By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
White embarked on his training schedule and kept meticulous notes on each day's results. "I am attempting a new form of training for card memorization," he scribbled on December 1, 2008. "Running through the cards saying only the character/action/object. This is taking about 4.5 seconds for every three cards...This is too long!"
On the next few pages, he drew models of his journey locations, including furniture and architectural features. There's Hooters, his friend Wendi's house and his sister Michelle's house. The subsequent pages are filled with lists of times for memorizing numbers and cards, along with notes like, "Perfect! No misses!" and "Full deck memorized 2:21.6 No errors."
In addition to slogging through his daily practice, he reached out for help. If there was one thing White knew, it was that if he was going to have a shot of beating the top three competitors in 2009, he wouldn't be able to do it alone. To White, memorizing a deck of cards in less than three minutes—let alone the national record of one minute and 40 seconds—seemed impossible, and that was just the beginning. After that, he'd have to muster the skills to avoid elimination in the final rounds. He sent world champion Ben Pridmore a message on Facebook and was delighted to get some tips in return. Pridmore's most important piece of advice was to trust himself and his mind. Too many people, said Pridmore, second guess whether their brain has captured a card, linger too long and take too much time memorizing the deck.
According to Professor Ericsson, coaching is a crucial part of developing mastery. Studies of chess players and doctors, for example, show that those who continue to practice without getting critiqued plateau instead of improve, he says.
White contacted Dave Thomas, the 2007 USA Memory Champion and a former Guinness Book of World Records holder for memorizing and reciting the most digits of pi. (He tapped out at 22,500.) At the 2008 championship, which he'd attended as a spectator, Thomas had offered to help any of the 2009 contenders who were interested in his techniques.
Thomas, who's British but was able to compete in the American tournament because he has a green card and has lived part-time in Manhattan, was surprised when White e-mailed him and said he wanted to learn from the best of the best. "I'd said if people wanted to know how to win the U.S. Championship to let me know," Thomas says. "And when you say that, everyone says, 'OK, yeah,' but no one actually does it." Except, of course, White. After e-mailing with him, Thomas determined that White "had huge desire, good natural ability, but relatively weak strategy."
One of the things he advised White on was how to win the Tea Party, which is the second-to-last event in the tournament and, contrary to its name, the most deadly. White was eliminated in the Tea Party in 2008. It entails five people rattling off 15 pieces of personal information, including their addresses, dates of birth, phone numbers and favorite foods. The competitors must commit the information to memory in real time and then answer random questions about each person. "It's the most difficult event I've seen in memory anywhere in the world," Thomas says. "They're giving you the information quicker than you can learn it." Among the advice he gave White was to create a long journey for each person and to have as many predetermined images as possible (a picture for every state in the country for the address portion, for instance). "Some of the competitors just don't do that much work," Thomas says. "And it's not hard, it's just a question of preparation."
Winners in years past had survived the Tea Party on luck. Both Foer, the Yale grad who won in 2006, and Chester Santos, a software engineer from San Francisco who won in 2008, played to their strengths and dedicated their time and effort to the information that was easiest for them, hoping not to get asked to recall things that stumped them. They lucked out. To Thomas, this was a weak and defeatist strategy that left too much to chance.
White took Thomas' tips and ran with them, listing his visual cues for the Tea Party in his journal. He also heard about a former Navy SEAL who'd used his military experience to create a personal life-coaching business in San Diego. He called and hired the man. T.C. Cummings, a strapping man with bleached blond hair who leads what he calls Mind of a SEAL success trainings, has a Web site emblazoned with images of radiant light and a graphic of a dolphin leaping past an ancient pyramid. He talks passionately about building confidence and applying the "success secrets known to SEALs to civilian pursuits."
"One of the things we did was look and see where he could fail, and he said it was on the stage, under pressure," Cummings says. "That translates to the field of battle. We know that the more you sweat in times of peace, the less you bleed in times of war. So we wanted to increase the difficulty of his training." To get used to memorizing under pressure and amid distraction, White would go through his journeys or memorize numbers with his friends' kids climbing all over him or in public where people were watching. He came up with the idea of memorizing cards underwater. He would find during the competition that while the other mental athletes were unnerved by the cameras and the noise, he was calm and collected.