Interview with a Memory Expert: Memory Athlete Johannes Zhou

I’ve got another memory expert interview for you: Johannes Zhou! Only 19 years old, Johannes was the top online qualifier for the 2015 Extreme Memory Tournament (XMT) and this year’s runner-up (check out Johannes’s qualification videos here). After jumping onto the memory scene in 2013, the Frankfurt resident has been tearing up the rankings and thrashing opponents left and right. Watch out for him in Group F at the upcoming XMT (June 24-26). I got in touch with Johannes to talk XMT, his TV experiences, and his thoughts on putting memory techniques to practical use. Hope you enjoy!

How’d you get into this stuff?

Before I got into memory sports, I participated in mental calculation competitions. I wasn't particularly good at it, but it was really fun to learn about methods that help you to calculate faster in your head. This interest led to a participation in the 2012 Memoriad, a competition with mental calculation and memory sports disciplines. At that time I didn't know anything about memory techniques, but talking to all the memory athletes was so interesting that I started to build my memory system on the flight back home. In April 2013 I became South German Junior Memory Champion and this motivated me to dig even deeper into the world of memory sports.

Tell me about your 2015 XMT experience.

There's only one way to describe my XMT experience: it was awesome! My first head-to-head competition and my first trip to America. But I should start with the qualifiers: I didn't expect at all to become first, but seeing all the other competitors' results really pushed me.

One of Johannes and my many 1-on-1 battles at the 2015 XMT

The actual competition in San Diego didn't go as well as the qualifiers, but I'm still very satisfied with my performance. The competitors in my group were extremely strong, including a person named Alex (laughs), and at one point after losing four matches in a row, I was like: "I'm out." My goal was to make it to Day 2, but I knew that I had to win all remaining matches in order to advance to the round of 16. What happened? I won all four matches in a row. This experience was overwhelming and the fact that I had to face Johannes Mallow the next day didn't bother me that much, since I came back after thinking that the competition was over for me.

The match against Johannes M. was also very exciting and after a nerve-wracking Names match, the better Johannes deservedly advanced to the next round. Losing against the current number one in the world and the one who later in the day actually won the XMT isn't too bad. To sum up, I'm happy with my performance and it is the experience that counts and helps me in the future to perform even better.

Knowing that I’m able to memorize hundreds of numbers in a few minutes somehow made me a more self-confident person. It’s hard to put in words, but it’s just a great feeling to challenge your brain on a day to day basis.
— Johannes Zhou

And you were followed by a camera crew (watch the 12-minute doc here)! What was all of that like?

It was quite interesting being followed by a camera crew. The most important thing was that it didn't distract me or my competition performance in any way. As aforementioned, at one point when I thought I was out, I wasn't in the mood talking to the camera. They respected that and didn't interview me at that moment.

The documentary aired about a month later and the response was great! The camera crew did a great job at capturing the exciting part of the XMT: the head-to-head mode and the fact that fractions of a second can decide a match. Many people came to me and told me how exciting the documentary was and I hope that it motivated many people to try out memory techniques themselves.

You can also watch Johannes on German television here

You’re using a 2-digit, 1-card system, correct? What are your thoughts on the efficacy of different systems in general?

Yes, I'm using a simple 2-digit and 1-card system, however, with some minor adjustments. For instance, the digit "5" represents the letter "s" instead of "l". It was Simon Reinhard who told me about his approach to read the numbers in a more intuitive way.

After long consideration, I have decided to switch to a 3-digit system. I realized that I have to do this step in order to win big competitions. Currently I'm in the process of learning all the images. Moreover, I'm confident that I will be using a 3-digit system at the XMT in June.

Johannes on German TV in 2015. Watch it here:

You said you’re hoping the documentary will motivate people to try out memory techniques themselves. What do you personally see as the benefits of memory techniques? How are you using them in your own life?

First of all, I think that memory techniques are very useful. Being able to memorize a grocery list or your bank passcode are just two examples. I also use memory techniques to learn languages and, for instance, knowing the gate your flight is going to departure without looking at your boarding pass a hundred times can reduce a lot of stress. These are just a few applications of how one can use memory techniques in our daily lives, however, I think there is more to it. Knowing that I'm able to memorize hundreds of numbers in a few minutes somehow made me a more self-confident person. It's hard to put in words, but it's just a great feeling to challenge your brain on a day to day basis.

You mentioned Simon helped you with your number code. Are you working with him a lot?

Yes, for the simple reason that he helped me a lot in the beginning and I am very thankful for his guidance. And actually, Simon, Johannes M. and I prepared together for the 2015 XMT, what was very fun and definitely helped me to improve.

All in all, the great thing about the memory community is that you can simply ask the more experienced athletes some questions about certain techniques and they will happily answer your questions. It's such an open and friendly community and I hope that many more people will join us to make memory sports an even greater sport.

What’s your current setup (job, school, etc.) and future plans? Anything in particular you’re really looking forward to, memory sports or otherwise?

I'm studying law at university and this will keep me busy for the next few years, however, I'll continue to practice and participate in memory competitions. This year's XMT is obviously a huge thing and I'm looking forward to meet you and all the other athletes in San Diego!

Thanks for your time, Johannes.

Check out Johannes's XMT documentary and live appearance on German television;

His website:;

And his memory champ profiles: XMT,, and World Memory Sports Council.