An improved simulation of card shuffling


Last week I presented the GSR algorithm, a statistical model of a riffle shuffle. In the model, a deck of n cards is split into two parts according to the binomial distribution. Each piece has roughly n/2 cards. Then cards are dropped from the two stacks according to the number of cards remaining in each stack. I lamented at the end of the post that the algorithm is not easily vectorized because the probabilities of cards falling from the left and right stack change during the riffle.

An Equivalent Model

The GSR model has an equivalent geometric formulation (see "Bayer and Diaconis (1992)", p. 299), as follows:

  1. Generate n random points from the uniform distribution on [0,1] and label them in order x1 < x2 < ... < xn.
  2. Transform these points under the mapping y = 2x mod 1.

The mapping transforms the points by breaking them into two groups. Points less than 0.5 are stretched out and mapped into [0,1]. Points greater than 0.5 are also stretched out and mapped into [0,1]. Thus the mapping does two things: it separates the points into two groups (a left group and a right group) and it interleaves the two groups.

Bayer and Diaconis prove that this simple geometric transformation is equivalent to the GSR model and therefore describes a riffle shuffle. For example, the image on this page shows ten points in [0,1]. The initial X-axis ordering (1, 2, .., 10) is mapped into a new ordering on the Y axis. The shuffled order is 5, 1, 6, 2, 3, 7, 8, 4, 9, 10.

The Geometric GSR Algorithm

This algorithm is easily implemented as a SAS/IML function. The RANDGEN subroutine is used to generate random numbers from the uniform distribution. The SORT and SORTNDX subroutines are used sort the points and to rearrange the cards in the deck according to the "2x mod 1" transformation. (See a previous blog post for more information on sorting.)

The following SAS/IML module implements the geometric algorithm:

proc iml;
/** Gilbert-Shannon-Reeds statistical model 
    of a riffle shuffle (geometric version). **/
start RiffleShuffle(deck);
   n = nrow(deck);
   x = j(n,1);
   call randgen(x, "Uniform");
   call sort(x, 1);
   /** cut into two stacks by binomial distribution **/
   y = mod(2 * x, 1);
   call sortndx(idx, y, 1);

You can test the algorithm by starting with a deck of cards in a known order and observing how the cards are mixed by consecutive riffle shuffles. The following statements riffle the cards seven times and store the results of each shuffle. To save space, a 20-card deck is used. The original order of the cards is denoted 1, 2, 3, ..., 20.

call randseed(1234);
n = 20;
deck = T(1:n);
s = j(n, 8);
s[,1] = deck;
do i = 1 to 7;
   s[,i+1] = RiffleShuffle( s[,i] );
names = "s0":"s7";
print s[colname=names];

Timing the performance of the two GSR algorithms indicates that the geometric RiffleShuffle algorithm is about six times faster than the original implementation. Consequently, if you intend to simulate how cards are mixed during shuffling, use this algorithm instead of the initial straightforward implementation of the GSR model.


D. Bayer and P. Diaconis (1992), "Trailing the Dovetail Shuffle to Its Lair," Annals of Applied Probablity 2(2) 294-313

About Author

Rick Wicklin

Distinguished Researcher in Computational Statistics

Rick Wicklin, PhD, is a distinguished researcher in computational statistics at SAS and is a principal developer of PROC IML and SAS/IML Studio. His areas of expertise include computational statistics, simulation, statistical graphics, and modern methods in statistical data analysis. Rick is author of the books Statistical Programming with SAS/IML Software and Simulating Data with SAS.


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