This article was originally printed in Issue 440 of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.
Daniel Kilov interviews Ben Pridmore. Pridmore, from Derby in the UK, is a three-time World Memory Champion winning the title 2004, 2008 and 2009.Pridmore achieved this by winning a 10-discipline competition, the World Memory Championship, which has taken place every year since 1991. He holds the prestigious title of Grand Master of Memory.
Daniel Kilov: Am I correct in saying that your first foray into the world of competitive memorizing was something of an accident? I’ve heard that you didn’t know about memory techniques and even trained yourself to memorize a deck of cards without any system. What led you to enter the memory championships, when you did discover the techniques, and what about them caught your imagination?
Ben Pridmore: Yes, it was a complete accident. I got into memory sports thanks to an event called the Mind Sports Olympiad (MSO), which started in 1997—a big gathering of all the ‘mind sports’ you can think of, including board and card games as well as more abstract things like the World Memory Championship (WMC). I went there for the ‘World Intelligence Championship’, which I’d read about in the Mensa magazine (this was during a brief period when I was a member of Mensa, just so that I could boast about it—I was very young at the time). The World Intelligence Championship, that first year, was five full days of doing IQ tests (literally six or seven hours each day), and there was also a one-day intelligence competition on the Saturday, so that took up most of my time (I think the first MSO was nine days in total). But I did notice some of the other competitions going on at the time, and took part in a couple of them, too. It was fun enough to make me resolve to go back the next year and take part in as many different events as I could—the whole thing was very friendly, with a real sense of community; that was what appealed to me more than anything else.
I don’t remember paying any attention to the World Memory Championship that first year, but when I came back to the MSO in 1998, two things caught my eye—first, an interview with MSO star Demis Hassabis in which he mentioned that he was planning to learn memory techniques of associating numbers and cards with mental images and visualising them on a journey (as far as I know he never actually followed up on that plan, and I dismissed the whole idea as something someone had made up to sell books, but it’s still significant as the first time I ever heard about memory systems!) which inspired me to buy a pack of cards and see how quickly I could memorise it. I did it by the simple technique of reading and repeating back to myself until I knew it by heart, and it took me 48 minutes. I was still quite impressed with myself—memorising a whole pack of cards is quite an achievement! Then at the MSO it was announced that Andi Bell had broken the world record and memorised a pack of cards in just over 34 seconds!
With the knowledge that that was possible, I spent the next couple of years practising memorising cards, still without using any system—I didn’t think the top competitors would be doing it in any kind of different way—and got my time down to 15 minutes. In 1999 at the MSO I entered the ‘Decamentathlon’ (classic Tony Buzan name for a competition involving written puzzles in ten mind sports) and memorised a pack of cards and a number in competition for the first time. I don’t remember how many I got, but it probably wasn’t more than ten. I did meet Tom Groves, a memory competitor, there, and he mentioned memory techniques, but I still didn’t really register it as anything that really existed…
In 2000, planning out my MSO schedule to fit as many different events in as possible, I opted for the World Memory Championship, which was a two-day thing back then. It turned out to be the last time the WMC was part of the MSO, so it’s lucky I didn’t leave it until the next year! It was while talking to the other competitors (particularly Graham Old, Rob Carder and Tom Groves) that I finally got the message that memory techniques really did work, and decided to try them for myself. I bought one of Tony Buzan’s books, read the chapters on numbers and cards, and that night made myself a list of 52 images for cards and 100 for numbers, using the Major system. I found that I could immediately memorise a pack of cards in seven minutes, which was a real revelation!
That’s what really hooked me from the start—knowing that as I kept on practising, my times for memorising a pack of cards would keep coming down. There’s always another target to aim for, after all—five minutes, two minutes, one minute…I don’t think I really had the notion at that point that I could come anywhere near the world record, but I was interested to see how fast I could get. Cards were definitely the discipline I cared about the most—numbers were a sort of sideline and the others I wasn’t really interested in at all.
Daniel Kilov: You may know more about the history of memory competitions than anyone else still active in the sport today. In an interview with Nelson Dellis, you referred to memory competitions in the 2000s as ‘The golden age of memory’. Why?
Ben Pridmore: Well, I called it ‘the golden age’ because I was in it—I wasn’t being entirely serious. But it’s true that the 2000s was the era when international memory competitions really took off— in the 1990s they called it the ‘World Memory Championships’, but it was really just contested by a handful of British people, with a German or two to make up the numbers. But in the ‘noughties’, knowledge of the existence of memory championships gradually spread around the world (thanks to that wonderful thing we call the internet!) and there was a lot of growth in places like Germany, Malaysia, India, China and many more. If the nineties were the starting point, the noughties were when it became a real world championship.
Daniel Kilov: What were the most memorable moments of that era? How have things changed?
