Basic strategies for competing at a CMSA memory championship

Ever heard of the expression the “art of memory”? It’s the coolest thing you’ve never heard of. Getting very good and consistent results using it will take some practice (about 20 hours spread over a few weeks before you can start feeling comfortable with most memory-related tasks), but even if you aren’t willing to invest that kind of time and effort, you can still pretty much double your performance overnight by just learning about and applying the right techniques. Read this cool New York Times article to understand what the art of memory is all about. Did you find that interesting and do you want to learn more? Well then check out some of the other links here. Or don’t read or check any of that if you don’t want to. Instead, or better yet in addition to, just read what is written here below to learn the minimum you need to know to compete in the beginner’s section of the National Memory Championship.

As explained here, competitors are tested on six challenges: images, exam, names and faces, random words, numbers and cards. But since it’s basically impossible to do well at numbers and cards without investing some time and effort creating a system first (although it’s not as much work as you think), we made those last 2 challenges completely optional for competitors in the Regular section. Here are how you can do well at the first four non-optional challenges

First challenge: 5 minutes IAM images

This is one of the most fun and most beginner-friendly challenges. You will be shown rows of 5 pictures and you’ll have 5 minutes to memorize as many rows as you can. You will then be shown those same pictures in a different order and you will have 15 minutes to correctly recall as many rows as you can. You get 5 points for each correctly recalled row and you lose 1 point for each incorrectly recalled row. You will indicate the correct order by writing the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 next to each image. There are no penalty for not answering any given row. Since the same 5 images will always appear on the same row they were in originally, just not in the same order, it would be wise for you to just skip over the fifth images of each row. During recall, you will know that the image you don’t remember looking at is automatically the fifth one. And since the scoring system is very lenient, I personally wouldn’t waste time reviewing. During the recall period, leave blank the rows that you’re completely confused about and try to answer every row you think you have at least a 25% chance of getting right.

Here’s an example with just two rows:

Here’s one possible example of a silly story you could use to remember the order of the first four images. You’re at the top of the water slide and you hesitate because it looks kind of scary. The evil owl behind starts making fun of you and calling you mean names. So you jump and slide down. But at the end of it instead of falling in the water, you fall inside a train wagon that the carries you to the side of the pool where the friendly giraffe is waiting to congratulate you for your amazing bravery.

That’s the first row. Writing the story down like I just did may take a minute, but simply making it up in your mind can be done very quickly. The more you do it, the quicker you will become and the more creative and memorable your stories will be. Now moving on to the second row. You’re discouraged about those tons of books you have to read. Why oh why can’t you just go to the desert and be a ninja like you always dreamed of? But a beautiful angel shows up and tells you need to read your books and be responsible. That’s it. The fourth image seems to in fact be a ballerina, but if I only take half a second to look at it, I might end up with a different interpretation and that should be good enough for recall. Your stories don’t have to be “good” or logical, you just need to make them up. A bad story or an absurd story is still 10 times more efficient than no story at all.

Here’s what you might be shown during the recall period, the same images in the same row, but in a different order.

You didn’t include any plane or any pool ball in your stories did you? Then write a “5” next to those two images. Then write 1 to 4 to the images you’ve memorized, in the order that they appear in your stories. That’s all you need to know to memorize tons of images!

Alternative way to memorize images: Another possibly more efficient method you could use would be to build a memory palace. I (Francis Blondin) currently don’t use a memory palace for images, but many others do. You can watch this short video explaining one efficient way to build a palace. Like explained in the video, for each room or zone of your palace you will choose 5 locations in order. Once you have say 30 locations (6 rooms or zones), you will spend a few minutes practicing going from locations 1 to 30 as quickly as you can. You can also do the same exercise in reverse order. Ok so do you have your 30 locations now? Good! If you don’t, that’s ok too. You can just choose your apartment, your childhood home, your workplace, your school or any place you know relatively well, pick a starting point and improvise your path all around. That’s what I did in my very first competition in 2015. It’s not the best possible strategy but it can still work very well. During the memorization period, you will quickly improvise stories like I’ve shown you before, but those stories will be happening all over your memory palace. If you place two images per location like I think you should, your 30 locations palace will be enough to remember the order of no less than 15 rows of images and possibly get an impressive score of 60. So if for example the first location of your palace is your kitchen table and second is the chair next to it, you would place the water slide and the annoying owl on the table and the train wagon and the giraffe on the chair next to it. The next row of images will be placed at the next 2 locations and so on and so forth. Just mentally placing the images in your memory palace will help a lot, but it will be more efficient (and more fun) if you also make up some kind of story in the process. During recall you’ll ask yourself what was happening on your kitchen table and on the chair next to it and most of the time that will be enough for the story to come back to mind : )

