# David’s de Bruijn sequence card trick

A few days ago, my friend David asked me if I could help him with a card trick. I said I could, hence this post. I managed to pin David down in front of my camera long enough for him to demonstrate the trick; a full explanation follows this video:

The basic trick is pretty well-known: Card Colm wrote about it for his MAA column a few years ago, and collected a pretty extensive list of people who have written on the subject. David came across it through Persi Diaconis and Ron Graham’s book Magical Mathematics, but hadn’t read the book in detail before we tried to work the trick out for ourselves.

A de Bruijn sequence of length $k$ on an alphabet $A$ is a cyclic sequence which contains all possible strings of length $k$ exactly once. It follows that if you are given a string of $k$ letters, you can tell exactly where it occurs in the sequence. Since it doesn’t matter what the symbols in the alphabet $A$ are as long as they’re all different, we can just refer to a de Bruijn sequence $(k,n)$, containing all subsequences of length $k$ using the numbers $\{0,\dots,n-1\}$.

We decided we were going to assign each card in a standard deck a 6-digit binary string (because $2^6 = 64 \gt 52$) and to arrange them in the order of a $(6,2)$ de Bruijn sequence. Then, if we asked someone to cut the deck, draw out six cards and tell us their colours, we could work out exactly which cards they had in their hand.

There can be more than one de Bruijn sequence for each choice of $k$ and $n$, so we could pick the one that was easiest to construct. For binary sequences, this rule always generates a de Bruijn sequence of length $k$: write $k-1$ zeroes followed by a $1$, then subsequent letters are given by $x_{i+6} := x_i+x_{i+1} \pmod 2$ — add two adjacent numbers to get the one six places along. Because addition modulo $2$ is the same thing as subtraction modulo $2$, the same trick works backwards: $x_i = x_{i+1} + x_{i+6}$.

So the only thing left to do was to assign binary strings to cards. I decided that four digits for face value and two for suit would do, since it lets you split the calculation up into two small steps. So the face values go from $0 = A$, to $12 = K$, and the suits go Diamonds, Clubs, Hearts, Spades. In a hand of six cards drawn from the deck, the sequence of red or black colours gives the value of the last card drawn.

The only problem is that there are twelve strings representing face values greater than $12$, and I don’t think it’s possible to construct a de Bruijn sequence where they all occur in one block. But equally, because there are $64$ six-digit binary strings, any sequence we used would have twelve unused strings at the end. So we had to make one kludge and manually swap “bad” strings in the usable part of the sequence with “good” ones at the end.

Now, decoding binary strings is pretty tedious work, and finding these unusable strings is especially so, so I quickly wrote a Python script to do the calculations for me. Here it is:

# de Bruijn card trick computatorator
# by Christian Perfect
# based on a trick by Persi Diaconis and Ron Graham

#names of cards
faces = ['King','Ace','2','3','4','5','6','7','8','9','10','Jack','Queen']

#generate de bruijn sequence
sequence = [0,0,0,0,0,1]
for i in range(6,64):
sequence.append( (sequence[i-6]+sequence[i-5]) % 2 )

#get a string of binary digits representing an integer
def binarise(n,length):
digits=[]
while n>0:
digits.insert(0,int(n%2))
n=(n-n%2)/2
digits = [0]*(length-len(digits))+digits	#pad to the desired length
return digits

#decode a string of binary digits to an integer
def debinarise(digits):
n=0
for i in digits:
n*=2
n+=i
return n

#decode a six-digit binary string to a card
def decode_sequence(seq):
number = debinarise(seq[:4])
suit = debinarise(seq[4:])
return number,suit

#turn a card into a six-digit binary string
def encode_card(card):
number,suit = card
return ''.join([str(x) for x in binarise(number,4)+binarise(suit,2)])

#display a card's binary encoding and its name
def show_card(card):
number,suit = card
return '%s: %s of %s' % (encode_card(card), faces[number], suits[suit])

