Memory Techniques: the Peg system (part two)

by David Fadul
7/14/2017 – In this second part on the Peg system, author David Fadul explains how this works, and how it is used together with the Memory Palace technique to give a fuller system to use. You will also learn about how Dominic O'Brien, an 8-time World Memory Champion, added his own refinements to become the Dominic system, as well as the Major System. Though this will all be tied together to use in chess in the final part, note that this has also been a hot topic in mainstream media such as CNN and Time magazine.

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Part two

Continued from part one

So, the secret to long term memorization is returning to a palace constantly — mnemonics do not dispense with repetition but simply give you a structure so that it can be minimized and standardized.

I, for one, have no idea how many times I read the periodic table over my high school years, with memorizing no more than the atomic number of hydrogen and helium. That was because my efforts had no structure. By applying mnemonics I memorized in days (ok, maybe weeks) what, by using a brute force approach, I had not memorized in years.

While it is completely possible to use what we have already learned and jump into chess, I strongly recommend that you start your collection of pegs with something simpler and of a wider applicability — cards or Rubik’s cubes can provide interesting examples, but I think that the most useful application of a peg system is linking images to numbers.

Numbers are prevalent in our daily lives and being able to memorize any password or phone number without the need of paper or electronic devices is a useful skill. But more importantly, a numerical peg system is quite versatile as many kinds of information can be associated with numbers.

When I memorized my answers in the bar exam (while the author of this article is completing a PhD in Epistemology, he has a bachelors in law -Ed.), I did not create a peg system on the spot, but simply converted the letters of the multiple choice answers into numbers (A = 1, B = 2, C = 3, D = 4) and applied my consolidated numerical peg system to remember this string of 80 digits — a small feat compared with the hundreds of digits memorized by world class memory competitors, but one that gave me more joy than actually passing the bar.

Unlike a deck of cards, numbers are actually infinite, so how could you create a peg system that allows you to memorize any number with an arbitrary quantity of digits? As you certainly have already guessed, all you need is creating a peg for ten digits, from 0 to 9 — as any number in our numeric system is built from a combination of those digits.

It is completely possible to operate with a ten image numerical peg system, but here once again we must consider rule #1. With only ten images, even an 8-digit phone number would require a good deal of effort to remember, as you would need to store 8 images in 8 distinct locations.

Instead, I suggest that you start with ten images, as a test run, and as soon as you realize the potential of a peg system, you can start building up to a hundred images. This may sound a lot, but unfortunately, our ten-based numerical system renders useless any amount of pegs in between 10 and 100. Fortunately, using a few tips and tricks, creating 100 pegs is not that difficult.

With 100 images, you will have one peg for every two digit number, which reduces the memorization effort into half — so you could store that same 8-digit phone number into four locations in your palace. And if you are really serious about number memorization, you can go ahead and use the PAO system, which would allow storing the same number into only three locations. These small increments will add up as you memorize more and more data.

So, how exactly can you create your own Peg System? Strictly speaking, since the association between the item (what you will memorize) and the peg (the image) is arbitrary, you could simply write down the names of 100 celebrities and all two digits numbers from 00 to 99 and keep reading it until memorized. And while it could work for some people, I believe most of us would just find this process extremely frustrating and give up before accomplishing anything.

Instead, let us move by short steps. First, we should begin with ten images not 100, just to get the hang of it. Second, we should use some consistent principle while creating the pegs — that will immensely facilitate memorizing our associations. As the saying goes, work smart, not hard.

The Rhyme System

I know of three methods that are used to create pegs: the rhyme system, the Dominic System and the Major System.

I have only very recently learnt about the existence of the rhyme system (as I was doing research to write this article, as a matter of fact). It is extremely simple, so I will explain it very briefly. The idea is choosing words that rhyme with the number they are associated with and, preferably, that refer to a concrete object or person so that you can create an image of it.

Memory techniques have been getting a great deal of attention and focus recently, not only in popular TV shows and movies, but also in mainstream media. CNN has featured articles on the topic several times recently, including a full out special by the medical specialist Sanjan Gupta. The article above discussed competitions that attracted high school students in the US.

So, for example, you can associate ‘one’ and ‘gun’. If you are using the PAO system (or if you, like myself, prefer having anthropomorphic pegs), you can ‘extend’ the meaning of the object. Keeping on the gun example, I could have the following PAO pegs for ‘one’: ‘Billy the Kid shooting a gun’.

Personally, I do not like using rhymes. It could function well for the first ten digits, but as you go up, the numbers start repeating endings, which would require finding some different principle to apply, and I prefer to be consistent throughout.

