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.


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

  1. Tim,
    Amazing, another life enriching post!

    On another note, Tim, are you into charity fundraising? Would you have some hints on 4h priciniples used for fundraising? I am running the Boston marathon for the charity America Scores (from zero to Boston in about 10 months) and I am looking for some inspiration to kick-start my fundraiser.

    Thanks & best wishes,
    Martin

  2. How you are going to choose the winner? There is already a guy who has results like ~1s. (which is somebody’s nerdy joke on your weak side of competition). I want to participate but that leader-board is discouraging…

    • I’m also a little upset about the leaderboard. There’s no way that someone has memorized a deck in 6 seconds. I’ve been putting hard work into this. I hope I’m not bested by a cheater.

      On the positive side, thanks for including this in The Four-Hour Chef. I’m loving the whole book.

      • Yeah, that almost has to be the consequence of an act of cheating. It takes many minutes to memorize 39 cards and I’ve failed at 52 so far. Started on Sunday and work a full-time job. I will improve!

  3. Hi

    I’ve got a book to recommend on mnemonics- it’s been my favorite one so far. It’s called Mind and Memory Training by Elwood and it’s almost a century old!
    You can find an online version of it here: http://hpb.narod.ru/MindAndMemoryTrainingEW-P1.htm
    It’s a lot of fun but I admit I’m not sure how its effectiveness compares to more recent guides since I haven’t read many.

    In regards to the contest, I’ve been crafting my own adaptation that substitutes the popular culture references for video game references. I’m thinking that you can latch your data points on to hyper-experienced game characters (playing hundreds of hours of some games) and regions to ease the visualization process.

    For my first trial, I’ve chosen the popular online knock-off of dota called League of Legends (LoL).
    If anyone is familiar with it; I’ve set it up this way:
    A->Akali
    2->Teemo
    3->Yi
    4->Miss Fortune
    5->Fiddlesticks (you could also use Fizz)
    6->Ziggs
    7->Sivir
    8->Caitlyn
    9->Nunu
    10->Trundle
    J->Jax
    Q->Ashe
    K->Jarvan IV

    Then, for each of the suits, I’ve set it up so that Clubs, Spades, Diamonds and Hearts correspond to each character’s four moves, which have the hotkeys Q,W,E & R in that order.

    Then, with a little practice, I can translate a series of cards into a much more memorable sequence using only 13 characters (for people who have spent hundreds of hours playing this game- of which, I assure you, there are many many).

    So far it seems to work better for me than without it (and I’ve had to look up some of the characters’ moves myself)- which is a good heuristic to follow I think.

    The only problem is I’m deciding what kind of environment I could use to establish the visual location since most games tend to be non-linear these days. Is it better to divide the packets into groups of 3-4 or 5?, which would mean fewer and fewer locations. 3×18 optimal? or is it possible to do 5×10+2?

  4. Tim,

    This method is interesting and I wanted to know if you had a special way to remember Chinese Charaters?

    I’m studying Chinese now and could use any tips you have.

    Thanks,

    Scott

  5. Just started to read the 4-Hour Work Week again and it’s blowing my mind. It has been far too long! I’m still trying to get there, but thanks Tim for the amazing motivation and advice shared in your book!

  6. Are you still considered part of the competition if you’ve used a clone to create your own set of card associations ??? How does that work.

  7. I have to choose different people for my deck-memorization because I’m a different age / different people are controversial/important/sexy/sporty to me than the memrise set’s creator.

    Therefore, will you please beginners like me as valid competitors without completing the training set? I can do it, but it’s likely to mess up my real celebrity-card pairings. From what I’m reading in the terms of the competition, it seems to be required to learn with the given set of celebrity-card pairings, which isn’t sensible for people of varied ages/nationalities/backgrounds.

  8. This is cool, but it looks to complicated for me. I will give it a try although i don’t have high expectations that i will be able to memorize all the cards.

  9. Apparently there are people who can recite every verse of the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata – a work that’s over double the length of the Bible… William Dalrymple has an interesting little section on this in his book about Delhi – City of Djinns.

  10. Just happened upon this, not likely to make any reasonable progress in 8 days! hehehe…

    However I have to wonder, how is it that doubling or tripling the amount of things to remember is supposed to making memorizing the card group easier? I mean, you have the one task of memorizing the cards. But then you want add on memorizing 52 people, which card you’ve attached to each of those 52 people AND where each of those people are standing along a familiar path? Seems exceedingly counterproductive.

    • Hmmm.. but in a sense it’s like saying:

      Memorize this number: 13579111315171921

      Is it faster to memorize this number like it is, or by memorizing one rule. It’s the first 11 odd numbers (1-21)

      Not the best example, but it works.

  11. Hi Tim,

    I would like to study for 2 weeks to learn a new technical skill was wondering if you could suggest any food/supplements/etc for increase mental performance and memory for short term use?

  12. This is awesome! Wish I would have seen it earlier. I’ve always been interested in memory trick like memorizing a deck of cards, but (although I’m only 22) I’m notorious for having a bad memory.

  13. I’m having trouble with the pegging. I have 13 locations in my apartment that I’m using for the first suit. But I often forget which person was standing where. I try to make it more memorable by employing actions, which other memory tricks utilize. That worked fine the first time. But now that I’ve tried this 10+ times I’ve run out of unique actions. There’s not that many things the Ace of Hearts ie Obama, can do on my couch.

    Any way around this?

    • When I first started out I would have actions that would be performed at each location by whoever was in that location. One guy would be on the balcony, the next would be locking the first guy outside and then I would imagine them both. One celeb would be pushing the button on the microwave, the next would be melting inside. I had many of these type of things, I don’t use them anymore but they were helpful to me when I was just starting out. So rather than trying to come up with different actions for Barack every time he is on the couch, I would just always imagine the person on the couch pointing a remote control at the TV.

  14. This is AMAZING! Went on the couurse and was on it for 30 mins before I got the Hang of it and I managed to remember 39 cards in 35 mins!!!

  15. Hi Tim,

    I know this post is old however, I did a search today on how to memorize cards and got to your site.

    I read through the post, it’s great, I’m going to take learn to memorize a deck of cards under 1 minute, I’m suck at memorizing things so I gotta give this a try ;)

    Thanks,
    Tony