Here’s your daily dose of ‘woah’: When Vyshnavi Yarlagadda first demonstrated the mind-boggling abilities of her memory, she learnt that she had another super-power – everything she touched turned to gold. She eats words, names, faces, numbers, binary digits and images for breakfast, and recycles them for world championship gold medals and world records. She attained her career high ranking of World No. 2 after winning at the ’Names and Faces’ event organised by the World Memory Sports Council in 2013, set a world record, and achieved the feat of beating herself at her own game the next year.
This year, she was awarded the ‘100 Women Achievers Award’ by President Pranab Mukherjee at Rashtrapathi Bhavan for her achievements. You may wonder how she does it and perhaps theorize that her talents are a ‘God’s gift’, but this would be a grave mistake on your part; unless you believe that Shah Rukh’s six-pack abs were God gifted, too! It happens to be a product of intensive mind training and a concoction of some of her own ingenious hacks, that she has become a ‘Master Of Memory’. Read on to know about all the tricks up her sleeve:
She’s rather unforgettable herself…
Born and raised in Hyderabad, she was “a hyperactive kid, who hated going to school so much that I used to get physically sick.” She would bunk school and go to her chess lessons, painting and other hobby classes.
She enjoyed playing chess the most and decided to pursue it professionally. She happens to be an ELO rated chess player. It was while honing her mind for chess, that she learnt some memory techniques, hoping they would help her learn the chess openings faster and better. Her mother, meanwhile, got to know about entire championships in the sport of memory, and decided to enroll Vyshnavi into one.
“It was supposed to be a fun break between my chess tournaments but it turned out to be a lot more than that eventually.”
She came, she saw, she remembered
That was quite a few hats she was juggling, at the age of 15. I wondered what drove her – was it the air of competitiveness that had grips kids these days, was it intense pressure to excel, perhaps the tendency of Indian parents to exhaust their children with one too many hobbies?
Anticlimactically, but to my relief, she lets me in on her simple reasoning – just the way it should be. “I basically got into sports as an excuse to travel!” she ribs, adding, “I love travelling. So, when I first represented India at the world championships in China, I was definitely passionate and trained hard for the championship, but I didn’t really expect to perform so well. There wasn’t much going through my mind to be honest, and I consider it one of my biggest strengths. I am usually very calm and I don’t think about anything when I am in a championship hall. I am just there to do the best I can and enjoy the process”
She says it took about three days for it to sink in that she had won the gold medal at the World Championships. “To be able to drape the tricolour over my shoulders… I do not take a single moment of such events for granted.”
That was her cue. After winning her first junior gold in 2010, she started training even harder, and devised her own mnemonic devices to take on the next championship, setting her eyes on the prize with unshakeable determination. “I created a few systems to convert data into images. I then convert these images into a movie like story to memorize. So, my training usually involves converting data into images as quickly as I can and making creative stories. I trained, and continue to train, about 4-6 hours a day for championships.”
A happy birthday for her at the World Memory Championships
She pulled off an encore the next year. She bagged the gold again, in the juniors as well as the open category. And this time, just as a bonus for her burgeoning community of fans everywhere – she broke a world record in her second world championship. She became the first Indian ever to win an open gold medal and to break a world record at the World Memory Championships.
What’s more, she pulled off this feat on her sixteenth birthday. “Winning the first open gold medal for India is a huge milestone in my career, and definitely one of my favourite moments! I was the only junior to win gold in the open category, so that meant a lot to me.”
Well, the phrase “be your biggest competitor” was now true for her in quite a literal sense – now that she herself held the record, there was but one person in her way to being the best. And guess who won the duel! She broke her own world record in 2012 and bagged six medals this time, at the world championships.
All that Gold is not Glitter
For the world, she might be a master of memory, ranked number two globally, but for her school, she was a mere student. The popularity of the sport as well as the Indian mindset towards extracurriculars held equal parts of the blame. “Unfortunately, bunking school for pursuing sports was considered a very rebellious act and I always had to deal with a lot of criticism and discouragement. So, I had to figure out 90% of it by myself and pass the exams.”
As it turns out, rather than hindering her studies, this sport could directly be applied to academics to do better. In a serendipitous turn of events, she applied her memory-hacks to her academics and managed to fare well in all her exams.
How to memorise memory
But, while the mnemonics helped her cruise through her academics, the sport of Memory was far from being etched in the government’s memory, and hasn’t received the impetus it should have, considering an Indian is ruling the circuit. “It is a very young sport and there is not much awareness about it here in India. So, not many consider it a sport in the first place. Indian Memory Athletes lack support from the government and it is very hard to find sponsors even for the most elite athletes in spite of winning several international medals for India. More awareness and support would encourage budding athletes to take up the sport professionally.”
Since it’s a mind sport, Vyshnavi opines that it is not cut out for an audience. “People may not enjoy watching it unless they understand the game. I feel it is important to add mind sports in the curriculum as well as they help nurture creativity while exercising the brain. Making these events more fun and entertaining to watch would help,” she adds.
Our Harry and Hermione rolled into one did end up doing well at school and college, and majored in Psychology. She is now studying fashion designing. But memory still remains on the top of her mind. “It is such a fun and challenging sport that always pushes the brain beyond its boundaries. It is not humanly possible to memorize thousands of numbers and other data that we manage to memorize in the championships without mnemonics. For me, being successful is being able to do what I love and knowing that I am trying to be the best I can be,” she quips.