# The actual computation!
sequence*=2	#take two copies of the sequence to cope with the cycle at the end

# Get the ordering of the (64, not all real) cards from the sequence
cards = [decode_sequence(sequence[i:i+6]) for i in range(0,64)]

# The deck of cards consists of the first 52
deck = cards[:52]

# Get the unused cards from the end of the 64-deck which have usable values
castoffs = [(x,y) for (x,y) in cards[52:] if x<13]
# Separate them into red and black
castoffs_red = [(x,y) for (x,y) in castoffs if y%2==0]
castoffs_black = [(x,y) for (x,y) in castoffs if y%2==1]

# Get the cards from the 52-deck that don't have usable values
toswap = [(x,y) for (x,y) in deck if x>=13]
swaps = {}

# Match up bad cards in the 52-deck with good cards in the castoffs
for card in toswap:
number,suit = card
b=castoffs_red.pop() if suit%2==0 else castoffs_black.pop()
swaps[card]=b

# Show the resulting ordering of the real 52-card deck
for i in range(0,52):
digits = sequence[i:i+6]
card = decode_sequence(digits)
if card in swaps.keys():
card = swaps[card]
print(show_card(card))

# Show which bad codes are swapped with which good ones
print('Swaps')
for a,b in swaps.items():
print('%s -> %s' % (encode_card(a),show_card(b)))


And here’s its output:

000001: Ace of Clubs
000010: Ace of Hearts
000100: 2 of Diamonds
001000: 3 of Diamonds
010000: 5 of Diamonds
100001: 9 of Clubs
000110: 2 of Hearts
001100: 4 of Diamonds
011000: 7 of Diamonds
110001: King of Clubs
100010: 9 of Hearts
000101: 2 of Clubs
001010: 3 of Hearts
010100: 6 of Diamonds
101001: Jack of Clubs
011110: 8 of Hearts
000000: Ace of Diamonds
100000: 9 of Diamonds
101000: Jack of Diamonds
010001: 5 of Clubs
001110: 4 of Hearts
011100: 8 of Diamonds
110010: King of Hearts
100100: 10 of Diamonds
001001: 3 of Clubs
010010: 5 of Hearts
100101: 10 of Clubs
010110: 6 of Hearts
101101: Queen of Clubs
101110: Queen of Hearts
011101: 8 of Clubs
110000: King of Diamonds
101100: Queen of Diamonds
011001: 7 of Clubs
100110: 10 of Hearts
001101: 4 of Clubs
011010: 7 of Hearts
010101: 6 of Clubs
101010: Jack of Hearts
Swaps
110101 -> 010101
110110 -> 110000
110111 -> 010111
111101 -> 011111
111001 -> 101111
111011 -> 101011
111010 -> 000000
110100 -> 100000


The Python script constructs the de Bruijn sequence, decodes it into a sequence of 64 cards (some of them virtual), finds bad cards in the deck of 52 and swaps them with good cards in the pile of twelve “castoffs” at the end, making sure the colour is preserved. It turns out there are eight bad cards in the deck that need swapping.

So, we only need to remember eight pairs of binary strings and a simple iterative rule which constructs the sequence in order to perform the trick. Not bad for an afternoon’s work!

References

Universal cycles for combinatorial structures by Chung, Diaconis and Graham

Products of Universal Cycles by Diaconis and Graham

Magical Mathematics: The Mathematical Ideas that Animate Great Magic Tricks by Diaconis and Graham

What’s Black and Red and Red All Over? by Colm Mulcahy

• #### Christian Lawson-Perfect

Mathematician, koala fan, Aperiodical editor. Usually found paddling in the North Sea, or fiddling with computers.

### 16 Responses to “David’s de Bruijn sequence card trick”

1. Ian Thomson

Christian and David

I shudder to think what “koala fan” might mean.

