Stacking the decks

Bryan Berg holds the world record for the tallest house of cards. Here's how he does it.

Bryan Berg says he's clumsy, but it hardly seems possible. After all, he's built incredible structures using nothing but hundreds and thousands of playing cards.

On the one hand, Mr. Berg can stack cards to astonishing heights: He once built a tower 25 feet, 3 in. tall in Germany. On the other hand, he's been known to trip and run into things. During an interview for this story, he spilled a carton of milk.

But he turns on the concentration doing his "card thing."

He is the foremost card stacker in the world. He's a pro, in fact. Few others seem to share his passion, but that doesn't stop him from taking on evermore challenging building feats.

Could he build a card tower 100 feet tall?

"Sure," he says confidently, "but it's going to take a while."

His first record-setting tower was 14 ft. 6 in. high. It took 40 hours and 208 decks of cards to build. He was in high school.

To build really high towers requires scaffolding and a high-ceilinged room with no open windows. You don't want a breeze to jeopardize the structure, even though it's a lot sturdier than it looks. (More on that in a minute.)

Once you've mastered the card-building basics, Berg says the sky's the limit. And if he ever does build a 100-foot tower, he jokes, it might be declared a hard-hat job site.

"With something that big," he says, "if it fell and you were near it, you'd run the risk of being buried."

Berg clearly has a special talent, but he's confident that anyone can learn the skills required. The proof of this is his success teaching children. He's held many workshops with second-graders. Four out of 5 of them manage to build structures that are three, four, even five stories tall - and strong enough to support an encyclopedia!

Before he teaches them the right way, Berg says most kids start by leaning cards together, tepee style. He's amazed at what kids can build using that technique, since he can't even get two cards to stand up that way.

The secret's in the cell

Berg's method is the four-card unit or cell. He creates a structure that resembles a pinwheel with an open square center.

The cell is the first thing Berg explains in his new book, "Stacking the Deck: Secrets of the World's Master Card Architect" (Fireside: paperback, $15).

Mastering this fundamental unit may be the hardest thing to learn, but it's the key to virtually everything Berg builds. The cell is also what gives Berg's creations their surprising strength.

He's supported concrete blocks on simple structures. He had 13 people stand on three sheets of particleboard (total weight: 1,600 pounds) he'd put on a two-story card grid. It held.

Berg's interest in building with cards dates to his Iowa childhood. He and his grandfather used to see how high they could stack cards. This appealed to Berg's building instincts and his preference for simple objects.

Like other children, Berg enjoyed toy building sets, but his favorite Christmas present was always a gift-wrapped box of junk his grandmother gave him. It was filled with such things as light bulb boxes, toilet paper rolls, and whatever else a young kid needed to connect them.

Playing cards offered a similar challenge to his ingenuity. "To me, [stacking them] was a game, and still is," Berg says. "It was about a personal accomplishment, a triumph over a kind of innocent, everyday material."

Berg discovered the secrets of building with cards through trial and error. One memorable breakthrough involved combining card cells into a grid or honeycomb. This resulted in structures that withstood the floor-shaking teasing of his brother. He knew he was onto something when an eight-foot-tall tower he built in his family's living room stood for a week and half.

That inspired him to try for a world record, which he quickly set with a tower in his high school auditorium.

When the news media heard about his feat, they started telling his story. The publicity led to some interesting jobs. One was from a cereal manufacturer that wanted to promote baseball cards. The company asked Berg to build a model of Ebbets Field, former home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. It took 30,000 trading cards and 50 hours to make.

Berg likes what he calls the "honesty" of card buildings. His creations cannot hide the fact that they're made of playing cards. In constructing them, Berg has learned elementary physics and architecture. Now, after three years of teaching architecture at Iowa State University, he's attending Harvard University's Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, Mass. He hopes his studies will help him figure out the next stage of his life.

Wearing shoes is a hazard

Doesn't it require a safecracker's touch to construct a facsimile of the Empire State Building out of playing cards - without using glue or tape?

"I have to look twice before I move," Berg says. "I basically go into slow motion." He wears T-shirts, not card-snagging long sleeves. He prefers to work in stocking feet so he won't misjudge where the tips of his shoes are. A half inch can be the difference between success and a huge pick-up job.

Berg is seldom without playing cards. He has them in his car, backpack, and apartment. He has many more back in his Iowa home. But he doesn't practice much. It's not worth it to him to build something that people won't see and be amazed by.

He has photographs of his spectacular structures, which all come down eventually. Demolishing them proves to people, including Guinness record keepers, that the cards were not joined together with glue or tape.

Berg accepts this fact good-naturedly and says he enjoys the opportunity to learn about how well he has built. He usually fires up a leaf-blower and goes into "super observation mode," watching to see where the strengths and weaknesses are. (Cards at the outer edge are the most vulnerable.) Demolition has taught him that card structures are not easily leveled.

Now he'd like to build a large tower in a wind tunnel. The structure could not handle much wind, but it would be fun to see how it deflects the air currents and holds up. "I always thought that would be really cool," Berg says.

Start stacking them yourself

Bryan Berg, who holds the Guinness World Record for the tallest house of cards (131 stories, 25 ft., 3 in.) offers these tips:

• Use inexpensive, uncoated decks of cards. They're usually sold wrapped in cellophane, rather than boxed. Coated cards are too slick.

• Use cards of uniform size, thickness, and quality. Discard any bent ones.

• Build on a nonslippery surface. A floor is more stable than a table. Short-pile carpet or a square of particleboard provides just enough traction.

• Adjust misaligned cards with the edge of another card, not with your finger.

• Start by leaning the cards against each other more. As you get the knack, you'll be able to stack them more upright.

• Find a comfortable sitting position. Don't lean. If you can, build toward you, rather than away from you.

• Don't despair if your structure collapses before you're done. That happens to Berg, too.

• Take it easy, relax, have fun.

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