How to Memorize a Deck of Cards

Memorizing cards seems like it might be a sweet trick for a gambler or magician, but it’s actually a fantastic mental exercise and fun too. Hope you enjoy.

HOW TO MEMORIZE A DECK OF CARDS

This is an explanation of how I memorize a deck of cards. When I first started I was only able to do a full deck in 20 minutes with a few mistakes. But after 2 weeks of practice I was able to get it down to nearly 5 minutes, perfect. Now I can do it in 33 seconds (and I keep getting faster with practice). All it is is practice. There is no person that CAN’T do this, trust me. Just practice. It will come.

To memorize a deck of 52 playing cards, you need two things:

1. A specified image for each card
2. A mental “journey” to place each card image when you memorize them

When I first set out to do this, I sat down and gave every card an image. The reason for doing is this is because the memory works best with pictures. This is why we can easily remember things happening in a movie, but find it difficult to memorize a set of numbers. A movie is visual and entirely made of pictures, while numbers are abstract symbols that have no attached meaning. Playing cards also lack meaning – so you must give them meaning by creating associated images. By image, I mean make each card represent something. I chose to make the cards represent people. By people I mean someone who was either a friend, family member, or a celebrity (basically someone memorable). Next, I gave every card or “person” an action. By action I mean a verb that makes sense and relates to the person. For example, my mother is the Queen of Hearts and her action/verb is cooking (because she always cooks). You always want to make the associations between person and action to be natural. What I mean is that you shouldn’t be giving your mother the action of playing cricket or something (unless she actually does play cricket!). You should go through each of the 52 people you have representing each card and ask yourself “what do I imagine this person doing?” Whatever comes to mind first should be the action. This is because when you are memorizing the deck at high speeds, you don’t want to even think about what card stands for what, it needs to be natural, like a fluent language.

Turning the cards into people

When I teach people this part, I usually have them start with the face cards (all the Kings, Queens, and Jacks). These are easy to associate to people because they have faces on them. What I did when I first began associating them with people was to try and find people that had names that matched the letters on the cards (J,Q, or K). Or, if the picture on the card looked like someone I knew, I would go with that person. Here are some examples:

King of Clubs = Tiger Woods, because he is literally, the King of Clubs (golf clubs)
King of Hearts = my dad, he is the “king” of my family and the “hearts” signifies family
Jack of Diamonds = my sister Jennifer Dellis, J from Jack and D from Diamonds are the initials for her name
King of Diamonds = James Bond, because it reminds me of when he plays cards in casinos

Notice that some of those may not be entirely obvious to you. It really doesn’t matter though. You can learn anything if you practice it enough. So think of something, write it down and just learn it. It only has to make sense to you.

Once you have the 12 face cards figured out, you need to transform the rest of the deck. There are different ways to do this but I do it as following: Look at the number and suit of each card as a first and last initial of a person. The number on the card represents the first initial:

Ace – A
2 – B
3 – C
4 – D
5 – E
6 – S
7 – G
8 – H
9 – N
10 – O

Most of those makes sense – its just matching the number to the nth letter of the alphabet. The few exceptions are 6,9, and 10. I chose S for 6 because 6 sounds very “s”-like and N for 9 because it sounds very “n”-ish. 10 is O because the zero looks like an O. For the second initial of the person, I take the suit name (Heart, Club, Diamond, Spade) and just take the front letter (H,C,D,S). Examples:

7 of Clubs = G.C. -> George Clooney
8 of Spades = H.S. -> Homer Simpson
5 of Clubs = E.C. -> Eric Clapton

**note: If a set of initials reminds you of something straight off the bat, go with that! For example, 2 of Clubs is B.C. – I instantly think of Jesus (BC = Before Christ). That’s just me, but I stuck with that because it was easy. Or 2 of Diamonds is Kobe Bryant since his basketball jersey number is 24 (Diamonds is the letter D, which is also the number 4). Like I said before, it honestly doesn’t matter how you derive your images, as long as it makes sense to you.**

Once you have a person representing each card, add the actions. The actions you want to choose should all be distinct from one another and should be actions that you can visualize easily. Dancing, eating, lifting weights, bouncing, playing soccer, playing tennis, playing the piano, are all good examples. But just remember that the action needs to relate to the person. Examples:

5 of Clubs = Eric Clapton / Playing the guitar
2 of Diamonds = Kobe Bryant / Dunking a basketball
King of Hearts = Dad / Signing a check

Once you have all 52 cards represented (by each a different person and action), you are ready….almost!

Storing the cards in your memory

So now the cards have meaning. When you are about to memorize a deck, you need a place to store all the cards or “people.” To do this, take a familiar place like your home or your work place and make a mental journey through it. While doing that, choose 26 different points of interest (POI). These POIs can be rooms or even pieces of furniture – doesn’t matter – they just needs to be significant. Make the journey through the POIs make sense, don’t jump around, make it go in a sensical order. For example, I use my home as a journey with these POI:

1. bedroom
2. bathroom
3. closet
4. hallway
5. brothers room
6. sister’s room
7. tv room
8. kitchen
etc…

The journey you come up with should be intuitive and you shouldn’t need to memorize it. If you do, you’re trying too hard – find something simpler or easier or more familiar to you. A good idea is to maybe work your way clockwise through the POIs. For example, in my home, I start in my bedroom and next I go to my bathroom because it is the closest room. I don’t jump to the kitchen from my room because there are other rooms in between – I go in a logical order. Once you have the journey mapped out in your mind, make a mental run through before you use it for memorizing. Imagine yourself walking through it.

