Last week, the 2008 United States Memory Champion — San Francisco resident Chester Santos — hopped a plane to the Kingdom of Bahrain, an island in the Persian Gulf where the 17th annual World Memory Championships begin on Friday. He will be one of four Americans competing in ten events against 73 memorizers from fifteen countries, including China and Germany, where the "Mind Sport of Memory" is apparently taken very seriously. Santos, who quit his job as a software engineer in 2004 to compete in and coach memory, will also be up against the 2007 U.S. champion, David Thomas, who has left messages on Santos' answering machine threatening to kick his ass — at memorizing.
Santos hopes to destroy Thomas, but as for winning the competition outright, "I have no chance," he says. He'll be happy to place in the top ten, and his goal for this year is to become a Grand Master of Memory.
How do you do that? Well, for one thing, Santos says matter-of-factly, you have to memorize the exact sequence of 10 decks of playing cards in one hour. He does this by turning the deck into a sort of narrative, with each card acting as a chapter of the story, or "journey." Consider this sample journey at the Metreon: Santos remembers the ace of diamonds by picturing Roger Lodge, the host of Blind Date, flying above the ticket line at the Metreon, throwing rocks at people. In his system, the suit of diamonds is a letter D and the ace is worth one (as in blackjack). The number one in Santos' phonetic alphabet — a system that links numbers with sounds – makes a T sound. So Santos needed a word with a D and a T, and he came up with "date," which reminded him of Lodge. The rocks and the ticket line also represent playing cards, as do about 17 more people, actions, and locations on his Metreon journey, which he wanders through in his mind to memorize a deck.
Santos has journeys all over San Francisco. There's one through student housing at Hastings College of the Law, which he dropped out of, and another around the Taboo Lounge in SOMA, where he used to do magic and once tricked a woman — who is now his girlfriend — into writing her phone number on a playing card.
To become a Grand Master, Santos must also memorize a sequence of 1,000 numbers. He'll do that by linking them to remembered images: 103 is Chris Rock; 104 is "a hot girl" from Smallville; 105, a diesel truck. When he gets to 106, Santos pauses, looking slightly uncomfortable, and says, "You don't want to know. It's really bad. Really sexually graphic."
In addition to memorizing playing cards in weird ways, Santos is also writing a book and starring in an upcoming documentary. And as if all that isn't memorable enough, at the end of the interview, he pulls a card out of his wallet that happens to be on fire. The wallet contained a hidden lighter.