Good results at memory championships depend on doing the right things correctly. However that does not only include knowing basic or even advanced memory techniques and constant training. It is also important to know how to prepare oneself for a contest and how to avoid known mistakes at championships. In this article I will outline common mistakes and discuss how you can handle a championship as a participant to maximize your overall score. This article does not focus on routine training. A few of the mistakes mentioned in the text I have experienced by myself, others I have heard or read by first or second hand. The idea to write this article was born at a dinner table in Cambridge while discussing the recent championship.

1. Before a championship

Pack the stuff you need:

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  • BASIC WRITING MATERIAL like a pen and some paper to make notes between the events. In one of the first championships I joined one participant did not even had a pen. After borrowing one from another person he was nevertheless able to win that championship. Ensure to bring your own ball point pen without extra lubrication otherwise you might be unable to read some of the numbers.
  • OTHER OFFICE EQUIPMENT (if needed) like ruler (in an adequate size!), eraser, crayons or highlighters, pencil and pencil-sharpener and other things like that. A pencil should be blunt to prevent rupture of your papers.
  • TIMING DEVICES like a watch or a count up/ down timer. If your timing device has a sound function make sure that you can handle it properly and that you do not disturb other people (especially in the learning phase).
  • FOOD AND WATER SUPPLY: Although sometimes championship locations are stuffed with free food you are on the safe side if you bring along your own food. An advantage of this is that you have already planned in advance what you will eat without the danger of being seduced by inadequate food.
  • ELECTRONIC EQUIPMENT: Think about all the electronic devices you want to use like timing devices and cameras, including batteries, chargers and power adapters.
  • Bring your LUCKY STUFF along if you need it and do not forget it on the train! This can be a lucky T-Shirt, a lucky cap (not an advertisement cap), a lucky belt, a lucky stuffed animal or whatsoever.
  • Bring the ADDRESS of the venue and a MAP or a navigation device along or take a look at an Internet map. Make sure that you can easily find the location of the championship – this is an easy way to prevent stress and bad luck.

Train every discipline at least once at home:

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  • LOCI-POINTS: Make sure that you have enough loci-points for every discipline. If you have to use a loci-point twice try to fill it with different content the next time you use it (for example first cards then numbers or the other way round to prevent chaos in your head). You should also plan which loci-points you want to use for which discipline, especially if your pool of loci-points is limited. Side note: loci is the plural for the Latin word locus which is just another word for a location used to memorize items. Read more about the method of loci.
  • LONGER DISCIPLINES: A mental marathon is not just an extended short discipline. Doing a marathon usually requires different repetition cycles than shorter disciplines. Without simulating that at least once you are clueless how much repetition cycles you might need and risk scoring zero points in those disciplines. If you want to equal the grandmaster norm with just one shot per year at the world memory championships this is a very important thing to consider.
  • DRAW THE LINE: You should be aware that unlike training with some computer software there will be no lines drawn in advance on your learning and recall papers. You have to be prepared for this. That means that you have to choose if you want to draw lines or not. If you do not draw lines you have to be absolutely focused otherwise you might get lost in the forest of digits (especially if they are just ones and zeros). If you draw the lines by yourself you will loose time needed for repetition (compared with an online trial). Therefore it might be a good tactic to try less (binary) digits than at home. In addition to that most people are having trouble drawing lines that are not straight. So if you memorize for example sex digits on a loci-point there will be four digits left in the decimal number discipline with 40 digits in every row. Of course you can memorize the last 4-digits-column separately but if you forget this one column you might get zero points for the whole discipline. Think about how you want to solve this problem in advance!
  • toolboxLIMITED TRAINING MATERIAL: If your training material is limited (like the abstract images training sheets) you should consider how to optimize your training. In that case it is important when you do your training. Do not be surprised if you encounter new items during a competition and try to adapt your speed and repetition cycles to it.
  • SENSE OF TIME: You should develop a good sense of time. Knowing how much time is left can be very important if you want to adapt your strategy while memorizing.
  • To SUMMARIZE all that with the words of Ben Pridmore: it is important to train [at least once] at home exactly the same way you will compete in a real championship.
  • STOP TRAINING some time before the competition to keep your loci-points fresh for the competition!
  • In my opinion SUCCESS IS THE RESULT of a good preparation flavored by a little bit of luck.