That’s it for images! You train this event as much as you want by opening an account on, just follow the instructions here. You can also print some of those sample disciplines.

Second challenge: 15 minutes Exam cramming

The rules for this challenge are explained in the Memory Sports section of this website. Basic strategies you can use for this challenge will be added here later.

Third challenge: 5 minutes Names and faces

Names and faces can be very tough and some people are naturally better at it than others. But like many other things, everyone can radically improve their performances with the right techniques and a little bit of effort.

Click on this video and then this one for 2 different techniques you can use to remember names and faces. You can also click on this one and this one if you want more examples. Basically it comes down to 1- Pay attention, make sure you’re not thinking about something else when you see or hear the name. 2- Find a trick. It can be an image, someone you know with the same name or a similar one, a funny thought (something the person might be doing or thinking) or even a song. 3- Associate that trick with the person, ideally to some memorable part of his or her face. 4- Review.

Click here for an example of what you will be shown. Look at a face, find a silly trick for the name, move on to the next face. If one particular name seems harder, you can just skip it. There are no penalties for skipping anything. After maybe 5 or 10 faces, quickly review them. The way I proceed is to first hide the names with my hand and see if I can quickly recall them (testing yourself is a proven way to make a memory stronger). If I can’t within less than a second, I’ll look at the name, remember the trick I used and then move on. After that first review, I may or may not make a second review very quickly before starting to memorize new names again. Keep going through the same process as quickly as you can. Use maybe the last minute just one last overall quick review. Then try to recall as many names as you can. This is the review process that I like to use, but maybe some other process would be best for you. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try different strategies. You can also try “grabbing” 1 or 2 or 3 new names during the last 5 seconds using no trick and just your natural memory. After the time is up and you have to flip the page over, close your eyes and repeat those last few names in your head many times and then answer them first before moving on to the names you’ve memorized using tricks.

Fourth challenge: 10 minutes Random words

Here the simplest way to proceed might be to use what’s called the linking method. Basically every word will be “linked” is some imaginative way to the previous and the following word inside some short story. Practicing the linking method can be a very good creativity exercise. Here’s a nice example of how it can work. Please note that the stories you’ve built yourself should be much easier to remember than those built by others. Most words will be easy enough. But for abstract or difficult to visualize words, just use something else to remember it instead. Pettiness could be remembered using Donald Trump. Admonish could be remembered using your parents admonishing you for not doing your homework. Even if you had never heard the word admonish before in your life, you could still find a way to remember it just by using one or two small parts of the word and substituting them for something that sounds similar. You could choose to imagine an ad, a monk (“monish”) or even a fish. All terrible examples, but better than nothing. In competition it’s usually a better strategy to go with a very bad image that you can improvise quickly and review later than to spend too much time trying to think of the perfect mnemonic. Often two or three words can be combined into a single image. You can also sometimes combine different strategies, using both the meaning of the word and the way it sounds. Pettiness and admonish could be remembered using a very small Donald Trump (small because pettiness sounds like “petit” in French) feeding money to a fish (money+fish=”monish”). Since the correction is made by rows of 10 and words have to be remembered in order, I would advise making a quick mental note every 10 or 20 words. Maybe add a wall or a crater or a nail to your story every 10 or 20 words to remember that you’re supposed to switch row at that point.

