In the recent years the USA has produced several top memory athletes, one of them is the world record holder Lance Tschirhart. He made himself a name for creating sophisticated memory systems and doing a vigorous training regimen. We spoke with him about his systems, training and goals.
Memory-Sports: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Lance Tschirhart: I’m a musician and a unicyclist. I like ideas that are bizarre and novel, have a longstanding interest in psychology and philosophy, respect the scientific method, and detest those who profit off of pseudoscience. I’m also a memory athlete (MA), which is the most important thing.
Memory-Sports: How did you get into memory sports?
Lance Tschirhart: I watched Joshua Foer’s TED Talk. My first thought was “If [one inexperienced person] became the USA Champion, then I can do it also.” I went straight to google to find out when the championship was and to look at the current national records. Thanks to Nelson Dellis, the records had gotten much, much more difficult to break than they were back in 2007, when Foer did it.
I spent the rest of that day and just about every day since then improving my memory skills. That was about 4 years ago.
Memory-Sports: What fascinates you about memory sports?
Lance Tschirhart: I used to be into magic; sleight of hand. I was never great at it. Part of my lack of motivation came from the fact that I couldn’t give myself that feeling of astonishment which is so exciting about magic. From my angle, all I saw were the dirty little secrets. In memory, there are no “dirty little secrets.” It’s all real.
In memory, there are no “dirty little secrets.” It’s all real.Lance Tschirhart
Memory-Sports: You became known in the US for digging deep into memory techniques and talking about it on the Artofmemory forum. It seems we both share that fascination. Do you think that differs you from most other memory athletes you have met so far? Why do you invest so much time into systems?
Lance Tschirhart: I think in a way that is useful for developing systems, so a lot of it comes down to the joy of picking apart ideas into small pieces. I’ve fleshed out the details of a couple of other methods for binary, cards, and digits, which I had no interest in using myself. I just wanted to look at if the methods would be possible, and if so, how. For instance, I wrote up a 10-digit binary method for users of a 1352-image card system when before it was only possible to use the Ben System for memorizing 10 binary digits. It seems obvious that to memorize binaries in the form of 0000-000-000, you would need 16 groups of images (there are 16 combinations of 4 binaries, “0000” through “1111”). But you don’t. I seriously doubt that my 10-digit binary set up is as effective as the Ben system, but it does exist.
I use 2704 objects, not 1352. I have enough images to use Ben’s method for 10-digit binary anyway. And I don’t even use it – I’m very happy with 3x3 matrices for binaries. It’s just fun to think about these things as puzzle.
Memory-Sports: What is your ambition with memory techniques and memory sports?
Lance Tschirhart: My first ambition was “to be the best in the country.” That’s what I decided as soon as I was done watching Foer’s TED Talk. I was astonished when I looked up the scores and saw Nelson’s record. I succeeded in my goal after a couple of years and had a run as the top ranked American after my first international championship, your US Open in 2015, where I became the first American in the top 10 (#10 exactly) and set 5 national records (I never did win the USA Championship title though). Now the title of the best in the country belongs to Alex, and I think it’s about indisputable that he’s the best in the world. So, the goal of “being the best American” and “being the best in the world” are now one in the same. I never wanted to have the goal of being the best in the world (because I hate to fail), but now that the goals overlap, I suppose I have no choice.
Memory-Sports: Your scores are constantly improving. You were the first US memory athlete memorizing a deck of cards in under 30 seconds. Now you even hold the world record in Spoken Numbers with 456 digits. How much do you train and how does your training look like?
Lance Tschirhart: I train daily, a few hours. It used to be all day, every day, every moment I could pull a sheet of numbers or a deck of cards out of my pocket to memorize, I would. I stopped listening in class, I stopped going out, and I stopped sleeping every single night, making “all-nighters” a regular thing so I could train more. Words of wisdom for people like me: this actually doesn’t make you better than practicing a quarter of that much. Now I force myself to take breaks and work on other things, which doesn’t seem to hinder my improvement. It appears to be very important to work on memorizing as many kinds of different things as possible regularly, though I can only speculate as to why that is.
