Elaborative Encoding

This is my approach to the original "Nine Card Problem" by Jim Steinmeyer. I think the trick works best when you're performing it for a small group of people. Then, everyone can be given nine cards and join in the fun.

I also use this as part of a "Memory Magic" workshop. First, I perform "Elaborative Encoding" as an icebreaker exercise. Then the nine cards are used by each participant to practice various mnemonic techniques during the rest of the training session.


A person is given nine random playing cards. The cards are shuffled and dealt into three equal piles. One pile is selected, and the bottom card of that pile is memorised. The selected pile is dropped onto one of the other two piles on the table. The final unused pile is shuffled and dropped on top of all.

The location of the selected card is further randomised by spelling out the card's name. For example, if the selection is the Three of Hearts, the phrase to be spelt is "THE THREE OF HEARTS" (including the word "THE"). Your participant begins by dealing one card to the table for every letter in the word "THE" and then drops the rest of the cards on top of the pile. 

Next, the card's value is spelt—in this case, "T-H-R-E-E"—and any leftover cards are dropped on top. Then the word "OF" is spelt in the same way, followed by the suit of the selected card. In our example, the suit is Hearts, so six cards are dealt to the table, and the remaining three cards are dropped on top. 

The magician points out that if a different card had been selected, a different number of cards would have been dealt to the table. For example, the word "Clubs" has five letters, "Spades" and "Hearts" six, and "Diamonds" has eight letters in it.

The packet is mixed up even more, using a "Deal or Switch" shuffle. Finally, the participant deals five cards to the table, one for each letter in the word "MAGIC". The last card dealt is turned over—it's the Three of Hearts, the selected card!

Background & Credits

The "Nine Card Problem" was invented by Jim Steinmeyer and first published in MAGIC Magazine almost thirty years ago. It appeared in Richard Kaufman's "Inner Workings" column 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.

A much earlier application of the same principle 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 "Deal or Switch" mixing procedure was devised by Paul Curry and first published as part of a trick of his called "A Swindle Of Sorts" in his book Paul Curry Presents, which was first published in 1974.

Dealing the cards into three piles to make the selection is a Bob Farmer idea.

Requirements & Preparation

A stand pack of playing cards. If you want to perform this for a large group of people, you'll need enough packs so that everyone can be given a set of nine random playing cards. For example, a pack of fifty-two cards will allow you to perform the trick with five people (with seven cards left over). However, if your pack includes two Jokers, you'll get six complete sets out of it.

When I run my "Memory Magic" workshop, I usually take two or three packs so everyone can perform the trick. To work out how many packs you need, divide the number of people in your audience by six. Make sure you include yourself in the calculation; you'll need a set of nine cards for demonstration purposes.

It is a good idea to use relatively cheap playing cards, then you can allow people to keep their nine-card packet. If you plan on doing this, you might as well put the cards in a small envelope containing your business card. Alternatively, you could write or print your contact details on the envelopes (or print them on a sheet of printer labels and stick an adhesive label onto the front of each envelope).

I've included a bare-bones script below. However, I encourage you to do some research into the science of memory and write your own script on the subject. There is plenty of information online to help you; I recommend starting with the Wikipedia article on short-term memory.

Method & Presentation

Turns to your audience and say, "Memory is one of the most well-researched concepts in the field of psychology. The idea of different memory stores has been around since the early 1950s. In a moment, I'm going to test your short-term memory!"

Hand out nine random cards to each participant. Have them look at the cards and give them a shuffle. I justify using nine cards by saying, "Our short-term memory has a very limited capacity. Cognitive scientists have observed that most people struggle to remember more than nine items of information at any one time." Then, tell them to deal the cards into three even piles (three cards in each pile).

Continue by saying, "Miller's Law states that the number of 'chunks' the average person can hold in their working memory is about seven, plus or minus two. More recent research suggests that this so-called 'magic number' is closer to four or five! Don't worry. I'm only going to ask you to remember one chunk of information!"

Next, tell your participants to select a pile, pick it up and look at (and remember) the bottom card. Your participant then gets to decide to drop the selected pile on either of the two piles still on the table in front of them. 

Finally, tell them to pick up the unused pile of three cards, give it a shuffle, and drop it on top of all. While this procedure feels random, it places the selected card sixth from the top (or fourth from the bottom) of the pile.

Next, I introduce the concept of duration or memory span, "The storage of information in your short-term memory is also very fragile. Information is easily lost through distraction or the passage of time. Most scientists agree that short-term memory has a duration of about fifteen to thirty seconds. Can you still remember the name of your chosen playing card?"

"To help you remember your selected playing card, we're going to mix up the cards using a mnemonic technique called elaborative encoding. Pick up your pile of cards. You're going to spell the name of your selected playing card. We'll start with the word 'THE'. Deal cards face down to the table, one card for each letter of the word. There are some cards on the table in front of you and some still in your hand, right? Take the cards in your hand and drop them on top of the cards on the table." 

"Now spell the value of your selected card. For example, if you selected a Three, spell T-H-R-E-E. If it was a Queen, spell Q-U-E-E-N. Do that now. Spell the value of your card, dealing one card on top of the other. Do it just as you did before, dealing one card on top of the other. Drop any cards left over on top of your pile."

"Every playing card has the same middle name, 'OF'! Spell that word now. O-F, and drop the remaining cards on top."

"Finally, spell the suit of your selected card. Clubs, Hearts, Spades or Diamonds. Don't forget the 'S'. Deal the cards, one on top of the other. Whatever cards are left in your hand, drop them on top of the ones on the table."

"Hopefully, this strange mixing procedure will help you remember the name of your selected playing card. It should, in theory, transfer the name into your long-term memory store."