However, I’m writing to thank you both for this webpage and its resources. I’m a performing magician, and this is a brilliant method for performing what could be an amazing effect. Something similar is described in Alex Stone’s “Fooling Houdini”, but the exact details are left out and from its description I doubt it’s as clean as the script you’ve put together here.
.
However, I doubt that many magicians would be able to follow the theory (unless they’ve learned binary arithmetic and sequence theory in one of their many holidays at Her Mayesty’s Pleasure). As well as being a magic-nerd I’m an ex-scientist, and am in IT, so I managed to grasp most of it with a little effort. But for me this is an advantage, as I can’t imagine any of my magic-nerd brothers wanting to perform it.

Anyway. Can I point out that, in performance (if you’re worried about that) you don’t need to ask for the colour of each card? Just the pattern of one colour would do. Plus if you could discern the colour spread of the six cards without asking any questions at all (invisible markings on the back, for example), that would be a miracle indeed. I’m working on the latter idea.

And that’s it. Thank you again for the work, ingenuity, mental abilities and skill behind putting this together. A 52-card De Bruijn beats all the other ideas I’ve seen for cleanliness, including Colm’s.

Cheers

Ian

2. Rob Stanley

Thanks for the code. I’ve modified it slightly to better suit my needs, and because I think you can take a few more shortcuts.

1. I’ve swapped the order to suit then face value.
2. A face value of 1 is the Ace, 2 the 2, and so on.
3. I’ve included 2x Jokers (counted as black).
4. I’ve rotated the sequence slightly.

This gives me an ordering for the deck of 52 cards of which 6 are in the castoffs. But the replacement rules (only 4, and done by hand!) are easier (also why I need the Jokers in the deck).

1. Impossible Clubs are face value – 13.
3. The ’14 of Diamonds’ is the 8 of Diamonds.
4. The ’15 of Diamonds’ is the Queen of Diamonds.

 #names of cards faces = ['Ace','2','3','4','5','6','7','8','9','10','Jack','Queen','King'] N_faces = faces.__len__() suits = ['Clubs','Spades','Diamonds','Hearts']

 #generate de bruijn sequence def debruijn(): sequence = [0,0,0,0,0,1] for i in range(6,64): sequence.append( (sequence[i-6]+sequence[i-5]) % 2 ) return sequence #get a string of binary digits representing an integer def binarise(n,length): return bin(n)[2:].zfill(length) def debinarise(digits): binary = ''.join([str(x) for x in digits]) return int(binary,2) #decode a six-digit binary string to a card def decode_sequence(seq): number = debinarise(seq[2:]) suit = debinarise(seq[:2]) return suit,number #turn a card into a six-digit binary string def encode_card(card): suit,number = card return ''.join([str(x) for x in binarise(suit,2)+binarise(number,4)]) #display a card's binary encoding and its name def show_card(card): suit,number = card if (suit==1 and (number == 0 or number > 13)): #unknown spades name = "Joker" elif (suit==0 and number > 13): name = "%s of %s" % (faces[number-14], suits[suit]) elif (suit==2 and number == 14): name = "%s of %s" % (faces[7], suits[3]) elif (suit==2 and number == 15): name = "%s of %s" % (faces[11], suits[3]) else: name = "%s of %s" % (faces[number-1], suits[suit]) return '%s: %s' % (encode_card(card), name) def show_cards(cards): for card in cards: print(show_card(card)) def rotate(l,n): return l[n:] + l[:n] sequence = rotate(debruijn(),2) sequence*=2 cards = [decode_sequence(sequence[i:i+6]) for i in range(0,64)] # The deck of cards consists of the first 52 deck = cards[:54] # Get the unused cards from the end of the 64-deck which have usable values castoffs = [(x,y) for (x,y) in cards[54:] if y=N_faces+1 or y == 0] toswap.sort() castoffs.sort() print "Cards:" for i in range(0,54): digits = sequence[i:i+6] card = decode_sequence(digits) print(show_card(card)) print "\nCastoffs:" show_cards(castoffs) 

print "\nTo remember:" print "1. Impossible Clubs are face value - 13." print "2. Impossible Spades are Jokers." print "3. The '14 of Diamonds' is the 8 of Diamonds." print "4. The '15 of Diamonds' is the Queen of Diamonds." show_cards(toswap) 

