A year ago, Ron White from Euless stormed the USA Memory Championship, drawing on years of delivering memory seminars and a training regimen that involved memorizing cards underwater, a story Megan Feldman related in the May cover story "Mind Games."
On Saturday, White was back in New York to defend his title at the 13th annual contest, after a year that saw him place 30th in the world championships
last November, and a beefed-up training regimen of jumping jacks and jogging in place while memorizing.
This year's field of about 50 competitors included former champions and record-holders, and fan favorites like 26-year-old Nelson Dellis, a computer science student from Florida raising money for Alzheimer's research in his mother's memory.
"It was a lot harder" than last year's contest, White, a Navy reservist, told Unfair Park yesterday. "It was a totally different tournament. It was really the absolute worst-cases scenario."
Running on just 90 minutes of sleep, White struggled to stay focused all morning, making conservative memory attempts and blanking on the numbers, while Dellis set a record by memorizing a number 179 digits long -- breaking the record White set last year.
White blew past the competition last year by memorizing a deck of cards in one minute and 27 seconds, but topped out Saturday at 2:13. Still, his performance was good enough for a spot in the afternoon's championship round, and with a two-hour lunch break he set about getting focused. He queued up Kurt Russel's locker room speech from Miracle
on his iPod.
"Everyone was talking about how great Nelson was," White said, "and there's a line in that movie: 'I'm sick and tired of hearing how great the Soviets are. Screw 'em.' I listened to that like 15 times."
White decided to play it safe and wait for Dellis and second-ranked Ram Kolli to make their own mistakes -- a strategy that paid off when Dellis eliminated himself by accidentally memorizing a deck of cards in the wrong order.
In the championship's final round, White and Kolli went back and forth recalling the order of a deck-and-a-half of cards, until Kolli misremembered the queen of hearts as a six.
"I think I'm more proud of this event, because my memory was not where it usually is," White told us yesterday. "Nelson was the toughest competition ever. It came down to strategy, and that makes me feel good. It's like I outsmarted them."
For now, White says he'll spend the next few weeks deciding how hard to chase the world title this November. Recognizing it's a long shot to beat Englishman Ben Pridmore
, who can memorize a deck of cards in 25 seconds, White says he may compete solo like last year and simply enjoy the ride. An all-in effort would mean fielding a three-man team -- himself, Dellis and 2008 U.S. champion Chester Santos, he figures -- to take on the powerhouse British team and the rising Chinese squad hosting the world championships in Guangzhou.