US memory athlete Nelson Dellis went to the 5th Cambridge Open to compete in his first international championship. After training non-stop since September 2009 he was aiming high scores. And he got them (although not nearly as high as he hoped. Read his review about this famous event.

Beware of the Jetlag

Author Nelson Dellis (©John Burrows)

As I made my way across “the pond” I suddenly realized that I hadn’t planned for jet lag. The 5th Cambridge Memory Championships was on Sunday and it was Friday and I hadn’t slept in at least 36 hours. Some people might be used to lack of sleep, but for someone who’s made sure they got the right amount of sleep each night so as not to hinder memory, I was not use to this. I didn’t train my memory that day. That was probably the first time since September. Instead, I slept. For a full 12 hours. Talk about sleeping! Geez. Sleep is good for the memory, but 12 hours of sleep?? I’m not so sure.

I did some training on Saturday, but decided to keep all my journeys fresh. So I only memorized one deck of cards (54sec), one round of spoken numbers (a solid 100 digits in 100 seconds, yes!), and then a quick one minute decimal and binary number run through (72 and 128 digits respectively). I was pleased. So the rest of the day I rested my brain and watched non-stop Rugby and Snooker. Maybe I didn’t rest my brain actually, since I was forced to learn the scoring systems and rules for each of those complicated-as-hell games. Good thing I didn’t try to understand cricket.

Anyways, Sunday morning came fast. I drove in to Cambridge from Bury St. Edmunds. Things were feeling good that day. I say that mostly because I had totally figured out how to drive on the left side of the road. It was raining and I was going 70mph through the English country-side; I felt like I was James Bond trying out a car on Top Gear. PS. I still haven’t decided if I think the British way or the American way of driving is better. Anyone wanna convince me of one over the other, email me at Thanks.

Six represented countries

The competitors room (©Roy Lam)

Ok! Memory! After walking around Cambridge University trying to look for Trinity College (I quickly learned that Cambridge University is not a university in the same sense as in the US, there actually IS no Cambridge University; just a bunch of small colleges) for about 40 minutes, I finally saw Dai Griffiths in his wonderful, memory-competition-appropriate hot pink tie. I made my way up to the competition room and was suddenly met by tons of faces who I’d only read about and never imagined meeting: Ben Pridmore (I had met him before, but I think this time around he actually knew who I was), Phil Chambers, Mattias Ribbing, John Burrows, James Ponder, Idriz Zogaj, and Christian Schaeffer. Pretty cool! I also met the other competitors, David Billington, Oliver Strand, Mark Nissen, Roy Lam, and Nicolai Lassen. There were 6 countries represented, which was pretty cool for a small competition (USA, Sweden, Denmark, China, UK, and Germany – if you want to count commonwealths, then England and Wales too).

Alright, so the room we were in was as big as a college dorm room and every 2 minutes the elevator would make this really annoying beeping sound, not to mention the bells from a nearby church were blasting. Nice. But, no biggie. I was prepared.

5-minute Words

We started immediately with 5-minute words. I had started training this event only about a month and a half prior and had grown to love it. I was aiming for 60+ words. After the 5 minutes were up, I had memorize 56 – close enough. Unfortunately, in recall, I confused myself into thinking that the 11th word was ‘build’ instead of ‘builder.’ I hate when I do that! Does anyone else do that? What you originally recall, you question later but then realize that you should have just stuck with your initial instinct? ARGH! Frustrating! I do that a lot. And I ALWAYS tell myself to stick with my first instinct. Not this time. Cost me 10 points, so I ended up tying with Christian with 46 words. I was quickly learning that a 10 discipline competition might have more intricacies than I had expected. Crap.

