If there’s anyone who knows the competitive memory world, it’s Florian Dellé. Since his first competition back in 2003, the 36-year-old German has worn just about every hat imaginable: competitor, coach, arbiter, commentator, memory website developer. The list goes on and on. Florian’s generally on the other side of the interview table (check out his 16 interviews here), but I managed to snag him for a conversation about his own history with memory, his new systems, a few of his favorite memory memories, and his new competition: the Memo Games.
Can you tell me a little about yourself: age, where you’re from, some favorite events, etc.?
I was born in Berlin, West-Germany in 1980, right at the front of the cold war but on the Coca-Cola-side. While my mother is German, my father is English. My mother’s mother was Russian and my father’s father is of Scottish origin. My family name Dellé derives from the French Huguenots, Christian Protestants which fled from France to Germany after the infamous St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. So to sum it up I always saw myself as a cosmopolitan. Today I live in Costa Rica with my Costa Rican wife and our soon-to-come child.
When I started with memory techniques I loved Speed Cards the most. Over the years I learned to like the language based disciplines Word and Names more. I am still better at cards and numbers though but I am improving by learning Spanish as my third language. I think that language skills help in memory sports especially for Words and Names based disciplines.
Building systems and experimenting with memory palaces is my passion. I spend about seven years on my Millennium PAO with 1000 people, 100 actions and 1000 objects. I was crazy about it and went ways that took me much longer to develop it. I explain the entire thing in detail in an article about the Pyramid Memory System, as I call my approach. (You can check it out here)
Somewhere on the way I forgot about training at all. I didn't want to continue with my old 2-digit PAO system but my new one wasn't ready. Finally I am now concentrating on learning the ready system to a point, where it will be useful in memory sports. It requires much more learning so I believe I need to practice the system for another year.
When it comes to memory palaces I like to do unusual things. My latest one is a sequence from the first 20 minutes of the new Pixar movie Inside Out. I follow the story and mark important people and objects, which I can easily remember, because they follow the story of the movie. I love to learn something while I create new systems.
What about your origins with memory sports? How did you first get started?
I came in contact with memory techniques only after school. My life as a student was long and painful. I was that hyperactive kid with impulsive behavior that 90% of all teachers immediately hate. On top of that I was constantly bored at school and I barely did my homework. So I ended up with bad grades and little confidence. Eight years of French passed by like a weekend in Paris – I saw the Eiffel tower and heard a guy scream "oui, oui", which wraps up all the French I learned in that time. I was a terrible student, with less than mediocre teachers.
It all culminated into me having the worst grades of my life at the end of the twelfth grade and still one year to go. I had a change of heart and I decided to finally give my best. I ended up being the best student of my school in the last term. That changed my life.
After school I signed in to study Biology but the German military service came in-between. So I went to nine months of controlled mind numbing and I was longing for something to feed my mind, which was on fire since I successfully finished school. In the barracks I read about Dr. Gunther Karsten, several times German Memory Champion (years later even World Memory Champion) and his latest book about memory techniques. I bought it and started creating my first Major System. Over the next months I practiced it with paper flash cards, which I carried around everywhere in my uniform. That was in 2003, before the arrival of smart phones and flashcard apps. But luckily e-Mails were no problem, so I wrote one to Gunther to thank him for his marvelous book. He replied and invited me to the North German Memory Championship 2003 in Hanover. Two of my closest friends from the military lived there, so it was perfect. I went with absolutely no practice and clue and ended up being second last. But I witnessed a group of massively impressive and friendly people and I had the honor to stop the time of a successful Speed Cards attempt from Steffen Bütow with 45.82 seconds. By then, this was one of the fastest times in the world and certainly the craziest thing I have ever seen. So I was hooked.
In the following three years I went to ten different memory championships, including the World Memory Championships twice. It was a great time and I met many people I call my friends today. Right after my first championship I joined the German memory club MemoryXL and later became their main arbiter for the regional memory championships. To see the sport from the other side made me connect with it even more and I developed some kind of responsibility for it. This was a massively important part for me to stick with it for so long. Because my own results never really satisfied me, I always wanted to be much better. But instead to train hard and long, I got demotivated and lost track of my own training. And then I got the chance to teach groups of gifted children at a club in Berlin, which I continued for about a decade. My engagement as an arbiter, my general interest in the techniques and me becoming a memory coach and sending my students to competitions, always kept me close to the sport.
In 2009 I returned and picked up from where I left of as a memory athlete. Within a very short time of training I was better than before and I went to four competitions in one year, getting 3rd place at the UK Open, which is until today my best result. I was rank 79 in the world and very focused on getting the Grandmaster title at the World Memory Championships that year. In the same year I started Memory-Sports.com and invested tons of time into that website. Before that there was literally nothing about memory sports online, least in English.
When I came to the World Memory Championship I was excited to create the first live-coverage from that event. My plan was to compete myself only in the grandmaster disciplines and take pictures and videos during the rest of the competition. But I wasn’t allowed to, because the Grandmaster requires going through the entire events. So I had to make a tough decision and went for not participating. It was a cool and unique coverage and I don’t regret it but sometimes I feel a bit of a sting, that I missed that chance. The memory sports council has now changed the rules and the current Grandmaster is much more difficult to achieve.