 Cards: 000100: 4 of Clubs 001000: 8 of Clubs 010000: Joker 100001: Ace of Diamonds 000011: 3 of Clubs 000110: 6 of Clubs 001100: Queen of Clubs 011000: 8 of Spades 110001: Ace of Hearts 100010: 2 of Diamonds 000101: 5 of Clubs 001010: 10 of Clubs 010100: 4 of Spades 101001: 9 of Diamonds 010011: 3 of Spades 100111: 7 of Diamonds 001111: 2 of Clubs 011110: Joker 111101: King of Hearts 111010: 10 of Hearts 110100: 4 of Hearts 101000: 8 of Diamonds 010001: Ace of Spades 100011: 3 of Diamonds 000111: 7 of Clubs 001110: Ace of Clubs 011100: Queen of Spades 111001: 9 of Hearts 110010: 2 of Hearts 100100: 4 of Diamonds 001001: 9 of Clubs 010010: 2 of Spades 100101: 5 of Diamonds 001011: Jack of Clubs 010110: 6 of Spades 101101: King of Diamonds 011011: Jack of Spades 110111: 7 of Hearts 101110: 8 of Hearts 011101: King of Spades 111011: Jack of Hearts 110110: 6 of Hearts 101100: Queen of Diamonds 011001: 9 of Spades 110011: 3 of Hearts 100110: 6 of Diamonds 001101: King of Clubs 011010: 10 of Spades 110101: 5 of Hearts 101010: 10 of Diamonds 010101: 5 of Spades 101011: Jack of Diamonds 010111: 7 of Spades 101111: Queen of Hearts

 Castoffs: 000001: Ace of Clubs 000010: 2 of Clubs 111000: 8 of Hearts 111100: Queen of Hearts 

To remember: 1. Impossible Clubs are face value - 13. 2. Impossible Spades are Jokers. 3. The '14 of Diamonds' is the 8 of Diamonds. 4. The '15 of Diamonds' is the Queen of Diamonds. 001110: Ace of Clubs 001111: 2 of Clubs 010000: Joker 011110: Joker 101110: 8 of Hearts 101111: Queen of Hearts 

3. Rob Stanley

3. The ’14 of Diamonds’ is the 8 of Hearts.
4. The ’15 of Diamonds’ is the Queen of Hearts.

• Andrew Brimmell

I can’t seem to make this version work. The sequence works, but it doesn’t seem to follow the red and black sequence of the cards. Am I missing something?

• Rob Stanley

Perhaps you missed my changes?
1. I’ve swapped the order to suit then face value. So the first two bits are suit, and the remaining bits are the face value.
2. A face value of 1 is the Ace, 2 the 2, and so on. Rather than counting from 1 as in the original code.

4. H

This is really cool. I’ve just got one question: I’m trying to work out if the cyclical nature of the De Bruijn sequence is disrupted/broken by shortening it so that 52 cards can be used. If you cut the deck, complete the cut, and then cut again, will this still work? I think the next card in the sequence, after the 101010 (Jack of Hearts), is either 110101 (14 of clubs) or 010101 (6 of clubs) depending on whether the swap rule is used, but the cycle card is the Ace of clubs. Or have i missed something (probably really obvious!)?

Thanks for sharing, it’s great!

5. n.gururajan

excellent application of binary system.
give me some more.
thank you
with best wishes
n.gururajan

6. JL

The order of 52 cards listed by Christian does not appear to always work when the sequence wraps around. I’ll try to show an example below since I may be missing something and hopefully someone can correct me, but first just to keep things straight, here is a summary of how I believe things are defined:

4 MSBs of the binary sequence when decoded to a decimal number represents the value of the card according to this rule:
4 MSBs + 1 = value of the card (ignoring suits)
where 1= Ace, 2 = Two, … 11 = Jack, 12 = Queen, 13 = King.