Memory-Sports: Tell us about how you deal with breaking a plateau and leaving your comfort zone in training. What was the deal breaker for you?
Lance Tschirhart: I think about this aspect of training more than any other. Plateaus are frustrating, and I really don’t understand them. I don’t think a person can will themselves past a plateau. You just have to wait. But being on a plateau does not necessarily mean that you can no longer improve in that discipline. You must break the discipline down into its smallest parts and find a place where you can improve. Maybe you’ve been stuck with a quantity of digits that you memorized in 5 minutes a year ago, and you’ve never been able to do more.
You should know by now that the way to improve that score is not just to keep trying to do it. If some of your images are weaker than others, drill them or replace them. Work on the little things, and eventually it will all add up.
Being on a plateau doesn’t mean that you can no longer improve. Break the discipline down into its smallest parts and find a place where you can improve.Lance Tschirhart
Memory-Sports: Ok, let us have a closer look at all your systems, shall we? How did your number system evolution look like? Tell us about how you started and into what it developed over time.
Lance Tschirhart: I started with 100 2-digit objects that I named using the major system, then expanded that to 1000 3-digit objects. Lastly, I came up with a way to memorize two cards at once using the objects from a 1000 object list using the major system because I didn’t want to fall behind the users of the Ben System who had this advantage.
Memory-Sports: You hold the current world record in Spoken Numbers. Why this discipline and how do you do it?
Lance Tschirhart: Why this discipline? It’s very hard to say. One thing that is not the cause is practice hours. I hadn’t practiced this particular discipline for more than 150 hours or so when I set the record, which is a far smaller number than the hours I had spent elsewhere. One part is that I’m very good at linking one object to the next, so if the first object is a bucket of orange paint, which is thrown onto the second object, and I remember just the bucket of orange pain, it is simple to ask “there was an object in exactly this spot that was covered in orange paint – what was it?” That’s helpful. But that is only part of the story. Were it the whole story, I would be skilled at Flash Numbers as well. Indeed, the Spoken world record holders of the past have always been skilled at Flash Numbers, which is exactly what we should expect. The required skillset is nearly identical.
Briefly, Flash Numbers is where a single digit is flashed on a screen, and every second, the digit changes to another. So it is the silent, visual version of numbers spoken at a rate of 1/second.
The past spoken WR holders have told me that it did not take them that much Flash practice to transfer their spoken scores into that discipline. But this isn’t true in my case.
I don’t mean that my Flash abilities aren’t quite as good as my spoken abilities: I’m saying that Flash numbers is my worst discipline, hands down.
Memory-Sports: I barely speak in my interviews about Binary Digits. Let us change that now! What is your strategy? And what do you think is the best approach? Do you memorize line by line or several lines parallel? Do you break the lines at the end of each row by memorizing an image that is partly in two rows? These are a lot of questions at once. Neurons on the ready, GO!
Lance Tschirhart: Funny 🙂
I won’t get into other people’s approaches here, though they are interesting and have merit, particularly Ben’s 10-digit method is really great and something everyone should consider.
My approach is memorizing matrices of 3x3: one image made of 9 binary digits read horizontally and then vertically on three lines. The standard is memorizing 30 binary digits per line, so this doesn’t require splitting up images across lines when in competition. Sounds more complicated than it is.
001 – T
010 – N
101 – L
010 – N
001 – D
101 – L
I thought this could probably be the quickest method whenever I first thought of it because I believed the matrices could probably be read as single characters, like Chinese characters. But I had no evidence of it. After beginning to work with it and seeing for myself that there was potential, I learned that Johannes Mallow and Simon Reinhard had been using this method for some time already, and that Hannes’ world record of 1080, at that time, had been set with the method. If you learn Hannes had already had the same idea as you and has already succeeded with it, that’s about as strong a confirmation as you could hope for – it’s a good idea.
