The Memorizer

Playing cards with the world’s memory champion.

• 1,045 words

Andi Bell, three-time World Memory Champion, can remember the rock concert that affected the hearing in his right ear: Status Quo, 1984. He can remember the concert that did the same to his left: Rush, 1988. But what sets his memory apart is what he can do when he really applies himself. Bell can memorize a hundred decks of playing cards in five hours, as he did at a performance last June at the British Museum, in London.

Before the hundred-decks stunt, there was last year’s World Memory Championships. Bell won in five of the ten categories, for the title; over three days he memorized 1,196 cards (a mere twenty-three decks) in order, recalled 192 words in fifteen minutes, and correctly identified seventy-eight faces from pictures he had seen only once.

Each year, the World Memory Championships gather dozens of enthusiasts who enjoy the peculiar thrill that comes when the playing cards are numerous and the binary numbers long. Bell got involved ten years ago, after reading an article about Donminic O`Brien, then the world champion. At the time, Bell was in his mid-twenties and working at a warehouse in Watford, England, unloading cheese from trucks. Memorization was easy, free, and an outlet from an un-fulfilling job. He set out to memorize a deck of cards faster than anyone else in the world.

Memory remains a mysterious process to scientists. Recent advances in brain-imaging systems tell us that the longer the frontal lobes and the para-hippocampal cortex light up with activity, the better the chance that information is being remembered. The question remains: Why? Why a Rush concert but not the location of the car keys? Nevertheless, there are tricks, many of them relying on a`location technique` that asserts that we remember details when they are connected to a meaningful geographic place. The technique can be traced back past Renaissance `memory theatres’ to the Greek poet Simonides, who was able to identify the remains of the guests at a banquet by remembering their places around the table before the roof caved in.

Andi Bell took his two-step variation of the method from Dominic O`Brien. First, he assigned each of the fifty-two cards an image that involved a character, an action and an object. The queen of diamonds, for instance, was Marilyn Monroe singing to a necklace. The images had to be striking;they didn’t have to make sense. In the early days, Bell would thumb through his deck for hours, speeding up his recall.

The second step involved ‘placing’ the images in a series of sequential locations. Once of Bell’s favorite sequences begins at Euston station. With the route in mind, Bell flips over the top three cards in a deck. (He always memorizes in threes.) Then he mentally places a new image, melding the images of the three cards, in his first location. So Marilyn Monroe might be standing near the ticket booth at Euston juggling three beer steins. The next location, the escalator leading up to the street, houses a scene for the next three cards, and so on. When he runs through his route, Andi ‘sees’ all the cards, in order. The sequence of the locations is key, as it imposes an order of an otherwise random collection of objects—playing cards or words or binary numbers.

Within six months of taking up the challenge, Bell could memorize a deck in under forty seconds. The following year, he entered the championship and came in a distant third. In 1998, Bell claimed first prize. He won again in 2002, and again a few weeks ago, at the 2003 championships.

Bell’s images for each card haven’t changed since he first wrote them down, ten years ago. There have been mishaps. At one point, he began to mix up the snowman representing the king of spades because they looked similar: fluffy and white. So he altered the images just enough to make them unmistakable; the snowman is now surrounded by a pool of water, and the chef’s hat flops about.

Location can pose a more difficult problem. During each championship, Bell needs thousands of locations to store images corresponding to the playing cards and strings of binary members. He’s got about 2,500 places stored in his head from around London, thanks to the many walks he’s taken to seek out new spots.

The locations must remain fresh.

When preparing for championships, Bell doesn’t practise with his locations; otherwise, things he has memorized in the past might linger. A friend once came in a disappointing tenth because he had ‘used up’ all his locations while practising the night before. It was a fatal mistake. Instead of being empty spaces, the locations were filled with half-remembered details-the equivalent of misplaced chefs and errant Marilyn Monroes.

London is a perfect setting. Unlike, say, New York, it’s not on a grid, and there are enough illogical twists to make each journey fresh. The parallel London in Bell’s head is swept clean of any human presence. Instead of a mass of commuters clacking through Euston station, there might be Mickey Mouse sawing a grapefruit. And because scenes involving meaning and emotion tend to embed in our minds longer than the blunt abstractions of numbers or playing cards, Bell sharpens each scene by making sense of it. Sure, Mickey is sawing through the grapefruit, but he’s doing it to make breakfast for Donald and Minnie, whom he cares for. A scene firmly fixed geographically and imbued with emotion will not fade like a late-night phone number.

In late September, Bell began adjusting his sleep pattern for the 2003 World Memory Championships, which were held in Kuala Lumpur in October. He started waking up at midnight so his mental agility wouldn’t be affected by jet lag. This championship may be his last:Being the top memorizer is not the best-paid job in the world. Bell currently lives with his parents and makes a living mainly from promotions and the occasional television appearance. Being memory champion also doesn’t guarantee celebrity—not that he’s looking for it. Groupies, if they exist, tend to be grandmothers, and sponsorship deals are a struggle. Rarely is Bell approached by anyone on the street who says, “I remember you.”