Alex Stone is the author of Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks and the Hidden Powers of the Mind. His writing has appeared in DISCOVER, Harper’s, Science, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.
There was a time when people thought of playing cards as cosmic instruments. Fortunes were told, fortunes were lost, and the secrets of the universe unveiled themselves at the turn of a card. These days we know better. And yet, a look at the mathematics of card shuffling reveals some startling insights.
Consider, for instance, the perfect, or “faro” shuffle—whereby the cards are divided exactly in half (top and bottom) and then interleaved so that they alternate exactly. Most people think shuffling tends to mix up a deck of cards, and usually that’s true, because a typical shuffle is sloppy. But a perfect shuffle isn’t random at all. Eight consecutive perfect shuffles will bring a 52-card deck back to its original order, with every card in the pack having cycled through a series of predictable permutations back to its starting place. This holds true for any deck, regardless of its size, although eight isn’t always the magic number. If you have 25 cards, it takes 20 shuffles, whereas for 32 cards it only takes 5; for 53 cards, 52 shuffles are needed. You can derive a formula for the relationship between the number of cards in the deck and the number of faro shuffles in one full cycle.