Then, one evening in 2008, he sat across from Josephine at the dinner table. Confused, she looked around the room and asked, “When is Nelson getting here?”

“That’s when it really hit me that something was wrong,” he says.

When Dellis returned home from that trip he began to work on his memory. But the first time he tried to memorize a deck of cards without using a technique, it took him days. In 2009, he entered the U.S. Memory Championship but placed, unremarkably, 16th.

Slightly discouraged, Dellis left that summer to pursue another one of his loves: mountain climbing. When he returned from his trip scaling Alaska's Mt. McKinley, he learned Josephine had passed away.

Motivated by the loss of his grandmother, Dellis ramped up his training, and by the time he competed in the 2010 U.S. Memory Championship, he’d improved so much that he placed third. In the years that followed, he nabbed the first place title every time.

In preparation for championships, Dellis trains alone. “Memorizing is a solitary thing,” he says, “It’s just me and my mind.” He uses mnemonics—associating numbers with images, for example—to recall long lists of information. Dellis picked up these techniques by listening to audiobooks and reading posts and articles by other memory experts and champions.

Since placing first in the U.S. Memory Championship in March, Dellis tells me, he has cut down “drastically” on his training to give himself a break.

“So how much time do you dedicate now?” I ask.

“Oh, you know,” he says, “About three hours a day.”

Dellis knows that many will not have the time or motivation to practice to the same degree he does. Still, he encourages people to exercise their brains — doing crosswords or Sudoku puzzles, learning new languages or skills. Every bit helps, he says.

Even Dellis’s memory isn’t flawless. When the memory champ isn’t paying attention, he can easily forget simple things such as names. “Sometimes I switch off,” he says. “There’s always one guy at a party who will come up to me like, ‘Hey, memory champ, do you remember my name?’ and I'll be like, ‘Uh…no.’

“The funny thing is, I broke the record this year for matching faces to names.”

To learn more about Dellis’s work, check out his website.

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