2016 USA Memory Championship Recap

I just got back from the 2016 USA Memory Championship, and I’m happy to report that I won! Phew. The USAMC wreaks havoc on the nerves. I feel incredibly relieved to have survived through the end against some stiff competition from Brad Sundstrom, Katherine He, Erica Wang and the other talented Hershey kids.

Some Hershey chocolate-flavored butter of course

I flew up to La Guardia on Friday before making the 4-hour trek into Hershey with my parents—the rush-hour NYC traffic must have added at least an hour to our trip. I was happy to find that the venue, the Hershey Lodge, was nice. Like many, I was bummed the festivities weren’t in NYC per usual, but the event hall was a big step up from last year’s church basement. The hotel itself is a sprawling, maze-like metropolis. The room—with plenty of space and upscale tables and chairs—was more than up to the task. Getting to bunk at the venue was definitely a plus.

I must admit I was quite nervous. At the World Championships last year, I had no expectation of winning and never felt pressure to do so until the 10th and final event. This year, I knew that many of the country’s best—Lance, Nelson, Livan, Johnny, Brad, Luis, Everett—wouldn’t be there for various reasons. Just like last year, I knew I’d feel disappointed if I didn’t win. The USAMC is and always has been an incredibly psychological challenge. No forgiveness. No mistakes. But enough babble.

As usual, the proceedings kicked off with 15 minute (national) names and faces. I’ve definitely improved my speed at this event, and thankfully it paid off. I ended up in first, with a score of 170. Very happy with that. I was followed closely by Brad and Erica.

Then came 5 minute “speed” numbers. This and speed cards were the events I was most looking forward to. I hoped to encode 600, and they’d agreed to give me an additional page beyond the usual 500. The first trial felt solid. I encoded up to 563 and forgot 4 images, which knocked me to 483. On the second, I encoded up to 578 but tanked the score after forgetting 10+ images. Still, 483 was good enough to beat Lance’s USAMC record of 360 (and international U.S. record of 420) and not too far shy of the world record of 520. I’d love to see Lance back up there next year. He’ll be wanting that one back, and he’s more than up to cracking 500.

Poetry: by far my least favorite event, mainly because it’s so risky. One tiny word or punctuation mistake and you’re finished. Luckily you can “omit” lines you may have flubbed, but still. I’m not great at this event, so I was thrilled to find I’d scored 226 (the record at the time was 241). The poem was a simple one about motivation and the journey of life, so it proved an easier task than previous years’. Katherine He, a high schooler from California and first-time competitor, absolutely tore it up. I heard she memorized the entire poem, cooking up a score of 335. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a record smashed so brutally. Crazy stuff.

Checking the recall on my second speed cards trial

We rounded out the morning with speed cards, always a favorite of mine. After locking down a relatively safe 22.7, I knew I could throw caution to the wind for my second attempt. 18.653 seconds (here’s a video of the memorization part). The craziest thing is that I actually remembered all 26 images—definitely not the norm. Usually I’ll have 2-6 blanks and will have to play around with the missing cards to fill the gaps. 18 was good enough for the unofficial world record (currently 20.438, set by Simon Reinhard from Germany). The USAMC being what it is, I knew any WR-breaking scores wouldn’t officially count as far as the WMSC is concerned, but it felt fantastic all the same. My speed cards have come a long way in the past year (my 2015 USAMC time was 39 seconds). I’ve not much doubt that mark will itself be eclipsed soon. I’m looking at you, Simon, Johannes, Lance, Marlo, Yang Yan, Ola, Everett.

On to the afternoon (you can watch videos of the final events here). The first round, Words to Remember, is always the one that makes me most nervous. One slip-up and you’re done. My stomach wasn’t feeling so great. I went for a safe 130 and luckily made no mistakes. Next came Tea Party, which I love. It’s got variety—numbers, words, names—and you get a nice buffer of 3 mistakes before you’re out. After Malika and Katherine were eliminated, Erica, Brad, and I moved on the final event: Double Deck o’ Cards. Another stressful one… starting to see a pattern here? We took 5 minutes to memorize two shuffled decks of cards before recalling them onstage. After slipping up here last year (check out last year’s recap here), I’d trained hard for this one. It can be tricky to recall cards verbally when using a 2-card system, so I knew I’d need to stay right on point at all times. Erica faltered near the end of the first deck, but Brad kept going. I was sure he’d take it all the way—I knew he could. Around the 75th card, Brad said “Jack of diamonds.” Seeing Biggie Smalls waving from his perch atop a TV, I knew it was seven of clubs. I couldn’t believe it. I could literally feel the relief washing over me. As I’ve no doubt made clear, the USAMC is always a toss-up, and Brad, Erica, Katherine, Malika… things might have gone anyone’s way. I feel incredibly lucky that this year the dice managed to roll in my favor. Congrats to Brad, Erica, and all the other finalists and competitors for another great year!

After chatting with some of the competitors, I—in what felt like middle-school déjà vu—hopped in the back of my parents’ car, fell asleep, and drove off to my grandmother’s for some chicken and mashed potatoes. I helped her make a palace to remember a 10-word list. What a day.

 Recall during the Tea Party event

Recall during the Tea Party event