Memory-Sports.com: Hello Simon. A very long anticipated interview is finally happening now. I am excited. So where shall we start? Maybe you can introduce yourself a little bit – we all might now your achievements well but we would like to know the guy behind that awesomeness.
Simon: I was born in 1979, working as a lawyer in Munich and I think I am a normal, nice guy. I love the memory scene since 2005. Over the years I managed to break some world records and win some championships. My goal for 2015 is to win the World Memory Championship (WMC).
Memory-Sports.com: Please explain your first contact with memory sports to us.
Simon: My first contact with memory sports was in summer 2005. I was surfing the web during my last year of university, searching for some memory techniques. We had a guy at university speaking about Speed Reading. Although I am not a fan of it, I was researching that and similar stuff online. I stumbled upon the club MemoryXL, the non-profit German memory club. I read the first time about the loci method and some other techniques. I think I would have completely forgotten about it if there wouldn’t have been the free MemoryXL software trainer. The nice feature was to upload your results of the seven disciplines to the homepage. This was fascinating to me since I was a child of video games, playing Zelda on the Nintendo Entertainment System when I was nine years old. It was also the first time I read the names “Hannes” (Johannes Mallow) or “Boris” (Boris Nikolai Konrad) in the highscore lists.
Memory-Sports.com: Looking back over the years what did change for you regarding your thinking process? Do you think memory training had an impact on you?
Simon: I do think so. Interestingly it is a bit difficult to grasp what the impact exactly was. But I feel it strongest after an intense training session. Then I feel visually activated, as if I see the world around myself a bit more clearly. I noticed that in the immediate aftermath, for example reading a book a few hours later, I had clearer pictures of the things happening in it. Or when playing Pool I saw the lines in front of me or when drawing seeing the image better in my mind. And interestingly I also started playing chess a little bit better.
Memory-Sports.com: You are training with former world memory champion Johannes Mallow. He is a good friend and memory opponent of yours at the same time. How did that rivalry work out for the two of you? Looking at each other’s official scores and records seemed to have worked extremely well. Can you explain your experience of that sparring partnership?
Simon: It actually started in 2010 and the initial factor was Wang Feng’s win at the WMC in 2010. He kind of conquered the memory scene by storm with a score of 480 in Speed Numbers and very impressive Speed Card scores. When we said together on the night of the last day, Hannes was very disappointed because I think he expected to win after a fantastic German Championship a few months before. And I was also very surprised by that new standard set there. We both already had heard that Wang claimed to have trained very much, about 600 hours, in the months before the WMC. So we said, if we are really honest to ourselves, we both are really lazy. And this cannot continue because we cannot afford it anymore. That might sound a bit arrogant but before that we probably thought our talent or whatever will save us every time. But now we had an opponent who was really ruthless in his discipline and who didn’t hesitate to train very, very much. So we came up with the idea to train together. This mainly happened on the web, with shared Google Docs and talking about our techniques and experiences. I think talking about it in detail and motivating each other helped us to realize more of our mutual potential. I hope it is not exhausted yet but it was a big step forward.
Memory-Sports.com: Let’s have a closer look at your records. You are holding the actual record of official memory records by having seven different world records at the same time.
- Speed Cards (21.19s)
- 5min N&F (84)
- 5min Words (124)
- 10min Cards (370)
- 15min N&F (186)
- 15min Words (300)
- 30min Numbers (1.479)
That is all amazingly impressive! The incredibly difficult Names and Faces records (N&F), the super accurate 300 words in 15 minutes, 40 percent more numbers for the new title of International Master of Memory – in half the time and of course your legendary record for the king discipline Speed Cards. I don’t even know what I can ask you to sum that up. Maybe you can say something about it yourself?
Simon: My world records mean very much to me, because a world record is, apart from being the actual World Memory Champion, the greatest thing that you can achieve in the sport. Having a world record also has a touch of striving for eternity. It is a score that is better than anything done before.
