I had a chat with Brad Zupp, a 47-year-old vet of the memory competition circuit and one of America’s best memorizers. Brad helped Team USA pull in the 2nd place team prize at last year’s World Memory Championship. At the 2014 event, he broke his own national record in the spoken numbers event, recalling 150 digits after hearing them spoken aloud at 1 digit per second. Brad’s at the top of the pack among those who’ve adapted their memory expertise to help students, businesses, and more. Check out his website BradZupp.com for more about his fun memory empowerment presentations. He’s a friend, a fierce competitor, and a real memory expert. Along with Nelson Dellis, he's also a co-director of the Extreme Memory Tournament. In a quick chat, we delve into his entry into the memory world, his motivation, and some of his favorite memory memories. I hope you enjoy.
Could you tell me a little about yourself: age, where you live, favorite events, etc.?
I'm 47, one of the older active competitors. I live in upstate New York, about 3 hours north of NYC and one hour north of Albany, the capital, on the edge of the Adirondacks. My wife, Beth, and I live on a 90-acre farm with a pond, woods, and even an old, overgrown Christmas tree farm that now has 30-45 foot Christmas trees.
My favorite discipline/event is probably Spoken Digits, as that's what I've historically done best at. I also like Names, because it's a real challenge. I enjoy speed cards, though I'm not very good at it - I just enjoy the puzzle aspect of putting all the cards in the right order.
How did you first get exposed to the world of memory and competitive memorizing?
In the early 90s I was interested in magic and found a book about memory by a magician (and memory expert) named Harry Lorayne. I used the techniques it suggested to become fluent in Japanese when I was working in Japan for a few years. I tried memorizing a deck of cards back then, but wasn't committed enough and didn't work very hard at it.
Many years later, I realized my memory was getting worse and decided to do something about it. I wanted to see if an ordinary guy could actually improve his ability to remember, so I dusted off that book and started working through some of the techniques. I found it challenging, but also fun, and started to develop my own techniques - and I saw my memory improve.
Eventually I started competing, and in 2012 proudly represented the USA in London at the World Memory Championships (along with Nelson Dellis and Luis Angel). I've been to the World Memory Championships every year since then.
What do you like most about memory sports? What keeps you motivated to train and compete?
What I like most about memory sports is how much it makes me work on my memory. I have one of the best memories in the world, but each year I continue to improve it. Training for the World Memory Championships is a big part of that.
As far as the motivation to train, that comes and goes. Since I do presentations for corporations and schools, I'm motivated to train what I present (Names, Spoken Numbers, sometime Speed Cards, and Binary Numbers). But preparing for the 10-event World Memory Championships is harder. I think my biggest motivation is always to show people that no matter how old one is, a better memory is possible. Exercising our minds is essential, but it can be easier and more fun than people realize!
You have a long history in the sport, going back to the 2012 WMC you mentioned and beyond. What are some favorite stories or memories that spring to mind?
My favorite moments of competing are hanging out with my fellow memory athletes. After ever competition there is either a closing ceremony and/or a chance to go out and have dinner afterwards. The stress is done, and we all can hang out and smile, laugh or cry about our results.
Overall I have two favorite memories, both from the 2013 World Memory Championships in Croydon, London, England in 2013.
I had trained hard at Spoken Numbers, and during the first trial (of 3), I got a really good score of 64 digits. Since I had a good, safe score, I decided to go for it and try something I'd never done before: 120 digits, which was a full memory journey (or memory palace). I felt really good as I memorized, and recall started. I breezed through the recall and only had one spot I couldn't figure out. I didn't know if the 113th and 114th digits were 39 (bucket filled with water) or 65 (kiddie pool filled with water). I guessed wrong, getting those two digits wrong, but all the rest correct. Still, the scoring goes until the first mistake, so I got 112 digits. When I mentioned that I think I got at least 112, Nelson Dellis, another USA memory athlete, said, "If you got that, you beat my score and set a new national record!" He was very gracious, especially considering I had no idea they even kept track of national records! I got 112 and set the record, which felt great.
A second story relates to the same competition. Before I knew for sure whether I had set the record or not, or even if I had made a mistake in the recall, so Nelson and I were walking to grab some food during the lunch break. As we walked down the crowded street, we were reciting the spoken digits together to see if we had gotten them correct. Very nerdy but also a great memory - a half hour or more after hearing numbers spoken aloud by a computer, we could still recall them 'off the top of our heads' while walking and navigating a busy shopping street in London.
Thanks for your time, Brad.