The smartest man is hard to find

The unlikely story of how I ended up in the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship
The smartest man is hard to find
Representational ImagePxhere [Creative Commons]

Dom DeLuise, celebrity fat man (and five of clubs), has been implicated in the following unseemly acts in my mind’s eye: He has hocked a fat globule of spittle (nine of clubs) on Albert Einstein’s thick white mane (three of diamonds) and delivered a devastating karate kick (five of spades) to the groin of Pope Benedict XVI (six of diamonds).

Michael Jackson (king of hearts) has engaged in behavior bizarre even for him. He has defecated (two of clubs) on a salmon burger (king of clubs) and captured his flatulence (queen of clubs) in a balloon (six of spades). Rhea Perlman, diminutive Cheers bartendress (and queen of spades), has been caught cavorting with the seven-foot-seven Sudanese basketball star Manute Bol (seven of clubs) in a highly explicit (and in this case, anatomically improbable) two-digit act of congress (three of clubs).

This tawdry tableau, which I’m not proud to commit to the page, goes a long way toward explaining the unlikely spot I find myself in at the moment. Sitting to my left is Ram Kolli, an unshaven twenty-five-year-old business consultant from Richmond, Virginia, who is also the defending United States memory champion. To my right is the muzzle of a television camera from a national cable network. Spread out behind me, where I can’t see them and they can’t disturb me, are about a hundred spectators and a pair of TV commentators offering play-by-play analysis. One is a blow-dried veteran boxing announcer named Kenny Rice, whose gravelly, bedtime voice can’t conceal the fact that he seems bewildered by this jamboree of nerds. The other is the Pelé of U.S. memory sport, a bearded forty-three-year-old chemical engineer and four-time national champion from Fayetteville, North Carolina, named Scott Hagwood. In the corner of the room sits the object of my affection: a kitschy two-tiered trophy consisting of a silver hand with gold nail polish brandishing a royal flush, and, in a patriotic flourish, three bald eagles perched just below. It’s nearly as tall as my two-year-old niece (and lighter than most of her stuffed animals).

The audience has been asked not to take any flash photographs and to maintain total silence. Not that Ram or I could possibly hear them. Both of us are wearing earplugs. I’ve also got on a pair of industrial strength earmuffs that look like they belong on an aircraft carrier deckhand (because in the heat of a memory competition, there is no such thing as deaf enough). My eyes are closed. On a table in front of me, lying facedown between my hands, are two shuffled decks of playing cards. In a moment, the chief arbiter will click a stopwatch and I will have five minutes to memorize the order of both decks.

The unlikely story of how I ended up in the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship, stock-still and sweating profusely, begins a year earlier on a snowy highway in central Pennsylvania. I had been driving from my home in Washington, D.C., to the Lehigh Valley to do an interview for Discover magazine with a theoretical physicist at Kutztown University, who had invented a vacuum chamber device that was supposed to pop the world’s largest popcorn. My route took me through York, Pennsylvania, home of the Weightlifting Hall of Fame and Museum. I thought that sounded like something I didn’t want to die without having seen. And I had an hour to kill.

As it turned out, the Hall of Fame was little more than a sterile collection of old photographs and memorabilia displayed on the ground floor of the corporate offices of the nation’s largest barbell manufacturer. Museologically, it was crap. But it’s where I first saw a black-and-white photo of Joe “The Mighty Atom” Greenstein, a hulking five-foot-four Jewish-American strongman who had earned his nickname in the 1920s by performing such inspiring feats as biting quarters in half and lying on a bed of nails while a fourteen-man Dixieland band played on his chest. He once changed all four tires on a car without any tools. A caption next to the photo billed Greenstein as “the strongest man in the world.

Excerpt From: Joshua Foer. “Moonwalking With Einstein.”

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