Tricks, Tricks and More Tricks: I Got 9 Card Problems, But a Trick Ain't One!

A new monthly column featuring three tricks. This month, we're looking at the "Nine Card Problem" by Jim Steinmeyer.

Welcome to the first edition of Tricks, Tricks and More Tricks, a new monthly column that will feature three tricks, sometimes more, that are related in some way (by plot, method or presentation). 

Note: This column will be a feature of a new monthly magic Ruseletter that I'll be launching in January 2023. Therefore, you'll have to wait until the New Year for the next edition of Tricks, Trick and More Tricks. The best way to be alerted of new content on the blog is to subscribe to the Ruseletter. Subscribing will give you early access to any magic trick tutorials, like the ones linked to in this article, and access to exclusive content only available to subscribers. Oh, and did I mention that all of this is free?!

This month, we'll take an in-depth look at the "Nine Card Problem" by magic author, historian and illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer.

The "Nine Card Problem" is a modern classic. Published almost thirty years ago, it is one of the very best small packet spelling tricks and, as a result, has spawned many variations. Magicians often combine it with the Lie Detector plot, most notably by David Solomon, who developed a popular seven-card version, aptly titled "Steinmeyer's Nine Card Problem With Seven Cards"—a link to my handling of this trick is hidden somewhere on this page. Can you figure out where it is located?

Jim Steinmeyer, the originator of the "Nine Card Problem". Photo Credit: Jim Steinmeyer.

Not familiar with the trick? Grab a pack of cards and listen to this interactive magic podcast from Homemade Trickery. In this episode, Sarah Bright performs the "Nine Card Problem" in the classic radio magic style of a bygone era.

Homemade Trickery: Self-inflicted Magic For The Bored Soul: Can You Spell That For Me? Podcast Credit: Homemade Trickery.

Although the "Nine Card Problem" is ideally suited to remote performances, as this podcast beautifully demonstrates, I prefer to perform it in person. Doing so allows you to add some subtle touches to the routine, making it feel less mathematical and more magical.

And while you can perform the trick without touching the cards, I rarely perform it this way because most people I meet do not handle cards often. Consequently, even simple actions like shuffling and dealing can present a challenge.

Last week, I published my thoughts on a variation called "My Secret Password" by Robert Ball (see The Password Is Always Swordfish). Today, I will share three more variations of Jim's superb trick that I'm very fond of performing. With each trick, I've included a strong presentation; such a clever method deserves an equally clever presentation. A hidden link on this page will take you to a bonus trick called "Spell the Magic Words". Can you use your brain to deduce the location of the trick?

Elaborative Encoding

The first is my personal approach to the original "Nine Card Problem". Rather than using the popular Lie Detector presentation, I've developed one based on improving your memory called "Elaborative Encoding". I like memory as a presentational hook because it is something that, as a professional in the higher education sector, I'm interested in anyway. This presentation also justifies the use of nine cards and the spelling procedure you need to follow to locate the selected card. The write-up also includes an alternative ending using something I call the Chaos Count; this interesting mixing procedure has applications beyond this particular trick.

Learn Elaborate Encoding 👈

Hello, My Name Is...

The second is a version called "Hello My Name Is..." designed to be used as an icebreaker exercise with a small group of people. Rather than use the value and suit of a selected playing card to mix the packet, each participant spells their own name. This idea isn't new. David Copperfield used a similar idea in one of his TV specials. This is, perhaps, my favourite handling to use when I meet someone new for the first time.

Learn Hello, My Name Is... 👈

Duck and Deal Discovery 🦆🃏

Finally, "Duck and Deal Discovery" is a fun, two-person version of the plot. It does involve a little sleight of hand, taking the trick out of the self-working category. This is the version I use when performing for a couple. I tend to use the same memory-inspired presentation with it as described in "Elaborative Encoding".

Learn Duck and Deal Discovery 👈

To learn the three tricks, you'll need to enter a password, which is the answer to a simple magic-related question. The password is the same for all three tricks.

Thanks to JS

Here's one final variation of the "Nine Card Problem" by Pete Stedman that I like a lot. It is based on a published routine by Dougie Gibbard (unfortunately, I'm not sure where it is published). A card is selected and lost in the pack. A few cards are removed to form a small packet. The magician has messed up, the selected card is not in the packet. However, when the selection's name is spelt, the card appears on the top of the packet!

History of the "Nine Card Problem" Principle

The "Nine Card Problem" was invented by Jim Steinmeyer and first published in MAGIC Magazine. It appeared in Richard Kaufman's "Inner Workings" column as "Nine Card Speller" in May of 1993 (page 56) and was later reprinted in Jim's book Impuzzibilities in 2002. 

The underlying principle is related to the trick "Remote Control", also created by Jim Steinmeyer and published in The New Invocation (No. 43) in February 1988. While "Remote Control" requires eighteen cards, not Nine, it uses a very similar method. Scott Cram has devised a very clever version of "Remote Control", combining it with an idea by Simon Aronson (his "Flash Speller" concept). The trick was taught on an episode of Scam School back in 2017 (see video below).

A much earlier application of the same principle that makes the "Nine Card Problem" tick can be found in Abbott's Anthology of Card Magic Volume Three, compiled by Gordon Miller. It is used in a trick using the whole pack called "Miracle Mix-Up" by Jack Yates (page 58). Initially, Jack sold the trick as a manuscript in 1953.

The underlying principle, which I like to call the "Deal and Drop Principle", is even older than this. It is the basis of many self-working card tricks and has been explored by lots of magicians and mathematicians. For example, Professor Colm Mulcahy, a notable mathematician and amateur magician, calls this principle COAT (Count Out And Transfer) in his book Mathematical Card Magic: Fifty-Two New Effects (CRC Press, 2013). In addition, he discussed it in the chapter titled Low-Down Triple Dealing. Colm also discusses the trick in a 2009 article called Esteem Synergism on the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) website.

Suppose you want to explore tricks inspired by or related to the "Nine Card Problem". In that case, a helpful list of effects associated with the Deal and Drop Principle can be found on the Conjuring Archive (the principle is called Count and Drop on this website). There is also a fairly comprehensive list of variations on the Nine Card Problem page on Magicpedia.

If you'd like to understand the underlying mathematics of the trick, it was discussed in Mathematics Magazine (April 2015) in an article called Revelations and Generalizations of the Nine Card Problem by Breeanne Baker Swart and Brittany Shelton.

As you can tell, there are a lot of published handlings and variations of Jim Steinmeyer's "Nine Card Problem", which is a testament to the method's deceptiveness. I'll definitely be revisiting the plot in a future blog post.