Basic strategies for competing at a CMSA memory championship

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Interested in competing in one of our memory championships? That’s awesome! The simplest way you could go about doing that would be to just sign up, show up, use your normal “natural” memory, focus as much as you can and hope for the best. Maybe you’ll enjoy the challenge, but most people would find this to be quite unpleasant. Performing well will be very difficult in those circumstances, even if you were born with an awesome natural memory. And unless you’re the reincarnation of John Von Neumann, you shouldn’t expect your results to impress anyone.

Thankfully, there’s another way to proceed that will lead not only to much better results, but also to a much more enjoyable experience.

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 10 or 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.

You can maybe start by reading this short and fascinating New York Times article to understand what the art of memory is all about. Cool isn’t it? The exercise in the article is far from ideal, but it does give you a very small taste of the potential power of memory techniques. If at some point in the future you want a more in-depth dive into this fascinating subject, just explore some of the links on this page. But if you just want to know how to well at the next championship, skip the links and simply keep reading this page.

As explained in details here, competitors are tested on up to six challenges: images, the exam, names and faces, random words and finally numbers and cards. But since it’s almost impossible to do well at numbers and cards without first investing some time and effort creating a system and becoming familiar with it, we made those last 2 challenges completely optional for competitors in the Regular section. Becoming good at numbers and cards isn’t as much work as people think it is, but it can’t be done overnight. And since you’ll only be judged on your 4 best results, a rational strategy for you would be to focus first and foremost on the disciplines where you’re most likely to improve quickly. Here’s everything you need to know to do well in those first four challenges.

Some friendly advice valid for all or most events

Try to focus as much as you can, but also try to relax! This is mostly just a game. There’s nothing extremely important at stake here. Also remember that you can ask for your name and\or results to be kept anonymous if you prefer for some reason.

Most of the times, you’re going to try to turn meaningless data into more memorable images and\or stories and\or associations. A few examples on how to do that will be provided for each event. Sometimes just saying “all right there’s this thing over there” can be enough, but often it isn’t. If your images or memorization tricks aren’t memorable enough, here are some examples of strategies you can try to use. There’s a lot here, so don’t hesitate to come back and reread those tips later on.

  • Make your images wilder, weirder, uglier, more beautiful, sexier, more violent, smellier, more disgusting, with more tentacles, more ice cream and more blood! In your imagination, there’s no such thing as “too extreme” or “too offensive”. That’s of course all up to you. More mundane and ordinary images can also work quite well.
  • If it is difficult to find an image directly representing what you want to remember, use any association, however twisted or absurd or vague it may be, even if this association is only very vaguely related to what you want to memorize. If you have no idea for a particular word, break it up into parts. Surely you can find a trick at the very least for the first letter of what you want to remember.
  • Use your 5 senses and add sound or even olfactory, tactile and gustatory elements to your images.
  • Use the power of stories by sometimes imagining a bogus reason why all this nonsense happens. The “logical” links (quotation marks are important here) thus created can greatly solidify your stories.
  • Link your images with each other by making them interact from time to time, even if it is only indirectly (a character may notice what is happening next door and find it very strange). 6- When using a memory palace, link the images with their environment. That imaginary turtle on your kitchen table is making quite a mess! It won’t be easy to clean that up.
  • Not every memory trick need to be visual. All kinds of associations can work, as long as they make sense in some weird way in your mind. If you meet someone named William and you think “that guy has a lot of willpower”, that’s not visual and maybe the guy is in fact the laziest person in the world, but it can still work. To paraphrase someone else, memory techniques work even when they don’t work. They force you to pay attention, to transform the information and to play with it. Just mentally linking something to some other relevant or irrelevant concepts is enough to drastically increase retention levels. Even when you can’t find the right image or mnemonic, you still make progress simply by trying to assimilate the information in different ways.

If at some point (maybe not now) sooner or later you want more details and examples about those strategies and others, you can read this article.

When and how to review

I’m not sure how common or uncommon this strategy is, but I very often use what I call “micro-reviews”. Right after you’ve first tried to memorize something, take just a second or less or to ask yourself “What did I just imagine here?” and/or “What are the words that I’m trying to memorize here?” or “What’s that person’s name”. This can be done very quickly and I feel that it helps a lot.

In many cases, though not all, micro-reviews won’t be enough. More serious types of reviews will be necessary. How many will depend on the event, your skill level and the level of accuracy you’re trying to reach. Remember that in the Regular section, the scoring system is quite lenient. You don’t need to get everything correct, it’s ok if you make a lot of mistakes.

Some more event-specific reviewing advice will be provided below.

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 penalties 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 image of each row. During recall, you will know that the image you don’t remember looking at is automatically the fifth one.

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 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 or two, 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 that 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 for now to memorize tons of images!

