Tatiana Cooley wins the US Memory Championship for the Third Year in a Row

by Sam Sloan

I was at the US Memory Championship in New York City on Saturday, February 5, 2000.

They would not let me enter because I did not arrive until 10:00 AM and they said it was too late. Even had I been there earlier, I might not have gotten in because they said that they had closed the entries on February 1.

It would be nice if I could say that I did not get to the US Memory Championship on time because I forgot about it, but that was not the reason.
Early Leader Helen Cho only finished 9th

The real reason was that they forgot to put up a web site about it. I spent three hours Friday night searching the World Wide Web for information about this event, but could not find anything anywhere.

None of the major newspapers such as the New York Times or the New York Post carried any mention of it.

I finally found it in the New York Press, a free give-away publication. I first became aware of that publication when they published an article about me in the December 1-7, 1999 edition. However, it was not until 2:00 AM that I found it and I needed to get some sleep before going to the event.

I am sorry that I did not get to compete because I would like to have tested my raw memory ability against the well trained kids who had spent months preparing for the event.

The event was won by Tatiana Cooley, who also won in the previous two years. I think she really does have a superior memory, although she denies it. I think that most of the other contestants were just average or above average in terms of actual ability.
Tatiana Cooley won for the third year in a row

I stayed to watch and was there to the very end. There were some obvious problems with the tournament. There were only 20 entries, and of those 14 were from the same high school in Hackensack, New Jersey, the Bergen Academy.

The reason so many had come from that school is that Frank Felberbaum, one of the promoters of the event, had visited that school last year. Seven students from that school had entered last year. This year, some of them had made a serious effort and had spent six months preparing, including the last three weeks of intensive training.

This effort almost paid off. Students from the Bergen Academy occupied the top places throughout most of the event. However, near the end, Tatiana Cooley, an advertising executive who has won the event every year that it has been held, surpassed them and won first prize by a wide margin.

The next nine finishers after her were all from the Bergen Academy, occupying places 2-10. Almost all of them were 16 years old, except for Edison Hong, the youngest at age 15.

The most beautiful girl in the tournament was Helen Cho of the Bergen Academy. You can be sure that I was hoping she would win, especially when she was in third place after the first two rounds, but she fell behind in the numbers and cards competitions. I understand that she and some of the other contestants will be featured on 20/20 on Network TV this Thursday.

I expected that the same group of people would consistently score high in all of the events. One thing which I found surprising was that this was not the case. For example, the winners in the first round of the competition, which was remembering names and faces, was Tatiana Cooley with 85 points followed by Terry Williams with 81 and Joseph Song with 76.

However, in the second round, which was memorizing word lists, the winners were completely different. Christopher Turner won with 78 words, followed by Edison Hong with 75 words and Helen Cho with 67 words.

The end result was that almost everybody finished as a prize winner in at least one of the competitions, so almost everybody got a prize. The explanation is for this that all of them had trained using memory tricks and devices. However, not all brains are the same. Some systems are suitable for some people, but not for others.

For example, I am convinced that Tatiana Cooley really does have a naturally superior memory (although she denies it). In the names and faces competition, she and the other contestants were given pages of 99 photographs of people with their names. They were given 15 minutes to memorize the names.

After that, they were given sheets with the same 99 photographs but in different order and required to write down either the first name or the last name of each person.

Tatiana Cooley got 85 of the 99 names right. I think that this is an excellent result, especially since that I cannot imagine that there is a trick or system for remembering them.

On the other hand, she did not do well on the second test, which was to memorize a list of random words. A total of 500 words were provided in columns of 25 words each.

The scoring system was severe. If a person got all 25 words right, the score was 25. However, if there was even one mistake, the score was 13 and with two mistakes the score was zero.

There were complaints about this. One contestant complained that she lost 12 points because she spelled "cylinder" wrong. I agree with this complaint. This was supposed to be a test of memory, not of spelling ability.

Christopher Turner won by getting 78 words right. However, in the similar test of memorizing numbers, Christopher Turner got zero. So, it seems that Christopher has superior ability with words but not with numbers.

Another explanation is that the system Christopher uses to memorize the words is better for him than the system for numbers.

