By Jim Schutze
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Dottino's dejected tone vanishes when he talks about White, who's now training for the Bahrain world event in November. While placing at all in that tournament is a long shot given that guys like Pridmore can memorize a deck of cards in less than 30 seconds—almost a full minute faster than White's new national record of one minute, 27 seconds—Dottino says White's leap in performance between the 2008 and 2009 competitions dwarfs that of most Americans. Perhaps more so than any other competitor, White embodies the spirit of Dottino's event, as well as its future possibilities. First, White has owned a memory training business and worked as a public speaker and seminar leader for 15 years, teaching people how to keep track of names at networking events and entertaining crowds with his high-energy demos. (He regularly introduces himself to 100-150 people at a conference and then, after asking them to stand and cover their name tags, ticks off every one of their names.) His decision to join the Navy Reserve after 9/11 and his 2007 tour in Afghanistan further contribute to his status as a natural media darling and seem to have garnered the most attention for the USA competition since 2006, when a young freelance writer named Josh Foer parlayed his win into a $1.2 million book deal. Yet Foer, a Yale graduate from a well-heeled East Coast family, struck spectators and other competitors as arrogant, while White, who dropped out of college after earning a 0.9 GPA at the University of North Texas for two straight semesters, comes across as humble, friendly and eager to teach others his methods for success.
Most important, though, is this: By dedicating himself to a training regimen that was just as unusual as it was rigorous, White appears to be living, breathing proof that even a middle-class college dropout can, through heart and discipline, fashion himself into a master.
The son of a police officer and a Department of Public Safety employee, White wasn't known as the kid with photographic recall who everybody copied during tests, or the lucky one who never studied but got all A's anyway. He worked hard, graduated 36th in his high school class of 550 and ran with a crowd of boys people called the "Brain Squad," but he was no Rain Man. His father, Ron White Sr., mostly remembers his son playing sports and loving major league baseball.
After graduating from North Richland Hills High School and enrolling in the University of North Texas, White got a job as a telemarketer selling chimney cleaning. One day, a customer he dialed was impressed with his persistence and asked him to work for his company selling memory seminars. White agreed, and once he began practicing the man's memory strategies, he was hooked. "I was fascinated by what the human mind is capable of if you train it," he says. After he was suspended from college because of his low GPA, he worked full time and within two years started his own memory training company. For a few years he had to take odd jobs to pay the bills. It took the better part of a decade, but by 2001 he was making a living by leading memory training seminars and charging several thousand dollars for each speech he delivered about the power of memory and training techniques.
After 9/11, White decided to join the military out of a sense of patriotism. He enlisted in the Navy Reserve, and after continuing to develop his business while completing his military training, he was finally deployed to Afghanistan for eight months in 2007. Meanwhile, he entered the 2008 USA Memory Championship, and while stationed in Kabul, he would return from a 12-hour shift, go to his bunk and practice memorizing images and numbers. It was during that time that he came up with a picture for every three-digit number.
One of the guys gave him a hard time for spending so much time holed up with his laptop. "He was like, 'At night hang out with your buddies, that's what you'll remember from your time here,'" White recalls. "Sometimes I wonder if I should have been more social instead of memorizing numbers, but I've reaped the benefits of it now." His superiors were so impressed with his ability to do security and intelligence briefings without notes that they had him lead a seminar for 40 other servicemen on how to better memorize the area's geography, tribes, languages and security information.
"He's modest, so at first I didn't know about any of the memory stuff," says David Dugas, an engineer who served with White. But it soon became clear that White had a skill. "We were tribal analysts, so with everything from memorizing other countries' military ranks to understanding tribal dynamics and making historical recordings of what we were doing there, it all played into memory enhancement. Ron was really good at that. If you needed a fact about something, his recall was amazing." Dugas says he has since used some of White's memorization techniques for graduate school exams and Navy tests.
After returning from Afghanistan in December 2007, White continued training for the 2008 USA Memory Championship, competed in the event in New York and came in fourth. He wasn't terribly disappointed. He'd scarcely been back from the war for three months, and at least it was an opportunity to get a sense of the competition. He resolved to train much more seriously for the next one—2009 would be his year.