66° Good Evening
66° Good Evening

Remember everything: Tips and tricks of champion memory athletes

Have trouble remembering your neighbor's name? Don't know where you left your smartphone last night? New Yorkers by necessity have lots to remember -- unfortunately, too much.

But don't despair! Memory can be improved, say the "athletes" competing in Saturday's 17th annual USA Memory Championship. The event, which challenges players in a series of mental challenges including memorizing decks of cards, numbers and names and faces, is being held at Con Edison's Grand Auditorium in Manhattan.

This year's competitors include a dentist, nurse -- even an eighth grader from New Jersey. Spectators are welcome; there's no admissions fee.

amNewYork spoke to three current and past competitors to learn their tips and tricks for memorization.

Never forget a face or a name

Brad Zupp was training at 30 Rock Center
Photo Credit: istock

Brad Zupp was training at 30 Rock Center when reached by phone on Thursday to talk about his techniques. “It's a great place to practice tuning out distraction,” he said. Zupp, 45, is one of the older athletes in the competition but a contender after having established himself in the memory circuit. He also does memory workshops and speeches for businesses.

One event during the championship requires the competitors to memorize 117 color photos of different people, along with their first and last names, in 15 minutes.

Zupp says he trains for the event by being as creative as he can. A former juggler, he says he’s comfortable coming up with zany ideas. So, for instance, if he’s presented with a photo of a man named Steve who has a goatee, this is what he comes up with: “Steve is almost the same as stove … I think of a wood burning stove with a chimney going up and I’ll think of Steve's mouth as a stove and eating hot peppers.” “Jill” becomes “Jill taking a pill” and “Brad” might become a “bee with a Mohawk.”

“I create funny images,” he said. “It’s enjoyable.”

Go to your mind palace to recite poetry

Want to impress your lover by reciting Pablo
Photo Credit: Sherlock/screengrab

Want to impress your lover by reciting Pablo Neruda over a candlelit dinner? Another event of the USA Memory Championship requires entrants to memorize an unpublished poem in 15 minutes. Example line from the organizers: “She’s not your average canine, scruffy; instead she is both white and fluffy.”

For this one, previous USA Memory Championship winner Nelson Dellis of Miami starts out by memorizing sections of the poem by associating them with bizarre images.

He then takes those images and places them inside a “memory palace” — yes, just like Sherlock Holmes does on the hit eponymous BBC TV series — which he walks through to recall the poem. “Memory palace is usually, for me, a house I used to live in that I know,” he said. Because there are so many filler words — articles like “the” — he writes down the poem a couple times as he is recalling it.

Become a card shark

Once the field of mental athletes in the
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Frazer Harrison

Once the field of mental athletes in the USA Memory Championship has been whittled down to the top three, they will then compete to memorize two decks of playing cards in five minutes. Ron White, a record-holder in 2009 and 2011, said that his trick for remembering cards is to have a picture for each one. So, for him, the Jack of Spades is Donald Duck and the Five of Diamonds is Sam Walton. The next step is to memorize 52 pieces of furniture and mentally place each image of a card on them.

“I know when I was training I went through a deck of cards one thousand times,” said White, who is now traveling the country raising money for veterans by writing down from memory the names of everyone who died in the Afghan war.

If you don't remember anything else

“For just the average Joe who wants to
Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images/Don Emmert

“For just the average Joe who wants to improve their memory, the best thing they can do is get more sleep,” Zupp said. “When the brain is rested, it naturally remembers better.”

Dellis, seen above with Ron White in 2011, said the best tip he could give for improving memory is to link abstract concepts to images. “The brain works better in pictures,” he said. “We can only learn or memorize things if they relate to things that we already know ... You tag it to something you visualize.”

Zupp said it’s possible to get better at remembering things. “Memory can be improved. And it’s not hard,” he said. “It’s actually amusing and fun.”


We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

News photos & videos