These past three weeks have been arguably the craziest of my life.
Week 1: I win the 2015 World Memory Championships in Chengdu, China!
Weeks 2 and 3: My wife and I roam around Taiwan visiting countless in-laws, stuffing our faces (and getting food poisoning), and walking the streets of inner-city and suburban Taipei.
The last two weeks went (mostly) as expected, the first not so much. I feel incredibly lucky. I knew if I wanted even a chance at the title I’d need a perfect competition. I knew my marks, the scores I could hit if everything went just right. I’d need personal bests in multiple events. Every competitor knows that expecting those kinds of results is silly. What I’ve heard since the beginning: “Plan for a 20% reduction in your scores.” I’m no stranger to those competition blues. Case in point: At the MAA US Open this May, I scored a whopping 30 words in the opening 5m words event (my best in training was 93). The good news was that the WMC consists of longer disciplines, giving me a smaller chance of royally screwing up an entire event. My goals were first and foremost to enjoy myself and help push team USA up the team rankings; I had a shot at some national and possibly world records. Overall, I expected Sweden’s Marwin Wallonius, who’d been smashing records left and right in 2015, to run away with the title. In the end, I don’t know what it was, the famously crisp Chinese air, the mandatory paper-thin competitor jackets… things just kept falling into place.
I arrived in Chengdu, Sichuan, on the 10th of December, in part because I wanted time to acclimate, in larger part because the tickets were way cheaper. You can read my short blog recapping those first few days here. On day six, my wife, my father-in-law, and I made the hour-long taxi ride out to the competition venue: the laughably lavish Hengda Hotel. In all honesty, I’ve never been more comfortable at a competition. Just a few of my room’s amenities were a bathtub, slippers, a possibly-larger-than-king-size bed, and a beautiful 7th-floor view of the large hotel complex. The competition hall was equally gorgeous, with comfy individual desks and free water bottles. After an exciting but long opening ceremony, we were ready to roll.
(For a summary of the WMC’s 10 different disciplines spread over 3 days, check out my American teammate Brad Zupp’s YouTube series: Days One, Two, and Three. Stay tuned: I’ve got an interview with Brad coming soon.)
15m Names: (score: 101, place: 6th) A frustrating start. My best in training was 145, and I felt my scores were still on the uptick. I knew the culprit, however: there was a 10+ minute gap between memorization and recall because of trouble distributing papers. In most events, I’d welcome this, since I could use that time to review my journeys. For events like names or dates in which I don’t use journeys, it’s disastrous. I could feel the names and spelling nuances leaking out of my head. In the end, I sat with a list of 6 names I couldn’t even match to faces. No time to wallow unfortunately… on to binary.
30m Binary: (3885, 2nd) After the names debacle, I couldn’t have been happier with this event. Binary’s not my strongest event, but I miraculously managed to beat my PB of 3720—remembering all 433 images with one encoding mistake. Marwin stayed true to form, breaking the 5,000 digit barrier and demolishing Johannes Mallow’s newly minted world record by 684 digits. Insane.
Hour Numbers: (3029, 1st) My first real shot at a world record, and I got it! I encoded up to 3369, less than I’d hoped for, and leaving the competition room I thought I’d made a few too many mistakes. Marwin would surely take this event, and the WR, I thought. According to the Swedish coach Idriz, his method of reading the images vertically had apparently come back to bite him this time. I couldn’t believe it. I would’ve happily hopped back on a plane at this point. What a day!
15m Abstract Images: (505, 3rd) I was thrilled to find I was sitting in 2nd behind Marwin after Day 1, with Simon Reinhard, Johannes, Yanjaa, and the Chinese champ Shi Binbin close at our heels. Like binary, abstract’s one of my middling events, but again I miraculously pulled out a personal record, breaking my PB of 455. My abstract scores had been improving steadily, and memorization just felt extra good. Yes! Marwin went ham on this event as well, lifting his world record up to 599. The mind boggles.
5m Numbers: (400, 7th) What I considered my second legitimate chance at a world record. My PB was 537, and I’d been able to hit 480+ with reasonable success. Bolstered by my luck in abstract, memorization felt surprisingly smooth during both attempts. For some reason, however, this event just fell flat. I hit a disappointing 400 on my first attempt and even worse on my second, despite feeling better during recall. Ah well, I thought. After my luck with binary, numbers, and abstract, could I have expected better?
5m Dates: (106, 4th) Another middling event for me. Taking care to clearly visualize the images, I encoded about 117, scoring 106—not a PB but still a solid score for me. A little giddy, I left for lunch, unable to shake the feeling that things were going surprisingly well.