For example:
000001: Ace of Clubs -> 0 + 1 = Ace
100001: 9 of Clubs -> 8 + 1 = Nine

In the above, the 2 LSBs represent the suit as follows:
00 = 0 = Diamonds
01 =1 = Clubs
10 = 2 = Hearts

When looking at sequences cards:
0 = red
1 = black

This sequence works for the 6 cards dealt out after a cut and note this does not involve the sequence wrapping around (i.e. wrap occurs when considering the last card which is the Jack of Hearts and then the first card which is the Ace of Clubs):
100001
Decodes to: 9 of Clubs

This corresponds to the 9 of clubs being the last card and this means the 6 cards for this sequence are the first 6 cards in Christian’s list:
Ace of Clubs
Ace of Hearts
2 of Diamonds
3 of Diamonds
5 of Diamonds
9 of Clubs

However, this sequence after a cut starting with the 6 of Clubs does not work and this does involve the sequence wrapping around since the Jack of Hearts and the Ace of Clubs are involved (i.e. the first and last cards of the list):
101000
Decodes to: Jack of Diamonds

These are the 6 cards for this sequence and notice how the last card below is the 3 of Diamonds and not the Jack of Diamonds that would be expected:
6 of Clubs
Jack of Hearts (last card in the list)
Ace of Clubs (1st card in the list)
Ace of Hearts
2 of Diamonds
3 of Diamonds

Please let me know if you see anything that I’m missing. BTW, maybe this is what ‘H’ was asking about but I wasn’t sure.

Thanks!

• Christian Perfect

You’re right – it doesn’t wrap around, because we’re missing 12 imaginary cards.We thought that was a reasonable compromise in return for being able to do the trick with a full standard deck.

• JL

OK, thanks for confirming.

In Alex Stone’s book “Fooling Houdini”, he described the trick with 52 cards and there were no restrictions regarding the wrap around. Apparently there is a sequence that does work with 52 cards but without the nice encoding that you have incorporated? Alex does mention that the order of the 52 cards needs to be memorized and gives tips for this memorization task.

With your compromised approach, the deck needs to be cut such it is no closer than 6 cards from the end, but thanks to your encoding I think it is still a very powerful trick!

One way to handle the cut card restriction could be to ask someone to cut the deck. If they cut it very thin at the end (possibly within the last 5 cards) then you could simply ‘burn’ 6 cards before displaying the 6 cards that will be used for the trick. There are probably better ways to handle this situation where the cut is within the last 5 cards…

Thanks again.

• Jean-Marie Beckers

Hi,
I’m also experimenting with the idea (bot not using the color information but suit information needing less cards to be taken by spectators and reduces also the cycling problem). Concerning the cycling problem: why not just take thin cards and add 12 duplicates to close the loop and use a simple rule such as face value to read by subtracting 13 whenever the value is too large. ?

• Ian Thomson

Christian’s idea *can* be made cyclical for performance *if* you assemble the stack according to Christian’s binary setup and substitutions, and then forget about the maths (apologies to Christian and Dave). Memorise the stack resulting from the binary work above, as you would a standard memorised stack (e.g. Aronson’s or Mnemonica), and then go from there. The red-black sequence of the six cards will give you the card and therefore its position in the stack to start with, and then you move six along the memorized stack to get your selections.

7. Larry Finley

From what I can see they all (David, Christian, Rob) DeBruijn sequence do NOT wrap (even with the substitutions) which means you cannot do multiple cuts with any assurance that it will work and the spectator cannot cut very thin nor very thick. These decks will have 5 cards at the end (or 5 at the beginning depending on your point of view) that will be duplicates or don’t work.

Prior to this year 2018 the only place I could find a true 52 wrapping DeBruijn is in Leo Boudreau’s book Spirited Pasteboards lybrary.com under “Heady Stuff”. Of course it does not have a built in scheme as does David/Christian’s but it is solid and I highly recommend Leo’s DeBruijn 52.
Glowball Yelnif.