My most prestigious record was in Speed Cards in 2010. Before I made the record during the South German Championship in Stuttgart, I knew I could do it. But being able to actually do it during a competition is always very special. Luckily there was your video of it. I think it made a really nice impression on many people and has over 40.000 views now. I was asked very often afterwards how I have done it and that people watched it on YouTube.
The next records that mean a lot are the names records. I simply love names. It is kind of an intimate experience. I am sorry that some seem to have a lot of troubles with names, even with memory techniques. I also use techniques for them but it seems to stick a bit better. When I look at a face and read the name, I often think the name fits perfectly well, reminding me of someone or something. That feels very exciting. Both 5 minutes and 15 minutes events are one of the single events where I can really rely on having good results.
Memory-Sports.com: Let’s get dirty and squeeze some details out of you: How do you memorize N&F? And I don’t accept an easy answer you would give to any newcomer. I want the good stuff!
Simon: What has to be said about Names & Faces is that it has some kind of talent component. I always, even long before memory sports, was able to remember names very well. As a kid I recognized many people on TV, while my parents didn’t. Also within a few days when I started with the MemoryXL trainer, I was the first person reaching level ten. That was 50 first and last names in 5 minutes I think. And when I first cracked it back then, my MemoryXL account was deleted because it looked like some anomaly. So I contacted the host of the website, which was Boris Konrad, and told him I am for real. Then I created a new account and broke the record again. So I was already on a high level. My natural technique is that I look at a name and see a first association with it, which can mean many different things. For example imagining someone else with the same name and then trying to find similarities between them. Sometimes the names fit perfectly, for example a bold headed white Thomas could be the middle age monk Thomas von Aquinas. But if that doesn’t work and I don’t find an immediate connection, I try to search a bit more thoroughly what this name could tell me. For example the name reminds me of a feeling of anger and then I either try finding some angry expression in the face or the exact opposite, if the person is laughing. It is kind of a multi-facetted approach that doesn’t work automatically but comes easily when I look at the name with an open mind. This is my basic, natural approach.
Over the years I tried different approaches though, when I was training with the MemoCamp website, to make it even more effective. I experimented with using locations and got the new world record of 186 names in 15 minutes last year at the German Memory Championship. And interestingly after the Extreme Memory Tournament (XMT) in San Diego last year, where we only had one minute to memorize names, I realized that using locations didn’t work and switched back to just using associations. And suddenly I was on a complete new level there.
Memory-Sports.com: What about words? This discipline seems easy to start with and very difficult to master. Do you have some tips for us?
Simon: I think words are an interesting subject. One tip is not putting too many words on one location. I am always putting two words on one loci. Sometimes I experience with only one word each but it doesn’t have this “story-effect” like two words have. I know some people put three words or more in one location but that isn’t working for me. With two words in one location it is nearly impossible to not immediately see some kind of connection, similarity or story between them. And then you simply have to try to let this story happen and make the location and natural stage for it. Since you don’t need any translation code like with cards or numbers, you immediately see what you are memorizing and that makes it very primal. It is also very much related to memorizing text which was one of the first uses of memory techniques. But it is also very individual and as far as I know I memorize very different of how Boris Konrad and Johannes Mallow do. Often when my images were good, I only need to see a glimpse of the image and I remember the way it was written on the paper. So I have fewer problems with synonyms and orthography. For example remembering a bird leads me right back to the word Albatross. It is not like a photographic memory, but I am often sure which word it was. On the other hand sometimes I realize there might be confusion later due to similar looking things so I invest more time to make my images more clearly. I think it is also about being able to recognize your own weaknesses while memorizing and making a respective time management.
Memory-Sports.com: And now the king question: How the hell can you memorize a deck of cards so quickly and not just once but over and over again in competitions? Tell us more about your card system and training, please.
