World Memory Championships
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Can you remember numbers? For instance, can you remember your credit card number? Good. At the World Memory Championships, contestants are expected to memorise numbers like the following:

1435985458735682912239987345096564345686735
4190759662519945241095638243969254866121340
6856239625254850278354271648039363514163895
0708798253413236485856234153485097086735461
7385969687254763849947.

Easy, isn’t it?

* * * * *

In 1994, I was playing Pelmanism with Christiane Stenger in Munich. Christiane was seven. I was eighteen, her au pair, there to learn German. Pelmanism is a card game of luck, initially, then memory. All the cards are spread out face-down and you must pick out the pairs, through trial and error. If you have a good memory, as you turn and replace the cards, you build up a map of the cards, and soon there is less trial, less error. Christiane was a small, skinny, self-possessed little girl, who liked me to give her and her friend marks out of ten for their headstands. She liked to win. Birgit, Christiane’s mother, warned me that she was good at Pelmanism. She’s seven, I thought. I’ll be gentle with her. She thrashed me. She had, it emerged, a very good memory.

Now eight years later, Christiane is in London, aged fifteen, to defend her title in the World Memory Championships. Last year she was World Female Child champion. In the foyer of the Strand Palace Hotel, I see a thinner, greyer Birgit with a gorgeous fifteen-year-old, dressed in jeans and a tiny vest, which reveals amazing breasts.

‘She has changed a bit, no?’ says Birgit, with characteristic dry pride.

Her mother tells me about the championships and what they entail.

‘She has to memorise packs of cards. Jumbled up. She must remember the order of the jumbled pack. Fifty-two cards. Then another pack. As many as she can. An hour later she makes fresh packs into the same order as the jumbled packs she has seen.’

Christiane can remember seven packs of cards, sometimes eight.

‘Shit. So that’s, er, eight times, 52, that’sé’

‘Four hundred and sixteen cards,’ says Birgit.’In the same order.’

I am impressed.’What else?’

‘Speed numbers as many as I can remember in five minutes,’ Christiane says.’ And spoken number. They speak the numbers, I must remember them in the same order. And written numbers. Always, I must remember a list of numbers. In a particular order.’

‘How many?’ I asked.

‘As many as I can. Written numbers, I have done 194.’ [The number at the top of this piece has 194 digits.]

There must be a system, I think.’How do you do it?’

‘I have a system. If nine iséa balléand seven iséa lampéand two isémy tableéthen I think oféthe balléand the ball isébouncing by my lamp, and the lamp is on my desk – and Iéputéthese things, which mean the numbers, around my room, in my head. And then down theécorridor?’ I nod.’And then in the other rooms. When I have no more rooms, I go to my friend’s house, in my head, and I put things in her rooms, andé’

‘I get it. You make pictures, mental pictures. Is that how you remember everything? Is that what you do for the cards?’

‘The cards is different.’ says Birgit.’The cards the system is more complicated. I will explain you the cards later.’

‘OK. But apart from the cards, is it just basically numbers?’

‘No,’ says Christiane.’There is names and faces exercise. And there is a poem too. In fact, that is the first part of the competition.’

I wonder if it works the other way round. Numbers are turned into objects. Words are maybe turned into numbers.’What system do you use for the poem?’

‘There is no system for the poem,’ says Christiane.’The poem we must just try to remember.’

‘How long is it?’

‘Two, three pages. It is horrible,’ says Christiane.’It isérubbish. It have no sense.’

‘Right.’

‘It is written by Tony Buzan.’

* * * *

Tony Buzan -‘prize-winning poet’ according to the Celebrity Speakers Ltd website – is the man behind the World Memory Championships, which are held at Simpson’s in the Strand. He has, Birgit tells me, made a lot of money out of his theories on the brain and memory. There is a notice-board covered in clippings about Tony Buzan. There are Buzan videos for sale. Christiane’s system originates from Buzan Brain Techniques – which argue that the brain works through linkages, maps, and networks. Not linearly, through lists the way the majority of us try to learn things.’The minute you start thinking in a map form, your brain starts to see new connections.’

