How to memorise a deck of cards

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How to memorise a deck of cards



Okay, so this isn’t really a game, but it is something I have to do each year at the Mind Sports Olympiad. Probably my favourite event there is the Decamentathlon which tests the competitors in 10 different disciplines. They vary slightly each year but the first test is always a memory test where competitors must attempt to memorise a deck of cards followed by a long string of digits.

I’m reasonably strong at most of the 10 disciplines, which are a mix between various games (Chess, Draughts, Go etc.) and other more general tests (Creative Thinking, Mental Calculations). However the memory has always been my weakest event and after a few years I decided to learn a method of memorising a deck of cards which I am going to share below. If truth be told, the memory test is still my weakest one of the 10 however this method has definitely racked me up a few extra points over the years.

There are 2 things that you need to learn in order to use this method, although there are many similar ways of doing it which I won’t cover here. First of all, you need to think of a journey that you make on a regular basis and come up with 52 specific locations that make up this journey. I can’t tell you what those locations should be, it should be specific to you and something you are very familiar with. These 52 locations will represent the first card in the deck, all the way through to the final card. The order is important, you don’t necessarily need to be able to recall the 36th location immediately but you should be able to work your way through the 52 fairly easily and quickly.

I won’t go into too much detail on my 52 locations but here is a quick guide in case it’s of any help. The first one is my bedroom and the next 19 are all places in and around my home. One journey I make most weeks is to Gt. Harwood Chess Club and locations 21-46 are all on the way. They’re a mixed and interesting bunch of places, ranging from pubs, traffic lights, a police station, a funeral parlour and Accrington Stanley Football Club. I’d have actually liked all 52 locations to be on this route but couldn’t manage to think of enough places. The final 6 locations are all rooms at the Victoria Hotel where Gt. Harwood Chess Club currently meet.

The other thing you need to learn is an image for each card in the deck. This sounds quite daunting at first, however there is a method for how I came up with my images and it can be done with a bit of practice. The method I use to come up with the images, as well as the images themselves, are below. As with the locations, it’s important to be able to recall these fairly quickly and easily, as a keen poker player I sometimes test myself during a game by naming the images whenever I am dealt any cards.

The first letter of the image is determined by the suit of the card. So the clubs all begin with C, the diamonds with D, and so on. That’s the easy part. Slightly more difficult is the last letter of the image, which is determined by the rank of the card. The table below shows all 52 of my images, the end of each image and the reason (sometimes very tenuous) for the ending.

Rank Club Diamond Heart Spade Ending Reason for ending
A Cat Dart Hat Suit T T has 1 vertical line
2 Coin Dune Hen Sun N N has 2 vertical lines
3 Comb Drum Ham Sum M M has 3 vertical lines
4 Car Door Hair Star R Four ends in R
5 Coal Doll Hail Seal L No reason
6 Clog Dog Hag Stag G Looks similar
7 Clock Duck Hammock Sock K Looks similar
8 Crab Dab Hobo Sub B Looks similar
9 Chip Dip Harp Soap P Looks similar
10 Case Dice Horse Sis (sister) S No reason
J Club Diamond Heart Spade (suit) No reason
Q Cream Dream Queen Steam EEN Rhymes
K King Drink Hinge Spring ING Rhymes

Note that when I say that an image “ends” with a letter I’m talking about the sound of the word rather than the spelling, most of the 10s don’t work and some of the Queens and Kings are very suspicious as well. Also, I couldn’t think of a sensible word for the 8 of Hearts (H…B), the only one I could think of was Hub and I really struggle to picture what a Hub is supposed to look like. So I went a bit creative with Hobo instead which is a lot easier to picture.

Needless to say, if you want to try this method and want to change any of the images, or even the rules to create these images, please feel free! They work for me, but if other words would work better for you then go for it. I’d actually recommend having a quick think about each one and see if anything would work better for you. For example if you don’t have a sister then the 10 of Spades (“Sis”) might be tricky for you, Sauce is another possibility but have a think for yourself. These 52 have actually changed slightly over the years for me as well.

Another variation on this is to come up with 52 people or celebrities, as we’re naturally very good at recognising people. Think about how quickly a baby learns to recognise Mum and Dad, it’s one of the first things they do! Some of my images actually are people, for example the King of Clubs (“King”) is Elvis Presley, the Jack of Clubs (“Club”) is a caveman holding a very large spiked club and the King of Spades (“Spring”) is Zebedee from the Magic Roundabout (for anyone who doesn’t know, a weird character with a spring instead of legs).

If you want all 52 to be people, maybe the Clubs (night clubs) could all be pop stars, the Diamonds (wealth) could be royalty, Hearts (caring) could be TV presenters and Spades (digging, hard work) could be sports stars? Personally I felt I wanted a mix of people and images but I have heard of other people using this method instead. The exact method isn’t important, it’s whatever works for you.

Okay, so you’ve come up with a 52 step journey and you’ve learnt an image for each of the 52 playing cards. You are now ready to go. Take the deck of playing cards and look at the first one. You now need to come up with your image for that card and place it in the first location of your journey. Make the image as clear, vivid or even as disgusting as possible to give yourself the best chance of remembering it. For example, if my first card was the Ace of Clubs (“Cat”) I would imagine waking up (my first location is in my bedroom) being surrounded by a pride of lions! I tend to use lions rather than a domesticated cat as it’s a much more vivid image and have similar tricks for some of the other cards too.

So that’s the first image stored away, now look at the second card. Work out the image for that card and place it in your second location. Once you’ve got a nice clear image for that one, look at the third card and place that image in your third location. Keep going until you’ve gone through all 52 cards and come up with a total of 52 images.

Now that you have 52 images stored away, in theory you should now be able to recall the 52 cards in the correct order. I’ll be honest, I’ve never actually managed all 52 without an error before (51 is my best), however when I first tried it I was amazed at how well it worked. To recall the cards, simply work your way through your 52 locations in order and work out which image is at that location. For the example I gave, do you remember what was in my bedroom? It’s those lions (“Cat”), which is the Ace of Clubs.

Most people are surprised that it is possible to remember all 52 of these images, however the reason this method works so well is that the human brain is extremely good at remembering images like this. Anyone who has recently studied for exams will know that rote learning is extremely difficult and that any excuse for an acronym or similar method is the way to go.

Hopefully this has inspired you to give it a go, and hopefully it’s also inspired me to do a bit of practice before the Mind Sports Olympiad later this month!

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