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Michael Abrahamson breaks his own Pi record

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Michael Abrahamson is South Africa’s longest-serving mentalist and the only broadcaster in the country’s sporting history to win the prestigious SAB Radio Broadcaster of the Year award more than three times.

Yet, this King David Linksfield alumnus’s proudest and most difficult achievement came this week, when he recalled the first 2 000 digits of Pi in a world-record time of five minutes, 12 seconds, beating his own world record.

On Pi Day, 14 March 2022, (the first three digits of Pi being 3.14), he accomplished this feat while sitting blindfolded at his home in front of three judges he invited. They were world-renowned cricket statistician Andrew Samson, magician and mentalist Andre Hermanus, and Sheryl Benjamin, “the doyen of maths teachers”, according to Abrahamson.

“I’ve been practising recalling Pi,” says Abrahamson, “but when you do it for real in front of judges, you realise how hard it is. They watched and timed me. They made sure I didn’t make a mistake. They had a printout in front of them with all the numbers.”

Abrahamson says preparation was different from 2019, when he recalled the first 1 500 digits of Pi in a time of four minutes, seven seconds to attain the South African record.

“I had to go at a much faster pace this time. I had to record myself saying it in bits and pieces, and then played it back, trying to get used to the speed and increase my speed every day.”

Abrahamson went much faster than he expected. He had aimed to beat five minutes, 30 seconds, which would have been faster than his equivalent speed three years ago. “When the judges showed me my time, I thought, ‘You’re kidding me. It’s impossible!’”

Hermanus told Abrahamson’s YouTube channel, “The very first computer, the ENIAC, calculated Pi to something like 2 037 digits. That was the maximum its memory [could capture]. But Michael has just shown with some evidence that the mind is unlimited.”

Every year, people all over the world try to beat different records of Pi. Abrahamson considered attempting to reclaim his South African record. St John’s College pupil Douglas Brown currently holds that record after recalling 3 004 digits of Pi in 45 minutes last year.

“So, I thought to myself, ‘Let me do something that nobody else in the world has attempted,’” says Abrahamson. “I had to go at almost six and a half digits per second without a mistake for 2 000 digits. Nobody anywhere in the world has come even close to that.”

Abrahamson would be very surprised if anybody ever beat his record. “You have to speak fast and have an amazing memory and the motivation to do it. I’ve been trained as a broadcaster, so I can speak pretty quickly.”

Abrahamson will now submit his world record attempt to the official judges. “There’s no problem. They’re going to ratify it,” he says.

The current leader of the Pi world ranking list is India’s Suresh Kumar Sharma, who recalled 70 030 digits in just more than 17 hours. “Nobody has the inclination to sit and listen to somebody calling out numbers for, like, 24 hours,” says Abrahamson. “It’s far better to do something where you can upload a video of five minutes. People can watch it quickly. It’s far more impressive to go at a fast speed than to say lots of digits at one digit per second.”

Abrahamson says the key behind memorising Pi is being meshuga (mad). “It takes so much time and effort. You just break it down. Every day, you learn a few digits and see how much you can match. As for me, I have a very good memory. I use memory in my broadcasting work, in all the other things that I do. I won Noot vir Noot after memorising about 3 000 Afrikaans songs in a week. When I was commentating on the World Cup in 2010, I had to commit to memory the names of every team, all the information about every player. I teach memory courses at schools and universities.”

Born in Johannesburg, Abrahamson matriculated with five distinctions, “an amazing thing in those days as you could really only do six subjects”, he says. “I missed English by 1% on the remark, so that was a bit of a sore point.”

“What I remember of Michael at school was he hardly opened his mouth, but since he has left, he hasn’t stopped,” Benjamin told Abrahamson’s YouTube channel.

In addition to being a professional mentalist, Abrahamson has been a sports commentator since the early 1990s. He has met many famous sports people. Former Australian cricketer Shane Warne, who died earlier this month, sat with Abrahamson in the commentary box at Centurion Park in the 1990s. “He was interested in magic,” says Abrahamson. “He was captivated by the tricks I taught him.”

  • You can watch Abrahamson breaking the Pi world record on his YouTube page. “Once people see this video, it’s going to motivate a lot of people to improve and do memory work,” he says.

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