Stacks and Songs About Them!

So, you've picked you're favorite stack to memorize... now what?! Well, easy - now you have to memorize it! But, how? And is it actually easy?

There are a number of methods to memorize a deck and I don't know if it's possible to say that one's the "best" method, but I am a firm believer that there are better methods to suit your individual learning style. This post is my attempt at creating an exhaustive list (to the best of my current knowledge) of memorization methods.

Stack Type vs Approach

Before jumping in to the "here's how to memorize a stack," it might be easier to break things down by the type of stack we're looking at.

Algorithmic Stacks

Rosary stacks (i.e. the sequential / circular ones) are constructed with a formula that relates a card value to it's position. This can make it pretty easy to memorize since you only need to really memorize the algorithm. An added advantage to these types of stacks is that the algorithm can be used to determine what card is at a specific position, or what position a specific card is at!

Si Stebbins is an example of an algorithm-based stack. The formula that you need to remember is that the next card's value is 3 more than the current card. The suits alternate in Clubs, Hearts, Spades, Diamonds (CHaSeD) order. Knowing those two things, you can stack you're entire deck via the Si Stebbins system.

Others, like Eight Kings, set up a formula for 13 cards and it repeats 4 times. All-in-all, they make it pretty easy to learn the associations between different cards without much effort. There aren't many tips for memorizing the algorithms because every algorithm is different. Things like Eight Kings are silly sentences - you memorize the sentence, you know the stack.

Rule-Based Stacks

Kind of similar to algorithm-based stacks, a rule based stack is constructed by a set of rules. Yes, this does make it an algorithm, but we differentiate the two based on "algorithm stacks have one or two rules that if followed, can construct the entire deck" and "rule-based stacks have a lot of rules to help you remember where the cards are". And by "we", I mean "me"...

Different stacks use different rules (even different numbers of rules) and they can vary in difficulty.

I recently learned of the Joyal stack system (by Martin Joyal) which claims to be memorized within six hours; it has 14 rules, for example. The first rule in the Joyal stack:

6-12-24-48 gives the position of the four Aces.

This is a pretty straightforward rule that on it's own, is fairly easy to remember. But, a full stack system would have rules like this for all 52 cards in the deck which can make learning the associations of cards and their positions a little harder than an algorithm-based stack.

QuickStack's first rule, summarized to be like the above:

3-7-11 gives the positions of the cards of the same value (3, 7, J)

Oh, but, now we have to remember that QuickStack's system is for memorizing a group of 13 cards. The four groups of 13 make up the enitre deck, but the "method" is to identify the value-to-position relationships first. Hmm.

From what I've seen, most rule-based stacks come with a devised method of practicing and learning the stack itself. Joyal and QuickStack are definitely like this. Could you come up with your own method to learn them faster? Maybe! But, Joyal says it takes only 6 hours to learn, and QuickStack claims a half hour. In these cases, I'd just go with those methods.

When I first saw a list of rules to memorize a rule-based stack though, my first thought jumped to flash cards. They're pretty easy to write down and you can flip through them just like you're studying for a vocab test back in school. While you can go the more difficult route of memorizing the exact order of the cards (and skipping the original rules), from the stacks and rules I've seen so far, the rules are more helpful clues to pinpoint things like the Aces, a poker hand, etc.

Memorized Stacks

Ah, so here we are. We're at a point where we have a stack that has no formula to make it and the only rule is "this is where every card goes." Yeah, time to squeeze that brain muscle!

I don't want to retype everything directly from Mnemonica, but let's just say I did in fact sing (and record) a song to help remember every card and it's position in the deck. And I may have customized a full deck of cards while listening to it play back.

Okay, so full disclosure, I haven't gotten through the entire Mnemonica stack yet. The whole "sit down for an hour and sing to yourself" thing just doesn't fly when you're a hobbyist magician with a full-time job and kids. An hour of free time, lol. And you're supposed to do this multiple times (I think it's what, 4 hours in total?). lol.

That said, I've still read through the practice ritual and it makes sense. You're getting the order "stuck in your head" like a song that plays on the radio all summer - even if it's a bad song, you still sing along to the chorus. And while you're torturing your ears, you're drawing all over individual cards to help associate it's position with the card face itself. And then the handy dandy flash cards come to play! Always busting out the flash cards.

Through my interpretation, Mnemonica takes a direct approach to associating a card with it's position (and vice versa). Other stack guides like the Aronson stack system take a more abstract approach. In A Stack to Remember, Aronson describes his basic system that he uses in memorizing a deck of cards:

First, each of the numbers from 1 through 52 gets "translated" into a specific picture, or image, or key word. Second, each of the 52 playing cards is also translated into its own unique picture, image or key word. Finally, the two pictures corresponding to the particular number and the particular playing card sought to be memorized are mentally visualized as being associated together, in one combined image.
Simon Aronson

Wow. That's uhm. Hey I mean if it works, it works right? I've actually seen more guides on memorizing a deck recommend this approach than any other, regardless of the stack, so maybe it works. Even Tamariz says if there are a few cards that you just can't remember using his method, associate them with an image too! For one or two cards, I can get on board with this. For the whole deck, though, this doesn't mesh with the way I work.

Do you know what they all have in common? All of the methods of memorizing a deck of cards, that is? Repetition. Consistent repetition that associates a card with it's numeric position in the deck, the card after it, and the card before it.

Some methods will definitely take longer than others, but it also depends on you and your own style of study. If you haven't been able to tell yet, I'm a flash cards kind of guy. Write a number on one side and the card on the other and let's go to town! I actually appreciate Tamariz's approach too and am all in with it. Rather than a flash card, I'm using the actual cards themselves - just write the number of the back of the card and bam, flash card!


Flash cards!

Kidding, of course. By "Tools" here, I actually mean digital tools. We live in a modern age where we have our phones in our pockets (or hands) more and more. If you're like me, you're sitting at a computer for most of the day (or standing, if you're fancy not lazy).

There are a few sites online that offer utilities to help memorize a stack, and a few mobile apps too:

Will I forget the stack?

I can easily see this as a big fear of anyone trying to do memdeck work. I know I'd be scared of it too - even for something like Si Stebbins since I haven't used it much. Over time, I'm sure it gets easier but as a beginner, yikes!

Simon Aronson in A Stack to Remember says it upfront - if you don't use it for a while, you're going to get rusty. Juan Tamariz in Mnemonica says with his method of memorizing the stack, you'll never forget it. Shots fired!

Given that I mumble lower than the volume of the radio for songs I "remember" but haven't heard in a long time, I'm pretty sure I'd get rusty with Tamariz's stack too. But with enough practice, the associations are there - you just need to refresh them from time to time.

It's worth re-mentioning that memorizing a stack is just like any other sleight you know. If you don't practice your double lift, are you going to randomly demonstrate a routine that relies on it while surrounded by 20 spectators burning your hands? Let's face it, you practice your double lift. You practice your classic pass. You practice flourishes and patter and everything else that you want to perform with. Practicing a memdeck stack after you've learned it should be even easier - you just have to recite the pattern in your head! If you forget a card, well, fall back to the learning tools you used initially (or check out the tools up above).

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