How to Memorize a Shuffled Deck of Cards in Less Than 60 Seconds (Plus: $10,000 Challenge)

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(Photo credit: Jystyn)

To become a Grand Master of Memory–fewer than 100 in the world can claim that title–you need to satisfy each of the following in competitions approved by the World Memory Sport Council:

• Memorize the order of 10 decks of cards in 60 minutes.
• Memorize 1,000 random digits in 60 minutes.
• Memorize the order of one deck of cards in less than two minutes.

Ed Cooke first hit this trifecta when he was 23. He later came to international attention when he coached journalist Joshua Foer from ground zero to U.S. Memory Champion in one year, a feat chronicled by Foer in the best-seller Moonwalking with Einstein. To win that championship, Foer had to memorize 120 random digits in five minutes, successfully commit to memory the first and last names of 156 strangers within 15 minutes, and (last but not least) memorize a shuffled deck of cards in less than two minutes.

Ed has memorized a shuffled deck of cards in competition in 43 seconds. Of all memory feats, none is a more compressed act of mental athleticism.

I asked him if he’d open the kimono and explain his method, and he very graciously agreed.

It takes around four hours to get comfortable with Ed’s best-of-breed system. With a little practice, you’ll be a third of your way to becoming a Grand Master.

(Im)practically speaking, it’s just freaking amazingly cool. Few people in the world can pull it off, and that’s reason enough to take a weekend or slow evening to try. Instead of watching another bad movie, you can become one of the memory illuminati.

Last but not least, there’s a $10,000 competition at the end if you want to really give this a shot…

ENTER THE BICYCLESHOP

I’ve taken to calling Ed’s approach the Bicycleshop, a combination of the brand of playing cards and Photoshop.

We will learn the basics of Bicycleshop with a simple version; let’s call it Bicycleshop Lite. Then we’ll upgrade to Bicycleshop Pro. Learn to use them in that order.

BICYCLESHOP LITE

Bicycleshop Lite helps you do two things: memorize the cards and memorize the order of the cards.

Step One: Learning the Cards

First, you convert 52 cards into 52 celebrities.

The mind ignores the mundane and remembers the unusual, whether people (e.g., Lady Gaga) or a sudden motion in the under- brush. The more unusual, the more the brain forms a bookmark for recall.
To make recalling 52 celebrities easier, each suit corresponds to a personality type and each card ( jack, 10, ace, etc.) corresponds to a profession (or category). This means that when you look at a given card, you’ll have two cues to help you remember the celebrity.

The Suits (think: personalities):

Diamonds—rich people
Hearts—people you love
Clubs—tough or crazy people
Spades—amusing or absurd people

The Cards (think: professions):

All even numbers are female and all odd numbers are male, and they’re paired up. You can just remember that, for instance, 9s are powerful men, and the 10s are therefore powerful women. The 5s are controversial males, so 6s are controversial females, etc.

Mnemonic suggestions are included below each “profession” to facilitate the association, but you can create your own. Skim this list once, read Ed’s notes following the list, and then read them over again.

King—Male half of celeb couple
Queen—Female half of celeb couple

Celeb couples are the royalty of the present. Each suit will have its own celeb couple. Contrasting celeb couples—John and Yoko, David Bowie and Iman—can help the pairs stick.

Jack—Religious figures
Jacks are bachelors; religious figures were bachelors.

10 Famously powerful women
9 Famously powerful men
Highest numbers, highest-powered people

8 Famous female physiques
7 Famous male physiques
Hourglass or busty or hunky or ripped—the bodies of your dreams.

6 Controversial females
5 Controversial males
Think of “five” and “effing”; “six” sounds like “sex.”

4 Female movie stars
3 Male movie stars
Think of all those trilogies out there.

2 Sportswomen
Ace Sportsmen
Ace is a term associated with excellence in sports; think of “two” as “deuce” in tennis.

Ed explains how this is all put together:

“Having chosen 13 professions/categories and four personalities—just 17 things to learn—you can use your existent knowledge and opinions to fill out a 52-card matrix. The ace of diamonds, on my scheme, is a sports- man (ace) who got rich (diamonds)—OK, Michael Jordan. The jack of spades on my scheme would be a religious figure who’s amusing—the Dalai Lama has a good sense of humor. The six of spades, a humorously controversial woman—Lady Gaga, no question.

“Using this method, it should take less than an hour to fill the matrix out and come to be able to slowly recall the people who now correspond to the 52 cards. Once you have your cast of card-people, go through shuffled decks and practice translating the cards to their images until it’s automatic. This might take another hour to begin to master.”

The next step is to put them in order.