Simon: When I started memorizing cards I used this 1-digit card system – and I hated it. It felt clunky and repetitive, just like my old 2-digit system when I memorized numbers. So I very quickly tried to get a 2-card-system and started using it in 2006 for the first time. I made the whole list at once to know that I made at least one image for each possible combination of two cards and simply started using it. It was pretty rough in the beginning but I tried to get times below 30 seconds relatively fast. Once I got a sub-30 seconds attempt for the first time it suddenly got easier. The same happened for a sub-25 seconds time. Now I am trying to do a deck of Speed Cards every morning and I always go for times below 25 seconds. The save-risky times are often below 23 seconds and every second or third attempt I deliberately go for times below 20 seconds, which feels much riskier. I think what really helps is knowing my images very well. I am very intimate with the use of my images, with similarities between them and the inherent characteristics of each one. This makes it much easier to quickly connect them to the locations. And I only use selected locations because they have to be polished, with many variations in directions, height and the character of each location.
When I try to go for a really fast time I go in some kind of over-drive-mode. I try to think as quickly as possible, be completely relaxed and make a good effort. I am basically bringing everything that I know together into that short timeframe in order to create the connections between the images and locations so that they last. I am 35 years old and I am getting faster and faster, so my mind still seems to work at top speed. It would be cool to have some day a time below 20 seconds, so I could feel save there since more and more people being able to do times under 25 seconds.
Memory-Sports.com: Even your number system is special. As far as I know you are the only memory athlete using a 4-digit system with 10.000 images. Why are you doing that, how much effort was it and do you think it is superior to a 2-digit Person-Action-Object system (PAO)? Keep in mind that Jonas von Essen became the World Memory Champion with a small system.
Simon: I felt compelled to switch to a 4-digit system because at the World Memory Championships 2009 I still used a 3-digit system and simply couldn’t get enough speed to get reliably above 320 digits in 5 minutes. And that was just not enough, even by then. I was already playing with the idea since 2007, reading license plates on the street and things like that. This system is an extension to my old one-syllable 3-digit system. It took some time until I noticed I could do more than 320 reliably. But it was worth it. It was like a new continent to play around. Because nobody knew what would be the limitations, so I relied on my feeling and intuition. What I did not do was to create a 10.000 image list. I think that is completely crazy and doesn’t make sense. But in most cases I was very quickly able to find an improvised association for a 4-digit number, based on my 3-digit system. Then I simply started memorizing. I thought I just need the first association anyway, so why not develop it why I try memorizing it. That worked also very well with my 2-digit card system. So you don’t have to memorize a list and then use it, but instead use it right away while you create it. I think that is the approach that everybody could take.
Finally after some time of being slower with it, I started feeling confident about it at the World Memory Championship 2010, which was the first WMC after I made the switch. There I noticed I could get scores above 320 digits in 5 minute numbers, with not so much effort. I also noticed it helped me much with the longer disciplines. It is a demanding system but the construction is not so bad. As of now I think I should have seen every of the 10.000 images once or twice. I am interested how far this can be taken. I don’t use it for Spoken Numbers yet, though. That is an interesting upcoming experiment for me, which will be the last step until the system really is perfected. I still see quite some potential in Speed Numbers and the longer number disciplines. And I noticed a jump from last year in my ability in memorizing 30 minute numbers.
I really think it is superior to a 2-digit PAO system. Jonas von Essen didn’t become World Champion because he was so much superior in numbers but because he was great in the overall ranking. But in the long run, a 3-digit system used as masterfully as Johannes Mallow does or a true 4-digit system should be superior. If you have for example twins, with one putting much effort in a 4-digit system and the other into a 2-digit PAO, I think the results of the first would be better. Maybe if you train your 2-digit PAO so much like Wang Feng did, the three images merge together into one and ultimately become more superior. It would be easier to find lost images. But only time can tell in that regard.
Memory-Sports.com: Ok, I could squeeze more technical details out of you forever but I want to talk about other matters as well. You are a member of the World Memory Sports Council and even of the STAR committee. What are these two official governing bodies, who else is a member and what do they do?
Simon: I see my role at the WMSC as a voice for all memory athletes. Initially I was meant to represent the MemoryXL members from Germany but I think my role has slightly changed since I invested much time to change some wrongs that had been done in the past. When I want to change something I usually get some input from the people in the Facebook group of the WMC. This could be improved in the future to have a mailing or a quick online poll, so that people without Facebook access can also give their opinion.
