’Work and prac­tice’ key to mem­ory champ’s suc­cess

Mon­treal teacher vy­ing for re­peat ti­tle af­ter pick­ing up skill eight years ago

Montreal Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - JESSE FEITH

Last Wed­nes­day, on the roof of Fran­cis Blondin’s par­ents’ house in Que­bec City, Franken­stein’s mon­ster was protest­ing against the Mon­treal Cana­di­ens’ re­cent loss in the Stan­ley Cup finals. Or maybe cel­e­brat­ing that they won. Blondin wasn’t ex­actly sure, nor did it re­ally mat­ter.

Nearby, Marge Simp­son was wield­ing a chain­saw and slash­ing through a pile of rot­ten fish.

In re­al­ity, Blondin was sit­ting at the Mon­treal Gazette’s of­fices, star­ing at two sets of three play­ing cards in front of him: the two of clubs, the 10 of di­a­monds, and the jack of spades. The queen of hearts, the six of clubs, and the seven of hearts.

In Blondin’s mind, each card was as­so­ci­ated with a spe­cific char­ac­ter, ac­tion or ob­ject he had al­ready mem­o­rized. The tech­nique, called the per­son-ac­tion-ob­ject sys­tem, is a pop­u­lar way of mem­o­riz­ing ran­dom num­bers or, in this case, the or­der of a deck of cards.

His par­ents’ house, at the same time, was used as his “mem­ory palace” — an ap­proach that in­volves plac­ing those char­ac­ters or ob­jects through­out a well-known lo­ca­tion you can re­visit in your mind.

It’s what helped Blondin, a 35-year-old sub­sti­tute teacher who lives in Mon­treal, be crowned the Cana­dian Mem­ory Cham­pion in 2016. And it’s a skill he has con­tin­ued to hone since then in his spare time, hop­ing to re­peat his vic­tory at this year’s cham­pi­onships, held si­mul­ta­ne­ously in Ed­mon­ton and Mon­treal on Sept. 2.

Your mind isn’t very good at re­mem­ber­ing ab­stract in­for­ma­tion, Blondin ex­plained, shortly af­ter mem­o­riz­ing a shuf­fled deck of cards in two min­utes and 47 sec­onds (a ter­ri­ble time by his stan­dards, he said).

“But your mind is good at re­mem­ber­ing places, and par­tic­u­larly good if there’s some emo­tional el­e­ment in­volved: peo­ple you know or things that are funny, vi­o­lent or sex­ual,” he said. “Any­thing that marks your imag­i­na­tion.”

Blondin, like most who prac­tise mem­ory sports, does not con­sider him­self to have a par­tic­u­larly good mem­ory. He flunked ex­ams in high school and, two weeks ago, he couldn’t re­mem­ber where he parked his bike.

But he be­came in­ter­ested in mem­o­riza­tion about eight years ago, when he picked up a book on neu­ro­plas­tic­ity that ex­plained how the brain can keep trans­form­ing and adapt­ing through­out some­one’s life. The book changed how Blondin looked at things and un­der­stood learn­ing. He started prac­tis­ing new skills: Sudoku puz­zles, jug­gling, do­ing Ru­bik’s Cubes.

“In­stead of think­ing, ‘I’m good at this and I’m bad at that,’ I re­al­ized it’s just a mat­ter of work and prac­tice,” Blondin said. “Some­thing that’s im­pos­si­ble can be­come pos­si­ble and some­thing that’s pos­si­ble can be­come easy.”

Then, about two-and-a-half years ago, he read an ex­cerpt from a book about com­pet­i­tive mem­o­riza­tion, bought the book and got hooked. Us­ing a sim­i­lar method to the one he uses with cards, he has since mem­o­rized the first 2,000 dig­its of Pi.

To do so, Blondin’s stored them away in a larger mem­ory palace in his mind: the first 500 dig­its are spread out in the Berri-UQAM métro sta­tion, the next 500 are in one of the school’s build­ings and the last 1,000 are at Univer­sité Laval’s sports com­plex, where he stud­ied.

Blondin can walk through the lo­ca­tions in his mind, pic­ture the char­ac­ters — Freddy Krueger swing­ing the Stan­ley Cup with a fish­ing rod in the métro’s con­ve­nience store, for ex­am­ple, or Bri­enne of Tarth blow­ing kisses to rab­bits — and as­so­ciate them to the dig­its.

“It takes some ef­fort, but there’s re­ally noth­ing su­per­hu­man to it,” Blondin said.

Com­pet­i­tive mem­ory com­pe­ti­tions started for­mally tak­ing place in the early 1990s and are now held at na­tional and in­ter­na­tional lev­els. The Cana­dian cham­pi­onships, which have ju­nior and adult cat­e­gories, con­sist of four dis­ci­plines: mem­o­riz­ing ran­dom names and faces, words, num­bers and the or­der of cards in a shuf­fled deck.

At last year’s cham­pi­onships, where he wasn’t ex­pect­ing to win, Blondin mem­o­rized 140 num­bers in five min­utes, 106 words in 15 min­utes and a deck of cards in two min­utes and five sec­onds.

Lo­cally, Blondin said, mem­ory sports are still barely known — roughly 16 peo­ple took part in last year’s cham­pi­onships — but he hopes they keep grow­ing: he of­fers work­shops on the “art of mem­ory,” main­tains a web­site with help­ful in­for­ma­tion for be­gin­ners, and has taught the tech­nique to some of his stu­dents, watch­ing their exam scores soar after­ward.

Si­mon Luisi, who has or­ga­nized the cham­pi­onships since 2012, es­ti­mated there are prob­a­bly only about 100 peo­ple in Mon­treal who train in the field over­all.

But he has no­ticed steady growth in in­ter­est each year. The world cham­pi­onships, held later this year in China, will have par­tic­i­pants from 30 coun­tries.

“It’s en­gross­ing,” Luisi said. “Once you start, it’s hard to stop.”

The 2017 Cana­dian Mem­ory Cham­pi­onships are held si­mul­ta­ne­ously on Sept. 2 in Ed­mon­ton and in Mon­treal, where the event takes place at 1 p.m. at Univer­sité du Québec à Mon­tréal.

Some­thing that’s im­pos­si­ble can be­come pos­si­ble and some­thing that’s pos­si­ble can be­come easy.

DAVE SID­AWAY

2016 Cana­dian mem­ory cham­pion Fran­cis Blondin is pre­par­ing for this year’s event, which will be held in Mon­treal on Satur­day.

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