In the following years I did less and less for my website, until it got hacked and I left it alone completely. Finally in 2013 I realized that memory sports has given me more than anything else I did in my life and I decided that I want to dedicate my life to it. So I reactivated my website and made it more beautiful than ever before. I am now an independent memory coach and I teach online around the world, while I organize memory championships like the US Open or my own Memo Games. I plan to return to memory sports as an athlete myself, when I manage my grand systems more appropriately.
You have a long history as a coach, arbiter, and competitor. What are some of your favorite memories (ahem)?
One of my favorite memories is with Dominic O’Brien, 8x World Memory Champion and an incredibly impressive character with a big mustache. We were at the German Memory Championship, maybe 2005 or 2006 and Dominic was the main arbiter in the room. He spotted one competitor cheating but couldn’t really prove it. That competitor was writing down all numbers and words on a sheet of paper during the memorizing phase. Later that particular page was always taken away but the imprint on the notebook remained. After thinking about it, we realized how obvious that was, but only Dominic did had an eye for it. That competitor did brake the German record for 30 digits with 1200 digits that day and had some other very impressive scores (not with cards though, because that cheat didn’t work there). So they confronted the athlete and gave the chance to redeem oneself by redoing that discipline under control of an official arbiter in the next months. It didn’t even have to be nearly as much as the record to prove innocent. But that athlete was never been seen again.
Later that day we went to a restaurant with Dominic. While we were talking and waiting for the food, he made an anagram out of the competitor’s name. It said: “Found real cheater”!
What are your thought on the sport’s direction?
Memory sports are developing very fast now. Each year we hear something new. When I started, there were maybe six events around the world each year and most were affiliated with the World Memory Championships. I am excited to see the sport explode at the moment. It is getting faster, wilder and more diversified. There are really good people from all over the world now and not just from Germany and England any more. And everyone is training much harder and efficiently now, because techniques have developed a lot in the last decade. And of course there are many more people interested in watching the sport, which is crucial to make it become a financial success. And I believe it must and will become a huge success, bigger as many other sports we have today. Mental sports are the sport of the 21st century, together with online games. We are now bringing these two worlds closer together, with memory championships becoming digital and online. I dream of a giant event in 2020 which is like a massive online memory gaming event. But for now I concentrate on the immediate future. My goal is to host the US Open and Memo Games in 2016 again and expand into Latin America. Over here there is basically no sport at all at the moment. I want to change that with the Costa Rican Open and hopefully other countries as well.
Could you tell me more about your coaching involvements? What sort of students do you work with? What's your #1 bit of advice as a coach?
Today I am a self-independent coach with students, who contact me through my website. Most are from the United States, but I have some students from other countries as well. I usually practice a mix of memory sport disciplines and learning methods. My best advice is always that there are a million ways to memorize anything. So my methods are only examples of how it could be done. In the end each student must learn how to use the memory on its own and even develop new techniques. When my students leave, I want them to feel confident enough about their memory to handle anything. I am most happy if I get students, who want me as their memory sports coach because that is really my specialty. Just recently one of my students from Spain became the current Spanish Memory Champion.
(You can learn more here about doing personalized memory training with Florian.)
Can you tell me a little more about how the Memo Games came to be? How did you first conceive the idea?
I wanted to create my own memory competition for about a decade now and I still have many more thoughts on that subject than I covered with the Memo Games. The idea was to add some new events, which are different and exciting. In 2014 I started to prepare the first US Memory Open for 2015, still following the established standard. I got the idea to use that event and try something new. I designed four new disciplines that are focused on speed (Memo events) and three that focus on high scores (Rush events). I like the Speed Cards and XMT idea, where everyone is memorizing a fixed amount of information as fast as possible. What I don’t like about it though, is the perfect accuracy that is required. Often enough memory athletes loose valuable points because they confused or forgot a few things. But they still had memorized tons of information. Why shouldn’t that count for their score? And why is someone winning a match at the XMT, who memorized 80 digits in 60 seconds, while the opponent memorized 78 digits in 20 seconds? I give a penalty time instead at the Memo events, so that a fast attempt with a few mistakes is still a relatively fast attempt, instead of a total failure. The Rush events are even cooler in this regard because they don’t have any penalty whatsoever. A correct card or digit is worth a point, no matter how many have been omitted or are incorrect.
Another thing I wanted for the Memo Games is to make them digital. Luckily I was able to team up with MemoCamp.com, which developed the events after my ideas. We had very little time and finished the last discipline on the day of the first Memo Games. It was tight but it worked.
Finally I also wanted to create something for the memory sports community. I consider the Memo Games as something that belongs to everyone and not just to me. Therefore I am happy to improve the event year by year with the help and suggestions of memory athletes around the globe. The first step into that direction will come next year:
In 2016 the Memo Games will return as a worldwide event. I want that everybody can go to a nearby hotspot and compete from there, with the other competitors being at different hotspots in other countries and continents. This will be a nice alternative to an otherwise very expensive sport, which requires athletes to travel from country to country. Now they only need to travel within their own country. Since it is all digital we can see and compare results immediately. For 2016 I will start with only a handful of selected hotspots, to make sure we can handle it. If this concept works, we can expand it in the following years until we have hotspots in all countries with memory athletes. Imagine a memory competition where hundreds compete all at once, with a live stream connecting hotspots, athletes, organizers and fans with each other.
Thanks for your time, Florian.