This isn’t exactly a new theory. In her book The Art of Memory, the scholar Frances Yates describes exactly the same techniques being used by Renaissance orators. Giordano Bruno, for example, described his own process – which was to invent an imaginary theatre and distribute his speech in a logical progression around the building. Buzan Brain Techniques rely primarily on association, location, and imagination as memory tools. Scientists used to believe that the longest possible sequence of numbers the human brain could retain would be in the thirties. With Buzan techniques, the record is 700.

‘All people should learn these techniques,’ Birgit says.’You think. We used to think in pictures, when language began. Now we stop. Apart from when you are a child. Then, someone says the word’apple’ and you think of what an apple looks like, its smell, its taste. But now when someone says’apple’ you just think’a-p-p-l-e’ and it is dead.’

Buzan claims children use 98% of their’thinking tools’. But as they grow up, less and less, until finally, most adults use only 30%. They are literally not using their brains.

* * * *

Christiane says the welcome meeting is always very boring.’People make a lot of question and talk a lot.’ She persuades me we can leave early, with the excuse that we have to be somewhere else. She looks at herself surreptitiously in the mirrored wall.

The other competitors – many of whom recognise and greet Christiane with jovial respect – are keyed up, full of nervous cheer and adrenalin. Christiane seems detached, calm and lofty, and not that enthusiastic. I wonder if it’s just that she doesn’t get nervous.

Having done this competition five years running, has she begun to find the whole thing a little babyish? She’s interested in clothes. She’s wearing eye-liner. She shows me a photo of the boy who is her best friend, and who has girlfriends, but whom she’likes.’

The other competitors are tense and excited. Most are older (in their thirties and forties), a few younger. Astrid, the only other girl around her age (18), is enthusiastic and openly competitive. Christiane says the others will be practising in their hotel rooms all evening. We are planning to go out for dinner. The only competitor to interest Christiane is an incredibly thin woman in a white dress – the women’s world champion last year.’I think she is very pretty,’ she whispers.

Most of the competitors are shuffling packs of cards. A woman in royal blue breezes in and hands out more cards to shuffle. More neurotic practising? A superstitious tic? No, they need to be jumbled for the competition. The lady claps her hands. She is Vanda, Buzan’s sidekick. We all sit down in the circle of tacky ballroom chairs. Buzan has a pink face and white hair. He doesn’t dress like someone who’s made a lot of money. He also seems unctuous and self-promoting. We are introduced to Michael, one of Buzan’s dedicated helpers – a curiously fogeyish young man with a yellow silk waistcoat and watch chain under his suit. He is studying law in Scotland, Buzan announces, and has just passed an exam which only a small percentage pass. And of that small percentage only a very small percentage excel. Michael is one of the few -‘Thanks toé’ But Michael ignores the cue and Buzan has to complete his own sentence:’thanks toéBUZAN BRAIN TECHNIQUES!’

I am beginning to lose faith in the whole concept of the World Memory Championships – which have also started, in their own way, to seem tacky. This is less like a World Championship than a sales conference for Buzan. Rather like MENSA, the competitors pay for the privilege of entering the competition – £ 90. Nor does it feel like a’World’ Championship. Although there are 33 competitors, not many nationalities are represented. There are a lot of Germans and Austrians. One Indian. And quite a few Malaysians. No Italians. What does this mean?

