2016 Extreme Memory Tournament & US Open Recap

Another great XMT-US Open trip in the books. All in all, I spent a week and a half in California, taking in the sun, hanging out with my mother- and father-in-law in between events, and enjoying some friendly competition.

Like last year, I flew in the morning before the first day, just in time for orientation. Everything about this year’s Extreme Memory Tournament mimicked last year’s, with one notable exception. Nelson and the organizers stretched the event to 3 days instead of 2. A big improvement, in my opinion. Last year, as thrilled as I was to make it to the semis, I was mentally and physically exhausted by the time I got there. It really does take a toll on you. You boot up another 50 words for the umpteenth time that day and things mush together.

Day 1 kicked off with the usual group battles. I was in Group D, along with Yanjaa Altansuh of Sweden, Shijir-Erdene Bat-Enkh of Mongolia, and the 15-year-old American Everett Chew. Exciting news for the U.S. this year: we had 4 Americans competing—Lance Tschirhart, Johnny Briones, Everett, and myself—up from last year’s 2. I started shakily, losing a numbers match on a misencoded digit to Shijir, a 46-46 words match by a fraction of a second to Everett, and an images match to Yanjaa. So I was sitting in 2nd with a 3-3 record. Not exactly stellar. I knew I’d need about 9-6 or better to win the group, but I still had 9 matches. Plenty of time to get back on track. Luckily, that’s exactly what happened. Opting for a safer strategy on numbers and images, things started clicking and I was soon up to an 11-4 record for the day. Good enough for 1st in the group! Everett landed in 2nd with an awesome 9-6—did I mentioned he’s 15??—and Yanjaa’s 7-8 also qualified her for the playoffs. Along the way, I even managed to hit 16.86 in speed cards and 17.56 in numbers, both good enough for new world records! Heading in, those were the ones I really wanted. So, after a shaky start, I was feeling good and itching to go for Day 2.

The XMT presents a challenge unlike any other memory competition. Surprise events. 100% accuracy needed for numbers, cards, and images. Tense, best-of-7 playoff matches. All these add up to a nerve-shredding overall experience. This was certainly the case on Day 2, compounded by the fact that I was in the second group of 4 matches. We had to wait patiently in a back room for an hour while the first set of 4 unfolded. One of the organizers from Dart, Mary Pyc, kept us entertained with cat videos for a solid chunk of that.

At long last, we headed out to our stations. I was up against Sengee, a top Mongolian competitor and international grandmaster ranked 10th in the world. With luck on my side, I managed to win the surprise—recalling our final numbers match from the previous day. This was the run in which I’d broken the record, so I’d reviewed it 10+ times in the recall to make sure everything was right. I’d burned it into my brain. Thankfully, my luck continued, and I managed to take the next 3 to move into the quarterfinals. My next matchup was against Purevjav “Puje” Erdenesaikhan, a 17-year-old Mongolian and the current junior world champion. He’d absolutely smashed it on Day 1, winning Group E with a 12-3 record. It was at this point that my luck ran out. The surprise, a mix of images and cards, proved exceedingly difficult for me with my 2-card system. Puje clocked a quick 26 and nailed all 30. I wasn’t even close. 1-0 to Puje. I managed to win two cards and one names, and he took a numbers and words, bringing us to 3-3. One final match to decide it. Since Puje had won the surprise, the choice of event fell to him. “Images.” My immediate thought: dammit. Easily my worst of the 5 events, images was indeed coming back to bite me. My only hope was to play it safe and pray he went too fast and faltered. Staying true to form, he held his nerve, and I was out. A disappointing end for me, but a huge hats-off to Puje. He went on to beat the reigning XMT champ Johannes Mallow 5-0 in the semifinal before losing 5-1 to Simon Reinhard—who’d won the first-ever XMT—in the final. Congrats to Simon, Puje, and third-place winner CC for stellar performances all around! And a big thank you to all the XMT organizers—especially co-directors Nelson Dellis and Brad Zupp—and volunteers for another awesome year! I can’t wait to see what’s waiting in 2017.

With that, I was off to LA with a week to kill before the US Open the following weekend. I had no trouble filling it with countless meals with my mother- and father-in-law and a lot, lot, lot of studying for my STEP 1 Exam, coming up Aug. 18. I should really be studying for that right now instead of writing this. Anyway, I arrived at the Rockland Academy near Malibu the first of the two-day, national standard US Memory Open—the first-ever traditional event sponsored by the International Association of Memory (IAM).

The event had no shortage of nail biters and stress-inducers, but I’ll keep it to some personal highlights: I managed to break 5 world records in 5 minute binary (1110 digits), 15 numbers (1100 digits), 10 minute cards (416 cards), 5 minute numbers (520 digits; tie with Marwin Wallonius), and speed cards (19.406 sec). I knew I had shots in all 5, but nabbing them all—by mere hairs in most—far and away exceeded my expectations. Going into the final 2 events, I realized I was within reach of the #1 world ranking spot if I scrounged up solid scores in both events: spoken numbers and speed cards. Heading into the weekend, I hadn’t even considered this possibility. Johannes Mallow’s untouched mark of 8792 seemed well out of reach, leading me to shoot for records rather than focus on my cumulative point total. Miraculously, with the 5 records under my belt, I was in striking distance, and starting to wish I’d played it safer in the opening words event. I pulled off a 216 in spoken numbers—thank the Lord—keeping the dream alive. Only speed cards, my favorite and best event, remained. Adding up the numbers in the score page, I calculated I’d need a sub-19.45 to eclipse Johannes’s total. Risky, but doable. Here’s what happened. 19.406 sec. A little close for comfort, but I’ll take it! This put me a mere 2 overall points ahead of Johannes. One single digit less in any of the numbers event, and I’d have missed it. I couldn’t believe it. By quite literally the smallest of margins, I’d become No. 1 in the world. Huge thanks to Florian Dellé, Rocky Glenn, and Rocky’s family for putting on an amazing event and for making everyone feel right at home.

What an insane week it was! Two thrilling competitions in the books, and before I knew it I was back home in Jackson, MS, scooting my chair into my desk. Enough talk. STEP 1 here we come!