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Top Memory Athletes Go Head-To-Head In San Diego

A poster promoting the 2015 Extreme Memory Tournament, May 1, 2015.
Extreme Memory Tournament
A poster promoting the 2015 Extreme Memory Tournament, May 1, 2015.

The world's top memory "athletes" will gather in San Diego this weekend for the second annual Extreme Memory Tournament.

Local drug discovery company Dart NeuroScience hosts the event, in part to further its research and development of memory-boosting drugs that could address diseases like Alzheimer's.

Memory researchers from Washington University in St. Louis will be on site, and Dart will be promoting an online test designed to find people with superior recall skills.

"What we hope to do is identify these individuals and study them further to better understand if there's a link between genetics and exceptional memory abilities that might down the road lead to drug discovery and development," said Dart scientist Mary Pyc.

Twenty-four memory athletes will go head-to-head in games such as memorizing a deck of shuffled cards. Most competitors commit these long sequences to memory by visualizing them in a mental space, sometimes called a memory palace.

Tournament founder and USA memory champ Nelson Dellis said he turns cards into people, and then places them throughout his house.

"The queen of hearts is always my mom," he said. "The heart signifies family and the queen of my family is my mom. So instead of the actual card, I picture my human mother in my house, doing something."

Dellis associates other cards with celebrities. "The seven of diamonds," he said, "that's Gerard Depardieu as a musketeer."

After looking at a deck of cards for less than a minute, he's able to reconstruct it by "walking" back through his memory house.

Innate brain power may help, but Dellis thinks pulling off these feats is mostly about mastering basic mnemonic tricks.

"Anyone can learn them, honestly," he said. "From that point on it's just practice and dedication."

The favorite in Saturday and Sunday's competition is Simon Reinhard. The German lawyer won last year's tournament, and holds the record in card memorization. He recited an entire deck in just 21.19 seconds.

Other competitors hail from countries like Mongolia, Sweden, the U.K. and the Philippines.

Large display screens make the Extreme Memory Tournament different from similar competitions. It's designed for spectators, and members of the public can watch for free with an online RSVP.