M2M Day 3: To memorize a deck of cards, you need to visualize a lot of weird stuff

This post is part of Month to Master, a 12-month accelerated learning project. For November, my goal is to memorize the order of a shuffled deck of cards in less than 2 minutes.

Day 3 is all about refining my memory system, so I guess I should discuss it.

Here’s essentially how my system works: As I flip through a deck of cards, I convert each card into an image of a celebrity or family member (Steven Spielberg, Adam Sandler, Anne Hathaway, my mom, etc.). Then, I take those images of people and imagine them at different stops along a mental journey through the rooms of my childhood house. When it’s time to recall the deck, I mentally travel through my house, observing which celebrities or family members are at each point in the route, and then convert those people back into the cards they correspond to.

It sounds like a lot of work, but this is the way almost all memory systems are set up. So, let me explain…

In general, all memory systems are based on the fact that humans have amazing visual and spatial memories (due to our hunter-gatherer brains), and really sucky other types of memories. Which is why it’s easy to remember faces, but not names.

So, a good memory system aggressively attempts to encode boring kinds of information (like words, numbers, etc.) into highly visual images and then attaches those images to pre-determined structures in long-term memory. If you do this correctly, you essentially trick your brain into accepting new information directly into long-term storage, which is good news since the average short-term memory can only hold about seven pieces of information before exploding.

Once in long-term memory, recall is fairly straightforward: Take a mental trip to the spot in long-term memory, see what you’ve attached to it, and then decode the info back into its original, unmemorable form.

Memorizing a deck of cards works exactly in this way. First, encode the cards into visually memorable images (aka celebrities), and then, place the images inside a durable structure in long-term memory (aka places in my childhood home), which are visited during recall.

So, for example, Charlie Sheen on my desk, Bob Dylan on my windowsill, and Taylor Swift on my bookcase translate to the 3 of Spades, the 2 of Diamonds, and the 10 of Spades as the first, second, and third card in the memorized deck.

Encoding a deck of cards

I use a pretty basic phonetic scheme (based on initials) to convert cards into people. For example, the Ten of Spades = Taylor Swift, the Jack of Hearts = Jimi Hendrix, and so on. The whole system assigns a different letter to each card’s value and another letter for its suit.

Value → Letter Designations

  • Ace → A
  • 2 → B
  • 3 → C
  • 4 → D
  • 5 → E
  • 6 → S
  • 7 → G
  • 8 → H
  • 9 → N
  • 10 → T
  • Jack → J
  • Queen → Q
  • King → K

Notice that most numbers map to the corresponding letter in the alphabet, with a few exceptions like 6, 9, and 10.

Suit → Letter Designation

  • Spades → S
  • Clubs → C
  • Hearts → H
  • Diamonds → D

With this mapping in place, I can generate a pair of initials for any card. For example, The Queen of Club maps to QC. The Eight of Hearts maps to HH, and the Four of Diamonds maps to DD.

Finally, the last step is to decide which person I want to assign to each pair of initials. In the cases above, I would have Queen Cleopatra, Harry Houdini, and Danny DeVito.

For cards where I couldn’t think of someone easily, I somewhat arbitrarily assigned a family member or a friend. For example, the King of Diamonds is my dad (King Deutsch, I guess) and my mom is the Queen of Diamonds.

Yes, this seems like a lot of work, and it is, but once you complete the exercise and make all the associations, you won’t have to do it again.

If you want to make your own system, you don’t necessarily need to use my mnemonic mapping. You can come up with your own. If you want all the Diamonds to be Harry Potter characters and all the Hearts to be Game of Thrones characters, that works too. Whatever you can easily remember with a little practice.

With each card converted into something more visually memorable, it’s time to attach the visual images to locations in long-term memory.

Placing the images (creating a Mind Palace)

To remember the sequences of the cards/people, I imagine each person at a different location in a mental journey through my childhood home. This journey is the same every time, and the locations along the journey are explicitly numbered. So, for example, I can consistently name the 11th location in my journey (the refrigerator in the kitchen), which means, whatever I’ve stored there represents the 11th card in the deck.

