There is a brand new memory competition on the horizon: At the end of April 2014 the Extreme Memory Tournament will take place in San Diego, California. US Memory champion Nelson Dellis has talked with me about his exciting format that might change the world of memory sports for ever.



  • 26-27th of April 2014 in San Diego


  • Dart Neuroscience Facility in San Diego, CA USA                                            

By Whom:          

  • Dart Neuroscience and Washington University in St. Louis


  • Top 16 Memory Athletes


  • $60,000 total


  • 4 groups of 4, based on world rankings;
  • Group stages (day 1), Single elimination Quarterfinals, Semifinals, Finals (day 2);
  • All matches are head-to-head (1 on 1);
  • Completely digital with Laptops or other digital devices;


  • 1 Minute Speed Cards
  • 1 Minute Numbers
  • 1 Minute Names & Faces
  • 1 Minute Random Words


Memory-Sports: Hello Nelson. You have huge plans with your Extreme Memory Championship (XMT). There are so many questions. Let’s start at the beginning: How and why did you create this championship?

Nelson: It started back when I was invited by Washington University in St. Louis (WUSL) to participate in a study on memory. They were (and still are) doing tests on memory athletes to see how they performed vs. ordinary people. The funding for their research was coming from Dart Neurosciences (DNS). While I was there, I shared my idea of creating a new kind of memory competition, one where it felt more like a tennis match and less like a school exam. They loved the idea and next thing I knew we were having meetings about how we could make the event happen.

Memory-Sports: Who are the people behind the XMT and what are their interests in Memory-Sports?

Nelson: Well, first there’s me, and you know my interest stems from my connection to Alzheimer’s disease. I have been mostly responsible for designing and creating the event and the rules. Simon Orton, the fabulous mind behind the Online Memory Competition (OMC), is the brains behind the software and he has also helped tweak and test the rules and ideas I’ve come up with. Then on a more administrative side, there are the head researchers at WUSL, Roddy Roediger and Mary Pyc, both very knowledgeable in the field of memory, and then there are the folks at Dart Neurosciences, who are helping fund the event and providing all the logistics necessary to make it happen.

Memory-Sports: How did you raise that huge amount of $60,000 for the XMT?

Nelson: I just asked 🙂 No seriously, we had a meeting with the folks at WUSL and DNS and I made a strong argument about why we should have a lot of prize money. My argument being that it would attract the top competitors and it would make the competition fierce. DNS was willing to put in a certain amount, as was WUSL. So $60K was the number we landed on as part of the whole budget.

Memory-Sports: Who will compete at the XMT?

Nelson: Oh man do we have a stacked lineup. Here’s the list: Johannes Mallow, Jonas von Essen, Simon Reinhard, Ben Pridmore, Boris Konrad, Christian Schaffer, Ola Kare Risa, Gunther Karsten, Andi Bell, Marwin Walonius, Mark Anthony Castaneda, Annalena Fischer, Erwin Balines, Bat-Erdene Tsogoo, Johann Randall Abrina, and James Paterson. All awesome mental athletes!

Memory-Sports: Wow, the creme de la creme of memory sports. Why do you invite only the Top 16 of the world?

Nelson: Since this is a very experimental competition and also the first big event I’ve ever run/designed, I wanted to start small. The idea is obviously to grow it once we’ve proved it works and the feedback is positive. We initially reached out to the top 16 in the world because it seemed like, “hey, why not? I’m sure these guys will be interested in something different.” Plus it raises the profile of the event. Naturally some people declined for one reason or another, but we still have 16 of the top mental athletes in the world! I would have loved to open it to more people, but that will have to remain for future competitions.

Memory-Sports: Let’s look at the details of the XMT. What is the procedure, which disciplines are you using and how will that look like?

Nelson: It’s very simple. 4 events: Names & Faces, Numbers, Cards, and Words, all a fixed amount of data in a fixed amount of time. The point is to make these events fast and filled with action and tension, so we have 1-minute limits on everything. Competitors can stop their timers if they are confident in having memorized everything, so there is a strategy component as well.