Ben Pridmore: How have things changed? The obvious answer is that the scores have got so much higher! If you look at the results in 2000 and compare them to 2009, everything’s improved by such leaps and bounds, it’s amazing. And the process is still going on, of course—look at the scores I got to win the world championship in 2008 and 2009, and you can see they wouldn’t scrape into the top twenty at a world championship nowadays…
The other major change, as I said above, is how much the sport expanded and grew. Before 2000, there were maybe three or four memory competitions a year in the whole world. No local smaller championships, the only one that really counted was the WMC. Over the decade, they introduced a more formal structure, bringing in the ‘millennium standard’ system and setting out the format of ‘world’, ‘international’ and ‘national’ standard competitions. There was also a real world ranking list for the first time, which helped fire up everybody’s interest!
There were a lot of highlights in the decade. We started out with things very much continuing the way they were before, with Dominic O’Brien by far and away the best in the world, but with the widespread belief that Andi Bell had the potential to do much better if he could just get it all together—he had a habit of getting huge scores in some disciplines, then trying for too much and getting near zero in others. Incidentally, I’m always going to admire Andi more than any of the other top competitors over the years just because of the way he introduced himself to me when we first met in 2000—’Hi, I’m Andi, I’m one of the other competitors.’ To really appreciate that, you have to understand my philosophy of life, which basically boils down to thinking that the worst thing anyone can possibly do is act like they think they’re better than other people. (That’s even worse, in my mind, than acting like you think I’M better than YOU, which I also find infuriating.) But there’s a lot of thinking-they’re-better in mind sports in general, and the upper echelons of memory sports certainly aren’t immune to it, so Andi’s modesty made a very favourable impression on me.
2002 gave us our first big memorable moment, when Andi did get it together and blew everyone away, Dominic included, with the kind of scores that were unthinkable at the time. It was at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand that year, a traditional home for memory in the olden days, but it was very much the start of a new age. It was also the last competition I went to before I grew a beard—I just thought I’d mention that, so everybody knows how far ahead of the trend I was with facial hair.
2003 was the world championship I always described as my favourite. Held outside London for the first time, we went to Kuala Lumpur, and I had a whale of a time! I just re-discovered an article I wrote about it in 2013: http://mt.artofmemory.com/article/the-world-memory-championship-2003-3885.html.
Daniel Kilov: In 2003, you developed the Ben system, which still stands as one of the most significant technical developments in memory sports. What led you to develop your system? How have your systems changed, if at all, since those days?
Ben Pridmore: The Ben system (I originally didn’t like that name, but I’ve got used to it by now and think it’s quite cool after all) came about just because I was thinking ‘I need something better…’.
I was using a basic system with two-digit or one-card images, and memorising ten packs in an hour meant seeing each of my images ten times. It really didn’t work at all, so I needed a way to have more images. The only way I could think of to do that was to have two cards making a single image.
The first innovation I tried was expanding from a two-digit-image system to three-digit-images—my two-digit system was just the standard Major system, but I didn’t want to use that for three digits, because it would lead to a lot of clunky multiple-syllable words, and I wanted a simple, short word for each image. So I used vowel sounds for the second digit, giving me a one-syllable sound (consonant-vowel-consonant) for each three-digit number.
With a three-digit system, you have 1,000 images, 10x10x10. The ‘eureka’ moment was realising that two cards could be represented as 16x13x13 (2,704 images) if the first ‘digit’ was the combination of suits, the second was the number of the first card, and the third was the number of the second. After that, it was simple. And a nice side-effect was that I could then use the same images for a binary system, giving me an image for each 10-digit binary number (splitting it into 4-3-3 digit chunks, 16x8x8, 1,024 images). It all worked very nicely. I think I was the first person to design a memory system for the specific purpose of memory competitions, which is probably why it stood out at the time as being extra special. By now, obviously, there have been many improvements to systems created by other people, but I still use the same system that I came up with in 2003. It works for me!
Daniel Kilov: You won the world memory championships in 2004, 2008 and 2009. What did your training look like in those days? Did you have specific drills or did you just practise the events?
Ben Pridmore: No, I ‘just’ practised the events. I’ve always felt that that was the best and cleverest way to go about training for a memory competition—re-create as exactly as possible the tasks you’re going to have to do in the championship itself. Back then, very few people ever practised the hour-long disciplines; they knew they’d have to do them in competition, but their training was focused entirely on the shorter, quick memory. I was the opposite way around; the hour-long marathons were always my main focus. I think that once you’ve done that, your scores in the five-minute disciplines will improve as well, but it doesn’t work in reverse. You need to get your mind accustomed to concentrating on one thing for three hours at a time. And I think the only way to do that is practise!
My most intense training era was 2003 – 2004, after I won the world championship the first time. I never quite regained the enthusiasm and commitment to it that I had back then. I did get back a certain amount of motivation in 2007 – 2008, and did manage to win the title again, improving my scores from the level they’d been at in 2004, but ever since then I haven’t really had the will to keep going full-steam. Back in the early days, what I considered an ‘ideal’ training schedule was to spend about an hour every weekday evening after work doing speed cards and speed numbers, and then at the weekend do hour cards, hour numbers and 30-minute binary.