Should you review here? Most people don’t. They just go from one row to the next while focussing and hoping for the best. Since the scoring system is very lenient, that’s not much of a problem. During the recall period, you should just 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.

However, some people might prefer to review anyway. That might make sense especially if you’re a beginner. A classical method of reviewing here might be to memorize 50 images, review them all and then try to memorize more during the time you still have left. But I’m tempted to suggest another strategy instead: just limit yourself to those “micro-reviews” I’ve suggested before on this page. Just review each row once, very quickly, immediately after memorizing it for the first time. Since the memorization was done a second ago, the “review” here could be done particularly quickly. That would be a somewhat riskier but also significantly faster reviewing strategy. I bet it would still lead to decent results. Your call.

Where and how to practice IAM images:

  • You can use the IAM training software.
  • You can go to www.standard-memory.com, click on “5 min Random Images” and study the sheet for 5 minutes using something else as a timer. Then click on “Recall online” to enter your answers and see your results.

5 minutes Names and faces

The theory here is quite simple, but the application can be often be difficult. 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 some examples 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. For various faces, you can also choose to memorize solely the first or the last name. 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.

Where and how to practice names and faces:

  • Go to this page for examples of this challenge.
  • You can use the IAM training software. Or you can go to www.standard-memory.com, click on “5 min Names & Faces” and study the sheet for 5 minutes. Then click on “Recall online” to answer and see your results. You should know however that the names shown on those two websites are more difficult on average than those you will see at our competitions.
  • For much shorter attempts and a completely different format, an alternative way to train would be to use the website Memory League.

10 minutes Random words

Here the simplest way to proceed might be to use what’s called the linking method. Use that method if you want. It should work well enough, but that’s not what I would recommend.

A much more efficient method would be to use a well prepared memory palace. That will require some time to prepare correctly. If you don’t mind, click here to learn how to prepare a memory palace and then click here to learn how to use it with random words.

Recommended method (for now) : using a semi-improvised memory palace

A good compromise for now would be to use what I call a semi-improvised memory palace. Using this method should work very well, and you’ll be ready to start in just a few minutes.

First choose a place that you know well that will be your very first self-made memory palace. Any place can work, as long as you’re capable of mentally navigating through most of it. For now all I’m asking you to do is to choose a starting point (say, the front door) and choose one way that you could navigate through most of the place. Here’s what a possible improvised memory palace could look like if it were to start in a small apartment I use to live in:

1- I start in my bedroom. 2- I mentally walk up to the nearby kitchen. 3- I continue to the living room (I choose to ignore the toilet because the room is too small) 4- I go right outside. 5- I teleport myself in front of the nearby grocery store. (I choose the ignore the 2 street blocks in between because I don’t find them to be interesting and memorable enough). 6- I go inside the grocery store next to all the fruits and veggies. 7- I walk up to the meat and fish section. 8- I wait in line to pay for everything. 9- I walk up right in front of the nearby coffee place. 10- I walk inside. 

No need for now to be more precise. It would be good if your improvised memory palace could, just like in the example above, be divided into at least 10 distinct rooms or zones. Each zone should be not too small, without being uselessly huge. If you want to use your apartment but it’s too small and the surroundings don’t seem interesting to you, you could also choose to build two smaller memory palaces instead of just one bigger one. If needed, your two small palaces can be linked by a teleportation portal you’ll place anywhere you want.

After you’re done choosing your route, try to mentally go through each zone quickly all the way from the starting point until the end. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. Now do the same thing in reverse (8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1) and one last time in the regular order.

How to memorize random words in a semi-improvised memory palace

The simplified method I will recommend you to use for now is to place 5 words in each of the rooms or zones of the memory palace you just built. You can improvise and place the words anywhere in the room, depending on your inspiration of the moment. 2 words on the bed, 1 word next to it and then 2 words on the dresser? 1 word only in 5 different places? 2 words on one piece of furniture and then three words on another? It doesn’t matter, it’s up to you to choose by improvising every time.

Suppose that the first 5 words you have to memorize are unicorn, accountant, error, novel and grammar. In your room, one could first imagine that a unicorn is asleep in your bed. A stereotypical accountant arrives and proclaims to the unicorn that she made a mistake, it’s not her bed and unicorns aren’t even real! Next on the dresser, someone you know is reading a novel while paying particular attention to the grammar of each sentence. You could even imagine that the person reading the novel is your grandmother (“grandma”… grammar… get it?).

Okay, you understand how that works? Let yourself be inspired and use more or less the first ideas that comes to mind.

If you prepared a 10-zone memory palace, you can memorize up to 50 words. That should be enough for a beginner. If you want to aim for more than that, you can either expand the palace you already have or build another one.

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.