Of the six people who I think are the strongest, at binary, Ola Risa is the only one who uses the Ben System for it. He’s an exception, but it’s an interesting thing because there is so much potential in that method.
Memory-Sports: Particularly your card system became famous recently, when Alex Mullen started to use some elements of it and became the World Memory Champion. Please tell us more about it.
Lance Tschirhart: A small correction: Alex doesn’t use “some elements” of it; he uses the method precisely as written in the post “A New 2-card System” on the ArtofMemory forums.
I wrote it up in two distinct phases. After my own experience with the second phase, I began to recommend people stop after the first phase, though I left the description of the second phase up just to satisfy the curiosity of others. The second phase works well for me, but Alex proved that it is not at all necessary, and he has become much better now than anyone else.
I recently adapted the method so that it could be used with the unusual consonant assignments that Omkar Kibe had chosen to use for the ten digits, 0-9. I think it should work just as well. He’s just beginning to work with it now, so I guess we’ll see.
Another variation is what I call (in my mind and in my notes) the “Condensed Ben System.” This is an idea that Katie Kermode and I kicked around for a little while before she began to implement it. Her card skill has improved more in a few months than it had in the past five years combined. She is peerless in names and words IMHO, and now that she’s making strides in numbers and cards, I think it is likely that she may become the most powerful MA period.
Memory-Sports: What is your opinion about the Person-Action-Object System (or PAO) compared to single image systems? Please analyze it both from the perspectives of a newcomer and a veteran.
Lance Tschirhart: For the first three months that I began to work on mnemonics, I did not run a campaign to warn every person not to bother with it. Since then, I have. Single object is the way to go, particularly for cards, whether one or two cards are used. A newcomer will usually do what I did, taking the popular opinion of those more experienced, and start using PAO. It took me 3 months to realize that the method was insufficient – it wasn’t going to take me where I wanted to go.
To the newcomers: find out who uses PAO, and find out how good they are at memorizing cards and numbers. That’s how you should decide whether or not you want to use it.
To the newcomers: find out who uses PAO, and find out how good they are at memorizing cards and numbers. That’s how you should decide whether or not you want to use it.Lance Tschirhart
Memory-Sports: You have some pretty advanced systems. As a memory coach, I hear the question very often, if my students should start with such a sophisticated system right away. What is your opinion on that matter?
Lance Tschirhart: No, it’s not necessary and I wouldn’t advise it. But I’ll change your question a little. Let’s say you had said, “As a memory coach I hear the question very often, if my students should start building sophisticated system right away.” To that I would respond that it’s usually hard to know from the very start whether you’re in the game for the long haul. But I knew right away, and there are others like me. If that is the case, then the answer is “Yes,” they ought to start building a sophisticated system right away, provided they are sure that they will want to use one. Some have done and continue to do very well without ever bothering to “upgrade.” If you know you want it, that is, if you know that you are going to want to use it, then start to build it right away. Who knows how long it will take before you start to feel that you could benefit from a larger system? There’s no rush to get it done – just work like the tortoise. If you start right away, then by the time you think you need it, you’ll already have it.
Memory-Sports: You became really good in the above mentioned straight forward disciplines based on numbers and cards. But recently you seem to have had a breakthrough in names and words as well. We want to learn more about your strategies because it seems to be a mission impossible for many memory athletes to improve in these two events. Let’s start with Names & Faces (N&F). What are you doing differently now?
Lance Tschirhart: You’re right about that. I can hardly believe it myself, since I hadn’t made a lick of improvement in the hundred practice hours spent on N&F before having a “breakthrough.”
