This episode of How to become a Memory Champion will teach you the magic of card memorization. So far you have learned how to use the method of loci, to make good associations and to create your Major System for numbers. Make sure you read these previous episodes because they contain relevant information to understand this article. Today we will focus on how to memorize a deck of cards – the ultimate memory discipline.

Memorizing Cards

Memory athletes during Speed Cards

Memory athletes during Speed Cards

If you have ever watched a top memory athlete memorizing a deck of cards, you probably understand the astonishment about this action. Compared to all of the other championship disciplines you actually see what’s going on: The competitor is rushing through the 52 cards in his or her hands, getting only a glimpse of each of them. After an out-of-the-world short time the stopwatch is being clicked and the athlete goes into some kind of meditation, recalling all the images which have been created a few seconds ago. More and more athletes around the world are able to memorize a deck of cards in 60 seconds or less. 70 competitors (October 2013) already have proven to do this in an official championship in the lasts years. On top of all this Speed Cards is always the last discipline at any tournament and therefore the most exciting one. Many athletes have taken the lead in this very last round.

The Different Card Systems

Speed Cards is the ultimate discipline in Memory Sports

Speed Cards is the ultimate discipline in Memory Sports

Other than the number systems you will most certainly not start with a cluster for your card images. To refresh your memory, a cluster is containing a few information stored in one image. Due to the 52 cards in a poker deck, a 1st-level system is much more elaborate than its little brother for 10 numbers. You’ll need at least 52 pegs to translate each card into a different image. There are many different approaches to create them.

The easiest one I know (as long as you don’t already have a Major System) was created by Steffen Bütow (former German Speed Cards record with 45.82 seconds at the North German Championship in 2003). It categorizes the four colours into four categories and than uses a number-form system to translate the cards. Because it is very intuitive and based on visual associations, you will be able to memorize it in a few hours.

Another approach is by using the Major System (or any other system you used as a 2nd-level number system). You just take those images and use it for the cards, too. By doing that you don’t have to learn any new images. I will explain this approach in detail below.

Then there are a few simple cluster systems like Person-Object (PO), Person-Action (PA) and Person-Action-Object (PAO). For those you create your first 52 pegs with the system of your choice and then extend it to 104 (2×52) or even 156 (3×52) pegs and more with natural associations. The most evolved system for cards was created by the actual World Memory Champion Ben Pridmore and is a true 2nd-level card system (52×51). Over the years many more athletes took the same approach as Ben. Today we find a bunch of people with such a highly developed card system. Let’s have a look at these different systems:

The 1st-Level System


You will need 52 images for the 1st-Level System.

Although there are several cluster systems for cards I will start with a simple 1st-level system. It is relatively easy to learn. Since we already created a Major System in the last episode we will use it now for cards, too. The advantage is that you don’t have to create and memorize 52 new images. Another benefit is that each time you train either number or cards you also train your images for the other discipline. The downside is that you have a smaller variety in images which probably could influence the clearness of your mental pictures. In my case it doesn’t!

Since nine out of thirteen poker cards use a number, it is easy to use the Major System.

Let us assign our Major pegs now to the cards: If you look at the logic behind the 52 cards you realize that there are many numbers among them which makes it easy to use the Major System. The thirteen cards of each colours are divided into the numbers two to nine, the Jack, the Queen, the King and the Ace.

  1. We divide the 52 cards into the four colours and sort them. Personally I ordered the four colours like their worth in the German card game “Skat” which is Diamonds, Hearts, Spades and Clubs. But you should order them as you like.
  2. If we use the Ace as the number one we have a perfect order from Ace to King regarding the natural numbers for nine out of the thirteen cards.
  3. There are now different approaches:
    • We assign the cards logically to our Major pegs. What I did is to use the Diamonds Ace to ten for the numbers 01-10. Now I do a trick: Instead of breaking the great congruence of the numbers by using the digits 11-13 for Jack, Queen and King, I switch now to Hearts. Hence I assign 11-20 with Ace of Hearts to ten of Hearts followed by Spades for 21-30 and Clubs for 31-40. Those first 40 cards are easily allocated and memorized. Each time you see the six of Spades you will remember that Spades is in the 20s and therefore it must be your number 26! Quite easy so far. Now to the tricky part: 41-43 will become the monarchs of Diamonds, 44-46 the monarchs of Hearts, 47-49 the monarchs of Spades and 50-52 the monarchs of Clubs. Those last 12 cards are not very intuitive and less easy to learn, but nevertheless not that difficult after all.
    • Alternatively you can assign the monarchs of Hearts to 51-53, the monarchs of Spades to 61-63 and the monarchs of Clubs to 71-73.
    • Another approach would be by assigning all Diamonds to 1-13, all Hearts to 21-33, all Spades to 41-53 and all Clubs to 61-73. You should decide which way makes more sense to you. Maybe you come up with another way of using your Major System. Like everything in memory techniques you should find the way you like best.