That being said, and as I have been repeating in these articles, you should always apply the methods that you find more suitable to you. So, if this is a method with which you think you would be comfortable, do not hesitate to try it.

 The Dominic System

Another option, the Dominic System, was named after its creator, the eight-time World Memory Champion, Dominic O’Brien and is an easy, yet versatile method for creating pegs. The idea is quite simple: you associate each digit (from 0 to 9) with a letter (I will tell you the letter in a moment). Then you create a peg for a two-digit number by reading the two letters as the initials of a person (your peg).


8-time World Memory Champion, Dominic O'Brien, has written many books on the topic of memory, and devised his own refined techniques to improve on the standard ones

If that sounds too complicated, don’t worry, it will be clear with an example: Suppose I am creating a peg for the number ‘15’. In the Dominic System, ‘1’ is associated with ‘A’ and ‘5’ with ‘E’. So, what famous person has the initials ‘A.E.’? I would go for Albert Einstein (or in the PAO ‘Albert Einstein writing in a paper’), and just like that, I have a peg for 15.

The associations in the Dominic System are indicated in the table below:

Number 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0
Mnemonic A B C D E S G H N O

That is an easily memorizable table. Which, as a matter of fact, is the normal course with mnemonic systems — they require you to memorize something simple as a step toward memorizing something complex or difficult. This table in particular is very easy to remember. The first 5 digits, plus 7 and 8, are associated with their correspondent position in our roman alphabet, so you can remember these 7 numbers by memorizing a single rule. For 0 and 6, they are associated with letters that remind their format and nine is ‘N’, its first letter.
But why memorize it at all? Can’t I simply look it up while creating the pegs? While I could do that, I am afraid it would defeat the purpose. The idea of the Dominic (or any of the other two) system is not to create ‘good’ pegs, but rather to help you memorizing them easily.

That is how it would go: you are testing yourself by memorizing, say, a hundred digits. Somewhere among all the digits, there is ‘15’. If you can remember your peg for it, great – store it and move along. If you can’t, don’t despair. Just remember ‘1’ is ‘A’ and ‘5’ is ‘E’ (straight out of the Dominic System’s table). Who you really like with the initials ‘A.E.’? Well, Albert Einstein, of course.

Just like with my solving the Rubik’s cube, that will add to your memorization time (which is more of a concern if you are competing), but will also turn a fail into a success and will reinforce the connection between item and peg (15 and Einstein), making it slightly less likely you will forget it in the future. I can tell form experience that with enough repetition, your pegs will start to simply come to mind when you see a number, just like you just read a word without even thinking about it.

As a last point about the Dominic System, be free to play with the definition of ‘initials’. If two letters (for whatever reason) reminds you of some person, run with it — as long as you are certain that the association is consistent. The last thing you want is forgetting who the hell ‘O.G.’ because you made some free association that has now vanished. In general, remember: the rules are not sacred, they are supposed to help you, and are only as good as they succeed in doing so.

Time magazine also ran a feature on the US Memory championship 

Finally, let us talk about the third technique.

The Major System

The Major System is older (and I believe more used, at least by old timers) then the Dominic System, but I left it for the end because it is slightly more complex (and because it is my favorite).

Since it follows many of the same principles of the Dominic System (or rather, the Dominic System follows the same principles of it), all that I explained about the Dominic is valid for the Major; the only two differences being the association between numbers and letters and that the Major allows you to create any word, not just initials.

The reason I am fond of the Major System (besides being the first one I’ve learned and the only one I actually use) is that it is not useful solely to memorize pegs. I would go further and say that what it is best for is encoding long string of digits into somewhat comprehensible sentences, which greatly facilitates memorization. And, since I like to get the most bang for my buck, I would much prefer investing a little more in a multiuse system.

In this system every word correlates with a single number, but the same number can correlate with many words. By applying the Major System, you can determine the number of a given word by the letters (actually, by the phonemes) that compose it. Let me just give you the Major’s table, so I can explain what that means:

  • 0 = s, x, z
  • 1 = t, d
  • 2 = n
  • 3 = m
  • 4 = r
  • 5 = l
  • 6 = sh, ch, j, soft g
  • 7 = c, k, hard g, q
  • 8 = f, v
  • 9 = p, b

As you will immediately notice, the Major System uses many more letters then the Dominic System, yet, it does not use all. There is a notable absence of every vowel as well as ‘h’ and ‘w’ — those are unassigned letters, which mean that they have no value and can be used at any place without affecting the ‘number’ of the word.

What determines a word’s correspondent number are the assigned letters, in order. If a letter in a word is assigned, it should be replaced by the correspondent number. So, if a word’s first letter is an ‘f’, the first digit is an 8.

If you are going from a number to a word, you can use the unassigned letters freely and, if a digit has more than one an assigned letter, you can choose between then. The important thing is that the end result is an actual word with which you are already (somewhat) familiar.

So, if I see the word ‘titan’, how do I discover its number? First, I remove the unassigned letters (in this example, ‘a’ and ‘i’) — that leaves me with ‘TTN’. Then I convert the letters to their equivalent numbers — ‘T’ = 1 and ‘N’ = 2, so ‘titan’ = 112.

Of course, normally, you are interested in doing the reverse, going from a number to a word. So you see ‘112’ and think: ‘1’ can be ‘t’ or ‘d’ and ‘2’ is ‘n’, here I would go for titan, since I am an Antiquity geek, but you could go for ‘edition’ as well (eDiTioN) or even ‘duty on’ (DuTy oN, spaces should be ignored, by the way), especially if ‘112’ was just a part of a larger string of digits and ‘duty on’ was more adequate to form a sentence.

Now, this process takes time, and as such is better used when you want to memorize some numbers at your leisure. It takes (me at least) some time to create sentences similar to ‘My turtle Pancho will my love, pick up my new mover Ginger’, yet, by taking my time I was able to encode the first 100 digits of Pi (the turtle sentence only contains the first 24) and the first 20 digits of e (Euler's number) in less than an hour, and later I was able to commit the sentences to my memory by using the Memory Palace. By the way, some math geeks use mnemonics to memorize thousands of digits of Pi, e and other constants, precisely because memory methods allow for virtually unlimited expansion.

As my focus is the creations of pegs, I do not intend to describe the Major’s other uses in any more detail. For those who are interested, there is a lot of information online, including phonetical information and lists of words and their correspondent numbers. If you want, you can also apply the table above and try to decodify ‘My turtle Pancho will my love, pick up my new mover Ginger’, and find the first digits of Pi — odds are that by the end of it you will have both the sentence and parts of the table memorized.

As for creating pegs, Major’s allow for a lot of imaginative possibilities. The way I did it was very straightforward: for each two-digit number I was creating a peg for (say, 74) I would find a few words with the appropriate number and choose whatever I preferred.

So, for 74, I had options such as ‘crew’ (CRew) or ‘grey’ (GRey), but I choose ‘car’ (CaR), as I prefer a concrete and easy to visualize object. For the PAO system, I could have chosen some famous pilot, but since I do not care much about car races, I choose Optimus Prime, from the Transformer series — Notice that I am not particularly fond of the Transformer cartoons (and certainly not of the movies!), but the peg still worked for me, since most of my other pegs are human (or at least organic), which means that a ‘robot’ stands out.

The word ‘car’ encodes the number 74 in the mnemonic Major System

But that simple method didn’t work well for digits from 0 to 9, as good words with a single assigned letter were hard to find. So, I made my live easier by using as a peg for a given digit any word whose first letter with an assigned value had the value of that digit. Which is much simpler then it may sound: for ‘3’, for example, my peg is the Greek creature named ‘Minotaur’; and for ‘4’, it is the Greek god ‘Hermes’. (Yes, I am a geek.) Notice that both words have an actual value. ‘Minotaur’ is 3214 and ‘Hermes’ is 430; but I chose to focus only on the first digits of said numbers.


By the way, maybe it is now clear why my image for Tungsten 74, in my periodic table palace, is a toy car sinking on a glass of orange tang. Since the word ‘tungsten’ has no meaning to me (in Swedish it means ‘heavy stone’, but I do not speak Swedish) I chose a word whose sound reminded me of ‘tungsten’ and the only one I could think of was ‘tang’ (orange was just because that is what I drank as a child). That was a bit of a risk, as the association is a bit flimsy, but that was my first long term palace and I was operating by trial and error. As a general rule, if your intention is to keep the information for the long run, you’d better choose very clear correlations.

By this point it is probably clear that pegs are considerably more demanding than the Memory Palace. The flip side to that is that it is also incredibly powerful. The gap between 10 pegs and 100 pegs will be the largest investment you will have to make without immediate reward, and so it may not be easy. But having some solid numerical pegs is the one thing that allows you the most useful application of memorizing on day to day activities. Numbers are very much prevalent in our lives. Phone numbers, social security numbers, passwords, even most grocery lists would include the quantities of items to buy.