I was able to find out the system for numbers which almost all of the contestants were using. A page containing 1000 random numbers is provided in rows of 40. If a contestant gets all 40 numbers in a row right, he scores 40. However, if there is just one error, he scores 20 and with two errors he scores 0. Five minutes is given to memorize this list.

On the last row, the score is the total number of numbers without any mistakes.

This is the test on which I would have done best. (When I was a little boy, my mother used to tell her friends and associates that I had a "head full of numbers".) However, most of the contestants bombed out on this one. Of the 20 contestants, 8 scored zero and only 9 got more than 8 numbers correct.

The explanation for this surprising result was that the contestants tried to memorize more than they were able, which caused errors which significantly reduced their score.

The oldest competitor was Barry Surran, age 53, who told me before the competition that given enough time he could memorize more than 200 numbers. However, in the actual competition, he scored zero.

He explained that he had written down 60 numbers. However, he had two mistakes in the first row and two mistakes in the second row. Two mistakes in a row meant a score of zero for that row.

The winner of that event was Joseph Song, who memorized 56 numbers, the same number that Barry Surran memorized. However, Joseph Song did not make any mistakes, which is why he won. Second was Tatiana Cooley with 40 numbers. Third was Ryan Giuffre with 37 numbers.

In the case of numbers, the contestants told me what their system was. The numbers were split into groups of two. Each digit was associated with a consonant. Under the system, which I believe is called the Loraine System, 1=T, 2=N, 3=M, 4=R, 5=L, 6=H, 7=K, 8=V, 9=P and 0=S.

For example, if the number is 37, that transfers into MK. The next step is to convert this into a word, such as MAKE. Finally, the contestant tries to take all the words and make them into a sentence that is easy to remember.

After receiving 5 minutes to memorize the numbers, the contestant had 10 minutes to recall them. Obviously, with such a complex system, it takes just as long to recall the numbers as it does to remember them.

However, had I been allowed to enter the competition, I would have used an entirely different system. I would have divided the numbers into groups of seven and would have treated each as a telephone number. I remember telephone numbers by remembering the pattern which they form on the touch tone dialing system. On the other hand, if I am given an old rotary-style telephone, I usually cannot remember the telephone number which I am dialing.

I am sure that given five minutes, I could easily memorize four telephone numbers, which would have put me in third place in the competition. It is even possible that I could have memorized 8 telephone numbers, which would have put me tied for first. I will have to test myself on this some time.

The explanation is that I have a good visual ability. This same ability enables me to remember thousands of positions on a chess board. I do not have much ability associated with sounds. Hearing the numbers will not enable me to remember them, unless I transfer the numbers in my head to my telephone numbers system.

Had I used the same system the contestants were using, such as translating the number 37 into the word MAKE, I would not have found this system to be of much use and probably would not have done very well.

When this competition was held, all but one of the contestants started feverishly writing down words associated with numbers. I found it strange that in a memory competition, everybody would be writing down words, even though notes cannot be consulted during the recall period. The only contestant who was not writing anything down was Barry Surran, who had his own system.

I might mention that one person was allowed to enter although she had not entered in advance. This was SuChin Pak, who had come with her own camera crew, as she is making a cable TV show about this. I was wondering why they let her in as a last minute entry, but would not let me in (but of course she is more beautiful than I am). However, I noticed that her results did not count. She did score 50 on the random words test, which would have placed her seventh, if her results had counted. On the speed numbers test, however, she could not remember anything, so she gave up and went home with her camera crew.

Early in the competition, SuChin Pak seemed intimidated by Helen Cho. ("She may beat me this year, but I will destroy her next year", said SuChin Pak, who called herself "The Sponge".)

At that point, Helen Cho was one of the leaders and everybody thought that she might win (or perhaps the real reason that SuChin Pak was intimidated was that Helen Cho was the most beautiful girl, an important consideration, since I overheard that Bikini magazine wants to do an article on this year's competition!) I was therefore surprised when SuChin Pak suddenly quit the competition and left.

