Memorize a Deck of Cards in Less Than a Week

I’m not a memory expert, nor do I play one on tv. My memory is quite horrible, in fact. Times and dates fade almost as soon as they’re spoken. Remembering names is as elusive as ‘Nessie and ‘Squatch. And I’m pretty sure I spend a good 10-15 minutes of every day trying to find my keys or phone. So how did I teach myself to recall the entire sequence of a deck of cards in less than a week with fewer than 4 hours of practice? I’m about to show you how (you can do it too).

There are certain things we are pre-disposed to more easily recall than others. These tend to be things we can readily associate to one of our senses. Think about a powerful memory. I remember watching my Mom baking in the kitchen, how she used to shuffle around in these red, fuzzy house slippers (sight), the songs she used to hum (sound), vanilla wafting through the air (smell), the warmth of soft, freshly baked cookies (touch) and the ooey, gooey chocolate (taste). Everything about that memory is firmly fixed in my mind because of those sensory experiences.

The things the average person finds a bit more difficult to recall are abstract notions, things like: dates, numbers and names. These are things that we don’t normally have some physical, sensory association with and therein lies the key to improving your memory. Associate those abstract notions we find more difficult to recall with things we more readily remember. We’ll use three main techniques: association, sense perception and rarity.

I am horrible with names, but there are certain names that I never forget, like Andrew. That’s because whenever I meet someone named Andrew I immediately think of my Uncle Andrew who is very dear to me. So every person I meet named Andrew always has an association for me with my Uncle Andrew.

Sense Perception
I don’t just think of my Uncle Andrew, I try to recall every sensory aspect of my memory of him: his height, how we wears his hair, what types of clothes he favors, the sound of his voice, his laughter. All of these things are powerful aids in cementing this new association I’ve just made.

Drive through a countryside and see miles upon miles of cows and you’ll start to ignore them. But happen across a purple cow in their midst and chances are you are going to remember that purple cow (shout out to Seth Godin).

So I do the same in my naming scenario. Now that I have my Uncle Andrew firmly in my mind, I imagine him jumping to ride piggyback on my new acquaintance. Not sure whether my uncle or newfound friend would appreciate my memory mechanism, but I think you’ll agree that the idea of a grown man riding piggyback on another is not likely to be a common occurrence. It surely isn’t one that I would easily forget.

Those are the basic building blocks we will use to memorize a deck of cards in a shockingly short period of time. If you’ve been reading my blog, then you know I try to conduct my experiments in half-hour increments. I do this to prove a point: if you really want to acquire knowledge or make a life-change, it can be done with less than a half-hour investment in yourself. How quickly you achieve it is how many of those 30-minute increments you are able to dedicate to yourself. I completed this experiment in a week. Perhaps it takes you two. Or four. But you can do it with just 30-minutes at a time.

Memorizing the sequence of a deck of cards is one of the most difficult memory feats to do. It’s probably also one of the most impractical. There’s not much call in our daily lives to perform such a feat. I’d rather tell you some practical tips for remembering names, dates and tasks but they just aren’t as cool as pulling out a deck of cards and calling the cards out in sequence. It tends to be a crowd-pleaser.

Think about how much goes into memorizing a deck of cards. You’ve got to keep track of numbers, faces, colors and the suit. Then you have to put those in the proper sequence. I’ve read a lot of different techniques on how to do this but the one I found that most easily connected for me was from Dave Farrow’s Millionaire Memory program. After all, if I’m going to learn how to memorize a deck of cards, who better to teach me than the world record holder who memorized 59 decks of cards in sequence? Yep, that’s 3068 cards, in order. You know how Jedi Dave Farrow is? More than a month later he was quizzed on it and was still able to recall them. Not just in order, but you could call out things like: “Deck 38, cards 11 and 47.” And he could still recall them. Dude is badass.

I’m not going to tell you all the specifics of Dave’s program because I believe in preserving folks’ copyright and frankly, for $150 it’s one of the best investments in yourself you can make. Buy it. You won’t regret it. Instead, I will relate the basics with the three techniques I already mentioned: association, sense perception and rarity.

