A new year begins, it’s time for resolutions, and you’re thinking: «Hey, what if I learned a stack?». Good. However, with the multitude of stacks available in magic literature, how will you choose? There are some traps to avoid during the selection of your stack, and I will try to give you some leads, based on my experience and on comments I often hear on the subject.
When you decide to choose a stack, you can walk 3 different paths. You can take a deck, shuffle it and memorize it; or you can choose a stack that exists already; or you can create your own stack. Let’s see what happens in these situations.
Learning a shuffled deckI have met people who told me that they simply took a deck, shuffled it and memorized it, and it is now their stack. What a pity.
What a pity, because although the person did make the effort to memorize a deck, he could have memorized a deck whose content is predetermined and interesting (for example, the deck can contain routines of poker, spelling, or allow the performer to go back to new deck order). Instead of that, the person memorized an «empty» order. Most of the time, people who memorized a shuffled deck only use their stack for basic effects where, by looking at a card, you can infer the next one or the previous one. Unfortunately for them, this function can often be replaced by a marked deck or the use of a glimpse.
The interest of a stack is in the quantity and variety of effects it contains; therefore it is a pity to shuffle a deck without care for its order and content. If you memorize a full deck, you might as well memorize one that is full of possibilities.
Choosing an existing stackThis is what most people do, and it is an excellent choice, because choosing a stack that already exists makes you benefit from the experience of its creator and all the magicians who use it. Still, what stack to choose: Mnemonica, Aronson, Brainstorm, Si Stebbins, 8 Kings, Osterlind, Joyal, Boris Wild’s memorized deck, Nikola, Doug Dyment, Bart Hartling... You have plenty of options, so how do you pick the right one? We can put existing stacks in 3 categories: Calculus Stacks, Mnemonic Stacks, Memorized Stacks. Let’s see the characteristics of each category.
Calculus Stacks (Si Stebbins, Osterlind, Boris Wild’s memorized deck, Bart Hartling)In these stacks, the order of the deck is ruled by a mathematical formula. In Si Stebbins, you must add 3 to the value and take the next suit; in Osterlind, an odd calculation must be made; in the BW memorized deck, you can calculate the position of a card in the deck and vice versa; same thing for Bart Hartling.
Aside from the fact that most people are bad at mental calculus (even more so under the pressure and nervousness of a performance), I think this approach is not very good. Of course, the promise is that it will be easy, there will be nothing to memorize, the math will do all the work...
In truth, here is what will happen: you will learn how to use the formula and during the first few weeks of usage, it’s the formula that will tell you the order of the stack. But eventually, repetition and practice will end up with you forgetting the formula and just knowing the stack itself.
It is a bit like learning how to bike with training wheels to prevent the fall. And when you feel confident enough, you realize you don’t need the training wheels anymore. So you remove them, right? Unfortunately, the trap is that you can’t remove them with a calculus stack. With a «training wheels» stack, you are being forced to keep the training wheels, and riding your bicycle will quickly become a nightmare. Why?
Because a deck of cards is a limited real estate of 52 cards. Let’s imagine you use that space to lay down a mathematical formula that facilitates the learning. After the learning phase, when you know your stack without the formula, the 52-card space is still occupied by this useless formula. You could use that space to install interesting effects requiring a specific order; too bad for you, it’s too late, the space is already taken by a now useless formula.
In brief, although the temptation of facilitation may make you go for a calculus stack, avoid that choice, as it will only give you a stack allowing very few interesting routines.
Mnemonic Stacks (Brainstorm, 8 Kings, Joyal)In these stacks, the order is ruled by a mnemonic rule. In Brainstorm and 8 Kings, you memorize a sentence who syllables correspond to the values of cards from Ace to King; for example, the 8 Kings’ sentence (Eight kings threatened to save, nine fine ladies for one sick knave) corresponds to the order 8 King 3 10 2 7 9 5 Queen 4 As 6 Jack. This sentence is repeated 4 times to create a 52-card stack, and a rule is applied on the distribution of the suits to simulate randomness. In Joyal, a series of rules is applied on the deck to facilitate the memorization.
