PHILADELPHIA -- As Mike Mirski sits down with a pack of playing cards, he starts spinning the most incredible yarn. It involves a giant club sandwich, a big lily pad and a monk sitting on the moon.
None of it is true, of course. The surreal tale is just a mnemonic device enabling the 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania sophomore to remember the order of the cards in the fully shuffled deck.
It's one of several mental skills being tested Saturday at the USA Memory Championship in New York. Mirski and his Penn teammates are set to measure their recall powers against squads including four-time defending champ Hershey High School of Pennsylvania and a group of Hershey moms.
About two dozen individuals are also competing in the event, now in its 15th year. Other contests require memorizing an unpublished poem, recalling biographical information of random people, remembering rows of random numbers and matching about 100 names with faces.
Event founder Tony Dottino, a former IBM executive turned business consultant, said he established the competition as a way to promote the capabilities of the human brain.
"You are not stuck with the memory you were born with," he said.
Colette Silvestri, who has coached Hershey's team since 2008, said it's fascinating to see which techniques work best for each student on a given task. For card memorization, she said, some arrange them in specific shapes, some whisper to themselves.
"This lays it bare," she said. "You can actually see the learning styles."
Mirski, the Penn student, uses a fairly common card system in which he associates objects and images with certain suits and numbers: The ace of clubs is a giant club sandwich, the king of spades is a big lily pad, the 10 of hearts is a zen monk and the three of hearts is the moon.
He'll study a deck for about three minutes, mentally weaving together an intricate and fantastic story that will cue him as to the order of the cards.
Mirski said the strategy carries over to academic subjects that might seem intimidating at first, calling it "a reminder that the material isn't necessarily hard, it's the way you approach it."
Mirski, of Naperville, Ill., said he joined Penn's memory team as a way to add to his already eclectic repertoire of skills, including unicycling and solving Rubik's cubes.
But Dottino said such extracurricular clubs have proven a hard sell over the years, and he's at a loss to explain why. This year, there are four teams from Pennsylvania – Penn, plus three groups related to Hershey High – and Bergen Academies from Hackensack, N.J. The individual "mental athletes" represent a slightly wider slice of the country.
Hershey junior Nate Hamilton, 16, said he joined the memory team because his friends asked him to, and was quickly hooked by the camaraderie and relentless quest to challenge himself.
"Every time you hit a new personal best, you know you can improve it more," Hamilton said.
A group of Hershey moms who have watched their teens compete for years decided to join the contest this year. Dana Hamilton said her participation has spurred some "cool conversations" with son Nate about strategies – exchanges she wouldn't have otherwise had.
But there's not much mother-child rivalry, she said. In fact, Dana Hamilton described the Hershey students as being supportive of their older – but much less experienced – parents.
"I don't think they're worried in the least about us coming to close to their scores," Hamilton said.