You probably have already realized it by yourself: Your handsome 2nd-level number system had just been reduced to a simple 1st-level card system!

The 1.5-Level System


In Speed Cards you recall with a second deck of cards

After you created your 1st-level system and used it a bit you will realize that it is quite an effort to memorize a deck of cards. The reason for this is because of the fact that you don’t use any clusters whatsoever. You just assigned one image for each card. Therefore you need 52 journey points on your elephant path to memorize the whole deck. With numbers you could already memorize 104 digits with the same amount of locations (assuming that you put one image on one location – of course you can place as many as you like on each loacation but that comes with a price – see below).

A great way to improve your system is by creating a cluster for your cards. An easy solution is the PO (PA, PAO) System. To be precise it is actually not a proper cluster because you don’t increase the amount of data per image. What you do is increasing the amount of data per story and therefore per location. The first thing you might come up with is to use more than one image on each journey point. But that is very risky because you could mix-up the correct order. By using 52 people and 52 objects you will always know that the person comes first and the object comes second. It doesn’t matter in which order you remember them.

Creating a PO System is extremely intuitive and easy to memorize because you use your own natural associations.

Creating such a hybrid system is extremely intuitive and easy to memorize because you can use your own natural associations: If your number 40 (ten of Clubs) is RoSe (object) than your natural association could be Sleeping Beauty (person). If your 23 is NeMo (person) your object could be a submarine. It is so easy that you really won’t have to memorize it at all. You just have to come up with your best associations once, write it down and you will realize that it is still there the next time you are recalling it. If it is not popping into your head immediately there might be a better image for you. Of course you can use the Major Code instead but why making it more complicated?

Instead of objects you can also use actions (PA). Some are having problems with the people and just use actions and objects (AO). And some athletes like myself are using a PAO System with three lists of 100 images each. You could go even further and add as many other different lists you want but it gets more complicated to create and memorize a story with growing complexity.

The memorization process is slightly different to your normal stories because you will have to combine at least three elements with each other: the person, the object and your location. Make sure you clearly distinguish between all of your people. Otherwise you will just remember that someone was dancing with a microphone on your bed. Each person should get at least one unique attribute like a huge belly, a beard or a hat. That’s all and you already saved a lot of your locations.

But there is also a downside to this system: As more lists you use, it exponentially reduces your creativity and increases the necessity for a very clear and good story. And that takes precious time which you don’t have in a memory competition. Therefore I would not suggest to go any further as a PAO System. And even this is already very limited because quite often I find the action not fitting the combination of location, person and object and I rather would use a different action instead to make it more memorable. I am considering to train PA instead of PAO (which I was using for years) because I like the freedom in creativity. But this is another question of personal interest. If you go for a 1.5-level system you should start with PO (PA, AO) and slowly upgrade the system to your needs and skill if necessary.

The 2nd-Level System


A true 2nd-Level card system will need at least 52×51=2.652 images.

The first memory athlete with a true 2nd-level card system was Ben Pridmore. It creates a proper cluster by combining two cards to one image. For doing this you need 52×51=2652 images, which is a massive amount of pegs (you only need 51 sets because you will never have the same card twice within one deck of cards, otherwise you would need 52×52 images). And this system is for cards only!

The approach to create such a system sounds pretty intuitive the way Ben does it:

Similar to the phonetic Major System he assigns sounds to each card making him able to “read” every combination of two cards. I will not go into detail here because I don’t know the exact code myself but you get the point: It is an extremely powerful system and much more evolved than its smaller brothers. Even PAO is in my opinion far less sophisticated.

Personally I am working on a different approach for a 2nd-Level card system:

Using my two lists of 1.000 images (3rd-Level PO), I will expand them to 2.704 images. These Images will be grouped in categories of 13 each and then assigned to all the possible combinations of 52×52 cards (I will add the extra set of 52 to be able to memorize two of a kind as well). That will give me 208 sets of 13 images each – that is why I need 2.704 images in total. I will go into detail about this method in a future article.

Nevertheless I would nobody recommend a 2nd-Level card system except you aim for the memory crown. And even then you can do it with a smaller system. Three times World Memory Champion Andi Bell memorized a deck of cards in 31.16 seconds with a PAO-System (156 pegs). But on the other hand have a look at the top scores in Speed Cards under 30 seconds: Simon Reinhard and Ben Pridmore are both using a 2nd-level system. I quote memory sports chief arbiter Phil Chambers:

I believe that technique wins out over natural memory most of the time.

Phil Chambers

Speed Cards in action

That’s it for today. I hope you found this article useful to create your own system for cards. Please feel free to use the comments for any questions, critic or different point of views. And to give you a little insight in the practical use of your new system, I add a playlist of videos with Speed Cards records. Watch it, love it, learn it!