Although mnemonic stacks seem different from calculus stacks, they have the same issues. Once again, you are being promised a «miracle» solution to help you memorize the stack, and when you (really) have it memorized, the mnemonics become useless, but remain present; as with calculus, the mnemonics occupy the space of the deck and prevent you from using it to integrate interesting routines. For these reasons, I would advise you to avoid mnemonic stacks.
Memorized Stacks (Mnemonica, Aronson)These stacks are deck orders built and designed to allow such or such routine. There is no calculation, mnemonics or shortcuts to facilitate memorization; all the focus is on the content and the effects. So if these stacks are so cleverly designed, how to decide to pick one instead of the other?
Here enters a new parameter allowing you to prefer one memorized stack over another, a new parameter that could be called QVQ:
A good stack is a stack offering you quality routines, diversified routines (various types of effects) and a good quantity of routines. The quality aspect is easily understood; no one wants to perform routines that are bad or poorly designed. For variety, it’s the same; it is not interesting to know 50 effects if they look identical to the audience. As for quantity, the effort of memorizing a deck of cards should be rewarded by the possibility to do at least a dozen interesting routines (memorizing a stack to perform only one or two effects would not be a very effort-efficient method).
How do you make sure that you choose a stack that gives you these three aspects of quality, variety and quantity? It’s easy: choose a stack for which exists a large, diversified literature, authored by people who know what they’re talking about.
For example, the Mnemonica stack has been designed by Juan Tamariz, rightfully considered as a living legend of classic close-up magic, and he refined the usage of hi stack for decades; in addition, his stack is used par some of the best card magicians in the world; all this gives you a guarantee of quality. Juan Tamariz wrote a 364-page book with dozen of effects, and because others have used his stack for years, they too have developed dozens of ideas and effects with this stack (see Mnemosyne); all this gives you a guarantee of quantity. Finally, in Juan Tamariz’ book, you will find gambling demonstrations, Sam the Bellhop routines, spelling effects, mentalism, facilitated visual effects and much more; all this gives you a guarantee of variety.
Quality, Variety, Quantity.
What about the Aronson stack? Simon Aronson has also published many routines on his stack. Bound To Please compiles 3 of the major books written on the subject and describes a multitude of routines specific to his stack. However I personally think these effects have a tendency to destroy partially or completely the order of the stack during the effect, which doesn’t help you preserve the order of the stack throughout several routines. In addition, much of the literature available on this stack has been written by Simon Aronson himself, a fact that doesn’t favor the variety in style, subjects and themes (as opposed to Juan Tamariz’ book that contains routines designed by other users of his stack); however, Michael Close also wrote about the Aronson stack in his book Workers 5 and describes some very clever routines.
That being said, Simon Aronson is one of the few experts of the stack, and his books are a must-read for any serious student of the subject.
Creating your own stackFinally, we have to discuss the possibility of creating your own stack. Although this option is tempting (you’ll have the pride of having created your own tool), it is a difficult quest, because of the various reasons previously discussed.
You now know that a «good» stack doesn’t rely on calculus or mnemonics supposed to ease the memorization; a «good» stack is a stack that follows the QVQ principle. You will have to carefully think about the repertoire you want to integrate in your stack, then try as hard as possible to create a deck meeting these expectations (this is more difficult than one would think at first).
You will then have to spend a great amount of time (like Juan Tamariz, decades) to study the content of your stack to see if it contains other hidden gems, all the while being careful to maintain a certain variety in the available effects. It is not impossible, it is just challenging.
ConclusionI really hope this essay will help you in your choice of a stack. This is a powerful weapon that will deeply transform your magic and it will allow you to fool even the most learned audiences.
Now that you have chosen your stack, it’s time to memorize it with one of the methods suggested here.