The fourth test was poetry memorization. A poem was written especially for the event. Again, any mistake cut the score in half. The winner was Tatiana Cooley, who memorized 180 words of the poem. Second was Mykie Pidor with 146 words (but Mykie only finished 12th in the over-all competition). Third was Jeevan Puthiamdathil with 122 words.

By this time, Tatiana Cooley had won two out of the four competitions. She went into the last round with a commanding lead. It was good for her that she was so far ahead, because she bombed out on the last test, which was to memorize a deck of cards. The test was that a referee shuffled a deck of cards. The competitor was given five minutes to memorize the deck. Then, the referee took the deck back and dealt out the cards, one by one. The contestant was required to name each card before it was turned over. One mistake was fatal.

The winner was Coral Parmar, who memorized 22 cards. There was a four way tie for second with 18 cards between Edison Hong, Jasmina Nuesa, Terry Williams and Barry Surran. Note again that the winners list is different here from almost every other test.

In this test, Tatiana Cooley only remembered 9 cards. Only six contestants remembered fewer cards than she did. Nevertheless, Tatiana still won first prize over all, because of having such a big lead going into the last round.

The way the scoring system worked is that whomever won the event scored 100 for that event. Everybody else scored whatever percentage he had of what the winner got. For example, in the cards competition, Coral Parmar with 22 cards got 100 points. The four contestants with 18 cards scored 82 each, because 18 is 82% of 22. Tatiana Cooley with 9 cards got 41, because 9 is 41% of 22.

A perfect score would have been 500, if the same competitor had won or tied for first in all five events.

The final score over-all was Tatiana Cooley, who scored 354, followed by Edison Hong with 337, Joseph Song with 326, Coral Pomar with 315, Jasmina Nuesda with 314 and Collen Platt with 279.

The top three won a trip to England courtesy of British Airways to compete in the Mind Sports Olympiad in August.

The way that I knew that this event existed was that on Saturday, January 29, there was an article in the New York Post about Tatiana Cooley, who first won the event two years ago. The oft repeated story is she was sitting in the subway train reading Time Out New York magazine, when she saw an announcement of the event, so she decided to get off the train and attend. She went up and won the US Championship.

This got her national news coverage in People Magazine and numerous other publications.

Tatiana Cooley claims that she is not a natural born genius for remembering things. She says that she practices memory by sticking Post-it notes all over her room. ( Post-it is one of the corporate sponsors of the event. Smart girl, Tatiana!)

In 1998, Tatiana won second place in the female Memory Skills World Championship. (I will duck before the next controversy starts.)

Tatiana is 28 years old and stands 5 feet 10 inches tall, when she is not wearing her high heels, which is never.

If you want to contact Tatiana by e-mail, just send a letter to nobody@nowhere.com. How is it possible that the three-time winner of the US Memory Championship does not even have an e-mail address? It is difficult to believe, but Tatiana does not have one.

The New York Post article said that this event was being held again on Saturday, February 5. The problem was that the Post did not give the address where it was being held. This started me on my long search for the location of the event. When I finally found it at 2:00 AM on the morning of the event, I needed some sleep because I could not compete in the US Memory Championship without proper sleep.

I had read in the Post that this event was connected with the Mind Sports Olympiad. When I did an Internet search for that, what I found was my own web site http://www.samsloan.com/mindspor.htm

Then, I searched for Memoriad. What I found was the results of previous year's competitions, but nothing about this year's.

Strangely, the event was founded by Chess Grandmaster Raymond Keene along with Tony Buzan of England. I am in regular contact with Raymond Keene and he should have known that I would be interested in this, but nobody bothered to tell me about it.

(Of course, the real reason must have been that they were afraid that I would win.)

Sam Sloan

UPDATE: On Thursday night, February 10, there was a show on ABC News 20/20 about the US Memory Championship.<> Actually, it was a lot of hype but it made a great TV show.

It interviewed at length five participants, all of whom were from the Bergen Academy in New Jersey.

It gave them credit for far greater memory skills than they actually have.

It said that Helen Cho won a section with 67 points, whereas in reality she finished third in that section with 67 points.

This of course is fully explained by the fact that Helen Cho was the most beautiful girl in the event.

Sam Sloan

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