The 16 competitors start off in groups of 4 (think World Cup). The first day of competition, everyone faces everyone else in their respective group, in each discipline, amassing points (3 points for a win, 1 for a draw, 0 for a loss). The top 2 competitors in point totals from each group will advance to day 2, which is a bracket-style tournament (quarterfinals, semifinals, finals). Those matches will be a best of seven, and will include “surprise” events. The surprise events will be revealed to the competitors 10 minutes before and will be memory tasks that will be totally new to the memory world. VERY exciting.

Memory-Sports: Will there be media coverage? Is there even a chance to follow it in a live-stream online?

Nelson: We are working on this. A number of production companies have expressed interest, so we are ironing out the details. Also, it might be possible to follow along online and “watch” in the same way you can spectate the OMC.

Memory-Sports: You are using new rules and new scoring for the XMT compared to the established memory competitions by the World Memory Sports Council. Why?

Nelson: I love the USA Memory Championship as well as the World Memory Championship but something about those competitions has always felt off. I know securing sponsorship isn’t easy and making something popular or trendy isn’t always an exact science, but how can memory sports NOT be more popular than it is today? I just don’t get it. In the USA we have televised events for hot-dog eating contests and spelling bees, all with huge prize money, so why isn’t memory in there? Then I realized that I think it comes down to the way the competitions are run. Nobody wants to watch someone stare at a piece of paper for an hour. NOBODY. Memory needs to be fun, exciting, and interesting to watch, all of the time. You can already see the difference when the Speed Cards event comes around, for example. It’s exciting, you can feel the tension in the air, and ALL the spectators are watching intensely for those few minutes. Rather than just one event of 10 being like that, the WHOLE competition needs to capture that. It’s like with Texas Hold ‘Em poker. Poker didn’t become wildly popular and/or televised until they made it easy to watch (when they invented the camera that shows the players opening hand).

Memory-Sports: Will that be more interesting for spectators than the exam-like championships so far?

Nelson: Yes sir. Matches are short, head-to-head, and viewable on screen (you will be able to see what each competitor is typing during recall). Oh, and instant scoring! By a computer!! Can you imagine? No one will ever have to wait again!!

Memory-Sports: Do you think that will create a division in memory sports or rather add diversity to it?

Nelson: I hope it doesn’t cause any division. That isn’t my goal. My goal is to give memory techniques and sports more exposure. I would love for the diversity it adds to be praised rather than hated. But, I also understand that I might be stepping on some toes and that could happen. If it does, so be it.

Memory-Sports: What is your view of the established memory competition standard by the World Memory Sports Council and how things are handled so far?

Nelson: Like I said, I personally love competing in the WMC. That being said, I’m not 100% in love with a lot of things that happen in the competition. That’s all I really want to say about that here. No hard feelings, just interested in creating something new.

Memory-Sports: Are you planning in repeating the XMT or is this a one-time-only event?

Nelson: The goal is to make this a yearly event. My secret dream is to have a qualifier for the top 16 (maybe even top 32 or 64 in the future) online, where people can submit videos of them completing a specific task or set of tasks and see how they rank against others. Lots of possibilities…we will see. One step at a time!

Memory-Sports: Do you believe your championship concept could be used for other championships in different countries as well?

Nelson: I hope so! Once this event is done, it will be easier to tell where it is headed.

Memory-Sports: Assuming you are planning big, will there be an own ranking list in the future?

Nelson: As mentioned above, yes of course. A lot of inspiration has come from the Crossfit Games. They started off doing competitions in someone’s barn in the back-country a few years ago, but now, heavily sponsored by Reebok, they have an open competition every March where ANYONE in the world can compete. Each week in March, a new workout is posted and all registered competitors have a few days to complete and submit their scores online (the scores are judged fairly to avoid cheating), where they are ranked against everyone in the world. The top 48 competitors in each region make it to a regional competition, and the top 24 from that make it to the final Crossfit Games. It’s amazing because you literally have 70,000+ people from all around the world competing against each other to see who is the fittest person in the world. I would love to see the same thing happen for memory sports where thousands of people are competing to see who has the best memory in the world.

Memory-Sports: What is your vision for the future of memory sports?

Nelson: See above! We are going to make this huge!

Memory-Sports: Exciting stuff. Thank you for your time and good luck with the XMT.