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Obscure Origins: The Twenty-One Card Trick
Where did this classic card trick come from?
In this edition of Obscure Origins, we will examine one of the world’s most popular card tricks—the infamous Twenty-One Card Trick. This simple self-working card trick is hugely popular with laypeople because of its intriguing and easy-to-remember mathematical method. Unfortunately, because of its popularity with the public at large and the repetitious dealing involved, many magicians look upon the trick disparagingly.1 However, it is still an effective performance piece when handled correctly.
No one is entirely sure where this very popular card trick originated. However, we know that it dates back to at least the seventeenth century, making it over four hundred years old! The first known description of a card trick using the same Redistribution Principle, done with fifteen playing cards, appeared in Horatio Galasso’s Giochi di carte bellissimi di regola, e di memoria (1593), which translates into English as “Most Beautiful Card Games Based on Rules and Memory Techniques”. The title of the trick translates as “How to have someone think of a card and guess what it is”.2
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Galasso’s book is very rare. There are only two confirmed copies; one held in the Leber collection in the Bibliothèque municipal de Rouen and the other in a private collection. There was a copy in the British Library, but it was destroyed during the Second World War. There might also be a copy of the book in the National Library of France.3 Thankfully, the book was reprinted and translated into English by Lori Pieper in Gibecière Vol. 2, No. 2 (Summer 2007), published by the Conjuring Arts Research Center.
A description of The Twenty-One Card Trick can also be found in Problèmes plaisans et delectable, qui se font par les nombres by Claude Gaspar Bachet (1612), pages 87-90, “Probleme XVI. De plusieurs cartes disposees en divers rangs deviner laquelle on aura pensé”.4
In his book Mathematical Recreations and Essays (1892), Walter William Rouse Ball, the famous English mathematician, mentions that “Several of Bachet’s problems are taken from the writings of Alcuin [735-804], Pacioli di Burgo [1445-1510], Tartaglia [1499-1557], and Cardan [1501-1576], and possibly some of them are of oriental origin...” 5
Likewise, in the English translation of Recreations Mathématiques by Hendrik van Etten6—another early source of the Twenty-One Card Trick—the author states that many of the items were collected from “…the writings of Socrates [469-399 B.C.E.], Plato [429-347 B.C.E.], Aristotle [384-322 B.C.E.], Demosthenes [384-322 B.C.E.], Pythagoras [570-490 B.C.E.]…” Therefore, one of the thirty-plus ancient Greek philosophers listed in the book may have discovered the mathematical principle behind The Twenty-One Card Trick.
It is also probable that the underlying principle of The Twenty-One Card Trick was first used with other objects, such as scraps or paper or coins, before the invention of playing cards. For example, we know that a very similar principle was used in a peculiar interactive Italian magic book called Laberinto7 by Venetian nobleman Andrea Ghisi. The book, first published in 1607, uses a well-disguised system of redistribution to discover, through three questions, which figure a person is thinking of. It is composed of twenty-one tables, one for each letter of the Italian alphabet, spread over two pages. Every table shows the same sixty figures mixed in different ways and subdivided into four groups, each containing fifteen images.
Italian magician Mariano Tomatis has painstakingly created an interactive web version of Laberinto so that you can experience the magic yourself. A few years later, in 1617, Horatio Galasso, the author of Most Beautiful Card Games Based on Rules and Memory Techniques, produced a similar mind-reading book called A devotione del signore.
The Conjuring Arts Research Center has produced a faithful facsimile of the book that is still widely available. You can see Bill Kalush demonstrate the magical properties of the book in the video below:
In summary, The Twenty-One Card Trick is likely one of the oldest card tricks in the world, and it's possible that it originated in Italy, using fifteen cards, not twenty-one. It seems reasonable to assume that someone took that idea and increased the number of cards to twenty-one, so it is logical to assume that The Twenty-One Card Trick perhaps originated in Italy soon after the appearance of playing cards. Many historians believe that playing cards arrived in Europe from the East via the ports of Italy.
In addition, the mathematical principle behind the trick, known as the Redistribution Principle, may have its roots in ancient Greece during the classical period, but it could also have originated in the East.
Therefore, at this point in time, the most accurate thing we can say is that the trick is of Italian, Greek or Oriental origin! Unfortunately, it looks like the identity of the individual who first combined the Redistribution Principle with twenty-one playing cards is lost to history. Unless a new manuscript is discovered, we will never know the true origin of The Twenty-One Card Trick.
If this article has made you curious about The Twenty-One Card Trick, you can learn more about how and why it works, as well as some fun variations of the plot, by reading the following article:
While this negative view of the trick is understandable, it is unfair. When the Twenty-One Card Trick is performed with a strong presentation that justifies the dealing procedure, it can be both deceptive and entertaining.
Horatio Galasso d'Arienzo, Giochi di carte bellissimi di regola, e di memorial, (Venetia: Unknown, 1593).
Claude-Gaspard Bachet, Problèmes plaisans et delectables, qui se font par les nombres, (Lyon: Chez Pierre Rigaud, 1612), 87-90.
Walter William Rouse Ball, Mathematical Recreations and Essays, 6th ed. (London: MacMillan and Co., Limited, 1914), 2.
The original full name of the book is Il laberinto del Signor Andrea Ghisi nel qual si contiene una tessitura di due mila ducento sessanta Figure, che aprendolo tre volte, con facilità si può saper qual figura si sia immaginata. You can learn more about it by viewing this fascinating presentation by Mariano Tomatis. Mariano has also written a short blog post on Andrea Ghisi’s Laberinto, providing more information about this early example of interactive magic.