Secrets of a Mind-Gamer

CoverJoshua Foer in the NYT Magazine:

Dom DeLuise,the comedian (and five of clubs), was implicated in the following unseemly acts in my mind’s eye: He hocked a fat globule of spittle (nine of clubs) on Albert Einstein’s thick white mane (three of diamonds) and delivered a devastating karate kick (five of spades) to the groin of Pope Benedict XVI (six of diamonds). Michael Jackson (king of hearts) engaged in behavior bizarre even for him. He defecated (two of clubs) on a salmon burger (king of clubs) and captured his flatulence (queen of clubs) in a balloon (six of spades). This tawdry tableau, which I’m not proud to commit to the page, goes a long way toward explaining the unexpected spot in which I found myself in the spring of 2006. Sitting to my left was Ram Kolli, an unshaven 25-year-old business consultant from Richmond, Va., who was also the defending United States memory champion. To my right was the lens of a television camera from a national cable network. Spread out behind me, where I couldn’t see them and they couldn’t disturb me, were about 100 spectators and a pair of TV commentators offering play-by-play analysis. One was a blow-dried mixed martial arts announcer named Kenny Rice, whose gravelly, bedtime voice couldn’t conceal the fact that he seemed bewildered by this jamboree of nerds. The other was the Pelé of U.S. memory sport, a bearded 43-year-old chemical engineer and four-time national champion from Fayetteville, N.C., named Scott Hagwood. In the corner of the room sat the object of my affection: a kitschy, two-tiered trophy of a silver hand with gold nail polish brandishing a royal flush. It was almost as tall as my 2-year-old niece (if lighter than most of her stuffed animals).

The audience was asked not to take any flash photographs and to maintain total silence. Not that Kolli or I could possibly have heard them. Both of us were wearing earplugs. I also had on a pair of industrial-strength earmuffs that looked as if they belonged to an aircraft-carrier deckhand (in the heat of a memory competition, there is no such thing as deaf enough). My eyes were closed. On a table in front of me, lying face down between my hands, were two shuffled decks of playing cards. In a moment, the chief arbiter would click a stopwatch, and I would have five minutes to memorize the order of both decks.