Hour Cards: (1460, 2nd) Going in I thought this would be my best shot at a world record. The cards events are my favorite and best events. Up to this point I’d felt surprisingly nerve-free, but now the nerves began to dig in. After hearing the morning’s results, I realized for the first time that I actually had a shot at the whole thing. It was an exciting but chilling thought. If I could stay a few hundred points behind Marwin, I might be able to overtake him in the final discipline, speed cards (one of his weaker events). Thankfully, I had the full hour to sit and stare at some cards, and thankfully the jitters disappeared after a few minutes. Moving slightly slower than usual, I encoded 30 decks and 4 cards, what I hoped would be enough to eclipse the current record of 28 decks. The result: 28 decks, 4 cards. I hadn’t anticipated many strong scores in this event, but Norwegian Ola Risa tied my score and Shi Binbin posted a stellar 31 decks to claim the world record. Making that record even more incredible is the fact that he did it using a 1-card system! So impressive.
I awoke on Day 3 secure in the knowledge that today would be the day everything fell apart. My three riskiest events (words, spoken numbers, and speed cards) packed into one decisive day. The notoriously risky speed cards event actually felt like my safest best. The other two never fail to make me nervous, words because the scoring's so harsh (2 mistakes in one column and you lose 20 words) and spoken because it requires ultra focus. After Day 2, I was sitting about 350 points behind Marwin with Simon about 350 behind me. If I wanted to stay within striking distance going into cards, I needed to close that gap to within 300. I couldn't afford any slip ups. Here we go.
15m Words: (245, 3rd) I was so anxious that morning I almost forgot how much easier WMSC words are compared to Memocamp ones. Every concrete noun felt like a breath of fresh air. My pace was decent, my images seemed good… things were actually going well! I encoded 255 and was thankfully able to breeze through the recall, remembering all but one word, "rye." My score of 245 (beating my training PB of 220) landed me in 3rd, behind USA teammate Nelson with a very solid 249 and Simon with a stellar 288 (WR: 300). I couldn't believe it. Marwin’s 228 words pulled me within the 300 overall points I'd been hoping for. But spoken, what I was sure would be my undoing, was next.
Spoken Numbers: (212, 2nd) Luckily, at the WMC we get 3 trials: 200, 300, and 520, with progressively longer recall times. My goal was to land a safe-ish 120 on the first, then go for something between 200 and 250 on the latter two (my PB: 247). I listened to 126 and frantically ran through my images. No blanks! On the second trial, things were going great until digit 117; I stumbled over a pair of digits, and it was over, just like that. We were behind schedule, so they delayed the third trial until after lunch. Marwinhad nailed down a perfect 200 on trial #1, pushing me back above the 300 point difference. After the break, I listened to 212 with no slip-ups. Again, no blanks! Marwin hadn't improved upon his initial 200, so I was back within 300! My USA teammate Lance recalled an awesome 456, smashing the previous world record of 432. Way to go Lance! (By this point, world records in 6 events had been broken.)
Speed Cards: My last chance at another world record, but the record was the last thing on my mind. After a tense break, we returned to the competition room for this tenth and deciding event. I was 255 points behind Marwin. I'd resolved to take the first trial slow, but not too slow. Taking time to see my images clearly, I hit the clock after 24 seconds. No blanks on review. Phew. I walked over to see Marwin finish up a successful 37 second deck. Boris had his computer out and informed me that I was 32 points ahead. Just a smidge, but I'll take it! I knew Marwin wasn't going to go down without a fight; he could certainly improve on that 37. If he pulled off a sub-30 time, I was toast. I decided I'd try for slightly faster while still moving slow enough to see the images clearly. Not an all-out sprint. I needed a better time here. I read off the final 4 images and checked the clock. 21.504. Again, miraculously, no blanks! I checked my cards and went over to see Marwin’s table. My heart sank. He'd clocked 33.03, a 4 second improvement compared to my 2.5. Would it be enough? I checked with Boris’s computer. I was still 54 points ahead! (21.504 sec, 1st)
(You can view the full results of all competitors here.)
I couldn't believe it. 23 seconds on that second trial and I'd have lost. I'd broken three of my personal bests and managed two successful speed card trials to slide past the favorite by the absolute skin of my teeth. Team USA, who'd been sitting in 4th entering Day 3, had jumped to 2nd, our best ever! Hours earlier, my father-in-law had gotten a great new job he wanted. Hours later, two of my good friends got engaged. Tack on another week and a half in Taiwan and I got what amounted to one of the nuttiest, awesomest Christmas vacations of my life. On to 2016!