Pay attention to physiological needs:

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  • Do some PHYSICAL SPORT besides your periodical memory training at least once a week! Sport is important to provide your body with oxygen and can build new cells. Although the last round at the world memory championships 2008 between Ben Pridmore and Gunther Karsten was won by Ben I assume that Gunther’s physical sport (and eating) habits are much closer to the ideal than Ben’s. Of course if you have excellent techniques, good memory training habits and lots of talent you can win a championship without paying attention to your physiological needs, especially if the other contestants make other mistakes.
  • GET ENOUGH SLEEP before the competition! :sleeping:
  • AVOID DRINKING ALCOHOL on the day before the competition! In addition to that restrict your common alcohol use to maximum one or two drinks a day.
  • DRINK ENOUGH WATER!
  • DO NOT DRINK TOO MUCH WATER! In the one hour disciplines you cannot visit the toilet for at least one hour that should be obvious.
  • bananaEAT WISELY! Eat your breakfast otherwise your level of attention might drop rapidly. Do not eat too much and eat the right food. Tony Buzan told me 2007: It is better to waste food than to waste your body. He added that I could eat everything I want after a championship.
  • RESTRICT YOUR SUGAR CONSUMPTION especially during competition! Although some memory athletes make world records while eating lots of sugar products this behavior might lead to problems later on. A short term consequence can be that you get tired. Of course you can eat even more sugar but then you might be seriously exhausted on the evening which might be not so good for the next competition day. If you eat lots of sugar on a regular basis this can lead to health problems. However: keep in mind that sweets taste good and enjoy your life! I recommend that you delay sugar consumption to the latest time possible, but in the end you have to find your personal highway to success. World memory champion Ben Pridmore probably would say: as long as you are world champion you can eat any kind of food you like. For championships I recommend pure water along with some fruits and nuts.
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The idea to write this article was born at a dinner table in Cambridge

2. During a championship

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  • BE EARLY AT THE VENUE! Consider that there might be traffic jams and changes in place you do not know in advance.
  • POSTPONE INVENTIONS FOR YOUR TRAINING SESSIONS! It is possible to be better when changing your strategies in competitions in the very last minute. I always do that in the abstract images dicipline. However, in my last memory championship I tried three new inventions – two times my results were much lower than before. One example for a change of strategy could be the change from a sequenced learning strategy to a cherry-picking strategy. Some people can successfully pick the history dates and names and faces which match the least-effort-principle. However think about that it also takes extra time to scan the material which might be better invested by learning a fixed interval. If you hear about new strategies do memorize them or write them down but wait until you are back home to try them.
  • CLARIFY HOW MANY POINTS YOU CAN GET! Clarify how many points you can get in each discipline respectively the whole championship in three different scenarios: a most likely case, a worst case and a best case scenario! Decide if you aim for gold, silver or bronze medals (for the whole competition or just some disciplines), if you want to break a national record (even if there are just one or two participants competing that might be fun for some people), if you want to become the best newcomer or beat your own records (like personal bests, training records, overall records et cetera).

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  • DECIDE YOUR AIMS AND YOUR WILLINGNESS TO TAKE RISKS! Decide what your aims are and adapt your way of handling risks to it! You cannot assume that you will repeat all your training records within a real championship particularly if you have not trained all the disciplines in a row. A top ten memory athlete once said that if you can beat a record once in training you can also do it in a competition. Of course that is correct one could actually add if you were close to a record in training you can achieve that in competition. For example: until now my results in the abstract images discipline were always higher in competitions than during training sessions! Being able to achieve something does not necessarily mean that you will achieve it always. Trying to achieve something in a competition discipline that is above your average performance level contains a high risk potential to fail in that discipline. The top ten memory athlete continued to say that not risking enough is the number one reason to miss a victory. I disagree with that. If you take a look at the world memory championship results from 2007 Ben Pridmore broke a world record but failed in the two cards disciplines. Therefore the new world memory champion was Gunther Karsten who did not break a single world record. 2008 Ben changed his strategy and broke not a single world record but became world memory champion once again. Gunther on the opposite broke two world records but that did not help him to win the world memory championships. Conclusion: Pushing it to the edge is a good way to win a single discipline, to strengthen your confidence, to motivate yourself and to make your opponents insecure but it does not necessarily help to win a championship because of the high risks you have to take.

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  • USE THE CONCEPT OF EXPECTED VALUE! Taking more risks can ensure a leading position in a single discipline. However if you want to win a championship it is important that you do not fail too often. To maximize your overall scores I would recommend using the statistic concept of expected value (EV) which also could be described by the law of big numbers. Let me explain this with an example. If your record memorizing speed cards is 60 seconds (worth 500 points) with a probability of 10 percent, your medium time is 75 seconds (worth 400 points) with a probability of 50 percent and your safe time is about 150 seconds (worth 200 points) with a probability of about 95 percent you will receive the following expected values: 500 * 0.1 = 50, 400 * 0.5 = 200, 200* 0.95 = 190. In that case you get the highest expected value at 75 seconds with 200 (EV) points in the long run. Of course if you remember all the cards correctly you get 400 championship points for this performance. After you have successfully recalled a card game within that time you can still aim for 60 seconds. Of course if you want to avoid risk you can at first gor for 150 seconds and if you need the points to win you might directly try the 60 seconds. Knowing your expected value does not prevent you from adapting your tactics to the current situation in the competition.