5 minute Binary

Yes, I had practiced this a ton! I was scoring mid-400’s pretty consistently in training, but before I knew it, the 5 minutes were up and I had only gotten to 300. What the hell? I guess it didn’t really matter if I got 300 or 400, because Christian got 693. Ha! That’s about the same price as my really warm boots I bought for my Mt. Everest climb next year (side note:, raising money for Alzheimer’s research!). Oh, by the way, I liked David Billington’s strategy of guessing the first digit of a new line. You’ve got a 50-50 shot of getting it right, so might as well right? Haha. I should have guessed the first digit of ever line after my 300 (that’s 10 rows out of 33). Since there were 23 rows left, I would have had a 50-50 chance of getting 11-12 extra digits. Genius! Ha.

5-minute Names

Ryo Lam memorizing (©Roy Lam)

To make my disappointment even worse, as soon as I turned over the sheets for 5-min names, my heart sank. I had actually never practiced with international names before. Uh Oh. Zhong? Anwar? Xiao? After about 15 seconds of panicking, I finally calmed myself down and went back to my strategy for names. If any of you are interested, its the following: Memorize as many names as possible. Haha! Just kidding…well not really. But my strategy is to learn more first and last names together rather than just first names. It seems easier to memorize just first names, but actually, by doing that you have to memorize more faces. Imagine there are 50 faces, if you memorize 50 first names, you get 50 points but you need to be able to recognize 50 different faces. I figure, just do 25 or so and memorize the first and last name. Once you have the first name, it’s easy to link it to the last name and you only have 25 faces to recognize! I figured this out just before the US competition this year. I’m sure it’s obvious to tons of mental athletes, but I was pretty excited about figuring it out 😀 My aim for this discipline was between 40-50. I got 40. Nice. I like how Ben threw in Hugh Hefner as one of the faces. I think his first name was Christian. I didn’t memorize the last name though, but it was probably Schaeffer, because Christian Schaeffer is the Hugh Hefner of memory. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but if he wore a robe and carried a pipe, the comparison would be complete.

15-minute numbers

I had tried this once at home and scored 449 on the first try. I memorized 416, but during recall I did that thing again where I confuse myself. At the last minute I reversed the order of an action and an object. Ugh! It cost me 56 points. I’m a retard. I ended up with 360 digits though, which was good enough for second place behind Christian’s dwarfing score of 1,000,000 digits (653 digits actually).

I was feeling alright by this point. We went to lunch at a local pub where I chatted a whole bunch with David, Dai, and Christian. Everyone get ready for David’s upcoming Reading Competition! Yes! Oh and I was actually surprised at the American-ness of the burger and fries I had there. Well done English pub, well done.

10-minute Cards

Arbiting after the 15-min Cards event (©Roy Lam)

Ok, 10-min cards. Christian had like 7 decks on his desk so I was kind of afraid. I had only brought 4. That seemed to be the same for everyone else. I had done 3 in practice, but I felt good today and was gonna try 3 and a bit. Memorizing went great until I reached the 3rd deck. Why? Because I flipped over the deck and realized that it hadn’t been shuffled by the judges! It was my recall deck still in original order! I guess that’s a valid order of a deck of cards. I should have just memorized it. But instead I put it aside and continued onto the 4th. I was pissed. And it screwed up my momentum, because I wasn’t sure what to do. Anywho, by the end of the 10 minutes, I was pretty confident that I had all 3 decks solid. Now for the dreaded recall sheet (Ronnie White was surprised by these sheets during the 2009 WMC’s – maybe we should just make that an American tradition, because I stared at it for a good minute before I realized how it worked). After I had filled in all three decks, I checked everything – counting each suit to make sure I had 13 in each. Dammit! Some had 14, some had 12….what?? I fixed some, but didn’t have time for others. It takes a good while to figure out the missing cards on paper. I ended up flipping two cards and writing the same card twice. I ended up with a deck and a half. Ugh. James and John did an awesome 2 decks and Christian got 2 and a bit. Awesome job!