Let’s be clear: this was an XMT N&F breakthrough – one minute, 30 first names [editorial note: XMT stands for Extreme Memory Tournament, which is called Memory League now]. 5min and 15min N&F in other championships, with first and last names that are usually quite bizarre to anyone who is unfamiliar with obscure names from other countries and the linguistic quirks of other languages, are nearly as difficult for me as they’ve ever been after the first 50 or so practice hours, where everyone will improve regardless of method.
I wish I had more wisdom to share here. Names and words are still mysterious to me and the path to long-term improvement is never clear.
Memory-Sports: And how about words? How did you improve there and what do you think would be the ultimate approach?
Lance Tschirhart: The Words breakthrough is also mostly an XMT thing, though this XMT discipline isn’t as different as the 5min and 15min events in championships as N&F is, so my success has bled over somewhat. I think this is just from practicing XMT Words many, many times. If I had practiced for 15min at a time, which is what I usually did before the XMT existed, or even 5min at a time, I may have stayed at that plateau. But if you practice anything for just one minute at a time, you get rapid feedback and can test hypotheses more efficiently and with a much larger sample size.
The ultimate approach? Almost everyone who is great with words places 2 words per locus. Note that that doesn’t necessarily mean that there have to be two images in a locus every single time; it could be that you have one solid image for one word and you think of the other one as a descriptor.
After all, any noun you place before the word “sandwich” becomes an adjective, doesn’t it?
The only exception to the rule is Katie. But she has an unusual mind, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone look to her to find methods to emulate, even if she is incredibly good, which she is, because they may not be as easy or effective for most people to apply. She uses 4 words per locus, and there’s a little more to it than that but I’ll just stop now.
I prefer 1 per locus over 2, but the advantage is slight, or it may not even be real, and I practice both ways regularly.
Memory-Sports: Besides the mere logic of a system, every memory athlete seems to have different ideas about how many images should be placed on one location in their memory palaces. How do you do it and why? And do you think it makes a difference if you memorize in one minute, five minutes or more?
Lance Tschirhart: When using a method in which you have the option, the standard is two, three is less common, but Ben Pridmore and Ola Risa do it, and one is much less common, but Simon Reinhard does it. Different people succeed with all of these. I have used four per locus a fair amount so I can fit more training into the loci I have. For the first three of the last four years, I used 3/L. Alex did what I did during that time. We started out at nearly the same time, and we have always explained our methods and ideas to each other in detail. To this day, he and I do almost everything the same.
He decided to switch to 2/L for numbers, and he believed that this change was responsible for the spike in his scores that followed. So, I followed his example, and my scores improved over a period of time as well. But would they have improved just as much, or more, if I had not switched over? Would I have gotten the same effect if I had started with 2/L and switched to 3/L, just because I was developing new subskills? Haunting questions, and I don’t know the answers for sure.
A person’s ability to keep perfect time in their head is not an interesting thing to test at a memory championship. Testing their memory capacity is far more interesting.Lance Tschirhart
Memory-Sports: I remember a discussion we had before the digital US Open in 2015 about the metronome function on the training website Memocamp.com. You trained heavily with that feature but it wasn’t allowed in the actual competition. Tell us how you practiced with that, how it helped your progress and whether you would still like to use it in a competition.
Lance Tschirhart: The first time I met Ben, I started an argument with him about this. He could be called, to some degree, a “purist,” and he thinks it is right that metronomes are not allowed. I could be called a “bestist,” and I do not. My maxim is that any and all technological improvements, which enable a memory athlete to use their skills to a higher degree, should be allowed. It is the maxim of the Olympics, changing the track from dirt to rubber, putting springs in the mat of the gymnastics floor routine and padding the balance beam which before was just a beam of wood. If we can’t memorize as well as we should because the printer that printed the digits is cheap, or the lighting in the room is too dark, we should get a better printer and new lights. My position is the extension of that to the very extreme. Facilitating technologies are almost always good.