Daniel Kilov: How many hours were you training per week? Did you have specific tricks for maintaining that intensity of focus?
Ben Pridmore: I think I’ve answered this one as part your earlier question about whether I had any specific drills—the only ‘trick’ I used to keep focus, was to keep doing it, over and over again. The more you do it, the longer you can keep it up without your mind starting to wander.
Daniel Kilov: Do you use your techniques outside of the competitive arena? How do you go about translating your competitive expertise into more practical learning challenges?
Ben Pridmore: I don’t. I always get in trouble for saying this, but my techniques are designed for one specific purpose—winning the World Memory Championship. I just don’t have any interest in using them for any other reason. In everyday life, there’s no real need for memory techniques—you’re allowed to write things down! Or, as modern people would put it, you’re allowed to store things on your phone.
I don’t have any need for practical learning challenges. I’m not at school any more. I’ve long, long ago passed all the exams I’ll ever need to pass. I don’t need to improve myself (that sounds big-headed, I know!), because I’ve already got a job that pays me enough money to live on.
Daniel Kilov: How else, if at all, have your experiences in memory sports changed your daily life?
Ben Pridmore: Memory sports has completely and totally changed my life, just because it’s made me into some kind of semi-celebrity! And even apart from the added bonus of appearing on TV from time to time, memory competitions have given me an opportunity to travel all around the world (often for FREE!), meet a lot of amazing, wonderful people, and have a huge amount of fun! I will always feel vastly, enormously indebted to Tony Buzan for deciding that it would be a good idea to have competitions in memorising long numbers. If not for that, I dread to think what I would be. Well, I know what I would be—still an accountant, but without a weird and fascinating hobby. I’d be very boring and I wouldn’t be doing this interview…
Daniel Kilov: What do you think the future holds for memory sports? Do you have any theories about where the next technical innovations will come from and what they might look like? And what’s on the horizon for you, in terms of memory?
Ben Pridmore: The future will be… fast-paced. The big innovation of recent years is Memory League—head-to-head, quickfire, computer-based matches. So far removed from the original concept of the world memory championship that it doesn’t really count as the same thing, but it’s clearly got the mass appeal that the old-fashioned type of competition can never muster. I think it will almost certainly grow beyond its current small-scale set-up; my hope is just that it doesn’t totally eclipse those hour-long marathons. I’ve always tried to resist the gradual shortening of disciplines that has happened during my years as a memory competitor—you can admire somebody who can memorise a deck of cards very quickly, but to my mind it’s much more admirable to memorise thirty decks of cards in a one-hour period!
Interestingly, there hasn’t yet been any ‘specialisation’ of competitors—the best in the world at Memory League are also the best in the world at the traditional World Memory Championship disciplines. I would have expected it to be different, and just maybe, in the future, people will come along who only want to do one or the other. Then we might see some kind of interesting ‘schism’ which might sound the death-knell for Hour Numbers and the like. I very much hope not!
As for memory systems, I wonder how much ‘bigger’ they can get? One or two people are now using four-digit-image systems, with 10,000 possible combinations. A three-card-image system seems impossible, but I find it hard to believe we’ve reached a plateau. Scores will, of course, keep on getting higher—an interesting thing about memory competitions is that as soon as somebody’s set a score, other people can do it much more easily themselves. Then they set to work breaking the current record, and it just keeps progressing.
As for me, I don’t know. It’s been very nearly ten years now since I was at all fired-up about trying to be the best in the world. I’d like to recapture that enthusiasm, but I don’t really know how. I think what’s on the horizon for me, in the short term at least, is continuing to go to competitions because my friends are there. I’ll keep organising my own competitions (I’ve been doing that since 2006) and spreading the word about how much fun they are, so I’m not going to disappear. But I can’t see me winning anything again. Maybe I’m wrong…
Daniel Kilov: Is there anything you wish more people knew about memory, or the mind more generally?
Ben Pridmore: I wish more people knew there was such a thing as memory competitions. I wish more people knew how much fun they are. I wish more people knew how surprisingly easy it is to memorise a pack of cards or a 100-digit number. I wish the people who do know about memory competitions would separate them in their minds from the self-improvement concept that they’ve always been marketed as, and see them as a sport, specific and complete in itself. You wouldn’t ask Lionel Messi how people can use football-playing skills to help them pass exams or be a more effective businessman. Why do I always get asked how people can use my card-memorisation skills for that kind of thing?
Mensan Daniel Kilov is a Memory Athlete. He believes that we are all mental athletes; in a competitive world, we all need to be able to remember more, to be more creative, innovative and focused. In this sense, the techniques used by memory athletes should be available to everyone.
For more, visit DanielKilov.com and follow Daniel on Twitter at @DanielKilov.