The first thing you’ll do is encode each card, associating it with something you more easily remember. For most people, a Jack of Diamonds is not something they normally have a powerful association with so replace it with something you do. As an example, you might replace it with a guy named Jack throwing a dart. Visualize the throwing dart and how the flight (the part at the back of the dart) sort of looks like a diamond. Imagine how the point is sharp and would sting if you poked yourself with it. The satisfying thunk as it hits the bulls-eye. I know, it sounds silly but just try it. The next time you see the Jack of Diamonds, that image will automatically pop into your head.

Now, this was just my example but use whatever imagery makes sense for you and try to make it as outrageous as you can (rarity). Dave gives a great list of images to encode for each card but you’ll have to buy his system to get that shortcut. You can do exactly the same thing by just coming up with your own. Besides, they’ll be more powerful for you if it’s something you personally come up with anyway.

That will probably be the most time-consuming part of learning to memorize the deck of cards. It will take you a while to figure out an encoding for each card. Don’t try to take it on all at once. Just start with the face cards first. Doing that alone will get you to 12 cards and you’ll already be almost a quarter of the way there. Before you move on to the other cards try memorizing the sequence of just the face cards first. For that, you’ll apply the next technique.

Create a story that connects each card in order. I’ll give you a sample of how my story starts for the video demo I did above: I’m washing my hands when a fisherman barges in and slams the door. He slams it so hard it shakes a chandelier overhead and causes it to come crashing down. For no apparent reason, he pulls out a knife and tries to stab me with it. I offer him some flowers as a peace offering but he’ll have none of that and jumps into a tank to try to run me over. I jump into a motorboat to escape. And so on. Does that story make any sort of rational sense? Hell no. Does it stick in my mind? You damn right it does. Ask me to tell you that story a year from now and I can guarantee you I will remember it.

That’s the secret. Once you’ve encoded your cards, create a ludicrous story using those images. I’ll give you a tip. The more outrageous your story, the better. The more it’ll stick. That part takes practice. When I first started I kept trying to make the story rationally flow from one card to the next. Let it go. It’ll go much faster for you if you throw caution to the wind. I’ve been told by some people I’ve taught these techniques to that their kids learn it much faster. That’s because kids don’t have a filter on their imagination. Of course a horse can be purple. Of course a tank can turn into a rocket ship. Set your inner child free when making up your story.

Now slowly add encodings for 2 or 3 more sets of cards (e.g. all the aces, twos and threes across all the suits). Then do it for 2 or 3 more. This part took me about four half-hour sessions (2 hours total) but that’s because I used Dave’s encodings. I’d say you’ll need an extra hour or two if you come up with them for yourself.

I’ve only gone through 2 of Dave’s DVDs so far and I can already say they’re one of the best investments I’ve made in a long time. The rest of the DVDs are full of practical memory tips you can use in your daily life. I still have a long way to go to learn Dave’s other techniques. I can memorize a deck of cards in sequence but it takes me a good 15 minutes to create the story for a newly shuffled deck. I can recall them in order but to call out specific cards (e.g. cards 4 and 23) I still have to run through the entire sequence instead of jumping directly to them. For that, I’ll need Dave’s memory peg system. Have I mentioned you should buy the DVDs? No, I don’t make any money from it. They’re just that good.

Once I get faster with memorizing a deck of cards I’ll be moving on to multiple decks. I don’t relish the thought of carrying around 3 or 4 decks of cards all the time, so I created a quick tool that you can use from any browser: Serge’s Deck of Cards Memory Tool. It’s all client-side Javascript, so once you’ve hit the page once and downloaded all the images (click on the show/hide toggle twice), you can be disconnected from the interwebs and use the tool without a connection. You’re welcome.

I’ll give you a challenge. The first person who is able to record themselves recalling an entire deck of cards in sequence and tweet the vid link to me @sergiogonzales, I will send him/her a cool deck of Arcane cards from Ellusionist and I’ll cover up to $5 in shipping. Your video must show your face in full view, blind-folded, nothing in your ear, with the cards clearly visible. That’s so you sneaky bastards don’t read the list from somewhere off camera or get it fed to you via earpiece. Honor system, folks. The deck is like 7 bucks. It really isn’t worth you trying to game it and you’ll cheat yourself out of a really cool learning experience. Holler at me in the comments.