Everything You Need to Know About the 21 Card Trick

If anyone has ever offered to show you a card trick at a party or gathering…

There’s a good chance it was the one trick almost everyone seems to know.

Yes, I’m talking of course about the 21 card trick.

You know the trick with piles of cards?

The cards are laid out into 3 piles or rows of 7 cards, gathered up, and then laid out again. After repeating this twice, the trickster can then reveal which card is yours even though you’ve never said it aloud.

Let’s dive into this classic card trick, how and why it works, and some great variations that make it a far better effect.

21 Card Trick Effect

The 21 card trick is a really simple self-working effect that tons of people are familiar with.

Chances are, you know someone outside of your magician (or aspiring magician) circle that can do this effect and sometimes breaks it out at parties.

Here’s how the trick looks as a spectator:

The magician removes exactly 21 random cards from a regular deck

The participant is allowed to select one of them, remember it, and return it to the pile

The magician is never told the name of the card and the participant can freely shuffle their chosen card back into the packet of 21

The magician then takes the cards and lays them out onto the table in 3 face up rows of 7 cards each

He asks the spectator which pile their card is in — though they are not to name the card aloud

He gathers the cards and repeats the process, again asking which pile the chosen card is in

The cards are gathered up once more and again, the pile process is repeated

Upon the third instance of the magician learning which pile the chosen card is in, he gathers all 21 cards and begins dealing them face down onto the table

About halfway through the pack, he stops and turns the next card face up, revealing the chosen selection!


The history and development of the 21 card trick goes back literally hundreds of years, making it quite possibly one of the oldest card tricks ever!

According to Genii Magazine, the trick is “an old mathematical effect based on principles developed by Joseph-Diez Gergonne (a French mathematician) called the Gergonne Pile Principle.”

One of the earliest published versions appeared in a 1593 manuscript by Horatio Galasso, then again in the late 1800s.

From there, plenty of famous magicians put their stamp and spin on it with some clever variations (which we’ll get to later).

But the original version has persisted and remains extremely popular.

21 Card Trick Method & Math Explained

The mechanics of the 21 card trick are extremely simple and easy to remember.

It’s a mathematical, self-working card trick which makes it ideal for beginners and people with a passing interest in magic who just want a cool thing to do at social gatherings!

The magician only needs to remember three things:

1. When dealing the cards into 3 piles, rows, or columns of 7, the cards are dealt face down to face up, one by one, horizontally.

In other words, place the first card of the first row, then the first of the second row, then the first of the third row, then the second of the first row, the second of the second row, and so on.

2. Once the spectator names which pile their card is in, gather each column without disturbing the order of the cards. Sandwich the “chosen” pile in between the others. Then repeat the process twice.

3. At the end, when preformed properly, the chosen card will be in the 11th position in the face down pack and can be revealed by spelling “Abracadabra,” “Your Card Is,” or “Mystery Card” — or any phrase of 10-11 letters.

Why does the 21 card trick work?

Because it methodically moves the selected card into the very middle of the pack, closer and closer to the 11th position each round of dealing/gathering.

If you want a more detailed mathematical explanation, check out this fantastic clip and tutorial from Numberphile.

Best 21 Card Trick Variations

OK, so we agree that the original 21 card trick is a classic.

We can also probably agree that it’s kind of lame!

There’s very little in it that impresses spectators (in part because we’ve all seen it before) but also because the process is extremely labored and intentional.

It’s pretty clear to most people that the trick does itself through math and therefore, no one is all that excited when you reveal your card.

Luckily, some great magicians have devised some amazing variations and improvements on the 21 card trick that are worth learning.

(Use these on their own or even as a response to someone showing YOU the 21 card trick).

Here are my favorites:

Bill Malone & Ed Marlo 21 Card Trick

Bill Malone is a legend, and his version of the 21 card trick, based on the work and improvements done by Ed Marlo, is probably the best around.

It’s a multi-phase routine that works best when your audience is actually a little familiar with the tired old original effect.

Phase one is designed to look a lot like the boring standard 21 card trick, but instead of naming and re-dealing the piles 3 times, Malone names the card immediately after learning which pile it’s in.

In phase 2, he ups the ante and names the card without even knowing which pile it’s in.

And for the finale, he removes the card sight unseen from the completely shuffled packed of 21 cards.

It’s a must-see and is sure to wow anyone who knows the original.

Check it out on YouTube and learn it from Malone Meets Marlo Vol. 6

The 27 Card Trick

If you like the idea of a mathematical self-working card trick and don’t want to jazz the original up with a ton of sleight of hand and advanced techniques, you might really dig the 27 Card Trick.

(I believe it’s based on the work of Harry Lorayne and others.)

The 27 card trick uses 27 instead of 21 (clearly!) but otherwise plays out very similarly.

The only difference is, instead of the selected card ending up in position 11, it can end up at whatever position you want!

Magicians often have the card appear at the participant’s favorite number between 1-27, named at the beginning of the effect.

This one takes a little more cognitive skill than the original 21, but most people can handle it with a little practice. The kicker ending is well worth it.

You can learn it from Numberphile here.

21st Century 21 Card Trick

A 21 card trick in name only, this one from Michael Ammar and (again, the legend) Ed Marlo is a killer twist on the original.

21st Century 21 Card Trick starts out a little bit like the original, but quickly gets crazy.

Once the spectator names which pile they say their card in, it invisibly travels to the 2nd pile, and then the third — before being dramatically revealed by the magician.

You have to see Ammar perform this one here, and you can learn it on Easy to Master Card Miracles Vol. 9

Wrapping Up

The 21 Card Trick is a timeless classic, but it’s probably better left to people who aren’t that serious about their card magic.

However, it can be an amazing launching pad into other, better effects and variations!

If you want to really floor people who show you the original, learn the Bill Malone/Ed Marlo version. If you want an easy self-worker with a kicker ending, try the fun twist in the 27 card trick.

And, of course, the Ammar/Marlo update is a totally different effect altogether but is sure to stun people.

What did I miss? What’s your favorite variation of the classic 21 Card Trick?

Check out my guides to some other classic card tricks like Out of This World and Card Warp before you go!

Or you could simply check out the full guide to my favourite, classic card tricks.

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