Johnny Briones sat at a table, hands clasped, and shut his eyes for a moment. Then he began rattling off a series of numbers:
OK, he was told. That's enough. Wow.
Briones had just recited the first 100 digits beyond the decimal mark in pi, the designation for the number designating the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. If you paid attention in geometry class you might remember the basic number as 3.14.
Briones has memorized pi out to 312 digits.
At 19, he is a Grand Master of Memory. He went to London in November and earned the title in an international competition. He qualified by memorizing 10 shuffled decks of playing cards in an hour, 1,000 digits in an hour, and a lone deck of cards in less than two minutes.
Why? Even his mom once asked that.
"When I first started, she was like, 'It makes no sense. Why are you doing this?' recalls Briones, who apparently isn't busy enough as a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering at Colorado School of Mines in Golden. "Which was valid. But if I can memorize four decks of cards or 200 digits in 10 minutes, it should make learning languages easier, as far as vocabulary and usage."
For the record, he has studied Spanish and plans to learn Italian.
Briones doesn't possess the so-called "photographic memory," the phenomenon in which certain people can effectively take a mental snapshot of a printed page.
Instead he relies on techniques from Dominic O'Brien, an eight-time memory champion and author of such books as "You Can Have an Amazing Memory" and "Learn to Remember: Transform Your Memory Skills."
O'Brien's method relies on assigning an object, person or action to whatever you're trying to memorize. If you're committing a deck of 52 cards to memory, you can effectively create a story.
"The simplest method is the story method," he says. "You have a list of things to memorize, and you assign names of people or places or objects to create a theme so everything is interacting. You try to be dynamic with it."
Briones got his start in mass memorization 2½ years ago. A workout buff, he wondered if he could build his mind in the same way athletes build their bodies, through training and repetition. When he first memorized a deck of cards in 30 minutes — it now takes him a fraction of that — he felt he was on to something.
"I thought, that's it. I'm doing this," he says. "It was amazing."
It paid off in school, too. "As I began to learn memory techniques, my study time grew less and less. It's really cool. I study less but remember more."
A classmate who had watched him in action sought him out and asked him to give him some advice in studying for a chemistry final. "It turns out he made an 'A,' " Briones says.
Now he's considering helping his fellow students for a fee (email@example.com, if you're interested).
Briones says the techniques have uses far beyond the parlor trick of cards and digits.
"The methods I use for those can be applied to learn vocabulary, languages, historical dates, giving presentations and speeches without notes, and much more," he says. "The application of the methods can be applied to anything somebody wants to learn.
Briones came into his own at the 22nd Memory Championships in England, held in the South London community of Croyden. Although he was tasked with memorizing 10 decks of cards in an hour, Briones came through with 14. He placed fourth overall.
"I've memorized as many as 20, but thought I'd play it safe," he says.
Briones, who grew up in Evans but lives with his aunt in Wheat Ridge, is otherwise a regular guy. He was one of three valedictorians in his high school, Union Colony Preparatory Academy in Greeley, and is a big fan of working out and playing football in the park with friends.
"Oh, and sleeping and eating," he says.
Briones isn't finished with his goals. "I want to break the record for the most decks memorized," he says. "I think it's 56, but I want to go to 100."
Next up is the U.S. Memory Championship in New York City on March 29. And when he turns 21, perhaps a trip to Las Vegas.
"They probably have watch lists for memory people," Briones says with a grin.
Yes, they absolutely do. And they remember.
William Porter: 303-954-1877, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/williamporterdp
Memories are made of this
There are a number of website dedicated to memory improvement.