Step Two: Memorizing the Order of a Shuffled Deck

You will now peg 52 cards to locations along a familiar route. It could be a path through your house, the journey from your front door to a favorite pub—whatever you like. Some memory competitors use their childhood homes: Scott Hagwood, who won the U.S. Memory Championship from 2001–2004, uses rooms from luxury homes he finds in Architectural Digest, 10 locations per room. If you choose that approach, you can mentally position yourself at the entrance to each room and move as follows: at your feet, closest left corner, then clockwise to left wall, then far left corner, opposite wall, far right corner, right wall, closest right corner, then two spots on the ceiling.

Choosing 52 locations should take no more than 30 minutes, and then you can start placing your celebrities (cards) at each point. Keep it simple for now, using a longer path if multiple points per room cause overload. Ed starts at his bed:

“For me, a pack beginning with the jack of spades would mean the Dalai Lama standing at the first point on my route—my bed. At the second point, my wardrobe, I’d deposit the image corresponding to the second card, perhaps it will be Michael Jordan—the ace of diamonds.

“Continue all the way through the pack, taking your time and lots of care to imagine each person vividly in their position. Once you get to the end of the route, retrace it in your imagination and you will hopefully encounter all the people in the sequence that you imagined them. You will probably need to go through two or three times the first time you attempt it.”

And just like that, bingo: you’ve memorized your first deck of cards!

BICYCLESHOP PRO

Now we upgrade you.

Bicycleshop Lite, while perfectly effective, is a little slow. Fifty-two separate goddamn images! Well, what did you expect for trial software? But it’s the right place to start. Biting off all the features of Bicycleshop at once will just give you indigestion. Now that you’ve taken a ride with training wheels, it’s time for phase two.

Bicycleshop Pro, the next step for power users, has a much more efficient compression algorithm. It builds on top of what you already know, but instead of 52 images, we’ll reduce to 17 or 18 images. This makes it three times as fast. Here’s how it works, in Ed’s words:

“The next step is combining several cards into single images, which we achieve by assigning each card (celebrity) an action and an object. Jordan, the ace of diamonds, might have for an action a slam dunk, and his object a basketball. The Dalai Lama’s action might be praying, his object a Buddha. Lady Gaga’s action might be posing in a meat dress (memory, after all, loves to be disgusted), her object a load of paparazzi photographers (also disgusting).”

By adding this syntactic structure, combinations of three cards now form mini- sentences: the celeb from the first card, the action from the second, and the object from the third.

“For example, in my matrix, ace of diamonds–jack of spades–six of spades becomes Michael Jordan praying to the paparazzi; jack of spades–six of spades–ace of diamonds, on the other hand, translates into the Dalai Lama wearing a meat dress while holding a basketball. The two images, utterly distinct and deeply memorable, could never be confused.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Bicycleshop Pro. Elegant and, with practice, as fast as world champions.

Perhaps you need a little incentive? Try a $10,000 card-memorizing competition – the first of its kind. See the next section for more details.

For the type-A, obsessive sorts: once you get reasonably fluid and want to take racing the clock more seriously, I suggest getting a metronome. This will be your plateau breaker. If you stall and seem unable to memorize any faster, set the metronome for 10%–20% faster than you can currently handle. Force yourself to turn cards at this rate until you stop making errors. For instance, if you’re stuck at 10 cards per minute (1 per 6 seconds) after a few weeks, set the metronome to 20% less time, so 4.8 seconds per metronome click. If a particular card causes hiccups, make a note of it (or draw a pen marking on it) and analyze the reasons later.

Just remember: this is fun, so keep it fun. Enjoy the mind games.

The $10,000 Card Memorizing Challenge — For Beginners Only

Ed can learn 16 decks of shuffled cards in an hour. Let’s get you to your first memorized deck, shall we?

In The 4-Hour Chef, we promised a $10,000 prize to the first person who could from beginner to expert (being able to learn a deck in less than a minute). The rules were “coming soon.” Well, after a few delays, the challenge is ON.

Ed has put together a course on Memrise, complete with video tutorials from the clever and charismatic man himself. The exercises are truly elegant… and effective.

To win $10,000, one of the biggest prizes ever given for a memory challenge of any kind, you have to learn from scratch to memorize a deck of cards in under a minute. This is a 6-week competition — just enough time to do this. All of your training has to take place on Memrise, so we can watch the competition unfold and ensure no cheating or fraud.

So is this really possible? Sure. It takes just a few hours to master the images you’ll need. Then it takes a few more hours to get your head around the spatial memory techniques. From that point on, it’s just a matter of practice for speed.

HOW THE COMPETITION WILL RUN

The competition will take place at http://www.memrise.com/tim-ferriss

The competition begins now, Feb 6th 2013 and runs until 11.59 p.m. March 20th 2013.

The winner of the $10K will be the first person who legitimately goes from beginner to being able to learn a deck of cards in under a minute, so long as someone does this by March 20th. There will be various other prizes, including limited edition T-shirts and packs of cards for the top competitors who don’t finish first.

To be eligible for the prizes, all your practice at learning card sequences, as well as the achievement of doing it in a minute, should happen in the cards system found here. *The competition *is* the training, and we need to be able to watch everyone’s progress to ensure a fair winner. We’ll also be gathering collective data for the purposes of science and a later wrap-up.

