White Man with serious face wearing headphones and sunglasses sitting in front of several decks of cards with a brick wall behind him

How to Memorize a Deck of Cards in Under 60 Seconds

Words: Nelson Dellis
Illustrations: Nelson Dellis

Ran out of things to say to your distant relatives at the Christmas dinner table? Then pull this trick out of the bag! 

Memorizing a deck of cards may sound like the most daunting of tasks, but in actuality it’s pretty easy. The world record stands at just over 20 seconds (that’s only 20 seconds looking at the deck!), but with some proper techniques and a bit of practice, world memory champion Nelson Dellis can get you down to 1 minute in no time, with these 5 steps. 

1 START WITH FACE CARDS

“52 cards in a row might seem like an impossible task at the start. Ease into it. First, separate the face cards from the deck. That’s the Jack, Queen, and King of all 4 suits (12 cards total). Once you manage to comfortably memorize those 12 (by following the next few steps), increase it to half a deck, then a whole. The important part of this step is to remember to make realistic and snack-sized goals so that you don’t end up quitting before you’ve even begun.”

Pencil drawing of a deck of cards with the Jack of Clubs face up

     Above: The best kind of party trick, one that’s easier than it seems.

2 VISUALIZE IT

“If we can “chunk” 3 cards into one group, you’ve suddenly reduced 52 things you have to memorize, down to 17 (plus a left over card). It’s a memorization strategy called PAO: Person // Action // Object. It’s an opportunity for our brains to visualize the cards and remember them in pictures rather than as abstract things.

Let’s start with the 12 face cards you set aside and give each one a person to associate with it. Whatever the card reminds you of, go with it. For example, King of Clubs for me is Tiger Woods, because he is the king of clubs. King of Hearts is my dad because hearts makes me think of family, and he is the king of my family. King of Diamonds makes me think of Donald Trump because he’s probably got a crap-ton of diamonds. Once you have people picked out, decide on an action and an object for each. Make it something that makes sense to that person; something that is so obvious you don’t really need to memorize it. For example, King of Clubs is Tiger Woods, his action is playing golf, and his object is a golf club

The formula is always the same, it’s a person doing an action with an object. Three cards, one image.”

Color pencil drawing of 3 playing cards in a thought bubble

     Who’s Aces in your life? Can you tell a story about them? 

3 FIND YOUR MEMORY PALACE

“Now that you’ve got visuals for the cards, we need a place to store them when you memorize them. What better place to use than the places you walk through every day: your home, your office, or even the local Starbucks. Our brains are very good at remembering spacial information, so if we can imagine ourselves walking through a place we know well, we can deposit the images of cards we are memorizing along the way. Then, when it comes time to recalling them, we just imagine ourselves walking back through that place and we pick up the images as we go, translating them back into cards. Sounds weird, I know, but trust me it works. All memory pros use this (NO EXCEPTION!). 

4 MOVE ON TO THE NUMBERS

“Once you’ve mastered memorizing the face cards, the next step is figuring out the PAOs for the rest of the deck, namely, the number value cards. While face cards were pretty intuitive to create images for, numbers aren’t so obvious. So, we will need a system. But first, go through the deck and see if there are any cards that seem obvious.” 

Here’s an example: 

1 = A              Clubs = C
2 = B              Diamonds = D
3 = C              Spades = S
4 = D              Heart = H
5 = E
6 = S
7 = G
8 = H
9 = N
0 = O
 

Ace of Spades is an A and an S. 
Ace = A, Spades = S. 
A.S. = Arnold Schwarzenegger // Weightlifting // Barbell


2 of Diamonds is a 2 and a D.
2 = 2, D = 4.
24 = Kobe Bryant (it’s his jersey number) // Playing Basketball // Basketball

“Most of the numbers represent the letter’s location in the alphabet (except for 6, 9, and 0 - 6 sounds very SSSS-y, 9 sounds very NNNN-y, and 0 looks like an O). Ultimately, this is a rough guideline (you can see I slightly bent the rules for Kobe). Eventually through practice, the cards will feel like the people they represent and you won’t even think of the system.”

Pencil drawing of a man spinning a doggy like a basketball

     Coincidentally, “Arnold playing basketball with a dog” would make a good password.

5 AND REPEAT

“Put that all together and you’ll probably be able to memorize a full deck of cards on your first try, but not under a minute. To get to that time marker, you just need to practice. Think of it like becoming fluent in a foreign language; you have to practice speaking the language before it becomes automatic. In terms of gaining speed, it comes down to two things: 1. How fast you can recognize your images and 2. Building confidence in your memory.”

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11 2015 The Red Bulletin

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