Interview with a Memory Expert: U.S. Memory Athlete Everett Chew

Just 14 years old, Everett Chew is striking fear into the hearts of America’s top memory competitors. At his first ever competition, the 2015 USA Memory Championship, the Southern California native posted a 41 sec speed cards time on his first attempt and went on to reach the finals. In a few weeks, he’ll be competing right next to me in Group D at the Extreme Memory Tournament. He’ll follow that up with his first-ever WMSC competition: the U.S. Memory Open. What will he do next? I contacted Everett late last year to discuss his future plans, his advice for breaking through plateaus, and how he applies memory techniques in his school and personal lives.

1. Tell me about how you began with memory sports.

My first exposure to the world of memory sports was in 2013 when I stumbled upon TED talks by Idriz Zogaj and Joshua Foer. After learning that anyone could memorize a shuffled deck of cards with a little practice, I immediately became interested in how to perform this unique skill. I got hooked and found Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, through which I learned how the memory works. After reading the book, I was really excited to learn these techniques and wanted to apply them to anything I needed to memorize. One chapter in particular about memorizing text really piqued my curiosity because I have been competing in the National Bible Bee, a competition centered around memorizing Bible verses. I used these techniques, and sure enough, they helped propel me to finishing 2nd place. Dominic O’Brien’s audiobook series was especially helpful to teach me more practical uses for mnemonics, and after practicing a little each day, I found it fun to learn the basic systems for cards, words, and binary.

2. What's your daily practice routine like?

When I trained for the USAMC, my practice routine was quite intense. I worked on the Poem along with Names and Faces every other day. Since Speed Cards was my favorite discipline, I practiced it five times a day.  I also regularly trained 2-4 runs of speed numbers plus a few of the Championship events.

After completing the images for my 000-999 number system a few months ago, I learned 20 images every day and drilled recognition. I also work on maintaining consistency with my speed card times and improving my scores in the XMT events. I have found two techniques mentioned in Moonwalking with Einstein called deliberate practice and the “plateau breaker.” The idea of the “plateau breaker” is to push myself outside of my comfort zone so that I’m forced to make mistakes. I then identify what’s holding me back and use deliberate practice to clean up those areas. Combining these two techniques is an extremely efficient way to practice and my go-to training method, especially when I attempt to beat one of my personal bests. Using these focused practice techniques will hopefully make it quite easy to improve my scores in the other events (historical dates, abstract images, etc.).

Check out Everett’s recent blog post: “How I Overcome Plateaus and Keep Improving.”

Everett and I at the 2015 USA Memory Championship

Everett and I at the 2015 USA Memory Championship

3. Tell me about the systems you use. How did you pick them?

I started with a Person-Action-Object (PAO) system for cards, numbers and binary, but after a month or two, I hit a huge plateau which I couldn’t overcome. After researching and considering my different options, I decided to switch to creating arbitrary links between objects/people instead of following the “algorithm” that PAO uses. The flexibility I gained in creating my images was exactly what I needed for my scores to skyrocket. I ended up cutting over 90 seconds off my Speed Cards time in less than two months. For Numbers, due to time restraints my only option was to use the Major System at the USAMC, but it wasn’t satisfactory to me because of repeating images. The solution was to upgrade to a 1000 image system and put two images per locus. My advice for choosing a system is to experiment with as many as you can and pick the one you’re most comfortable with.

4. Tell me about your plans for the future (both in and out of memory sports). What are you looking forward to?

My current goals are to continue getting faster at the 1000 image system and practice all the World Memory Championship (WMC) events. I aspire to earn the GMM title at the WMC in a few years. One memory related skill that I would like to learn in the near future is Blindfold Rubik’s Cube Solving.

5. Do you use mnemonics in daily life at all?

I use mnemonics a lot for schoolwork. They are especially helpful for memorizing foreign words, science terms, and history facts. Although I don’t use them much outside of school due to the amount of focus required, I’m quite curious about how I can incorporate mnemonics more into my everyday life.  

6. Any interest in specific careers or subjects?

There are many careers that I’d like to explore, but one area in particular that interests me is computer science because I find it to be a useful and enjoyable skill. Mnemonics uses many parts of the right brain, but computer science requires more skills in the left brain, such as analysis and logic. I like that it complements mnemonics nicely and balances out my thinking. I love to explore and learn, so computer science may be a good fit to keep me challenged.

Thanks for your time, Everett.