A person’s ability to keep perfect time in their head is not an interesting thing to test at a memory championship. Testing their memory capacity is far more interesting. If it takes a metronome for any person to memorize at the precise speed at which they can memorize the most information, then let them use a metronome. The only alternative I see is to sacrifice some specificity of our measurements of their memory in order to test their ability to keep time.
Everyone lays a transparency over their sheet of numbers so they do not accidentally skip a number and miss every number after that. They have accepted that it makes more sense to employ technology to measure memory capacity than to deny technology and measure a person’s ability to not accidentally skip numbers instead. How is it consistently maintained that we should have the option of using place-keeping technology and that we should not have the option of using time-keeping technology – and why does everyone but me seem to think that this is so obvious?
Memory-Sports: You have now competed at the USA Championship, the digital US Open, the Memo Games, the World Memory Championship and the Extreme Memory Tournament (XMT, rebranded into Memory League). All of these events are different. What do you like about each competition, what don’t you like and which one is your favorite?
Lance Tschirhart: The Memo Games were interesting in principle. Some wrinkles need to be ironed out, but it is refreshing to see totally new disciplines. The World Memory Championships have been bittersweet experiences. Mostly bitter. The USA Memory Championship is a small thing; it just has a fraction of the disciplines seen elsewhere. The digital US Open was my first championship, and the only championship where I’ve hit a score near my target. At the time, I was disappointed that I did not hit my target overall. Looking back, I see I should have cried and kissed the ground for the joy of just being in the ballpark. Memory League is incredible. It looks to me to be the prototype of competitive memory’s future.
Memory League is incredible. It looks to me to be the prototype of competitive memory’s future.Lance Tschirhart
Memory-Sports: You have qualified yourself on top position in the XMT Online Qualifiers 2016. Your performance at the XMT was unusual. You got the highest score on the first day, but were quickly eliminated on the second day. Will you explain your experience of the 2016 XMT?
Lance Tschirhart: My experiences at memory championships have been almost uniformly disappointing. This was by far the worst of them.
I came into the XMT overprepared, and I knew it. I had very high consistency at winning scores. This was going to be the competition to make up for all the rest. I expected to win between 12 and 15 of the 15 matches on the first day. I underclocked my opponent in all 15 matches, and the only mistakes I made in the day were swapping the last two cards of a deck which I didn’t get a good look at because I rushed the end (shame on me) and a swap of two adjacent images on my first attempt at world record speed. I got the world record on the next try. I had very high expectations for myself at this tournament, much higher than ever before, and I did exactly as well as I predicted I would do on day 1. I expected to win the XMT.
On day 2, I was eliminated in the shortest amount of time possible with a score of 0-4 against Marlo Knight, after just the first 4 events. Here’s why:
The first discipline was a surprise event. We were supposed to recall the digits that we memorized on one of the runs of the first day. I was under the impression that this was only the first part of the surprise event, which I’ll get into in a moment.
I didn’t type a “2” near the very beginning, which led to all of my numbers being shifted over one space. I remembered more than Marlo did (though he was close), but I did not win this discipline because of that mistake. It is a frustrating mistake, but one that I own. I didn’t really mind because I thought that the only 2 disciplines Marlo might be able to beat me at were the surprise event and cards. And 2 victories is not enough to move forward.
The second discipline was words. I was very strong here and Marlo was very weak. But I thought this was just the next part of the surprise discipline, not a totally new event. So, I had been going over all of the images for the words in my palace from yesterday, and I was ready to start typing. But then a list of words came up, and it took me a while to figure out what was going on. By that time, I had to leave the palace I was at in my mind and randomly jump to another, half of my time was wasted and of course it was impossible to move at the precise pace that I’m used to. I didn’t bother with recall. I just left to collect my thoughts instead.
Later, I watched the XMT video feed to listen to Nelson’s instructions a second time to see what I had misinterpreted. Some of that audio does not exist anymore. I don’t know if it made me feel better or worse when I realized that both Max Berkowitzand you (as announcers) were also confused about this very point, having been given the impression that the surprise event was not over after just the digits portion.