"Let's mix up the cards some more so that your selected playing card is hopelessly lost. Pick up your pile and either DEAL the top card to the table or SWITCH the position of the top two cards, then drop them, as a pair, to the table. This is called the 'Deal or Switch' shuffle and is used by automatic shuffling machines in casinos. Keep dealing or switching the cards until they're all in a pile on the table."

Let your participants perform the "Deal or Switch" shuffle as often as they like. While the mixing procedure reverses the order of the cards in the packet, it doesn't change the location of the selected card. Once they're satisfied that their chosen card is genuinely lost, continue. 

"Now, you have to admit that there's no way that I could know what card you picked. And because of that, I have no way of knowing how you mixed up the cards since the way you did that depended on the number of letters in the name of your card. 'Two' has three letters, 'King' has four and 'Eight' has five. The word 'Clubs' has five letters, 'Spades' and 'Hearts' six, and 'Diamonds' has eight letters in it. You also mixed the cards using a 'Deal or Switch' shuffle like the automatic shuffling machines use in the casinos."

"Has anyone forgotten the name of their selected playing card? Don't worry; magic is much more reliable than memory. Pick up the cards and spell the word 'MAGIC', dealing one card to the table for each letter in the word. Turn the last card over. Look, it's your selected playing card!"

Performance Tips & Additional Ideas

The "Nine Card Problem" is a very versatile trick. You can perform it for a single person, a couple or a small group. In addition, you can perform it remotely, for example, via Zoom or FaceTime, so long as the person at the other end of the video call has nine playing cards.

You can omit the "Deal or Switch" shuffle if you want to shorten the routine. However, I find it adds an extra layer of deception to the trick, making it much more puzzling.

Sometimes, if I'm only performing for a single person, I'll do all the dealing and mixing myself, especially if my participant is not confident in their card-handling skills. This approach is particularly useful when performing for small children who might struggle to follow instructions.

Interestingly, the method will still work even if your participant forgets the name of their selected card and spells the wrong value and suit. Rather than ruining the trick, this situation makes it even more remarkable. If this happens, take advantage of the situation and milk it for all its worth!

Here's a way to make the trick feel even more random. Ask your participant to name a two-digit number below thirty. If they name a number between ten and nineteen, deal that many cards into a pile. Then say, "Hmm, that looks like too many cards. Let's add the two digits and deal that many cards back onto the pack." Then, suiting actions to words, sum the two digits and deal that many cards back on top of the pack. This will always leave you holding nine cards.

If your participant names a number between twenty and twenty-nine, do the same thing. This will leave you holding eighteen cards. Deal them into two piles of nine, one for you and the other for your participant. Use your pile to demonstrate what you want your helper to do.

You don't have to spell "MAGIC" to locate the selected card at the end. Instead, I sometimes use a reveal I invented called the Chaos Count. Hold the pile face down in your hand. Deal the top card of the packet face up (stud-style) to the table. Next, flip the entire packet face up (bookwise) with the fingers of your left hand. Deal the top card, which was the bottom card moments before, to the table. Flip the packet face down again, then deal the top card to the table, turning it face-up in the process. Keep alternating the deal this way until all but one of the cards are in a face-up pile on the table. The final card remaining in your hand will always be the selection. Done rapidly, this count looks random and chaotic. In reality, it always predictably mixes the cards and achieves the same as a continuous Milk-Build Shuffle.

Why don't you create a custom envelope to hold the nine-card packet for a more professional look? Ryan Pilling does this for some of the packet tricks he performs. He has written an excellent blog post, Wrap The Packet, on how to create this kind of custom packet trick envelope (you can also download a blank envelope template from Ryan's website).

Custom packet trick envelopes created by Ryan Pilling. Photo Credit: Tips & Tricks for Magicians.

If you go to the effort of doing this, I think the envelope and cards would make a great promotional giveaway. I plan to create a "Memory Testing Kit" envelope, similar to the "Psychic Testing Kit" one shown in the photo above, to use at my "Memory Magic" workshops in the future.

If you create your own envelope to hold the nine-card packet, as suggested above, you could print instructions for the trick on the back of the envelope. This would allow your participant to repeat the trick on their own or perform it for another person. You could also include a sheet of printed instructions within a blank envelope as well.

You don't even have to use playing cards. I've used trading cards, such as Pokémon TCG, and snap cards in the past to great success. Helpfully, most packs of snap cards for children contain duplicate sets of cards; this means that you can give everyone a matching set of nine cards.

Jungle Snap Card Game printed by Cartamundi. Photo Credit: Cartamundi.

Cartamundi print a reasonably priced "Jungle Snap Card Game" that contains nine unique jungle animal designs (Elephant, Giraffe, Gorilla, Hippopotamus, Loin, Rhinoceros, Snake, Tiger and Zebra). Each pack contains 36 cards (four sets of nine cards). It's as if it was printed specifically for the "Nine Card Problem"! Unfortunately, these cards are difficult to obtain outside of Europe. Although, I'm sure you'll be able to find something similar at your local games or toy shop.


In Jim's original, the card is selected from a fan. You instruct your participant to remember the third card from the back of the fan. I think this instruction is easy to misinterpret and sounds suspiciously specific. The method outlined above feels more random, even though it is just as specific as the original method. The trade-off is that you must spell an extra word. However, when performing this trick with a group of people, this situation is advantageous because everyone starts with the same word; this is helpful because you can spot anyone who doesn't follow the instructions correctly and help them accordingly.

While this isn't a difficult trick, there's beauty in the simplicity of the method; I think Jim Steinmeyer's "Nine Card Problem" is one of the very best packet tricks ever invented. The trick is a real puzzler, and I've found that even analytical thinkers struggle to understand how it works.