The other members are Dominic O’Brien, eight times World Memory Champion. Phil Chambers, chief arbiter, with much experience in handling the biggest tournaments. A recent addition is Andy Fong and his wife Angel Lai from HongKong, handling the statistics page. The official homepage is being handled by Secretary Chris Day. And there are other members like level three arbiters Gabriele Kappus and Nathalie Lecordier.
And the so-called STAR committee is basically the sub group where we talk about rule changes like changing the Millennium Standard or recall time. There are the most animated discussions and these are the ones most important for the sport, where I also most often try to get input from the community. I think in the last years we brought the standards on a reasonable level, we have firm criteria for changing the standards now and we changed some other things as well. It is a time consuming work but it is also very interesting and demanding and gives something in return. It is definitely worthwhile.
Memory-Sports.com: Memory sports are evolving with an ever growing pace. There are other formats popping up next to the Memory Sports Council championships. For example there was the Memoriad in Turkey 2012 or the upcoming Extreme Memory Championship in the USA in 2014. What do you think of that development? And what does it mean to us as memory athletes?
Simon: I think alternative memory tournaments like the Memoriad and the XMT are something very positive. Let me start with the Memoriad: I took part in my first Memoriad in 2012 in Turkey. And it was a fantastic competition, with a nice, high class venue with a great competition room. There weren’t only memory events but also mental calculation disciplines. It was one of the best competitions I have ever been at in my life. I think it was invitational, where the organizers tried to see who is invested in the sport and got good results in the past. It was partly paid for, so that everyone could afford to really go there. The interesting thing was it was not a competition with total points but with separate memory events. And every competition there had a separate winner, which is a great concept. This concept wouldn’t work at the World Memory Championship because it would distract from the true World Memory Champion, but having alternative tournaments like this gives us the opportunity to have great scores in these disciplines.
The other one is the Extreme Memory Tournament, taking place in 2014 in San Diego for the first time. And that was the most fantastic memory tournament I ever took part. The idea about it was to make a completely different championship. Even though memory sports is great, the biggest obstacle, preventing a real breakthrough in my opinion, is the format. As a spectator you don’t have much to see. On the XMT we got short disciplines, all only one minute and then it is always one against one, fully digital done on laptops. The audience can follow each match live on a big screen, greatly put into action with any input of the contestants directly visible. The software was wonderfully and clearly designed a worked close to flawlessly.
So the XMT has the audience in mind. I think that was very successfully done. We had sixteen competitors in groups like at the European Football Championships. There are four groups with four people each and a round-robin tournament, where everybody in each group competes against everybody in the same group. This guaranteed there are many matches, eliminating fluke winnings. The two with the most points from each group qualified for day two. And these eight remaining athletes went then through a bracket-system from the quarter finals to finals. The other great addition on day two were surprise events which were completely different to the other disciplines.
The most exciting memory from the XMT was a certain match, where one participant came closer and closer to the leading opponent and finally overtaking him. The same happened in other events as well. And that was really great to watch and the whole audience held their breath.
Luckily I was able to win the XMT and that was the greatest thing I experienced in memory sports and even in my entire life. Besides my own experience I think the XMT was the greatest thing that could have happen to memory sports in general.
So I would say that both the Memoriad as well as the XMT are at least as important as the traditional championships because they represent a glimpse into the future of memory sports.
Memory-Sports.com: Speaking of which, what is your vision for the future of memory sports?
Simon: I think the sport should direct itself more into a 1 vs 1 approach, more spectator friendly, shorter disciplines and simply an increase potential for media and sponsorship interest. This is not fully explored at the moment. The future I would like to see is similar like what I did on German Television in 2013, where I competed against Johannes Mallow in a duel form, similar to the XMT. We gave much input beforehand about what could work on TV and what not. In the show we had a very short time to memorize 25 words, 50 digits and 100 binary numbers. And the first one who stopped memorizing could hit a buzzer after which the information vanished for the opponent as well. Something like this is very exciting. Then we would have few limits for a public acceptance of the sport.
Memory-Sports.com: Thank you for your time, Simon.