Third was cards. I had to go quickly to underclock Marlo. I did 23-point-something and made a mistake. If Marlo weren’t so good at cards to begin with, I wouldn’t have had to push into such a risky speed. I was not particularly surprised to lose this one.
But I was surprised that the score was 0-3 at this point. The next discipline was images, and I was confident here.
I did 22 seconds safely, which is what I was aiming for. His computer malfunctioned and one of the images didn’t show up. He didn’t do recall, and we had to redo the match. When we redid the match, rather than giving me a new set of images, they generated the exact same 30 images that I had just memorized and linked together, but in a different order. I was totally blindsided by this, and only got 12 or 15 back in the right order.
I believed then what I believe now, which is that that is the last time I’ll ever enter a memory tournament that I’m over-prepared for. My motivation has never returned to the high point it was at before then.
Memory-Sports: Everything gets faster and faster in memory sports. I remember a world record in Historic Dates with 50 by Dr. Gunther Karsten, over a decade ago. Now you hold the second-best result of all times with 111 dates and worldwide 80 people achieved 50 dates and more. Similar things happened in all other events as well. What is happening and where do you see the limitations of the memory?
Lance Tschirhart: Scores are going to get better regardless of whether methods improve. What I can’t figure out is why I need to go from here to there, instead of just skipping to ‘there’ – the state of affairs 5 years from now where scores are out of this world?
Memory-Sports: How important is memory sports for education? Do you see any overlapping and benefits for learning or is this merely a fun but rather irrelevant hobby? What is the difference between someone who uses memory techniques occasionally for learning and someone who practices memorizing random things every day?
Lance Tschirhart: I think the main difference is that the person who memorizes every day will be much, much better at it. No, memory techniques are not irrelevant. We tend to be drawn in by the excitement of competition and train the kinds of things that are irrelevant, such as binary digits and cards and so on. But you could easily use these techniques for Law and Medicine just the same. Unfortunately, I don’t know of a huge community of doctors or lawyers who are dedicated to this, so it’s a rogue path.
We tend to be drawn in by the excitement of competition and train the kinds of things that are irrelevant. But you could easily use these techniques for Law and Medicine just the same.Lance Tschirhart
Memory-Sports: So why don’t we learn these techniques in school? They are clearly not a modern invention that just popped up a few years ago, but millennia old methods. Is it really an argument to say that memorizing is rather irrelevant for learning and understanding?
Lance Tschirhart: This is an interesting question. I have never heard that argument, but even if we assume that the this is the case, it is still no explanation of why mnemonics are not taught in schools. What is tested in schools is typically the ability to accurately repeat the things that you have been told. This is a true statement about middle and high schools in America, which are the only schools that I know about.
The biggest reason it isn’t taught is because it isn’t even considered a candidate. Nobody proposes classes on practical mnemonics because so few people can say more than a few sentences about it. Mnemonics are not necessary to enable a person to accurately repeat the things they have been told. That is one reason. Good study habits in general would have a similar effect, but there are no classes to learn about study habits either. We’d be more likely to see a general class like with a short study of mnemonics within it.
Memory-Sports: Let’s dream a little bit and imagine you become the World Memory Champion at one point in the future. What would you do with that responsibility?
Lance Tschirhart: I didn’t realize that it was a “responsibility.” Now I’m having second thoughts about it.
Memory-Sports: Last question: What is your advice to someone who is just starting with memory sports?
Lance Tschirhart: Make an account on ArtofMemory.com and use the forums. You’ll make contacts, gather ideas, get your questions answered, and have some amount of accountability from keeping others up to date with your improvements. Those forums have been immensely helpful for me, and if you’re curious about anything else I have to say, you’ll see well over a thousand posts from “Lociinthesky” in those forums.
Memory-Sports: Thank you for your time, Lance!