Here's the latest in the "Interview with a Memory Expert" series: Annalena and Christian Schäfer! The 22- and 23-year-old memory athletes from Wuerzburg, Germany, have been fixtures on the memory competition circuit for over six years now. They met at a competition in 2010. Now they’re married! I got in touch with them to discuss their relationship with memory sports and the many exciting things (TV appearances, their own memory events, etc.) they’ve been up to. Hope you enjoy!
A lot of people know that you guys met at a memory competition and started dating shortly thereafter. How did you meet exactly?
The first time we met was at the South German Championship 2010, where Annalena was competing the first time and winning the junior’s category, while Christian was a judge. But we got to know each other better some months later at the German Championship.
How do you think memory sports has impacted both your relationship and your own lives?
Of course we probably wouldn’t know each other without memory sports :). It’s great to share the same hobby, especially when some big trips are involved: We could already travel to the US twice to compete in the XMT, to Turkey to compete in the Memoriad or to China for a TV show, just to name a few. It’s great to share all those experiences! Memory sports is still something quite exotic, so it’s great to always have someone to discuss about competitions or new strategies that come up to our minds. If one of us is highly motivated to practice, he/she thrills the other one. But also if one of us wants to do something more relaxing, the other one doesn’t want to do memory training alone.
You’ve both done a ton of interesting things, like TV appearances and even starting your own competition! Can you tell me a bit about them?
Being invited to some TV shows is also one of the advantages of memory sports, especially when we are in the same TV show or at least accompanying the other one. It’s quite funny that we already had to compete against each other quite a few times, e. g. we had to memorize all the No. 1 songs from the 80s in Germany and we had to do a battle (like “Which song was No. 1 in the 48th week of 1981?”). Annalena won (extremely close!).
Our highlight was definitely the German TV show “Wetten, dass.. ?” in November 2014: Christian had to memorize 30 memory cards and sort them while being underwater. It worked out pretty closely, but in the end we won a nice prize for the best performance of the show! Annalena was assisting in the show and giving great support in training. Although this show is not Europe’s biggest show any more, it was interesting to see all the immense effort around it!
Check out their performance here (from 56:30).
In 2015 we organized our first competition, the South German Open (results here) at our university in Wuerzburg. We were going to make it completely digital in the computer pools and we also organized a big screen for spectators with a commentator and some accompanying program for visitors (e.g. betting on the winning score). In total it worked out pretty well, but it was much more work than expected. We had great support by our university and volunteers, but there are so many things that you don’t think about as a competitor. Now we appreciate all the effort from people organizing competitions much more than before!
You both have a long history in the sport. What were your favorite competitions?
Of course we will never forget our first competitions because they were our doors to the memory world (that was the North German 2009 for Christian and the South German 2010 for Annalena). And we always enjoy the great atmosphere and sitting together with other athletes before/after competitions. But our favorite competitions were definitely the XMTs in 2014 and 2015 because this new kind of competition is so exciting and it feels more like a competition than sitting behind a piece of paper for one hour and memorizing numbers on your own does.
Ok, some nitty gritty stuff. Can you tell me a bit about your memory systems and how you decided on them?
For numbers both of us are using a 3-digit-system based on the major code. Actually Annalena copied Christian’s system, but that’s great because after a discipline we can compare the numbers by saying the images much faster. Another cool thing: When we are doing performances in front of an audience one of us can memorize numbers, telling the second one a story and the second one can name all the numbers without having seen them.
A 3-digit-system is quite powerful and not too difficult to learn, so we decided on this.
For cards we have a simple 1 card – 1 image – system, but we are also using a 3 cards – 2 images – system, which is a bit faster. For the second system we assigned a 2-digit-number to each playing card, so three cards give us a 6-digit-number, which can be divided into two 3-digit-numbers and translated into two images from our 3-digit-system. Sounds complicated, but it works :).
A big cards system would be great and we started creating one, but at the moment it’s just too much to learn. Maybe we will learn it one day… (At least Christian is thinking about it after most of the competitions, but it hasn’t worked so far :D)
Tell me about are your future plans (both in and out of memory sports). Anything in particular you’re really looking forward to?
At the moment we are focusing on our studies. Both of us are becoming teachers (Annalena for mathematics and physics, Christian for mathematics and computer science). Both of us will probably have some important final exams in 2016, so it’s always a trade-off between university and memory sports, but the former is definitely more important for us. But at the moment at least Christian is planning to come to the XMT and both of us will probably go to the Memoriad in Las Vegas in November 2016, combined with a great trip to some nice places around!
Watch out for Christian in Group F of this year's XMT.
Thanks for your time, guys.
Click here (starting at 56:30) to watch their appearance on German television. Also be sure to check out their various memory competitor profiles: