To Have Your π and Beat It

abrahamson 2It is over 20 years since I last bumped into Michael Abrahamson. Pretty sure it was in a press box at a cricket ground somewhere in South Africa. Newlands or the Wanderers perhaps. Maybe Kingsmead in Durban. Or it could have been a rugby ground. I forget. It was a long time ago and bumping into Mikey was a regular occurrence.

He was a commentator for the SABC. Still is. A very good one. Apart from cricket and rugby Michael also disappeared down an Athens black hole at the 2004 Olympics (“I had 19-hour days for four weeks but it was hugely enjoyable”) and commentated the 2010 World Cup Final in his native South Africa.

Back in the mid-1990s when I was living in Durban, we were forever criss-crossing, two cogs in a media wheel that included people like Peter Robinson and Hugh Bladen – the man responsible for a hangover I remember only too well in Dunedin in 1994 – as well as my old MWP colleagues Andy Capostagno, Neil Manthorp and Mark Lamport-Stokes.

Mikey was a good guy. Affable and sparky, a bit geeky in his recollection of cricket stats but hey that is a part of the game. (We had a fellow called Andrew Samson who used to sit quietly in the Kingsmead press box with a bag of coloured pencils, noting every ball of the day’s play, informing those of us less attentive souls of milestones – significant and other – that we might want to use in our copy. I wonder what happened to him.)

Michael wasn’t a scorer, though, he was a commentator blessed with a silky voice, a nice line in banter and a sackful of info and stats at his fingertips. No, not at his fingertips, that would suggest a folder full of notes, rather they were tucked away in a little corner of his brain marked CRICKET or RUGBY.

What I didn’t know then, that I do know now, is that Michael Abrahamson was a bit special, a mentalist, with incredible powers of recall and the ability to read people like a book. Think Tim Roth in Lie to Me and you are a part of the way there although as far as I know Mikey isn’t running a sideline as a police consultant. But he did turn his skill into a popular live show.

“My show is similar to what Derren Brown does, only I use all my own material and effects, so it’s very interactive and fun,” he says.

Mike Abrahamson
Michael Abrahamson hard at work as a sports commentator (Pic: M Abrahamson)

Even in those tender years in the 1990s, while I struggled to remember which game I was covering, Mikey was already working on the memory skills.

“It’s a huge weapon for me in the commentary box, being able to recall facts and info at will,” he says.

“I realised I could do this at a young age but it does take a lot of work and constant revision. It’s a science, and there is a skill element that you have to learn.”

That hard work and constant revision came to a head this week when he broke an African record and, pending ratification, a world record.

On official Pi day, March 14, Michael Abrahamson successfully recalled the first 1,500 digits of π in an astonishing time of just four minutes, seven seconds, without a single error.

Think about it for a moment. Digest this information, especially those of you at the back who, like me, struggle to recall four digit PINs.

And let me say it again: Michael sat with a blindfold around his eyes and spouted the first 1,500 digits of Pi. In just four minutes and seven seconds. That is 247 seconds. Not a single hesitation. Not a single error.

Now, recalling 1,500 digits is in itself a monster achievement but it is not the world record. That belongs to an Indian, Suresh Kumar Sharma churning out 70,030 digits in October 2015. So Mikey, now with the African record and an all-time listing of 16th, has a bit of a way still to go in that direction.

But what is truly astonishing is the speed.

Sharma’s 70,030 came in 17 hours and 14 minutes at the pedestrian rate of just over one digit per second. Another astonishing achievement.

Michael’s recall, though, equates to a rate of 6.073 digits per second, and that is the fastest ever official time for over one thousand digits, based on a per second rate.

In the presence of four independent judges, who verified the proceedings, Michael shattered the existing South African record of Marno Hermann, who recalled 1,200 digits in 10 minutes 15 seconds exactly a year ago. Michael recited 300 digits more and did it over six minutes faster than the previous existing record.

“This was one of the hardest memory challenges I’ve ever attempted. It’s hard enough to recall the numbers without error but to do it at breakneck speed for this duration of time is truly a feat I’m very proud of.”

And so he should be. Even if that figure of 70,030 is still dangling there…

©Barney Spender 2019

You can find out more about Michael Abrahamson here 



Okay people, you think Michael is a bit of a slouch and reckon you can recite the first 1,500 digits of π in less than four minutes, seven seconds, without a single error. Then settle yourself down, set the stopwatch and GO! Good luck.