Where and how to practice random words:

  • Go to this page for examples of this challenge.
  • You can use the IAM training software.
  • You can also go to www.standard-memory.com, click on “5 min Random Words” or “15 min Random Words” and study the sheet for 10 minutes.
  • For much shorter attempts and a completely different format, an alternative way to train would be to use the website Memory League.

15 minutes Exam cramming

You have an exam that starts in 15 minutes, you haven’t studied and you haven’t gone to classes. But don’t panic! This is a strange “general knowledge” course and the exam in question is only a series of 50 multiple choice questions on a variety of topics. The questions have been provided to you in advance and a result of 100% is possible if you can memorize the answers. Retaining 50 pieces of information in 15 minutes is not easy, but with memory techniques and multiple choices, you should be able to get a passing grade. You will have a maximum of 20 minutes to answer (10 minutes or less should be enough for the majority of participants in the Regular section). Important note: All the information you have to remember will be completely fictitious.

The exam is divided into five short sections:

  1. Geography – You will have to remember the names of 10 countries and their location on the map of a fictitious continent.
  2. History – You will have to remember the year for 10 fictitious historical events, past or future, but all occurring during the same century. If you don’t know how to memorize numbers, a printed-out document will be handed to you to greatly facilitate that task (more details about this below). Since those 10 events will all be happening during the same century, you can focus solely on the last 2 numbers of the year. For example if something happened in 2348, you will only have to remember the “48”.
  3. Foreign languages – You will have to remember 10 words in a fictitious language and be able to associate those words with their respective meanings.
  4. Identification – 10 superficially similar pictures will be shown and you’ll have to remember the names of whatever is shown on those pictures. It could be different parts of the human heart, different types of birds or insects, different species of Pokemon or anything really. The names shown will be completely made-up.
  5. Alternative science – This section will work somewhat similarly to the geography section. You will be shown some kind of picture, diagram or unusual map and you will have to remember the names and locations of 10 different sections or parts or objects. For example we might show you some kind of cartoonish robot and ask you to remember the names and locations of 10 of its mechanical parts. Or you might see a fictitious sky map and have to remember the names and locations of 10 constellations or celestial objects. You won’t know in advance the exact nature of what you will have to remember here, but the basic principle will always remain the same.

During recall, for each section a series of 20 possible answers (10 wrong answers and 10 potentially right answers) will be presented to you and you will need to associate the right answers with the appropriate concept or location. The questions will not necessarily be presented to you in the same order in which they were studied.

How can we remember all this? Almost always by transforming information into images or concepts that are easier to remember and mentally associating these images or concepts with the right answers. Multiple choices help, so you don’t have to worry about spelling here. It is enough to keep a vague general idea of the sounding of the right answer. For geography or alternative science, you can imagine your mental images directly on different parts of the map or diagram. If you have to remember the “Kalaremberg” region, you can imagine a “cool rainbow” and mentally place that rainbow directly on the map, ideally by making it interact with the shape of the region in question. This image is far from great as the sound of “Kalaremberg” and “cool rainbow” are very different. However, that simple image can still be enough to help you find the right word among the possible answers provided. If you don’t have a good idea to remember a difficult word, use a “bad” idea that represents only a small part of the word in question. For “Kalaremberg”, you could use a phone “call”, “colors”, a woman named “Laurie” or the “larynx” for the “larem” part (I don’t know what the larynx looks like, but just imagining some organ may be enough), cheese (I don’t know why but I can easily imagine that “Kalaremberg” could be the name of a cheese), a puppet called “Berg” and so on. Those tricks are all pretty bad and hopefully you can find some better ones, but the point is that “bad” memory tricks are often much better than no trick at all. Hopefully, most of the words you will have to remember won’t be as difficult as this one.

For foreign languages, you can create an image with the word in question and mentally associate it with its meaning. To remember that the word “Shloum” means “tractor”, you can imagine a smurf being tragically crushed by a tractor.“

For historical dates, you can print out one of those sample number systems and use it during both the memorization and recall periods. Or you can build your own personal system. In both cases, you can also choose to pring it out if you want (front side of an 8.5 by 11 inches sheet only). If you want to remember that “the invention of teleportation” took place in 2353, first know that you do not have to worry about the 2 and the 3 since all the dates presented are always in the same century. For the 53, either you use an image created with your own system, or you use the image that is suggested in our prefabricated system . If the image you end up using is a sumo wrestler, all you have to do is combine the image of a sumo wrestler with the concept of teleportation. A sumo wrestler is being teleported! And that’s it for that date.

For the “identification” section, use the same strategies as those explained below for names and faces.

Important note: Competitors in the advanced section will have to remember everything without the help of any multiple choice. Some of the questions and answers may also be different. Those rules are explained here.

Click here if you want to see more examples and explanations of what you should expect from this challenge.

Some sample exams can be found on this page, including a multiple-choice version and an advanced version.

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?