Alternative way to memorize random words: The linking method is great, but for most people most of the time, except maybe the amazing Valérie Grenon, this isn’t the most efficient method. By using a memory palace with 30 locations and by placing 2 words per location, you can remember a list of 60 words in order, a very impressive score for a beginner. If you’ve built a palace for images, you could choose to use the same one again for words, although it might lead to some confusion later. Or as I explained before, you can just pick a specific place somewhere, and start placing images around. You’ll probably be a little slower than you otherwise would have been with a specific path that you have prepared in advance, but you’ll still have fun and memorize a lot.

Here’s an example of how you could remember 10 not that easy word using a story improvised inside this room. I will let the training website Memory League choose the words: variety, saxophone, chimpanzee, pointless, subtle, summer, triumph, restart, filthy and scenario. Now for each of those words I could come up with maybe a dozen ways to remember them, but because I don’t want to write a novel here, I’ll limit myself to just one or two examples per words. Also know that if I was doing this just for me, I would use some associations that probably wouldn’t make sense to you, and I would limit myself to simple blurry images with no more details than necessary. Knowing how much details are “necessary” is a skill that you will develop with practice. Now why don’t you try to go along with this example and memorize those 10 words? Read a few sentences and then take a few seconds to picture what is described. Just reading the text probably won’t be enough, you also need to make an effort to at least vaguely imagine those scenes happening in each corner of the room. You don’t need to “see” everything clearly in your mind, you just need to be left with some vague impression.

  • Location 1 – Variety and Saxophone : A stage is suspended from the ventilator. On it we can admire a “variety” of performers, the most prominent one is playing the “saxophone”. Maybe it’s the saxophone guy from the Simpsons.
  • Location 2 – Chimpanzee and Pointless : A “Chimpanzee” is laying in bed, ruminating about his life. He looks at the show above and finds it super boring. He thinks about maybe waking up, but what’s the point? Life is “pointless”, he thinks. Maybe he also has a big point on his forehead.
  • Location 3 – Subtle and Summer : A douchebag type of guy is looking outside the window and yelling cheesy pick-up lines at the girls outside. It’s a hot “summer” day and the girls are walking around in bikini. One of them tells him he isn’t very “subtle” with his lines. Or maybe the sun is saying the same thing? Mental note to remember that subtle comes before summer. An alternative would have been to represent those words using other completely unrelated words that sort of sound like those 2, for example by having a space shuttle landing on the summit of a mountain. Shuttle = Subtle. Summit = Summer.
  • Location 4 – Triumph and Restart : I think of Donald Trump (he comes up quite often in my stories) celebrating his “triumph” in the latest election. Another great Trump triumph and a new “restart” for the nation, he thinks. Maybe he’s scanning the library looking for books about himself. Or maybe he suddenly stops moving and one his aides has to restart him by turning the giant key that is attached to his back?
  • Location 5 – Filthy and Scenario : Near the entrance of the room, a porn director stop filming to yell at Trump and tell him that his election is the most “filthy” “scenario” he has ever come across.

There you go. Don’t be a perfectionist when choosing your images and you’ll improve quickly. With 5 rooms like this one you could remember a list of 50 words in order in not that much time. Also know that most CMSA words will be nouns, so on average they should be easier to remember than the one presented in the example above. In competition even though the correction system is lenient for beginners, it would still be wise to review periodically. One way you could proceed would be to memorize 20 words, review them. Then memorize 20 more words and review them. Then quickly review the 40 words you’ve memorized so far. If you still have time, memorize some more and review them just once before the time is up. During recall first write down the words you’ve reviewed just once, then write down the 40 words you’ve reviewed twice or more. If you have trouble remembering some words, just skip over the line and move on. When you’re done recalling most of what you can, then try to fill the gaps if you can.

That’s it for 4 challenges that competitors in Regular section will face! If you also want to compete in numbers and/or cards, just know that those challenges are completely optional. If you want to be good at them, more preparation will be necessary. Thank you for having the guts to try something new and I hope you’ll enjoy practicing and/or competing!

Still want to learn more? Also interested in numbers and cards? Curious about how similar techniques can be used for studying or for learning languages or for other fun and worthy pursuits? Check out some of the links and explanations here.