So, let the games begin! Click here for all the juicy details and training tools.

Note: For additional help — two graphs, representing how to memorize all the cards quickly, can be found in the Appendices of The 4-Hour Chef.


Posted on: February 7, 2013.

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97 comments on “How to Memorize a Shuffled Deck of Cards in Less Than 60 Seconds (Plus: $10,000 Challenge)

  1. Hey Tim!

    Couldn’t be more appropriate timing!
    A friend of mine is setting up a course for young kids to help with life skills and to improve studies.
    We were talking about Mnemonics (Major Mnemonic systems) the other day.

    Will be forwarding this asap :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey Tim!

    Wondering how ‘beginner’ you have to be to be eligible? I competed at the 2007 USA memory championship (http://www.world-memory-statistics.com/competitor.php?id=464) but used a method I made up myself and never learned Ed’s method (I’m also @mashmac2 who tweeted at you about the rules not being up a couple weeks ago, so I’ve been putting the time into learning Bicycleshop Pro).

    Can I compete if I learn Ed’s method from scratch?

    Thanks,
    Mike

    Like

  3. Is there a way to change the celebs you are using to associate to different cards? I can change the details but not the main name… e.g. I don’t really think the Obamas are loveable so I put them in the Spades category. Also Flo-Jo has no response from me whatsoever so I want to use Jess Ennis instead… I can’t seem to change this in the competition…

    Thanks

    Simon

    Like

    • I have this issue with Scarlett Johansson (no response and she’s 4 of hearts). I decided to run with what I have, including the cues. This meant associating a female actress I love (SigOURney Weaver) with fOUR of hearts and then, secondarily, Scarlett Johansson since that name appears during training. I am surprised by how well this works. I am quite happy with learning 26 cards in 4-6 hours today of mixed attention practice.

      Like

  4. I’ve been wanting to learn this since reading Moonwalking With Einstein. It seems impossible to memorize a deck of cards, but in high school I memorized the entire I Have a Dream speech to move my history grade from a B to an A, so it’s possible. Looking forward to go through the course.

    Like

  5. Joshua Foer’s book truly makes memorization techniques sexy – great, great read.

    Ed had a central role in that book, not only because he’s the founding member of the infamous KL7. I wonder if he ever did develop his own version of the ‘Dominic system’ up to 999 digits, as alluded to in the book.

    Like

  6. Hi Tim! Is there any way of customizing the associations on the Memrise quizzes? Some of the associations mean nothing to me, and I’d love to replace them with my own categories. (Greek gods and goddesses instead of sports stars, for example, or superheroes instead of physicists.)

    Ed Cooke explains the importance of choosing your own associations, but there doesn’t seem any way to change this on the Memrise site itself. Thanks!

    Like

  7. Is there a way to substitute the person 2 card link for something of your own? Like Lady Diana for 6 of hearts?

    That ‘s what Ed is suggesting, but I don ‘t immediately see how to do it in memrise…

    Like

    • I have not figured out a way to do this either. This is a critical tool. A meaningless connection with Taylor Swift, Pamela Anderson, Julian Assange is going to challenge you. If you are Republican, you will have issues with the Obamas. If you are an atheist, You may have issues with Jesus for the Jack. You HAVE to be able to edit not only the mem picture but also the title.

      Like

    • Great question! Seems like anyone who was an ‘early adopter’ of Tim’s of is not going to be allowed to compete!!

      I started playing with the technique about the same time, but not actively.

      Like

  8. Hi, sounds like a great competition :) However, it seems to me that it’s not possible to change the people I want to associate with each card? Is there a way to do so and I’m just too blind to see it, or is it not possible? If it’s not possible: there should be a feature that allows you to change the people (and not just the images), some of the people I don’t know and some of them I associate with different things. This really puts me off from trying the thing.

    Like

    • philosopher2013, you can upload your own image (and person’s name) by clicking on “Add a Mem” blue link when you start practicing cards (I think step 3). It’s close to the “upvote” button. Cheers!

      Like

      • Thanks for your reply. Now I’m facing a decision to either practice with the pre-chosen people, some of whom I don’t know and some of whom I associate differently (which will make the whole thing unnecessarily difficult), or to do it on my own but without the tool (and probably thus without taking part in the competition?)

        Isn’t this an obvious problem that could easily have been anticipated and avoided? :/ What does everyone else do?

        Like

  9. Memrise is great. I’ve practiced over 500 Chinese characters on it. Based on your advice I only practice on lists of verbs and nouns by most frequent in the language. I’m miles ahead of my textbook in my first year chinese class because of this. It’s good to see memrise getting more exposure here.

    Like

  10. Brilliant Tim!

    One follow-up question I have is, which card, action, object and location would best be associated with “Tim Ferriss”?

    Best regards,
    Jude

    Like