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  • BE CONFIDENT! On a good day everything is possible even if you are very new to the sport! For example the 17-year old Dennis Mueller accomplished after just 6 months of training to be placed 22 in the world rankings and he still has the chance to become better than anyone else in the sport. Joshua Foer a reporter who wrote about the USA Memory Championships became the winner of this event just one year later and earned a big amount of money afterwards. When I was a pupil I sometimes had problems to remember even tiny pieces of information like seven words in a row. I once even forgot my text when I was rehearsing a play for one week. My text consisted of just three words! After learning basic memory techniques as a student at university I could memorize about 20 to 30 words in five minutes. At that time all world memory champions came from the UK and it seemed impossible for me that anyone not British could win the title of world memory champion. Today Great Britain has to share its role model with Germany. Other Countries like India, China, the USA or even smaller countries like Sweden might follow within the next years. I stayed on my plateau from university studies for about ten years and thought that I had attained about 80 percent of my capabilities. The world memory championships seemed to be very far away. After I heard that there are national and international championships I began to train systematically. Today I have managed to learn 40 words in five minutes within a championship. In training I even managed to learn up to 70 words without a single flaw which could qualify me for a top ten position in that discipline if could replicate that in a championship in the near future. By now I think that at least half of my potential is still uncovered. 2009 I will probably enter the world memory championships for the first time to compete with the best memorizers of the world. I doubt that I ever can be a world memory champion, but with respect to my moderate performance in the past I am very satisfied with what I have achieved until now. Having trained successfully many persons in memory techniques by myself I learned that anyone can be far better than one can believe at the beginning.
  • THINK FASTER! Try to activate your “turbo boost” of thinking. Nutrition including water, fresh air during the competition breaks and motivation can help to achieve this.
  • THINK SLOWLY! Take the time you need to learn anything correctly. In a competition it is much more important to learn with the speed you can master than just trying to mimic the speed of better participants. Pushing it over the edge will probably not help you to get the points you do expect but will reduce the amount of points you get even more. If you encounter an item which seems to be impossible to learn try to calm down and use your creativity to search for new associations.
  • HIGHLIGHT ITEMS! Avoid looking at items you already have perfectly mastered to memorize! If you definitely know that you have learned something correctly you do not necessarily have to repeat it again. Try to highlight these items (at least in your head) to prevent looking at them again. Highlighting stuff can also be important if you have decided to skip specific items.

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  • CHECK YOUR ANSWERS FOR PLAUSIBILITY! In the longer card disciplines for example there should be 13 cards of every color on your recall paper – if not you definitely know that there is at least one mistake left to correct. To have enough time left to check the answers you have to answer fast.
  • TAKE CHAMPIONSHIPS SERIOUSLY! Taking championships seriously means for example to organize your recall deck in speed cards before the recall phase and to switch off your mobile phone and other sources of sound during the learning phase.
  • RELAX! You should take a championship serious but a championship is also a social event, so use the time to get to communicate with people and enjoy the ride. If you learn playing cards in the speed cards discipline it is better to stop the time quiet and safe in 30 seconds than to finish after 27 seconds while smashing your cards with loud noise on the table risking to let them fall on the floor. Whatever may happen how unsatisfied your may are – never loose your countenance! After all nobody is perfect – unless your name is “Nobody”!
  • CHECK YOUR GRADING! If you do wonder why your scores are so low you might recheck the grading of your answer sheets. Most of the times grading will be correct but sometimes even correctors make mistakes.

3. After a championship:

  • CONGRATULATE THE WINNER and thank all the people who organized and conducted the championship! Very often most of these people sit unnoticed in another room and work voluntary the whole day for example as a corrector to make it possible that you can participate in a well organized championship.

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  • ENJOY THE EVENING with old and new buddies! NOW you can drink some alcohol though it is still allowed to drink orange juice. If you order drinks for your buddies make sure you do not forget what they want. NOW you have the possibility to eat whatever you want (as long as you can afford it). If you decide to sing in a karaoke bar make sure you choose a song in the right key for your voice. Try to find your way home (in case you drank too much call a cab.) This is the time to impress your buddies for example with detailed knowledge about birthday dates of their family members. Never reveal your free time memorizing tricks – other memory athletes might get disappointed if they understand how simple it can be to memorize some things.
  • ANALYZE THE CHAMPIONSHIP! Analyze the results of the championship including the experiences you have made, revise your strategy, train and try to get more points (or even win) at your next championship. If you already are a world memory champion always remember: the world is not enough!
  • SHARE YOUR INSIGHTS AND FOLLOW YOUR OWN ADVICE! Last but not least: if you have analyzed, experienced, read, listen, said or written some insights on how to handle a championship – share your insights with your team mates and try to follow at least some of your own advice.

Comment this article!

Other readers will benefit much more from this article if you improve it by making a comment on it. This implies to discuss my suggestions, to expand the list of dispositions and common mistakes and to share your experience. No matter if people can memorize very well or very poorly – they can always learn from each other.