Besides, when you need to memorize something new, you won’t have to waste time choosing images on the spot, but you can always put your numerical pegs to work, as a connection between item to be memorized and the palace — that is how pegs can help you improving your time even if they are not specifically designed to a subject. When I was memorizing the grocery list, instead of choosing famous people on the fly, I simply used my numerical pegs, which is just like enumerating the list. That substantially reduced my time.

Now it is time to put in the work. Go ahead and create ten pegs for the digits from 0 to 9. Choose whatever of the above methods you believe will work better. Make sure you write down your peg list.

With the peg list at hand, you can go back to the random numbers at the beginning of this article. Try and memorize the digits again by using a combination of the Peg System and the Memory Palace: put your peg for 7 on your first stop point, for 9 in your second, for 0 in your third and so on. Do not hesitate to ‘cheat’ and look at your list – remember the pegs may be hard, especially while your brain is adapting to a new system.

Also, do not be frustrated if you cannot do all 40 at once or if you get a few wrong — that is bound to happen in the beginning. The important thing to realize is how much easier it is to remember a person or object then it is to remember a number. Everything else comes with practice. One important reminder is that, if you decide to do so, do not start the journey towards 100 pegs before you have the first ten down.

For those who are willing to go all the way, to 100, there is a surprise on the end: 100 numerical pegs can be very easily adapted to be applied in chess. A chess board has 64 squares, going from a1 to h8 – one can easily convert the letter to a digit (so a1 is 11 and c4 is 34, and so on) and use the numerical pegs to represent the square.

Now, that application is limited, but, coupled with pegs for the actual pieces, it would certainly be sufficient to remembering a few moves. But if we desire to remember whole games or openings we need a more sophisticated peg system, which includes common moves as well. However, this advanced applications will require being comfortable with the basic techniques and the Peg System.

In the final chapter of this series I will go into how those techniques have actually been applied by Timur Gareyev.

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David graduated in Law in Brazil in the early 2000's. During his college years, he was introduced to memory techniques and its applications under the tutelage of one of his professors. He is currently a PhD candidate in Epistemology, with a focus on analytical philosophy.
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mcarpinetti mcarpinetti 10/6/2017 10:30
It is really desapointing that the final article that would deal with chess (as advertised since the beginning) has not yet been published. This series was really great, but without the last one, people's interest in Chessbase's future articles will be deminished because there will always be the feeling that you will do the same.
Dark Lord_12 Dark Lord_12 9/29/2017 07:06
When the heck the next article will come out???
torrionefunesto torrionefunesto 8/4/2017 11:13
Thank you Old guy.
Unfortunately I have to say that the idea of ​​these articles is exceptional, but was left in the middle. I'm trying to create my own memorizazion system and it seems to me that in the O'Brien2s book the author misses the use of the Memory Palace that to me seems to me to be essential if you want to work on an opening repertoire.
I would like to have a comment from the author of these articles
Old guy from alaska Old guy from alaska 7/31/2017 03:32
In Domonic O'Brien's book "How to Develop a Perfect Memory" there is a complete chapter devoted to memorizing chess moves. It's probably not as efficient as whatever system Garayev used but it does work. I thought that some may wish to know this since the author of this series seems to be dragging his feet. The book can be had rather cheaply and, let's be honest you can probably find a free copy out there with a bit of Google-Fu.
torrionefunesto torrionefunesto 7/26/2017 02:40
I suppose the last article is coming.
I am right?
Dark Lord_12 Dark Lord_12 7/26/2017 09:19
In the words 'tang', 'tungsten', 'bang', 'lungs', the letter 'g' is soft g or hard g?
AnsoRojo AnsoRojo 7/14/2017 12:18
The Major System is based on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA):
0 = s, x, z (s and z are alveolar fricative)
1 = t, d (alveolar plosive)
2 = n (alveolar nasal)
3 = m (bilabial nasal)
4 = r (alveolar liquid)
5 = l (alveolar liquid)
6 = sh, ch, j, soft g (sh [ʃ] and ch [ʒ] are postalveolar fricative; j is fricative palatal and g is velar plosive)
7 = c, k, hard g, q (c in "cat" sounds like a "k": a velar plosive) "Q" sounds like a "k", too.
8 = f, v (labiodental fricative)
9 = p, b (bilabial plosive)
Maybe it cabn go backwards and you can use the Major System to learn the IPA Alphabet!
By the way, here is the IPA Alphabet: