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Irina Zayats, 24, wins our global memory competition, $10k- and a job!

In February, we announced a spectacular memory competition on this blog in conjunction with Tim Ferriss, author of the Four Hour Chef. The competition was to see if a complete beginner could learn in a short space of time to reach the gold standard of memory techniques, and be able to learn the order of a shuffled deck in less than a minute. This seemingly impossible achievement in the end has nothing to do with extraordinary brain-power, and is all about technique – or so we believe.

To help prove the point that this expert skill is really something that anyone, with the right guidance and effort, can accomplish, we made some video tutorials, created a card learning app on Memrise, and put out a $10,000 prize to the first person who could do it. Bearing in mind that the American record for this feat was till recently 1 minute 40 seconds, we were frankly not sure that someone would be able to learn to do this in the short time the competition would run.

The competition went ahead on the site, where competitors had to do all their training. By having the competition online, it was possible to exactly track the entire training regimen of anyone who entered, and thus see the development of their abilities from zero to hero in hitherto unprecedented detail.

tim ferriss memory competition The competition launched in February through Tim Ferriss’ blog, running for six weeks, following on from a chapter on memory technique in the 4-Hour Chef. In that time, more than 5,000 people entered, and more than a month was spent cumulatively learning packs of cards. The levels of commitment were extraordinary. One competitor, Adam Calafrancesco, from the US, attempted recall of 434 decks of cards over the course of the competition, honing his technique as he gradually cut down his fastest time from 6 minutes relentlessly towards the 1 minute barrier. More than 50 people eventually learned to memorize a deck of cards. But who would anyone do so in under a minute, who would do so first, and who would win the $10,000 mega-prize?

Of all the more than 5,418 entrants, it became apparent that the field was split roughly in three: people who cheated, people who gave up, and people who successfully battled away and learned the skill. Of those who learned the skill, as one might expect, only a handful got down near a minute.

After eliminating the obvious cheaters, it became apparent that two competitors had crossed the one minute threshold for a successful deck of cards at almost exactly the same time. The first, by just 30 minutes, was a 24 year old woman from the Ukraine called Irina Zayats. Irina had adapted the Memrise course to her own purposes and taken a week off work to focus completely on winning the competition. Her improvement was amazing, as she learned deck after deck. But was she the winner?

As per the rules of the competition, we vigorously interviewed Irina, to ensure that she was legit. After we were satisfied she was truly learning the techniques, we put her to the test: could she, over Skype, with us observing directly, successfully replicate the feat?

We recorded it live, you can see the video here:

We have to say, we were quite amazed by Irina’s capacity to handle the pressure and flawlessly demonstrate her skills. Irina is the our awesome winner of $10,000. It’s a frankly amazing achievement, congratulations to her and to everyone else who took part in what has been a very enjoyable event! And hard luck to those who just missed out.

We were so impressed with Irina’s achievement that we had to learn more about how she had done it. A few days after her triumph, we interviewed Irina in depth. Here’s a transcript:


Do you have an amazing memory?

No, definitely not! I have to admit I am good at learning poetry by heart, but I cannot hold a phone number in my head for even few seconds. In fact, when I first tried to memorize cards (with no previous training), I managed to remember.. exactly 4 cards. Pretty average, I think.

So how on earth did you do it?

At the time I had no idea about the current records in speed cards, or what the norms are to become a Grand Master of Memory. So, I didn’t know that memorizing a deck of cards in under a minute was considered special. In a blog post announcing the competition, Ed said anyone could do it, and I believed him – that simple. I think this was key. I followed Ed’s instructions to the letter, I practiced on the awesome Memrise.com, and that’s how I managed to do it. The competition was too attractive to miss out on – a daring and unusual task to master, and a very substantial prize, too. It was definitely the most interesting endeavor I have taken upon lately!

At the beginning of the day you achieved the sub-minute time, you had never even attempted a 52 card deck, and your first go took you 3 1/2 minutes. By the end of the day, and 18 further attempts, you had cut below a minute. This was an epic day- can you describe what the day was like? A great day, no? Were you tired?

Oh, I think you mean 18 successful attempts, there were a few more failed ones also! [There were indeed, that day Irina also made more than 50 partial, abandoned, attempts to remember a deck of cards]. It sounds way too easy that I only needed 18 attempts to memorize the whole deck in under a minute. However, by this time I have practiced for hours and hours recalling my card associations using the practicing section of Memrise.com and a metronome. So before I attempted the exercise, I could match any card in the deck with a person or action associated with it in under 1 second. I knew it was only a matter of time that I didn’t mess up and recall all 52 cards.

That day, on Feb 11th, I was in a very good mood, alternating my card practice with tea breaks and short meditations to clear my head. I was in such a state of flow, I knew in my gut I was able to do it. Then I saw someone’s result of under 2 minutes pop up on Memrise.com leader board, and that was such a kick in the behind for me! I am a very competitive person, after seeing somebody else get close, it only took me 2 more tries to get the task done.

After I have clocked in under 1 minute, it became an even better day!

What do you think you’ll spend the money on?

Since I visited Kenya few years ago, I have always wanted to come back and learn to kite surf in Che Shale, Kenya. It’s just such a magical place.. seems like this year it’s time!

You’re not only a very fine memory-gal, but, it transpires, a superb computer engineer. Any chance you would be interested in joining our team

This is a surprise!!! I think I would love to. The site’s awesome. Why don’t I come over meet the team when I’m in England later in the year to discuss?


So that’s that. Irina is our winner of the cards competition, and will with any luck become our second female engineer. Wishing her many congratulations and a fine time in Kenya with her well-earned loot! Make sure to share your congratulations in the comments!

Try the course yourself!

Even though the competition has closed, you can still access the course and feel like a genius when you memorise a shuffled pack of cards.

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