5 minute Numbers (Speed Numbers)

5-minute numbers happened in a flash. I had memorized 216 and I was happy. To do well in this event was one of my main goals for the competition. Even though I set the US record for 5-minute numbers with 178 in March, I wasn’t happy. I wanted 200+. Too bad I ended up with 56. I’m pretty sure the length of the competition was getting to me a bit. My mind was beginning to turn into mush. I had a lot of gaps during the recall and I had no clue why. That rarely happens. Christian told me after the 5-minute memorization period, if I remember correctly, that he had memorized around 360 digits (scary), but ended up with 220 (which is still awesome). I was starting to slip in the standings…

15-minute Abstract Images

15-minute Images was something I had only practiced once and figured this would just be for fun. I surprisingly went through the first 2 pages with no problem and I’m pretty sure I could do another 1 or 2 next time I try it. Once you get the hang of the different types of images that come around, it isn’t too bad to make up images for them. Christian set a second place World record. How do you do that at the age of 16?? When I was 16, I had just figured out how to drive and open a bank account. Maybe I should raise my kids in Germany. Oh yeah, Christian scored 260. James Ponder did a complete 3 pages. Awesome.

5-minute Historic Dates

5-minute dates is hard to get a high score. I’m still trying to figure out the best method to do this event. I had come up with some make-shift strategy, which works well for a score of about 30, but I have no clue how Johannes does over 100. Holy cow. It’s definitely a fun event though, mostly because the historic events are so silly and you can make some pretty funny images in your head. Christian killed this event (again) with 81 dates. I think I asked him how he did just after memorizing and he said he memorized all of them. That might be a good strategy…just fly through all of them. You’re bound to memorize a good chunk of them.

Spoken Numbers

Spoken numbers is something I had practiced like crazy and had recently found it to become pretty easy to score 100+ in. The nerves killed me here. My heart was pounding out of my chest and I wasn’t focused; my mind was so tired. I lost concentration after about 12 digits during the first trial. Yikes! I recalled 6. The next time around, I wanted to get around 40 or 50 just to be safe. I lost concentration at around 36 digits. During recall I did that thing where you write down a number but you meant another. Familiar to anyone? Ended up with a horrible score of 9. Dang. Christian scored a nice 40, James scored 27, and John scored 24.

Speed Cards

John Burrows and Idriz Zogaj (©Roy Lam)

The final event: Speed cards. My pride and joy! I was 3rd overall at this point and extremely disappointed with my results thus far. I had to save myself here! Ben decided to join in to please the Japanese camera crew that was there to film his documentary. ‘Neurons on the ready…GO!’ My speed was a tad slower than usual, but that’s ok, I was on track for 75-85 seconds or so. I got hung up on a card or two because one of the judges walked right by me and made a ‘ton’ of noise (made the floorboard squeak). Christian slammed on his timer, and then a few seconds later I did. I believe I had done 1m24s, christian had done 1m18s or so. Everyone failed this attempt except for John Burrows who did 1m42s. Nice!

Ok…round 2. It was all or nothing here. I could have gone safe, but I would have been unhappy with my score. So I decide, to hell with it, let me go out with a bang. I knew everyone else was gonna go safe. BAM, 1m00s (PS, not sure why they have me down with 1m01s, but that’s alright). If I had slammed the timer just a little quicker I would have had 59s. I knew the pack cold! Phil Chambers checked my deck and….YES! Perfect! The only other person to get a full deck that round was Christian with a time of 1m19s. Ben did 25-35 seconds on both his trial but made errors. I quickly learned that my awesome time (personal competition best! Also a US record if you count international competitions) was enough to edge out James Ponder for 2nd place! Phew!

And the winner is…

Christian Schäfer at World Memory Championship 2010

I had redeemed myself a smidge. I was pleased. The competition was finally over. Christian stole the show with a score of 6060 (which puts him 14th in the world rankings, just one below Dominic O’ Brien) and I came in 2nd with 3427 (I think that puts me 61st or so in the World – almost the highest ranked American – I think David Thomas is 50 something). James Ponder came in 3rd with 3324.

Overall, the competition was awesome. It was fun, challenging, and a great practice for the WMC’s. It made me realize my weaknesses and the things I really need to work on. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for a beer, since I had to be back at Heathrow early the next morning. But trust me, I had a lot of beers when I got back to the states. Cheers!