We go around the circle, introducing ourselves. The world champion for men is British, Dominic O’Brien from Guildford, who is able to memorise 54 decks of cards. He looks like a sullen Billy Connolly. Then Vanda outlines the rules. There are some new ones. For people committed to innovative brain techniques, the competitors are surprisingly rigid. Any changes are met with distrust and resistance. Because they are behind with shuffling the packs, Vanda suggests that the card test happen on the second day, rather than the first, as it normally does. There is an outcry and an overwhelming vote against. Vanda gives in. She suggests that contestants should be allowed to number the lines of the poem – so that, should they forget a line, they can still get points for the next. There is uproar. The ensuing debate lasts for nearly 40 minutes. Dominic, the world champion, is aggressively macho.’In the cards, if you get the first card wrong, you don’t get any points after that, no matter how many of the rest you remember. Simple as that. Should be the same with the poem. Get one thing wrong, the rest doesn’t count either.’

‘But it’s never been like that with the poem,’ another man, wearing two watches, says peevishly.’Just because you skip a line, doesn’t mean the rest of the lines you remember don’t count. It’s if you skip a word in a line, you don’t get any points for that line.’

‘The numbering is not supposed to affect the scoring. It is meant to help you. Why don’t we just say,’ Vanda suggests brightly,’that those who wish to number their lines, may. And those who don’t, don’t.’

‘But that still doesn’t answer the question of what happens if you skip a line,’ complains the two-watches man.

I glance at my watch. Christiane writes on my notepad,’THIS IS WHAT I HATE’.

The conversation turns to breaks. The contestants will look at the jumbled cards for an hour. Then they will be taken away and there will be a fifteen minute break. After the break, fresh packs of cards, the ones to be ordered, will be brought. Vanda understands that some contestants may wish to stay focused and not move from their desks.’But I also understand,’ she says,’about fluid level adjustment. When fluid goes in, fluid must come out.’ For a moment, I think Vanda is talking about overloading of the brain with information. But she means going to the lavatory. Contestants must go one by one, to prevent conferring.

An Austrian woman, with a tense jaw, asks if she may keep one’neutral’ pack of cards on her desk during the break – to help her recall methods. The pack would be removed once the break was over. Dominic does not give Vanda a chance to answer.

‘That’s never been allowed before. Why should it be allowed now?’

‘I am not going to beat you, anyway,’ says the Austrian lady, with a strained laugh.

It is agreed that she will not be allowed her pack of cards.

When Vanda is refreshing contestants’ memories on the rules concerning the poem’s title a point for each word, and punctuation mark Dominic interrupts.’And there’s a mark for if it’s in italics or not.’

‘That is correct.’

‘Or whether its in bold or not.’

Vanda hesitates.’Welléit won’t be in bold.’

‘Yes, but if it was, there’d be a mark for it.’

Vanda decides to ignore this.’And then, after that, comes the first line of the poem.’

Dominic interrupts again.’But there’s a gap between the title and the first line of the poem, isn’t there? So you get a point for the gap, too, then. Don’t you?’

‘There has not ever been a point score for the gap,’ Vanda coolly replies. Dominic is silenced. A quiet frisson of triumph ripples around the rest of the circle.

* * * *

At 3.30 the next day, the cards trial, due to start at 2.15, has still not begun. Invigilators try to sort out the chaos of cards. Some people have brought their own decks. Some of these have not yet been shuffled. Some have been mislaid. There is very little sense of urgency. I feel sorry for the candidates, who are sitting at their table-clothed desks in a state of concentrated readiness. Many wear ear-muffs and stare rigidly at their desks. I hover at the doors, peeping in. The Austrian lady shoots me a beady look. I hope I’m not distracting her. Some of the less neurotic come out for a cigarette, including the skinny woman in white and a man with a pony-tail, wearing glasses with strange plastic spikes coming out at the sides. Christiane comes out to chat with us. I ask her what the point of these glasses is.’They mean you only see what is in front of you, the numbers, the cards,’ she says. When the man looks directly at me, I see the frame of the glasses spells LOOK. The’K’ has one arm snapped off. The Indian comes out and starts juggling with small coloured balls – to strengthen the connections between the left and right hand sides of the brain. I ask how the poem went in the morning. Last year Christiane came first. She says the poem was’so stupid.’ She came seventh. Who came first? Astrid. The competitive girl.

