Do you want to improve your short-term memory? Do you want to remember names, faces, important details — basically anything — more reliably and much more easily? (Or, if you’re like me, do you just want to stop feeling embarrassed by your inability to remember the names of people you met five minutes ago? I am so bad at that.)
If so, you could start taking supplements intended to improve your memory. You could drink coffee to improve memory consolidation. You could exercise to improve cognitive flexibility. You could meditate in hopes of improving your memory recall.
Or you could take the advice of Nelson Dellis, the 4-time winner of the USA Memory Championship, the U.S. record holder in the “Names and Faces” event, where contestants have 20 minutes to memorize the faces of 117 different people and their first and last names, and one of the people behind Artofmemory.com, a memory training app that teaches a variety of memory techniques.
I asked Nelson for a technique that would help anyone (even me) memorize something that seems impossible — memorize the order of a shuffled deck of cards.
Before you dive in, try the Extreme Memory Challenge, an online memory test that helps provide data as part of a broader effort to help find a cure for cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.
The Extreme Memory Challenge is kinda fun. And very humbling. And will make you really eager to improve your memory skills.
So let’s do just that.
5 Steps to Memorize a Deck of Cards
Memorizing a deck of cards may sound like the most daunting of tasks, but in actuality it’s pretty darned easy. The world record stands at just a hair over 20 seconds (that’s only 20 seconds looking at the deck, people!), but with proper technique and a bit of practice, I can get you down to 1 minute in no time.
1. Start With Face Cards
52 cards in a row might seem like an impossible task at the start. The biggest enemy of memory is a lack of confidence… and right now you’re probably thinking you can’t do it.
That’s why we’ll ease into things.
First, separate the face cards from the deck: Jack, Queen, and King of all 4 suits: 12 cards. Once you manage to comfortably memorize those 12 (by following the next few steps), you’ll increase it to half a deck, then a whole deck.
The important part of this step is to remember to set realistic and snack-sized goals so that you don’t end up quitting before you’ve even begun. No one ever memorized a deck of cards in under 60 seconds on their first try. A touch of elbow grease is required!
2. Person // Action // Object
Like I said in step 1, 52 cards sounds impossible, so is there a way to cut it down? Yup, by “chunking.”
If we can “chunk” (a fun word psychologists use for grouping information into smaller parts) groups of 3 cards into one “thing,” we’ve suddenly reduced 52 things you have to memorize, down to 17 (plus a left over card, but that’s not a big deal).
So what is Person // Action // Object (PAO)? It’s a memorization strategy that takes advantage of something our brains are really good at: Visualization. We remember pictures of things that are meaningful way better than we remember abstract things (like a card with a suit and number.)
Let’s start with the 12 face cards you set aside and associate a person with each one.
Whatever the card reminds you of, go with it. For example, for me the King of Clubs 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 probably has 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.
Once you have that, the idea of PAO is that when you encounter 3 cards in a row, the first card is always taken as the Person, the second as the Action, and the third as the Object.
You can end up with some super weird combos that way and at the same time group 3 cards into one memorable image. The formula is always the same: it’s a person, doing an action, with an object.
That turns three cards into just one image.
3. Use A Memory Palace
Okay, so the cards mean something. Now what?
We need a place to store them as 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 you can imagine yourself walking through a place you know well, you can deposit the images of cards you are memorizing along the way. Then, when it comes time to recall them, you just imagine yourself walking back through that place and picking up the images as you go, translating them back into cards. Voila!
Sounds weird, I know, but trust me it works. All memory pros use this technique. (Seriously: All of them.)
Here’s an example. Say the first 3 cards are King of Clubs, King of Hearts, and Queen of Clubs. To me, that set equals: Tiger Woods (Person) signing (Action) a Chihuahua (Object). If I use my house as a memory palace and start at the front door, there on the front door is Tiger Woods holding a big pen as he signs the back of a yipping Chihuahua. Then you move onto the next 3 cards and place them just inside the doorway, then the next 3 cards in the kitchen (or whatever room is nearby), etc.
4. Expand To The Rest of The Deck
Once you’ve mastered memorizing just 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 where 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. For me, that meant the 4 of Hearts is my dog Ramona. (Why? Because she has 4 legs and I love the heck out of her.) Also, for Ace of Diamonds I made it… me. Why? Because I’m an Ace and a Diamond in the rough. (Okay, maybe not, but I’m special enough to claim one of the Aces, right?)
For the rest of the cards there are lots of choices in terms of formal systems, but I like one called the Dominic System. The Dominic System is basically a code for numbers and suits that translates them into letters, which in turn represent the initials of a person or character.
Let’s work through an example.
Here’s the system:
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
5 of Clubs is an E and a C.
5 = E, Clubs = C.
E.C. = Eric Clapton // Playing guitar // Guitar.
2 of Diamonds is a 2 and a D.
2 = 2, D = 4.
2.4. = Kobe Bryant (24 was his jersey number) // Playing Basketball // Basketball.
As you can see, the system is pretty simple. Most of the numbers represent an individual 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). If you feel like something else works better, use it. Eventually, through practice, the cards will feel like the people they represent and you won’t even think of the system.
The system is just a way to help you remember what’s what in the very beginning, when it’s all new.
Put it all together and you’ll probably be able to memorize a full deck of cards on your first try — but not in under a minute. To get that fast, you just need to practice. Memorize a deck a day and you’ll be cutting your times in half in no time.
And keep in mind that the more you practice imagining the images for cards, the faster you’ll be able to encode them.
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:
- How fast you can recognize your images (Oh hey that’s Arnold Schwarzenegger!), and
- Building confidence in your memory.
Both of those things only come with practice. Good luck!
How I (Jeff) Did
First things first: If you’re anything like me, you will not memorize a deck of cards in under a minute on your first try. It took a lot of practice for me to be able to memorize the 12 face cards in under a minute.
That’s because it takes a while to encode the PAO for each card, especially if you choose a PAO that doesn’t mean anything to you. For example, I made Kim Kardashian the Queen of Diamonds, but I’m neutral on all things Kardashian: Don’t dislike them, don’t like them, basically have no feelings either way.
Then I made tennis legend Chris Evert the Queen of Diamonds. (I picture her wearing a diamond tennis bracelet and can see it flashing as she swings her racket.) When I was growing up, my mom didn’t like tennis but she loved Chrissie. Because of that, Chrissie means something to me; I can still see my mom perched at the edge of the sofa cheering her on at Wimbledon.
Because that PAO has meaning for me, it’s incredibly easy to remember. I don’t even have to try. The association is immediate.
So, spend a little time creating PAOs that don’t feel like memorization is required. Memorizing at its worst is just trying to remember random numbers, names, facts, etc. At its best memorization isn’t memorization at all; when what you see or hear has meaning, it’s easy to remember. You almost can’t help it.
I also had to take plenty of time getting good at memorizing smaller chunks of cards before moving on to larger chunks. Not only did that help me practice, it also built my confidence. Like Nelson says, confidence is a memory killer, and if you bite off too much too soon, your confidence will disappear — and so will your skill.
So take your time, get good at remembering 12 cards, then 18, then 24… because success at each step along the way will provide the confidence you need to memorize a larger number of cards.
And eventually, to memorize an entire deck of cards.
How do I know you can do it? Because I can. Not in a minute… but I can do it. That means you definitely can.
And, without realizing it was happening, learning to memorize a deck of cards helped me develop techniques that make me a lot better at remembering the names and faces of people I meet — as well as a bunch of other things. (Just for fun I memorized all my credit card and financial account numbers.)
That was the real point of the exercise.
The fact I have a fun party trick I can show off is just icing on the memory cake.