By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Santos had noticed at lunch that just like him, White was pacing back and forth, practicing his mental journeys so he could assign each piece of personal information to its place. When it was time for the Tea Party, the five men and women came onstage and read their lists of personal information. Then, sitting in a row of chairs onstage, the competitors did their best to recall the answers. Santos was asked one person's place of residence, couldn't remember it and got one strike right off the bat. White, looking calm and confident in his white Navy T-shirt, rattled off an answer to every question he was asked. While most of the competitors paused for a long moment before answering, his replies came quickly. When asked for one person's favorite hobbies, he answered without skipping a beat. "Her hobbies are traveling, cooking and miniature golf," he said, to applause.
To Santos' astonishment, White didn't miss one question. "I've never seen that before," Santos says. Even the year he won the title, Dave Thomas missed two.
Santos got his third strike when asked to name one person's favorite foods. It was a problem of an improperly formed mental picture. The correct answer was paella, ravioli and pizza, but after seeing the paella in his mind's eye, the next image was a round, blurry object that he couldn't identify. After that came the pepperoni, so he got pizza right, but for the middle one he said sushi. "If I'd taken more time I would have seen that it was ravioli, not sushi," he says. "But I was rushed and just trying to hang on."
In the initial moments after his elimination, Santos was upset. "This sucks," he thought. "Stupid Tea Party." But a few minutes later, when White breezed through the last event—memorizing two decks of cards in five minutes and then repeating them in order—and was named the new national champion, Santos was happy for him. "I didn't feel bad losing to him because he really put in the time, and he deserved it," he says. "It's a great illustration of how you can improve your memory with practice. I mean, he memorized more than 1,000 decks of cards since December. I trained hard, but not like that."
For his part, when White heard the announcer say, "Our new champion is Ronnie White from Texas," he was happy and grateful, but he was also calm. He knew he'd clinched it earlier. After all, he had done the work, and he was worthy.
On an afternoon in late March, White sat at his kitchen table memorizing decks of cards. He wore his special military glasses and headphones, which help him concentrate, but also remind him that compared to being at war, "this ain't nothin.'" His brow was furrowed in concentration, and he already noticed the toll the past few weeks of rest had taken on his times. His USA Memory Championship trophy—an eagle alighting on two crossed American flags—sits on the counter nearby, near shelves filled with mementos from Afghanistan and his travels to Asia and Australia to lead memory seminars.
He was giving himself until April 1 to rest and catch up on business, and then he would devise a training schedule to prepare for the World Memory Championship in November. "I'm not aiming for the world title," he says, shuffling the deck of cards. "The record for memorizing a deck is 27 seconds, and I just have to accept that that's not a record I'm going to own. My goal is to get under a minute."
No American has ever even finished in the top 10 in the world championship. Thomas, the 2007 USA Memory Champion, attributes this to a fundamental difference in character. "The thing with Americans is, they have more passion and energy than, say, the Brits and the Germans, but it's more short-lived, flash-in-the-pan. They'll throw themselves into something wholeheartedly, but if it doesn't work quickly they'll stop."
White has a long way to go to prove that theory wrong. The World Championship is three days, "a true marathon," as Thomas says. Each event is much longer, such as the most packs of cards memorized in an hour, which according to Thomas requires around 12 separate journeys. White will have to study the record holders' times and strategies, but he'll have to avoid psyching himself out by focusing too much on his competition. When in preparation for the USA Championship he looked over the other competitors' bios on the Web site, he began comparing himself with them and immediately grew anxious. "This guy's gonna kill me," he'd think to himself. "His name is Nth? He must be brilliant—his name sounds like a frigging algebra formula." The important thing is to focus on his personal goals.
"I'm not expected to come in the top 10, so top 10 would be great; top five would be fantastic," he says. "I'm training for No. 1 knowing full well it's not plausible. It's like a high school baseball team beating the Yankees." He shuffled another deck of cards and looked up. "But then again, you never know."