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Total Recall: Memory Champ On Triumph


On Saturday in New York City, Nelson Dellis was trying to defend his title as 2011 Winner of the USA Memory Championship. In the last event, he and two other finalists had been given five minutes to memorize two shuffled decks of playing cards. That is, to remember the random sequence of 104 cards, as the moderator revealed them to the audience in the order they had just memorized.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Five of Diamonds.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Queen of Clubs.

SIEGEL: One of his rivals gave up after the first deck. And when the other stumbled, Mr. Dellis, a 28-year-old memory consultant and former software developer, was the repeat champion.


SIEGEL: And Nelson Dellis joins us from Miami. Congratulations on your victory.

NELSON DELLIS: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And can you explain, first of all, how it was that you trained for this your second championship by climbing, or by attempting to climb Mt. Everest?

DELLIS: Yeah. So, I'm an avid mountaineer and mountain climber. And mountain climbing, it's more mental than you might think. And so, being able to go on a mountain expedition, I was able to train while doing that.

SIEGEL: Training yourself with nomadic devices of how to remember numbers, words, faces?

DELLIS: Yeah. So, I actually took two of the exercises that I do to train for the memory championships up the mountain and that was memorizing a deck of cards and memorizing numbers. So, I would sit in my tent at different elevations, thumbing through a deck of cards, trying to memorize it as fast as possible and then look at these sheets I had prepared of random digits and memorizing them as quickly as possible.

SIEGEL: Now, is the memory that you achieve here - for example, those two decks of cards - is it a short term memory or can you remember at least a substantial run of your championship round there at the end of Saturday's championship?

DELLIS: That's a good question. For the most part, I'm memorizing so many decks of cards in training every day that I actually want to forget that.


DELLIS: But the nice thing is, a lot of people ask me, can you keep things long term or is it only short term? And the answer is, yes, I can keep things long term as long as I review it.

What these techniques do that I use - and what other mental athletes use is to get information in the brain and the memory faster. And then from that point on, if you want to keep it or not, it's a matter of review.

SIEGEL: I've read that you admit to, in normal, every day life not having a very good memory. How is that possible?

DELLIS: Yeah. So, I never had a good memory. It was something that was always an annoyance to me. I always had trouble remembering things and things would fly into my head and then out right the other side. And my grandmother actually suffered from Alzheimer's disease and she passed away in 2009 from it and that was the turning point.

I had heard about these memory championships and how people with average memories were training their minds to do these phenomenal things. So, I was inspired at that point to really learn the techniques and just see how far I could push my mind and if it could strengthen my mind because, to be honest, I was a little bit concerned for my future.

SIEGEL: Are there any everyday tasks that go more easily that you're better at for having mastered this kind of memory?

DELLIS: Yeah, definitely. So names and faces. I'm very good at remembering just lists of things that I have to do. It's very useful. And when I got out into, say, a meeting or an interview or a social setting, I know that you can give me information and I can spew it back to you, if need be. And that's a really comforting feeling and allows me to be a little more confident.

SIEGEL: Well, Nelson Dellis, congratulations once again on...

DELLIS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: ...winning the USA Memory Championship for the second year in a row and thanks for talking with us.

DELLIS: Thanks so much.



ALL THINGS CONSIDERED continues right after this. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.