Mind games: inside the world of memory sports

November 9 2015

They look like a group of unfortunate people sitting exams, each of them silent, bent over their desks. But, inside the minds of these nine competitors are the finest memories in Australia.

And, over the weekend, they went head to head at the Australian Memory Championships, with this year’s national title decided by as little as three seconds in recall time.

That’s spine-tinglingly close, according to host, Daniel Kilov, who is himself a two time silver medallist at the championship.

“It gave me goose bumps!” He says of the final result. “Competitors really perform some astonishing feats here. We had someone memorise a deck of cards in two minutes and four seconds. But the really cool thing is that anyone can learn to do this stuff.”

Memory “athletes” use techniques known as mnemonics to convert difficult to remember information such as names and dates into information the brain finds more interesting. Think colourful images, familiar locations and wild stories.

“It’s not exactly a spectator sport,” Kilov admits. “But the real magic is happening inside the competitors’ heads. While they’re shuffling through decks of cards or looking at binary digits, they might have pandas juggling pineapples or geckos bathing in custard and all these crazy images going on to represent the numbers and the cards in front of them.”

Kilov learnt the “art of memory” from Melbourne’s Tansel Ali, who on Sunday took home the national title for the fourth year in a row.

But the champion himself says he’s “sick of winning.”

“Entering the memory competitions, I don’t actually care what result I get, that’s the least of my worries,” Ali says.

Since stumbling across memory techniques in his early twenties, Ali’s main focus has been training other people like Kilov and “trying to get the word out”.

And it’s led to some wild stories of his own – from memorising the entire Sydney Yellow Pages in 24 days to appearing alongside Todd Sampson in the SBS award winning documentary Redesign My Brain.

“I want to pass these techniques onto my kids and other people because this is the stuff that really builds success,” Ali says.

Tansel Ali being tested by Daniel Kilov
Australian Memory Champion Tansel Ali and host Daniel Kilov

It was while watching Ali on SBS that this year’s bronze medallist, Victorian secondary teacher Dan Mayes, was inspired to compete.

“As dumb as it sounds, I got such a buzz from memorising a deck of cards,” Mayes says. “If you told me a week before this was what I’d be able to do, I never would have believed it. And I thought if I can do this, anyone can. So I went to a bunch of schools and started running seminars introducing the kids to these techniques.”

Over the tournament weekend, two of Mayes’ Year Nine students broke three junior national records between them.

The transformative power of memory techniques is something Australian Memory Championship convenor, Jennifer Goddard, understands well. She has spent more than a decade now working in memory sports all over the world. But having left school at fifteen, Goddard says it was memory techniques that saved her from failing university later in life.

“I happened to be working in London when the World Memory Championships were on in 2001,” Goddard says. “That was the first time I was ever exposed to the phenomenal power of the brain. So the last night of the competition I actually jumped on a plane back to Australia and within three weeks I’d set up the very first competition here.”

In the years since, Goddard says Australia has remained a small but strong presence on the international memory field.

“We’ve had longevity because of the passion of the people here,” Goddard says. “Occasionally other countries will have one or two competitions and then they’ll just peter out. But, everyone around the world has been following what we’ve been doing in Australia.”

In his first year hosting instead of competing in the championship, Kilov said the event had raised a total of $1,300 for Alzheimer’s Australia.

“The idea of memory athletes being athletes is all about mental fitness and maintaining that mental fitness even as we age,” Kilov says. “Alzheimer’s is kind of a looming national disaster in the sense that it’s now second leading cause of death in Australia and we’re making no progress at all in treating it. So it seemed very natural to me that, as people interested in memory training, we should try to help.”

Words and photography by Sherryn Groch

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