Ok, now you are ready. Shuffle your cards. When you begin memorizing, take the first two cards. What you want to do is take the first card and visualize the person associated with it doing the action of the second card. So you are combining two cards at a time. You want to visualize this person/action happening in the first room in your Journey (in my case, my bedroom). Let’s see an example:

Say the 1st card is the King of Clubs and the 2nd card is the 7 of Clubs. King of clubs is Tiger Woods and the 7 of Clubs is George Clooney (but his action is driving the Bat-mobile). Since they came in that order, I take the first card as a person and the second as an action and combine them. Tiger Woods is driving the Bat-mobile in my bedroom. That is what I memorize. I visualize this happening in my room. Try to use as many senses (try to imagine sound, color, smell, etc. ) as possible to make the image more vivid. Once you have it, move on to the next two cards and the next POI. Don’t look back. You’ll be surprised how much your brain can remember! That is the beauty of this technique – no review is needed – you can just look at each card once. Keep working in pairs of cards until you reach the end of the deck. To recall the deck, just go back to the first POI and your first image should be waiting for you there! Then make your way around all the POIs and translate the images back to cards. I know it sounds crazy but it works.

Building up speed

At first, memorizing a full deck will be slow. It will seem like you are memorizing a lot and it might seem extremely mentally draining. That’s alright, your brain has probably never done anything like this before. With practice, it will become normal and easy.

One thing to note, after using your journey for the first time, you will remember it for a while. You have to let it be forgotten (this might mean waiting a few days). What I do in the meantime, since I train everyday, is I have multiple journeys that I alternate between everyday while the other ones get “forgotten.” There is nothing from stopping you from creating multiple journeys. I have more than 20 different ones!

You will find that if you practice one deck a day, your speed will improve everyday. All memorizing cards is is being able to translate cards to an image quickly and coming up with a vivid image in your head fast enough. If you find that you have lots of “holes” when you try to recall the deck, it’s not because the technique doesn’t work, it’s because you didn’t make a strong enough image.

This is the method I began with. There are other systems out there. Some of these systems claim to be faster, but honestly I think speed comes mostly with practice. Practice your system well and you will get fast. One thing I did do to increase my memorizing speed was to switch from person/action to person/action/object. What that means is not only does each card have a person and action associated with it, but also an object. Then, when I memorize, I group 3 cards at a time instead of 2. The first is the person, the second is the action, and the third is the object. It’s kind of like the game “Clue,” person X was doing action Y with object Z. Another advantage for grouping 3 cards instead of the original 2 is that you need less POI in your journey. For pairs of cards, you need 26 different POIs, but with triples you only need 17.

Anyways, that is it. Hope that helped! Email me at climbformemory@gmail.com if you have any questions or if anything was unclear.

18 comments


  • Harley Helmuth

    Thanks so much for your information!!! It was a great help, I used regular Rummy Cards and it worked as well as being quite enjoyable!

    04/28/2013
  • Thanks for ones marvelous posting! I really enjoyed reading it, you
    may be a great author.I will be sure to bookmark your blog and will come back
    from now on. I want to encourage yourself to continue your great job,
    have a nice day!

    07/05/2013
  • yogender sharma

    tell me about easy way to remember & re buit quickly new one

    08/21/2013
  • sabah nuri

    Thank you for sharing this technique.
    My memory has been declining due to my thyroid and it gives me hope that it will improve if i do what you do.

    10/06/2013
  • Pete

    Hi Nelson, cheers for sharing you journey, it sounds very interesting. Can I ask what improvements have you discovered about yourself after you’ve memorized a pack of cards? For example in the real world you are more focused, have a better working memory, maybe reading faster, sharper recall etc… I’m curious into real benefits that mastering this skill can be used for.

    10/17/2013
  • Sam

    @Pete

    Right now, this method is focused on cards. Each location in your Memory Palace is a peg to hang images, and each image is a card.

    If you want to apply these memory skills to other things in your life, try creating 50-100 images related to numbers.

    You can rhyme the first few for short lists… 1 gun, 2 shoe, 3 tree, 4 door, 5 hive, 6 sticks, 7 heaven, 8 gate, 9 wine, 10 hen… or you cna use the Major System to develop images/objects for the numbers that don’t easily rhyme.

    So for a grocery list…

    1. Eggs
    2. Milk
    3. Beer
    4. Popsickles
    5. Bagels
    …etc

    Picture 1(gun) with Eggs. Picture something very graphic that has both Guns and Eggs in it.

    So when you go back later say the numbers 1-10 in your head, it triggers the rhymed word, then that triggers the joint image you created with eggs. Perhaps Keanu Reeves firing from two identical badass guns shooting out eggs for bullets, and smashing into bad guys.

    1….gun….Keanu Reeves firing eggs… EGGS!
    2….shoe..Giant Clown shoes with a big faucet on them spewing milk… MILK!

    If you had 100 pegs, you could remember gigantic lists.

    01/11/2014
  • Beau

    After reading this article, I decided to try it only using face cards. After a few hours I was able to recall ALL cards in order. Thanks for a great article. Use images that come to you naturally is key.

    01/22/2014
  • michael angelo

    Hi Nelson,

    This is very helpful, I have been learning mnemonics for academics and it has been a great help for me in school. however I would like to take it to the next level.
    Now, I up grade my memory from Major system to PVO, however I got some issue recalling the images after the memorization process. I would like to know how will I make them stick to the loci with just one run and how will I be able to gain speed.

    thanks and more power!

    05/16/2014

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