2016 Memoriad (World Mental Olympics) Recap

Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to spend a week in Las Vegas for the 2016 Zappos Memoriad, billed as a “World Mental Olympics” that happens every four years. Knowing the Memoriad was this year was one of the things that convinced me to take a gap year from medical school. And since my wife and I are spending a few months with my parents-in-law in California, it was only a 5-hour drive away! My parents and brother even uprooted from New York to be with us the following weekend. It all added up to a bunch of fun, although after a vacation in Norway and now this, I must admit I’m getting a bit travel-weary. I’m hopeless at maintaining my usual working routine while traveling.

Anyway, fluorescent lights and pervasive smoky smell aside, Las Vegas was great! Melik, Scott, and Co. put on a great event. In no particular order, here are some things I love about Memoriad that set it apart from traditional memory events: free hotel and food (often), no overall winner (so no extra pressure to perform well in every event, and no ranking points up for grabs), solid prize money (in each event, $1500 for 1st, $750 for 2nd, $500 for 3rd), and everything’s digital (no having to wait for results, and the memorizing’s just a little bit easier).

I didn’t sleep well the night before Day 1, although I think my nerves stemmed more from the upcoming U.S. election than the competition. After five not-so-great hours of sleep, it was off to the races. The festivities kicked off with speed cards, which usually round out a competition. But hey, it’s Memoriad, everything’s different! I ended up with a 17.69 sec on the second of two attempts. Good enough for gold (familiar faces Simon Reinhard and Enkhjin Tumur took silver and bronze with 20 and 27, respectively). I couldn’t have been happier with my time. The Memoriad software for cards is tricky for me, for a few reasons. Card pairs are displayed quite far apart, which makes reading off images slower. Plus, in the recall, it’s difficult to shift things around once you’ve placed them. Since my system uses a variable number of loci, I can accidentally skip card pairs if I have more than one blank, so things get hairy. I hadn’t logged times much faster than this using the software (my fastest are usually with the XMT—now Memory League—training site), so things were starting on a high note.

Next came names and faces, one of my weaker events but one I’ve improved at over the last few years. My memorization felt sloppy, so I was relieved to find I’d scored 167, landing me in silver position. As the Memoriad software doesn’t offer N&F training, it took me a while to adjust to the small faces and 80s hairstyles. Fellow American Nelson Dellis, who’s a boss at names and holds the national record, took first with 198 (Boris Konrad holds the world record with 215). These are “national” names, mind you (ie. names restricted to your home nation). No 6-syllable Mongolian and Indian names, praise the Lord.

The final memory event of the day was hour numbers. I like numbers events generally, but this one borders on torture. It’s probably my least favorite event. The memorization went smoothly enough, aside from one frantic moment when I realized I wasn’t on the correct locus; it turned out I’d accidentally skipped a 5-locus room. Around 8 pm, I hit submit. My score came out to 3115, 86 more than my 3029 from last year’s world championship. No complaints there, although little did I know the country was crumbling around me as I sat memorizing.

After a great day and a suboptimal night I won’t get into, I slept well, miraculously. Wednesday brought a fresh set of memory challenges. Two of the events, flash numbers and number-shape recognition, I’d never done in competition before. Unsurprisingly, both went relatively meh. I’m decent at spoken numbers, but flash tends to throw me for a loop despite their structural similarities. When recall timed out, I ended up in 6th with 122 correctly memorized digits flashed at 1 digit per second. Not my best, but definitely not my worst flash attempt either.

I’d tried the number-shape event exactly once prior to the competition, so I went in with no expectations and ended up 5th (91). Christian and Annalena Schafer from Germany (you can read my interview with both of them here) posted amazing scores of 241 and 207, respectively. I was blown away. It’s such a tricky event.

Me and Shijir, the 30-minute binary winner

Half-hour binary, which came between the two, was awesome to behold. I felt great about my memorization and expected my score of 4155, a competition best, to at least contend for the top spot. Not even close. Shijir and Tsetsegzul of Mongolia blasted away everyone to claim gold and silver with 4770 and 4545, respectively. With former world champ Johannes Mallow taking bronze (4351), I was pushed to 4th. Wow. To put that in perspective, only 3 competitors in history—Marwin Wallonius, Johannes, and Ben Pridmore—have eclipsed 4k in competition. This Memoriad saw five competitors do it! And Enkhjin was only off by 24 digits...

The third and final day came soon enough, and with it, spoken numbers. Spoken’s generally stressful for me, as it’s usually the second-to-last event and can wreck your score if you make tiny mistakes or lose focus. Thankfully, with no overall title up for grabs, I felt much more relaxed. I nearly hit a personal best on the second attempt with around 340, but I couldn’t fill one blank around 200. Counting up through my system to find the missing image, I’d reached 930. The image? 950. Ah, well. Luckily, my first attempt of 243 put me in silver position behind Lance, the world record holder.

It was a satisfying end to a great three days of competition and another great opportunity to see old and new faces from the memory world. I spent the rest of the trip roaming around Las Vegas with my wife, brother, and parents; riding the “Tower of Terror”-type ride at the top of the Stratosphere Tower (I thought I was going to die); taking in the Bellagio fountain show; and catching a Penn and Teller show at the Rio. All in all, a fantastic week!

Finally, I will be going to the WMSC world championship in Singapore this December. Obviously I was holding out for an IAM WMC, but given the announcement that it won’t be held until after I start hospital rotations, Singapore may be my last opportunity to compete. Once I begin rotations, it will likely be difficult for me to take time off, especially since I’m located in Mississippi (contrary to its reputation as a hotbed of memory competitions). Our gap year was my chance for an extra year of competitions, and I’ve had so much fun doing all kinds of memory things I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. I’m glad I could add Memoriad to the list.

If you’re interested, you can still watch all the action from Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3. You can see all results here (although the site’s down temporarily as of this writing). The Memoriad Facebook page is also a good place to go for videos and score reports.

Outside Vegas at Red Rock Canyon