Here’s the beginning of my journey:

  1. The desk in my bedroom
  2. The windowsill in my bedroom
  3. The bookcase in my bedroom
  4. The bed in my bedroom
  5. The closet in my bedroom
  6. The medicine cabinet in my bathroom
  7. The sink in my bathroom
  8. The closet in my bathroom
  9. The shower in my bathroom
  10. The toilet in my bathroom
  11. The refrigerator in the kitchen
  12. The desk in the kitchen
  13. The counter in the kitchen
  14. The table in the kitchen
  15. The sink in the kitchen

And so on…

Collectively, these places and the journey through them make up my Mind Palace (a concept popularized by the BBC’s Sherlock).

Once you create the journey through your Mind Palace, you have everything you need to start memorizing decks of cards.

Putting it together

As an example, let’s see how we can memorize the following five cards: The Ace of Hearts, The Four of Hearts, The Five of Diamonds, The Eight of Spades, and The Nine of Clubs.

I start off at place #1 in my Mind Palace, and imagine Anne Hathaway (the Ace of Hearts) sitting on the desk in my bedroom. Then, at place #2, I imagine David Hasselhoff (the Four of Hearts) standing on the windowsill. Next, at place #3, I imagine Ellen DeGeneres (the Five of Diamonds) climbing my bookcase. At place #4, I imagine Homer Simpson (the Eight of Spades) laying in my bed. Finally, at place #5, I imagine Nicolas Cage (the Nine of Clubs) standing in my closet.

Once I imagine the rest of the deck in this way, I mentally retrace my steps along my journey and am surprised at how clearly I can see Anne Hathaway on my desk, David Hasselhoff on my windowsill, and so on. The visual brain is an amazing thing.

And that’s how the trick is done. Pretty simple actually.

Upgrading my encoding system to memorize faster

The problem with the system I describe above is that it requires I create 52 images (one for each card) in 52 different places in my Mind Palace. This makes recall very straightforward, but it’s not very time-efficient.

If I want to memorize more quickly, I need to create less images in less places (since each image requires a little bit of imagining time).

To do this, I’m going to use a system call Place-Action-Object (PAO), which is an extension of the system I describe above. For every card, I not only assign a person, but I also assign an associated action and object.

So, for example, the Ten of Hearts corresponds to Tony Hawk (the person), skateboarding (the action), and a skateboard (the object).

With this system in place, I can memorize three cards at a time, combining the person from the first card, the action from the second card, and the object from the third card into a single image that I assign to a single location in my Mind Palace.

Imagine the first three cards of a deck are The Nine of Diamonds, The Ten of Hearts, and The Queen of Clubs. And I’ve already determined the PAO for each card:

  • The Nine of Diamonds → Person = Napoleon Dynamite
  • The Ten of Hearts → Person = Tony Hawk, so Action = Skateboarding
  • The Queen of Clubs → Person = Queen Cleopatra, so Object = an Egyptian pyramid

Thus, to memorize all three cards in one image, I imagine Napoleon Dynamite skateboarding down the side of an Egyptian pyramid on top of the desk in my bedroom.

Completing the deck in this way, I only need to memorize 18 images in 18 locations, instead of 52 images in 52 locations. This will make recall a bit harder, but will make memorization much faster, which is ultimately what I’m measuring.

Today’s training: Practicing PAO

For the rest of today, I’m going to practice recalling the person/action/object for each card.

Right now, I still need to convert each card to initials, determine the person, and then remember the associated action or object. I’m hoping with some practice, I can instantly recall the person, action, or object without any kind of conscious conversion process.

Tomorrow, I’ll do my first official time trial, and we’ll see where I’m at.

Read the next post. Read the previous post.

Max Deutsch is an obsessive learner, product builder, guinea pig for Month to Master, and founder at Openmind.

If you want to follow along with Max’s year-long accelerated learning project, make sure to follow this Medium account.