Page 2 at USA Memory Championship

Originally Published: June 27, 2011
By Patrick Cain | Special to Page 2

NEW YORK -- "This tastes like Robitussin"

"I don't care. I'll drink it, all the way," Nikki Reyes says with a smile that commands a room.

Reyes does not belong at the USA Memory Championship. She's a young, attractive professional, and many of the people here would be considered, umm, nerds. Nevertheless, she's here with a group of friends, malt beverage in hand, to witness the spectacle. Something, er, someone is out of place.

"We have a bit of a housekeeping issue. After lunch, tens of people streamed in. Let's remember to keep jackets off of chairs and the aisles clear," says event host Marshall Tarley, co-chairman of USA Memory.

That's right, tens of people.

Typically, memory competitors don't get groupies. Typically, memory competitors don't have NCAA-styled brackets made for their events. But when Ronnie White, winner of the 2009 and 2010 national championships, is set to face off against Nelson "Rock Yo' Fellers" Dellis (OK, we gave him the nickname), all logic goes out the window.

Before the two faced off, they first needed to survive the elimination rounds, which meant not only getting by other middle-aged men but a team of cutthroat high school students from Hershey, Penn. -- the national high school champions four years in a row.

Here's how the competition is presented:

Test one: Competitors -- nearly 40 of them -- get pictures of people with their names listed. After 15 minutes of studying, they have 20 minutes to recall as many as possible.

Test two: Competitors get pages of random numbers. After five minutes of close scrutiny, they have 10 minutes to recite as many as possible.

Final test: Memorize the order of a randomly assorted decks of cards.

These tasks take incredible concentration. Competitors warm up by studying a printed pattern that looks sort of like a smoothie being blended on high speed. When the buzzer goes off and synapses begin firing, many top competitors use noise-canceling headphones. It's all about focus.

White knows this, possibly better than anyone else. His power of recall is legendary. He owns the U.S. record for recalling a deck of randomly mixed cards in 87 seconds. He takes the competition seriously. He doesn't train with other memory competitors, but with a personal coach -- a Navy SEAL.

"My coach is a Navy SEAL, because who better knows how to stay cool under pressure than the SEALs?" he says.

The logic makes sense.

Camera crews, tens of spectators and even inappropriately timed whistling from Reyes' group can't slow down the top competitors, who are ultimately whittled down to just Dellis and White.

The final events are comprised of a string of new items to memorize. By the time it's just the two heavyweights left standing, it comes down to two randomly shuffled decks of cards. White and Dellis sit on stage, facing the crowd, taking deep breaths. Advantage, White.

King of hearts. Eight of clubs. Jack of diamonds. As the cards come up, Dellis and White rattle off the names before the judge can show the audience or even see it himself. They're going strong, further into the decks than any previous championship.

Dellis -- young and fit -- came ready to match wits. There's very little a memory competitor can do to psyche out his opponent, but less-experienced opponents remark about how intimidating it is that he recalls things so quickly. Dellis' thalamus came to this event ready for a marathon.

White's turn.

"The card is ... well, I'd just like to take this moment to congratulate the 2011 winner, Nelson Dellis," White says, stepping aside.

We have a new champ.

Reyes and her rowdy crew jump up and holler. Maybe it's the moment. Maybe it's the malt beverages. Their excitement pushes them to the front of the line to meet the new champ.

"I love that you guys came to cheer," Dellis tells his new fans. "And that your friends smell like alcohol."

Patrick Cain is a Los Angeles-based writer who contributes to Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine.

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