Discover more from Marty's Magic Ruseletter
Tricks, Tricks and More Tricks: I Got 9 Card Problems, But a Trick Ain't One!
Exploring Jim Steinmeyer's "The Nine Card Problem". Learn five different variations of the plot.
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).
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"—see “The Truth Will Out” at the very bottom of this post for my thoughts and ideas on this trick.
Interestingly, when I contacted Jim about this article, he told me that he didn’t really care for most variations of his trick (he’s seen some good, some bad and others downright terrible). He explained that for a trick to have an impact on magicians, it must be direct and clean. In his view, a lot of variations (mine possibly included) add unnecessary complications to the routine in an effort to disguise the method. These extra steps muddy the trick. Jim extended this criticism to his own early version of the “Nine Card Problem” (called “Remote Control”) because the presentation is unclear and needlessly complicated. With that in mind, and an apology in advance to Jim for “improving” his beautiful trick1, here are some of my variations of the plot.
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.
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) on Marty’s Bag of Tricks (my magic blog). 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. At the very bottom of this post, you’ll find a bonus trick called "Spell the Magic Words".
The first is my personal approach to the original "Nine Card Problem" by Jim Steinmeyer. 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.
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.
Hello, My Name Is... 👋
This is my favourite approach to Jim Steinmeyer's "Nine Card Problem". I use it 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.
Double Duck and Deal Discovery 🦆🃏
Finally, "Double 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".
This write-up also includes an alternative way of having a card selected and lost in the nine-card packet. This approach can also be used with "Elaborative Encoding".
Spell the Magic Words
This is a three-person version of the "Nine Card Problem" that I accidentally invented while developing "Double Duck and Deal Discovery". It uses a funny "magic words" presentation that is particularly suited to small children but will also work for most adults, too. It makes use of the ancient magic word "ABRACADABRA". This gives you lots of opportunities to weave interesting facts about this mystical word into your presentation.
These instructions assume you know the method for the "Nine Card Problem". I recommend reading and learning "Elaborative Encoding" and "Double Duck and Deal Discovery" before attempting to learn "Spell the Magic Words" (see above).
The Truth Will Out
Many magicians have devised lie detector tricks using the "Nine Card Problem" principle. One of the first and most popular was "Steinmeyer's Nine Card Problem With Seven Cards" by David Solomon (1997, Solomon's Mind). David decided to use seven cards rather than nine because he disliked that the trick involved spelling the word "of".
While I like David's trick, it often generates conflicting answers. For example, the first question is "was your card red or black" which is followed by "was the suit of your card Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds or Spades?" This can result in a situation where a person tells you that their card was a red Club or Spade or a black Heart or Diamond. While David's script highlights these absurd possibilities, I think this can be confusing for some participants.
By changing the questions, you can avoid such contradictions. As an added bonus, this alternative handling enables you to peek the selected card. Consequently, you can correctly deduce whether the person is lying about the identity of their selected card before locating it.
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, and 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 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. 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.
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.
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 the future.
And finally, for the brave souls that made it to the very bottom of the page, here is yet another variation of the “Nine Card Problem” called “The 12 Cards of Christmas”. This trick is based on “The Gift of the Magi” by Marti Kane. I’ve modified the handling to use twelve cards instead of nine, which, given the festive presentation, makes more sense.
Note: This video was created a few years ago to promote the Technology-Enhanced Learning Team at the University of Essex. The very talented instructional designers who I work with created the video. Thanks, Sam, Mike, John and Jen!
When I communicated with Jim about this article, he told me that he’s endured a lifetime of magicians coming up to him and saying, very bluntly, that they’ve “fixed” his trick. If you read this article and then decide to perform Jim’s original handling, then good for you! Even so, I hope these variations do add something to the plot, either through the small additions to the handling or, more significantly, through the alternative presentations that might suit you better as a performer.