dart about with the restless energy of a man able to memorize the order of a deck of playing cards in 24.97 seconds. "I'm laid back and easygoing, but I get stressed at the World Championship. I made a sign last year saying, 'Don't speak to me or I will punch you in the face.' "

Violent signage aside, the U.K. Open looks more like a math test than a hockey game. One of many national events held around the world since the Memory Championships were founded in 1991, the event is a premiere platform for total recall. Seated at 14 wooden tables in complete silence, competitors are given information to memorize: playing cards, abstract images, random words, photographs of strangers. Then they must re-create what they've seen and score points in 10 categories. Whoever gets the most points wins.

Since the U.K. Open was established in 2007, that has been Pridmore. Though handicappers buzz about Konstantin Skudler, the German schoolboy who won his first competition in 2008 -- and who, glaring at the camera as his father takes his picture, couldn't look less like the carefree, jean-clad tweens riding their bikes on a hill outside -- Pridmore is the man to beat. The champ has to tell two competitors from the Philippines and their coach, dressed in matching bright yellow suit jackets, to stop calling him "Sir Ben."

But, if you're impressed, don't be.

"Anyone could do it," says Pridmore, a university dropout who got interested in the retention arts after watching the 2000 World Memory Championship. He started training in earnest, spending nine hours per week memorizing the sequence of as many packs of cards as he could, and went on to win in 2004, 2008 and 2009. "It was compelling and addictive," Pridmore says. "And I was surprised at just how easy it was."

"The idea is to promote the art and science of memory," says Dominic O'Brien, eight-time champion and the 2010 event's chief executive who, when not writing books about memorization techniques, travels Britain training schoolchildren in mnemonic alchemy.

"It is a transferable skill, and can increase concentration," O'Brien says.

Pridmore's strategy is intricate. Given a deck of cards, John Q. Public just sees hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds, but Pridmore associates an image with each of 2,704 possible two-card combinations. For example, as the BBC reports, Pridmore thinks of the 4 of hearts and 10 of spades as an opossum; he thinks of the king of clubs and 9 of spades as a Transformers toy. Using these images, Pridmore builds a fictional, Alice in Wonderland-worthy narrative linking the images. After all, "opossum plays with Transformers toy" is easier to remember than a blitzkrieg of suits, numbers and face cards. If Pridmore can remember his narrative, he can remember the sequence.

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