This article was originally printed in Issue 425 (September/October) of the Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus.
Nelson Dellis is a four-time USA memory champion and has twice placed in the top ten at the World Memory Championships. He can memorize 339 digits in five minutes and the order of a shuffled deck of cards in 40.65 seconds. He is also an accomplished mountaineer, having scaled Denali (the highest peak in North America) and Mt Kilimanjaro. He has also come within 200 metres of the summit of Everest. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Nelson about his relentless pursuit of peak performance of body and mind.
Daniel: You developed your interest in memory training in 2009, after your grandmother passed away as a result of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s easy to appreciate why you’d develop an interest in mental training, but why memory specifically, rather than, say, competitive crossword solving or mental calculation? When did you first learn about the art of memory?
Nelson: Good question! Actually my interest in mental training started with mental math. I had always been fascinated with that, although not very good. When I was getting deeper and deeper into that world, I noticed a lot of mental calculators use memory techniques. So from there I jumped to memory. Once I first tried the techniques and saw how immediately I was able to do some seriously impressive mental feats, that’s what hooked me to memory.
Daniel: As a four-time USA memory champion you helped set a new competitive standard on the US memory scene. How do you structure your training? How many hours do you train in an average week? Do you think you have any methods or practices that set you apart from your competition?
Nelson: Yeah, that’s true. When I got into the game, Ron White had just won and set some serious records (in the US). I think that’s what really started the competitiveness in me and from then on I just made memory training my life. I was obsessed with it and couldn’t go a day without doing some form of memory training. Back in my peak days, I was training about five hours a day. I think the practices I had that set me apart were that I trained so hard. I would always tell myself that I was not going to be out-worked and out-trained. If there was going to be one thing I did better or more than any other competitor, it was going to be how much I trained.
Daniel: You’ve made three attempts to climb Mount Everest over the last few years for your charity ‘Climb for Memory’. Each time you’ve come nail-bitingly close. What is the relationship between your memory training and mountaineering?
Nelson: At first the relationship isn’t really that obvious. But if you look a little closer, you can see a connection. Most people don’t realize that mountaineering is hugely a mental sport. Sure it’s heavily physical too (after all, you’re climbing the mountain with your body), but the mind is what’s pushing your body through the immense pain and discomfort. When it comes down to it, any training, any challenge, is a mental game. You need to push yourself mentally to overcome the obstacles associated with the challenge. So for me, whether I’m doing memory training or climbing mountains, my mind is doing the same thing.
Daniel: Your recent projects have included a children’s book, the establishment of the Extreme Memory Tournament, a Kickstarter for a new memory training software package and you’ve also been vocal in your support of the new International Association of Memory. Which of these are you most excited about at the moment?
Nelson: The Extreme Memory Tournament! For sure! We first held the competition three years ago and it was a huge success. But I never thought it would be still ongoing in its success three years later. I think the most exciting thing about it are the big future plans that we have for it. These are plans we’ve had for a long time, but we finally find ourselves in a position to act on them. Memory sports is in the throes of a big change-up and I like to think XMT has a hand in that. Can’t wait to see where things go from here!
Daniel: One thread which seems to unite these disparate projects is a desire to raise awareness of the benefits of memory training. Does this mark a shift in your focus from competition to contribution? What’s next for you?
Nelson: I was hoping no one would ask me this but I guess it was inevitable, eh? I’m competitive at heart. It’s incredibly difficult for me not to compete. But there is also the fear of turning into a has-been. Nobody wants to be a has-been. I want to stay competition-relevant forever, but that just isn’t realistic. I’m going to lose, people are going to be better than me, and that’s that. And it’s not just a simple case of ‘well, just train harder, don’t lose’. You’re bound to get burned out. I trained every day for five years straight. When I won in 2014, the next day I decided to take a one-month break (it ended up being a six-month break). I needed it, I was so exhausted. It’s just hard to maintain the motivation to train with the same intensity when you first started and when you didn’t have any championship wins under your belt. Anyways, the answer to the question is I don’t know. I love contributing and teaching and will always do that, but I still love to compete. So I still plan on competing here and there. For how long? No idea!
Daniel: I’ve got one last question: I note that on your Wikipedia page, it says that ‘In Chicago, he worked at a local yarn shop, experimenting with large-scale knitting projects.’ Is this true or is somebody ‘spinning a yarn’?
Nelson: Haha, nope. True story. My mom is an exceptional cross-stitcher and knitter, so I was taught all that stuff at a young age. I only really got into it around 2005 when I was ‘forced’to go to a knitting class with my at-the-time girlfriend. She ended up hating it while I was there obsessed. I have been pretty much into knitting ever since. It sounds kind of funny but it’s a really cool pastime for a few reasons: 1. It’s knots, I love knots; 2. It’s mathematical and there’s a lot of counting and numbers involved; 3. You end up making actual pieces of clothes from string; 4. It has helped me woo many a lady (you knit a girl a hat, she will love you forever).