Card stackingMost people know what is meant by the phrase "stacking the deck". It refers to a technique where you cheat in a card game, by arranging the cards in a particular order. The expression has even entered the English language, and can be used figuratively. Misleading your hearers by cherry-picking evidence and arguments to present only one side of a story is also known as "card stacking", and is frequently used in advertising and politics.
But today we're concerned with stacking cards in a more literal sense. Because card stacking can also refer to the literal stacking of cards into a building-like structure. In other words, it's when you place cards on top of each other to build what is commonly called a house of cards.
The phrase "house of cards" has also migrated into the English language, and is used metaphorically to refer to a situation that is highly unstable or volatile, or to anything likely to fail or collapse. It's not hard to see why it has this meaning. As you'll know if you've ever tried to build one, a house of cards is a very precarious structure that requires a delicate touch and much care. You only have to bump it slightly, or place one card wrong, and the whole structure collapses in an instant.
The appropriateness of the image and its wide use in the English language proves that building an actual house of cards with real playing cards is incredibly difficult to do. But there are people who can pull this off successfully, and build card houses of incredible size. In this elite group, one man stands tall - though dwarfed by his card houses. That man is world record holder Bryan Berg.
Bryan BergBryan Berg describes himself as a "cardstacker", hence his official website cardstacker.com. His remarkable credentials are confirmed by the four separate World Records related to cardstacking that he currently holds.
● Tallest House of Freestanding Playing Cards (set in 1992)
● Largest House of Freestanding Playing Cards (set in 2004)
● Tallest House of Freestanding Playing Cards Built in 12 Hours (set in 2016)
● Tallest House of Freestanding Playing Cards Built in One Hour (set in 2018)
If those categories don't sound challenging enough, consider the fact that the third of these (tallest house built in 12 hours) was constructed on a running, fully loaded washing machine! He set the first of these records at the age of 17, with a 4.4 meter tower. He's bettered several of these records more than once since setting them, and has broken his record for the tallest house around ten times. In numerous instances his record-breaking attempts have been commissioned by sponsors. His 2004 record for largest structure was a new category that Guinness created especially for him, and was a replica of Cinderella's Castle for Walt Disney World, which took 24 days to build.
It's worth mentioning here that the world record for the tallest house of cards has increased significantly since the early 1900s. That's when record-breaking card towers began receiving attention in the media, and reports indicated that the best structures from that time ranged in size from 15 stories or layers high to as many as 25 stories. In 1972 Guinness listed the highest authenticated claim as being 27 stories high.
The 1972 record was absolutely decimated by James Warnock in 1978 with a creation that consisted of an incredible 61 stories, which John Slain managed to increase to 68 stories in 1983. This lasted until Bryan's record breaking attempt in 1992, which increased the bar to 75 stories. At the State Fair of Texas in 2007 he built a tower that was almost 8 meters high for the current world record. The size was limited only by the ceiling of the room in which it was built, and even then some ceiling tiles were removed to give extra building room into the attic!
To give an idea of the amount of cards required, here are some figures for a 7.6m high card tower that Bryan built in 1998. It used over 1500 decks, weighed more than 110 kg, and took more than two weeks to build. Or consider the replica of the Venetian Macao resort hotel which he spent 44 days building in 2010. It was 3 metres tall and 10.5 metres long, used over 4,000 decks (representing over 218,000 cards), and weighed more than 272 kg.
Bryan's academic background is in architecture, but he insists that it was his love for cardstacking that led him in that direction, not the other way around. He credits his grandfather for introducing him to cardstacking at the age of 8, as an amusing activity between the many card games that his family played. But what his grandfather sparked was a love for building, rather than a specific method. Bryan continued experimenting with different methods, teaching himself different card stacking techniques, and perfecting the art. What he knows about building card houses is simply the result of continued experimentation - although he's learned a lot about the structural behaviour of real buildings as a result of his expertise with playing cards. Remarkably, his incredible structures are all freestanding, and he uses no tape, glue, or tricks like bending or manipulating the cards in any way.
He turned professional in 1994, which gives him the unique position of being the only person in the world that actually earns a full-time living by stacking playing cards. So where does he make his money? He travels around the US and even the world, putting his card stacking skills on show. The instant appeal and visual impact of his remarkable card houses makes Bryan's creations a real attraction, and this makes his work ideal to feature at the center of a special event, advertising campaign, or museum. For example, in 2005 he built a replica of the New York skyline using 178,000 cards, to represent those whose lives were lost in the 2014 Boxing Day tsunami, a project that gave supporters the opportunity to donate to survivors through several charities. He's had clients around the world who have sought him out for his work. What he does is arguably a performance art.
The methodWhen most people try building a house of cards, they use the pyramid or triangle shape as the main building block, with the aim of building another layer on top of this. A structure of this sort is notoriously difficult to build, and if you manage to get anything beyond three levels high, you can quite rightly be quite proud of your achievement.
Bryan has developed an entirely different technique, however. And given his success, it's hard to argue with him. Instead of using the classic triangular shape as his base building block, he builds towers using square shapes. It's a self-taught method, but it's incredibly effective, and can support an incredible amount of weight. According to Berg, the higher the tower goes, the more solid the lower layers become, due to the physics behind this design. The combined weight of the cards actually makes the structure more stable. Moreover, because he arranges the cards in a grid-like structure, they prevent each other from falling over or bending, further increasing their strength and stability. Here's a video clip from WIRED that features Bryan explaining his card stacking technique:
This repeated geometric pattern is surprisingly simple to learn, and is also the secret behind the large structures Bryan builds. You then cover the basic honeycomb shapes with cards, and go on to build the next layer on top. Once you master this basic concept, you can apply the same pattern for building walls, columns, and beams, which enables you to create variety in shapes. The result is surprisingly strong. In fact, to destroy his creations, Bryan typically uses a leaf-blower. Yes, really - you can even see him do this on video!
Give it a try!Now it's your turn. Would you like to try your hand at cardstacking using Bryan's method? It's not something he's kept secret, and he's published a book entitled Stacking the Deck: Secrets of the World’s Master Card Architect which reveals all. But he's also explained the basics of his method on videos readily available online. In addition to the video clip above from WIRED, you can see another helpful explanation from Bryan about his method in the following video:
Key to his success is a simple four card cell structure, which is repeated over and over, in a manner that can best be compared to a beehive or honeycomb shape, or even a waffle. Armed with his basic approach, will quickly be able to take your card stacking skills to the next level. Perhaps you won't quite be building as elaborate structures as Bryan, who has created a wide range of architectural styles that range from stadiums and churches to pyramids and temples, and even replicas of specific structures like the Empire State Building. But when you try Bryan's method it is remarkable how much you can achieve. You may be surprised to learn that Bryan even considers himself to be rather clumsy - but his solid design structure and his methodical approach have rescued him more than once.
Here are some helpful tips you should keep in mind, when trying to beat your "personal best":
● Use new cards. Old cards tend to have bends in them, so it is recommended that you use new or near-new playing cards for the best results.
● Use embossed cards. Most playing cards have an embossed or "air cushion" finish. That is preferable to using cards with a high gloss and smooth finish, because they typically will prove too slippery.
● Build on the floor. It's tempting to build your structure on a table, but tables invariably wobble. You only need to give your table an accidental bump and your house of cards will come crashing down.
● Avoid slippery surfaces. Don't build on something slippery, like shiny wood. Particle board can work, or else a non-plush carpet that is tightly woven together.
● Use Bryan's method. Instead of building with triangles, place the cards on their sides at right angles to each other, forming squares in a repeated pattern. To make the structure self-supporting, lean the cards against each other using the T shapes that this involves.
● Stay relaxed. Tension is your enemy, because your hands will shake if you are tense, increasing the risk of accidentally destroying your own building efforts. That makes it all the more important to stay relaxed.
● Watch your grip. Especially when you're building on upper layers, Bryan recommends letting the card rest between your fingers rather than holding the card, due to the increased risk of transferring your "shakes" to the structure.
● Don't give up too easily. Patience is a virtue, and you'll need lots of it to be successful in building a house of cards. This is a skill you can learn, but don't expect to become an expert right away.
Bryan's method will help you improve almost instantly, but don't be surprised to have your structure fall down. Persist, and keep on trying, because like any skill in life, it's by persevering and by learning from your mistakes that you'll improve.
Final thoughtsIf you think that you go through a lot of decks a year, spare a thought for Bryan, who estimates that he goes through well over 5,000 decks a year.
But Bryan's achievements also teach us something truly important. While most people are wary of anything that is considered to be "a house of cards" due to its potential to collapse, Bryan shows that it's possible to make a living from building a house of cards. He's found a way to turn to the kind of structure that most of us consider a disaster into his bread and butter.
So perhaps the lesson in this is that there are times where we shouldn't shy away from what seems initially difficult, and by persevering, we may sometimes even accomplish something very important. Spending time building a house of cards may even have rewards you never expected. So what are you waiting for - get out those playing cards, and give it a try for yourself!
Want to learn more about Bryan Berg?
● Official site
● Guinness World Records - Largest Playing Card Structure
Want to see videos with Bryan and learn his techniques?
● How this guy stacks playing cards impossibly high (WIRED)
● How to stack playing cards (WIRED)
● Record holder profile (Part 1) (Guinness World Records)
● Record holder profile (Part 2) (Guinness World Records)
● World's best card stacker builds insane outdoor card tower (Coolest Thing)
Images courtesy of Bryan Berg, and used with permission.
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known and 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.