March 27th, 2012
07:02 PM ET

World contest, mountains next for 2-time U.S. memory champ

[Updated at 9:08 a.m. ET Wednesday] After winning his second straight U.S. memory championship, Nelson Dellis has had little time to think.

Since Saturday, when he successfully defended his USA Memory Championship title against 50 competitors in New York, he has done loads of interviews and answered many e-mails but still is finding time to savor his win after training for at least four hours daily over many weeks.

“I just did my first deck of cards since the competition this morning,” Dellis said Tuesday by phone from his home city of Miami, referring to part of his training routine. “I’m just taking it all in.”

Dellis, 28,  broke his own U.S. record in one of the events in which competitors memorize as many computer-generated digits as they can in five minutes.

He correctly recalled a string of 303 digits in that event, breaking his 2011 record of 248. Through that and other preliminary events, he qualified for the title round in which he memorized the order of two shuffled decks of playing cards in the five minutes given. (The runner-up, 2009 and 2010 U.S. champion Ron White, lost when making a mistake on the 67th card.)

Dellis, who was profiled on CNN.com a day before the competition, began dabbling in mnemonics - the association techniques that memory competitors use to remember seemingly impossible strings of cards, words and numbers - in 2008, inspired in part by his desire to sharpen his mind after watching his grandmother suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. He’s since turned full time to memory-related ventures and has performed like no other American in the speed events, with records not only in speed numbers but also speed cards (officially 63 seconds for a deck of cards, but he says he once did it in 33.13 seconds in practice).

He might have been poised to break the speed-numbers record Saturday, but he said a few distractions hindered him. In one heat, he unexpectedly needed to remove two jokers while he was being timed (he says they were supposed to be taken out before he was given the deck), and in the second, someone took two flash photos in front of his face as he was studying the deck. His top speed cards time - the best of any competitor Saturday - was 87 seconds.

Dellis says he now has plenty to look forward to:

- Mountain climbing for Alzheimer's: Dellis will go to Peru in July to climb in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, part of a mountain-climbing series for his Climb for Memory charity, which raises awareness and funds for Alzheimer's research. The climb will be preparation for a planned 2013 trip to scale Mount Everest and the nearby Lhotse peak - a trip in which he hopes to raise more than $290,000 (adding a zero to Mount Everest's roughly 29,000-foot peak) for Alzheimer's.

- World Memory Championships: Dellis' victory qualifies him to go to the World Memory Championships, where he'd compete against the planet's best. Though his U.S. speed records are far better than those set by Americans before him, he has his work cut out for him on the global stage: The world record for speed numbers is 500 digits, and the mark for speed cards is 21.19 seconds.

"The (date and location of the 2012) World Memory Championships haven't been officially announced ... but I would love to compete," Dellis said. "There is an attainable grand master title to get by achieving certain scores, so I would love to get that."

- More speaking engagements, other ventures: Dellis, a master's degree holder who quit his job in software development last year to focus on his memory career, says he wants to secure more speaking engagements and other business opportunities. Already an ambassador for software memory solution company Fusion-io, he says he intends to write a book on how to use memory techniques.

Winning the 2012 U.S. title helps to validate the time he put into training, he said.

"I was tremendously relieved," he said. "I put so much time into this, and was really hoping to keep my title to keep my credibility high. I managed to pull that out, and I'm ecstatic. And my whole family was there (in New York) to see it, so that meant a lot."

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Filed under: Florida • Health • New York
soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Superman/climber

    God going!! You have my support in your endeavers . Especially in peru to climb there you will love it! I climbed there in 2007 and its awesome

    March 28, 2012 at 1:03 am | Report abuse |
  2. Michael

    "The world record for speed cards is 500 digits, and the mark for speed cards is 21.19 seconds." I think you meant to say the record for recalling computer generated digits is 500.

    March 28, 2012 at 10:09 am | Report abuse |
  3. Agnes

    Your dad, sister, brother and I, your mom, are so incredibly proud of your achievements not only because you won again this year but because we know of all the hard work you have put in to become the US Memory Champion. I humbly say that being your mother is just the icing on the cake. We love you!

    March 28, 2012 at 11:01 am | Report abuse |
  4. Billie Jo Murray

    I can't even remember where I put my keys! I gotta cut down on the white wine...

    March 28, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Doclap Nguyen

    Shut up Scott Henkle.

    March 28, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark Basler

      Doc,
      As a member of your team I am appalled that you would post this.

      March 28, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Mike

    I wonder how he would do against that piano player from England?

    March 28, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rainman

      I don't think Sir Elton John is going to be much of a worry...

      March 28, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Report abuse |
  7. hecep

    Medical school students also use (or used to use) mnemonic tools. I vaugely remember "Never Lower Tilly's Panties, Momma Might Come Home" with the first letter in each word being that of the first letter of a certain group of bones in the human body. My guess is that Dellis used the peg-word system (one is a bun, two is a shoe, three is a tree, and so on with variations along the way as numbers increased) to associate bun, shoe, etc with the item being memorized. If you have a good imagination, it works beautifully.

    March 28, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Rainman

    Get this guy to Vegas!

    March 28, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Peter T

    Mitt Romney needs to hire this guy to keep track of where he actually is on the issues.

    March 28, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
  10. terryb100

    This guy is awesome. One other point. I have to commend the videographer in this video, the shallow depth of field and sharpness is awesome. Great footage!

    March 28, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Dan

    Can he do anything useful with this skill?

    March 28, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • xavi

      He made a career of it. Probably more meaningful and rewarding than some other careers.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
  12. GozieBoy

    Thanks for the memory!

    March 28, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Michael

    But the real question is this: does he remember what he ate for dinner yesterday?

    March 29, 2012 at 9:52 am | Report abuse |
  14. alpg49

    My congratulations. That said – memory is overvalued. It's easy to test, so our educational system is geared toward teaching memory and recall. Problem solving and creativity are left behind.

    March 29, 2012 at 10:48 am | Report abuse |
  15. Jay

    I meant to sign up for this contest, but forgot . . .

    March 29, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |