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EndersGame
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How should you break in a new deck?

In the previous article I've covered some of the situations in which you might want to "break in" a brand new deck of playing cards, to make it perform and handle optimally. So suppose we do want to break in our deck, how should we go ahead doing that? Let's imagine that our deck is still staring at us from the kitchen table, grinning at us from within its cellophane. So let's begin right at the start of the whole process, and list some steps that we can do.

STEP 1: Preparation

So what do we need to get started?

● Be clean. You didn't see that coming did you? There you were, with your grimy hands, all ready to rip into your brand new deck, and you almost forgot this important step! Go ahead and wash your hands - and dry them thoroughly! The oil on your hands, and any grime that might be invisibly clinging to it, will quickly transfer to your brand new cards, and before you know it they will start looking grimy as well. So it's important to get rid of any sweat, dust and dirt that your hands might be carrying, and give your new deck the very best start it can, rather than throwing mud at it on its first test drive!

● Get your tools. Don't worry, you won't need a hammer or any heavy equipment! But a sharp knife will come in handy shortly, in order to do a neat and tidy job of opening the seal.

STEP 2: Opening the Tuck Box

You didn't really think that the cards magically pop out of that wrapped box do you? This process involves several steps:

● Cellophane. We begin by opening the cellophane, or shrink-wrap as it's sometimes also called. Rather than ripping this from the top or bottom, I usually like to pull the tab provided for this around the deck. What this does is divide the wrapper into two halves. I typically remove the smaller top half, but leave the larger lower half on the deck. This provides additional protection to the tuck box, helping it stay in shape, and preventing the corners from becoming dinged up or tearing. But not too much can go wrong when removing the cellophane - unless you're using a knife, in which case be careful that the sharp blade doesn't slip and leave an unplanned but permanent tattoo on your skin or on the tuck box!

● Seal. Now for the seal, which is the adhesive sticker on most decks that keeps the deck closed and needs to be opened in order to open the top flap. Again, there are wrong ways to do this. Rather than just tear this in any fashion, I like to preserve the seal as best as possible. With a custom deck, the seal has often been thoughtfully and deliberately designed with unique artwork to fit with the rest of the deck, and it's nice to preserve as much of that as possible. Cutting it parallel with the top of the deck along the upper flap is less than ideal, because it means you'll invariably have part of the sticky side of the seal facing inwards, where it will occasionally attach itself to a playing card, and over time accumulate dust and dirt. Instead, it's often best to get a sharp knife, and cut the seal right along the semi-circle shape. In a pinch, you can use a thumb nail to do this. But the result will be very neat and tidy: when the tuck box flap is closed, you'll see the two parts of the seal come together in entirety, and there's the added advantage that you won't be leaving any sticky surfaces around to attract grime.

● Top flap. Ideally you want to bend the top flap backwards. There is usually a line about 1cm below the top flap, which has been pressed into the deck during production, and that's where you want to bend the top flap backwards - not at the very top of the deck itself. What this does is reveal the top centimeter of the cards, making them easy to grab. If you don't do this, and the cards are somewhat of a tight fit in the tuck box, you may find yourself butchering the top of the case trying to get the deck out.

STEP 3: Removing the Cards

Wait, do we really need a whole STEP that explains how to remove the cards from the tuck box, and do I really think you have an IQ lower than an Ace of Spades? I'm sure you're bright enough - after all you're reading this! - but the truth is that you can butcher this part of the process as well.

● Take out the cards. If you have pushed back the top flap at the line described in the previous step, you should be able to get your fingers on both sides of the top of the deck. The most natural way to do this is to have your thumb on one side of the deck in the semi-circular thumb tab (another reason for not cutting the seal directly across the top!), while your forefinger grabs the other side of the deck along the top centimeter of the cards that has been revealed when you bent the top flap of the tuck box backwards. Now you can just pull the cards out, but even that can be a little tight at times. Get gravity to help, and tip the box over, so that the cards fall naturally into your hand. Don't forget to inhale that new deck smell - that's not something you want to miss is it? Breathe in deeply, and smell those new cards - you know you want to! This is also a good time to remove the ad cards, so that what you're handling is a 54 card deck without unnecessary extras.

● Smooth the edges. In the case of a USPCC produced decks, the edges of the playing cards of a brand new deck will feel noticeably rough. While this can improve over time, you might want to take your deck and rub all four sides a number of times against some fabric - denim jeans are perfect. This will remove any loose bits and can help reduce some of the roughness.

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STEP 4: Conditioning the Cards for Optimal Friction

Some swear that there's a particular order of steps that must be followed when breaking in a deck in terms of how you handle the cards for the first time once they're outside the box. Personally I fail to see how the order of what follows matters too much - although I wouldn't begin with a riffle shuffle or spring for reasons I'll explain in a moment. So here are the moves you should consider doing to make your cards perform better than when you have them in your hands for the first time.

First of all, you want to give your cards a workout to help ensure optimal friction. These first moves are geared to ensure that the cards slide smoothly over each other. Cards have a coating that is designed to optimize how they glide over each other, but in the factory the cards have just been produced and never actually rubbed over each other, so there may be some small imperfections. We want to make sure that with the help of some warmth, wear, and pressure, everything is in good order and sliding smoothly and evenly. A helpful way to think of this is that you are polishing the cards by rubbing them against each other.

● Overhand shuffle. Shuffle off all the cards one at a time, to ensure that all the cards move freely, and there are no clumps of cards sticking together. It's important to make sure that all the cards are properly separated.

● Wash. At this point some people recommend "washing" your cards. No, don't get out the soapy water! A wash refers to spreading all the cards on the table, crudely overlapping each other, and shuffling them around over each other. The term "granny shuffle" is also used for this method. Personally I think that a systematic series of overhand shuffles accomplishes the same thing, is neater, and does a better job of looking after your cards, but you might find it more satisfying and effective to give your cards a "wash" as just described.

● Fan. A few fans are now the order of the day, in both directions. The idea of this and the previous STEP is that you get the cards sliding over each other every which way.

If you did the above steps face up, now repeat them face down. This ensures that each card has gone through its paces in each and every direction, from both sides.

STEP 5: Conditioning the Cards for Optimal Flexibility

But cards don't only need to slide over each other smoothly, they also need to be able to flex in different directions. If they were stiff and rigid like wooden boards, there's no way you could handle them at all, so we want to make sure that they are malleable and soft. That's something that the printing process won't do for us by bending them in different directions to soften them up, but fortunately it's something we can easily do, by giving the cards a workout to help ensure optimal flexibility.

These next moves are geared to ensuring that the cards flex properly, and return back to their natural shape easily and quickly. I strongly suggest doing these steps after the ones just described to get optimal friction, because when sliding the cards across each other, you don't want them to be previously bent as a result of riffle shuffles or springs. Although if you find that your deck is warped out of the box, these flexibility routines will help straighten it out, so you may need to adjust the order of things.

● Aeration. This is simple and interesting "flex-ercise" in which you hold the deck similar to the beginning of a spring, squeezing both ends towards each other. This causes the deck to bend into a C shape, and you'll notice the cards all separating from each other with a layer of air between them. This helps separate the cards, and helps prevent the oil or coating causing them to stick together. Do this in both directions.

● Riffle shuffle. Now it's time for a good riffle shuffle, since not only do you want the cards sliding smoothly over each other, but you also want them flexing nicely. Do this both face up and face down, completing each shuffle with a bridge, so you don't end up with bent or warped cards, and so that the cards are flexed in both directions.

● Faro shuffle. Another good move to do at this point is a faro shuffle. Given the new deck order, the central place that splits the deck exactly should be even easier than usual to find - for most standard decks it will be right between the King of Clubs and King of Diamonds. You can complete the shuffle by bridging the cards, or by cascading the cards together if you know how to perform that flourish. A faro shuffle will also tell you immediately whether or not a deck has a traditional cut or a modern cut, depending on which way you need to weave the cards together for the faro shuffle.

● Spring. Just like a riffle shuffle, a couple of good springs will help, and be sure to do these in both directions (face up and face down).

To round things off, you might want to conclude with another series of overhand shuffles, just to make sure that the factory coating has had another pleasant polish and final warm up, so that it can behave optimally.

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Closing Thoughts

In most cases, for the average person anyway, there's no real need to artificially "break in" a deck. Just go ahead and use it! How it will handle and feel will change naturally over time, and as long as it's a good quality deck, often this may make the handling smoother and better.

But if you're a performing professional, it may be important to make sure that a deck is in optimal handling condition ahead of a performance. In that case you will want to put a new deck through its paces before using it for the first time on the stage. Usually the best way to do this is by a systematic series of shuffles, fans, spreads, and springs, as described above, to break the cards in faster, and to ensure that they have optimal friction and flexibility ahead of your performance. It's not a complex process, and simply spending 10 minutes with your deck in this way should do the trick.

For most of us, none of this really matters enough, and wearing in a deck is what happens automatically as we use it. Even so, it is good to be aware of how to treat a deck well, and be familiar with some of the things you can do to help give your playing cards that familiar feel, and ensure that they won't let you down. Treat your cards right, and they'll treat you right!


Author's note: I first published this article at PlayingCardDecks.com here.
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BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame - click here to see all my pictorial reviews: => Magic Reviews <==> Playing Card Reviews <==> Board Game Reviews <==
Tortuga
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Breaking in a new deck is definitely a personal thing. For instance, some might not fan their cards much so they don't really care if they clump. Others, like myself, fan cards a lot and to us, keeping them spreading smoothly is paramount.

Some magicians such as Derek Dingle used to spring the cards a lot during their performances. Derek had the habit of doing this with the pack face up. This is mentioned by Richard Kaufman in The Compete Works of Derek Dingle.
He comments that this resulted in an upward bow to the deck which actually assisted in Derek's performance of the classic pass.

You can give two performers packs of standard Bikes from the same batch and a half hour later compare the decks and find them very different in feel.

If you don't feature faro shuffles in your work then perhaps you don't really care too much about the condition of the edges or whether the pack is "traditionally cut".

Having clean hands definitely helps to prevent edges from getting dirty too soon.
Richard Kaufman
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Derek never washed his hands before performing. He could work with sticky hands on a sticky bar top.
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