At last, all the cards are ready. A television crew swoop around, further distracting the contestants. Vanda scuttles about in stockinged feet. Then, calm and quiet. Buzan steps forward and says in his rich baritone,’Neurons on the readyéGo!’ The doors are shut. I peer through the glass at the silent scene. It is strangely moving. Everyone looks grave, their concentration absolute. And everyone has their own style. A tiny girl with orange ear-muffs and teddy-bears on her desk slowly thumbs through a pack. Next to her, a man with a ratty black pony-tail has more packs on his desk than anyone else, at least 30. He’s whizzing through his packs much faster, with a strange, jerky rhythm ten fast, stop, ten more fast, stop, and so on. He is called Andi Bell. Apparently he got zero points last year because his system didn’t work. I wonder if it will this year. The Malaysians, all sitting together, are calm, slow, and steady, one card at a time. The Austrian lady is fascinating to watch. She stares at each card intensely and mouths to herself. I suddenly think of Christiane’s mental ball, table, and lamp. Do they learn the cards by turning them into a story, too? I imagine all the different stories unfolding in each of the heads in that room a story in a Malaysian house, and in an Indian house, and an Austrian house all that vivid, sharply imagined detail.

Wrong. Birgit explains to me that the cards work on a different system. Which is hard for me to take in because Birgit’s explanation is half in German. Basically, each card corresponds to two different words. You choose the word to make a three word sentence, that corresponds to the sequence of the cards. Subject, verb, object. And then you string these sentences together. For instance, say, the Queen of Hearts is’Diana’. And a spade means’sing’, say. And diamond means Danube. So you get’Diana sings in the Danube.’ But presumably there is another word for the numbersé It is a confused, elliptical explanation. I can’t help wondering if Birgit is deliberately obfuscating, because she doesn’t want to dispel entirely the mystery of Christiane’s achievements by reducing it to a banal formula anyone can learn.

I find her attitude odd. Despite her pose of dry detachment, she is, naturally, very proud and rooting for Christiane. When it looked as if Christiane’s cards had been lost, for example, I could see her sudden worry. So why the show of mild irony towards the proceedings? I think Birgit, despite her naturally dry, humorous and sceptical nature, really has bought into the whole thing. She tells me that, while helping Christiane, she has also learnt some of the memory techniques and finds them useful. How are they useful? Christiane can’t really use any of them in her schoolwork. Dominic O’Brien may have used them in a casino to play blackjack, but he was swiftly barred after he turned $20,000 into $30,000.

According to Buzan, the problem with schooling now is that people are too preoccupied with what they have to learn. They don’t think, first, about how they are going to learn. Fine, but Buzan hasn’t yet applied his techniques to anything worth learning. What is the use of being able to memorise endless packs of cards through nonsense sentences? Well, if Birgit has a headache, she does the’Binary Numbers Exercise’. After fifteen minutes concentrated memorising and recall, the headache is gone because more blood goes to the brain to cope with the exercise, just like a flexing muscle. So maybe Tony Buzan has discovered a cure for the common headache.

‘I don’t know if Christiane will come next year,’ Birgit says, rather sadly.’I think she is getting tired of it.’

We sip our coffee. Birgit smiles.

‘Maybe, one year, after I retire, I will come instead.’

POSTSCRIPT:

Christiane came second out of all the women, seventh out of everybody. Astrid came first – world female champion – and sixth out of everybody. The pretty woman in white – last year’s champion – came tenth. It turned out she was pregnant and didn’t feel well. But for the first time there were four women in the top ten overall.

And who came first?

Andi Bell, with the ratty ponytail, who had the bizarre method of riffling through his decks. Astoundingly, he broke the record for the number of cards memorised in one hour – 1,197. Dominic lagged behind, second, with a mere 1,040.


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