If you're going to spend any time with a deck of playing cards, some things are an absolute must. And one of them is this: knowing how to do a decent shuffle. After all, it's a little embarrassing if you have a massive collection of 100+ beautiful custom decks, and your shuffling skills are uglier than the back end of a city bus. Like me, you probably love playing cards, so the very least you can do is look somewhat professional in the way that you handle them. And that begins with shuffling.
And how often doesn't it happen that a magician hands someone a deck of cards, asks them to shuffle their selected card into the pack, and the poor person makes a fool of himself because he can't do a simple card shuffle. Don't be that person - especially if you're a fan of playing cards! So if you know the precise differences between USPCC and Cartamundi stock, or are passionate about playing Hearts or Cribbage or Poker, but don't know the first thing about shuffling a deck properly, then now is the time to do something about that.
So here's a short introduction to some popular ways of shuffling playing cards. Hopefully this will whet your appetite to challenge yourself to learn something new, or to master something old. You'll be surprised how helpful it can be to learn from experienced card handlers, and how a small tip or two can make a huge difference to a card shuffle that you have been (mis)performing for your entire life until now!
1. The Overhand Shuffle
The Overhand Shuffle is likely the shuffle that you already know how to do, because it is the shuffle of choice for most people. In other words, it's probably the shuffle you learned from your grandpa or your best friend when you were 13 years old.
With the deck face-down in one hand, you use the thumb of your other hand to peel off small packets from the top so that they fall one at a time into that other hand, until you've gone through the entire deck in this manner.
What a lot of people don't realize is that the overhand shuffle is not actually the most effective way of shuffling a deck, because it simply displaces large groups of cards. But once you become skilled at it, you can perform it very rapidly, and it is a very practical card shuffle that everyone should know how to do. Magicians also like this shuffle a great deal for card magic, because it enables them to perform some sleight of hand, and to control individual cards within a deck.
2. The Riffle Shuffle
The Riffle Shuffle is the shuffle you'll often see used in gambling contexts like casinos, and for serious card games. Especially when it is done properly as a table riffle shuffle, it prevents cards from being exposed, and it doesn't allow the same kind of sneaky moves that crooked dealers can get away with when performing an overhand shuffle. It's also sometimes referred to as a "dovetail shuffle".
To do a riffle shuffle, you first split the deck into two equal halves, putting one in each hand. From now on you need to mirror the actions of both of your hands, as you bring the packets together, and slowly riffle up the side of each packet simultaneously with your thumbs. You want the corners of the cards to overlap as you are doing this, so that they weave into each other, and then you can push them into each other once you are done.
The riffle shuffle looks very tidy, especially when performed on a table, but you can also perform it in your hands by placing your thumbs along the short edge. An in-the-hands riffle shuffle has the advantage that once the cards are woven together along one short edge, you can bend them with the help of your thumbs, letting them spring together in a move usually described as a "bridge". This flourish is not difficult to learn, and is a classy looking move that is certain to impress people!
3. The Hindu Shuffle
The Hindu Shuffle looks somewhat unusual to the eyes of a Westerner, but apparently it is a common way to shuffle in many Asian countries. In some ways the mechanics are similar to an overhand shuffle, but the cards move along the direction of their long edges rather than parallel to their short edges.
This shuffle works by taking packets from the top of the deck, which you do by grabbing them with your thumb along one long edge and a couple of fingers along the other long edge. You peel the packets from the top of the deck (which is held in your other hand) one at a time, so that they fall into the hand you are using with your thumb and fingers for grabbing the packets.
This shuffle is arguably even easier to learn than the overhand shuffle. Especially if you ensure that you grab the packets cleanly, it can look quite classy, because it's smooth and professional looking, while looking immediately different than the shuffling techniques most people are used to. Magicians sometimes use this shuffle to accomplish what is known as a "force".
4. The Faro ShuffleThe Faro Shuffle is probably the most precise shuffle in the world. It looks terrific when it's performed well, but it's quite difficult to master, and will require a lot of practice and correct technique.
You need to begin by dividing the deck in two equal halves, holding one in each hand. You then bring these two halves of the deck together, and starting at one corner, use some pressure to push them together in such a way so that the cards weave together perfectly one at a time. Whatever you do, don't just jam the cards together, because careful technique is needed to do this correctly. But when you learn how to do this properly, the cards will slide into each other smoothly just like a zipper, precisely one by one.
Being able to perform a perfect faro shuffle is the goal of many a magician and cardist. A unique feature of this shuffle, is that if you perform eight perfect faro shuffles one after another, the deck will be in exactly the same order that you started with. It's also a practical move because several cardistry moves, such as the giant fan and the cascade, begin with a faro shuffle. If you're really, really dedicated, you can even try the challenge of trying to learn a one-handed faro shuffle, which is an achievement very few people on the planet ever master!
This is by no means a complete list of all the shuffles that exist. A complete list would also have to include the granny shuffle, which is a common way of describing the most primitive shuffle there is: placing all the cards facedown on the table in a messy stack, and "washing" them together randomly with both hands. You've probably seen your 6 year old nephew shuffle this way! The pile shuffle is also somewhat of a primitive technique, and simply involves dealing an entire deck one card at a time into different piles in a random manner, and then compiling the piles together. You can also learn sleight of hand techniques to perform a false shuffle, which happens when the deck has the appearance of being shuffled, but either retains its original order entirely, or involves keeping a particular card or cards in a certain position.
It's also good to be somewhat aware of the effectiveness of different shuffles. An overhand shuffle keeps clumps of cards together, whereas a single riffle shuffle retains the basic order of each half of a deck. For playing card games, the most effective shuffling techniques will involve combining different ways of shuffling. To shuffle a deck of cards reliably, you'll need to make sure that you do more than just a single shuffle, to ensure that the order of the cards has been thoroughly rearranged. After all, statistically speaking there are 52! (fifty-two factorial) different ways of arranging a deck of 52 cards, which is a number greater than the number of atoms on the earth. So if you're playing a card game, ideally you want to aim for creating an order that has never been seen before in the history of mankind, and never will be seen again. On the other hand if you're doing card magic or card flourishing, the final result is less important, because you are more interested in the aesthetics of shuffling. You just want to look smooth and professional, and give people confidence that you are skilled at what you do.
Where to LearnHow can you learn to do these shuffles properly? It's hard to do justice to a technical skill like card shuffling with words alone, and you won't be able to learn how to do these shuffles properly just by reading the brief descriptions above. What you really need is a good book with pictures, like Joshua Jay's Amazing Book of Cards. This is an excellent resource, because it includes careful photographs, and also comes with an instructional DVD. Alternatively, find some reliable video instruction that will teach you the finer points about some of these shuffles. Few are better than respected magic teacher Roberto Giobbi, who offers individual lessons on shuffling that are excerpted from his terrific Card College course.
Fortunately, youtube is also here to help. Admittedly it's not hard to find poor instruction online, so beware of well-intentioned teenagers who are simply passing on mediocre technique. But because shuffling is a basic skill, the good news is that you will readily find some quality videos that teach you how to do this properly. I can recommend the video tutorials from 52Kards, The School of Cardistry, and lotisinhand's Cardistry Bootcamp as good sources to get you started. So get busy, and happy shuffling!
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known and highly respected reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, cardistry, and card collecting, and has reviewed several hundred boardgames and hundreds of different decks of playing cards. You can see a complete list of his game reviews here, and his playing card reviews here. He is considered an authority on playing cards and has written extensively about their design, history, and function, and has many contacts within the playing card and board game industries. You can view his previous articles about playing cards here. In his spare time he also volunteers with local youth to teach them the art of cardistry and card magic.