An Excellent Card Trick

For the beginning magicians, the fan goes FACE DOWN


A card trick is considered the embryonic first step in the world of legerdemain.  Although sawing a person in half or defying the laws of gravity will get you the opening spot at Bally’s, card tricks are the canvas clutch or blue blazer of the magic world: you can take them anywhere. Whether you decide to dress it up or dress it down, a card trick is effective to show people something that they don’t know and that is that is how everything begins.

As any good Buddhist will tell you, the destination is not important, it’s the journey. This works as well within the elegant act of an effective card trick because how you get to the big finish is critical to your ultimate success. If you didn’t care, just wave a deck of cards in front of someone and tell them to think of a card but not to tell you. So, as the mark finally settles on a card, you tell them the correct card and walk away.  Although it is impressive to run counter to all things logical, the trick basically fails because it is not dramatic enough because no one gets to play their assigned roles. The conversation would be roughly like this:

The magician says, “Think of a card but don’t tell me.” A deck of cards are waved passively in front of their non-gaping yaws.

The mark thinks of a card and lets the magician know with some sign that they have made their mental selection.

The magician says with minimal emotion, “Is the card the ten of diamonds?”

The mark wakes up and says, “Why, yes it is! How did you do that?”

“It’s magic,” says the magician while walking away.

The trick does all the heavy lifting but the magician fails to involve the audience with the concept of magic. The end game is to impress the mark but there is so much more to do between the declaration and the money shot. The tension has to build and the mark needs to fully appreciate the task of seeing things unseen. If the mark is only bemused at the crescendo, it is the sole fault of the magician. The trick needs romance and mystery; not just some pedestrian ”pick a card” patter.

The first part of any great card trick starts with always keeping the deck moving from one spot to another during the setup. This accomplishes a key ingredient to successfully card tricks; establishing and maintaining a nice momentum at all times during the act. However, the desire to move for movement’s sake is not the same thing. Although people do not want things to sit there like lumps; they want to see things flying without detection and create new ideas out of old, ashy thoughts but with aplomb, not frenetic, amateurish mannerisms.  

Secondly, when declaring knowledge of something that is technically magic, one cannot impart this knowledge half-heartedly. The magician has to confidentially proclaim this talent without qualification and with an unabashed excitement that something new and wondrous is going to be offered. The trick is the destination but the presentation and the set-up is the more worthwhile achievement. People want tension created but only then they can enjoy the resolution of tension at the apex of your self-made crescendo when your trick finally completes.

A true magician friend once said to me in a Mahanoro bar that people hated lying but loved trickery.

“People know the card didn’t disappear,” said my friend. “Even fools know things don’t disappear, they are hidden for a period of time.”

“So, why do you use the term ‘disappear’ to explain something that it doesn’t do?”

“Because, my friend, anyone can hide something, if given enough time and opportunity. Magicians are held to a higher standard of the definition. Or, at least they are supposed to be held to that standard.”

“So,” I asked seeking simple enlightenment, “don’t be afraid to accentuate the positive?”

"That is pretty close, but I would say that it is easier to get people to pay attention when you make it sound interesting.”

He showed me a few simple tricks that at first impression were very effective. Knives appeared out of loafs of bread; a cut napkin was pristinely uninjured and other types of table magic that left me intrigued and ashamed because I thought I knew my way around a dinner table.

I asked to see them again.

“No, you have already seen them,” said my friend. “To see them again is to diminish them. These are elementary child’s tricks and do not hold up well to adult scrutiny. Just dig the table magic and move on.”

I protested but he waved his hand at me.

“These are stupid, childlike tricks and if I show you how they work, you will be very disappointed.”

“How do you know?”

“Because, when I was a little boy, I was disappointed when I finally saw them repeated over and over again. My brother showed me the tricks at the kitchen table and I kept asking him to repeat them until I figured out how they worked.”

“I felt great for about one minute; then I was disappointed that the tricks were just clumsy sleight of hand and misdirection. When he showed me how pushed his knife through the bread, I was embarrassed because it was so simple and I was so stupid. The angle made it look like the blade was emerging from the bread but in actuality, he had just slid the knife up his sleeve and pushed it through.”

“And what happened next? Did he show you more solutions to the magic?”

“I told him that I was sorry and stopped asking how things worked. I knew that all I would feel is either sad or stupid. But I really wanted it to be magical; not a trick relying on my stupidity, lack of concentration or a lame combination of both.”

I decided to order another round and change the subject.

Card tricks have been around roughly ten minutes after the invention of the deck of playing cards and once the nomenclature and color palettes were determined, the first slight of hand was generated on the same afternoon. The first deck of cards was created and one person is the room said to the other person is the room “I bet I can guess what card you have in your hand” and a new world opened up.

As a result, one of the first tools for the beginning magician is a deck of cards. To make magic happen, you need to use common household items and allow, through your skills, the item to transcend time. The orderly squads of four suits combined with their easily-understood ranks makes all card tricks more exciting but the beauty is not coming from the epiphany of recognition but from the adrenaline caused by circumventing both the general laws of physics as well as the space-time continuum.

Being the magician, even for this one trick, brings along with it a responsibility to guide the viewer through a series of simplifying assumptions. The viewer must agree that the general premise is a challenge: to pick a card out of a shuffled unseen deck is statistically tricky and the magician technically has a one in fifty-two chance of getting it right. However, if you proclaim that you can pick three cards out a deck, the odds move quickly up to one hundred and thirty-two thousand to one and that is not bad for a parlor trick. Of course, one could actually beat those odds but to knowingly taunt statistics is like putting for par: you can do it every once in awhile but it isn’t healthy to do it too many times without running risks up the metaphysical wazoo.

This card trick allows you (the magician) to pick three cards from a full deck (or as many decks as you wish) by calling out each card prior to the individual harvest. You state with a confident air that you, and only you, can see into the future and through walls and calmly pick the three cards without regard to common sense or logical thought.

The first step is to procure a deck of cards that is the mark’s property as using your own deck will immediately raise suspicion. Luckily most people do not have a deck of cards at the ready so encourage your audience to provide them at their convenience. In the interim while the mark roots through several kitchen junk drawers, continue to make broad and bravado-filled proclamations that you will eventually amaze and astound them once they come around with the cards. However, always beware anyone who pulls a deck out of their pocket but even in front of degenerative gamblers, it is a good bet that the trick works.

Allow the mark or marks to shuffle the deck to their collective heart’s content. You have to remain engaged enough to notice the shuffling but your attention to the act isn’t essential. As we all know, people are segmented into two categories: good shufflers and brutal, simpish shufflers. As the distribution continues, encourage any other audience members to get into the game by shuffling a few times themselves. In fact, as the magician, the more shuffling acts the better.

Once the deck is reorganized to the collective satisfaction of the mark, take the deck from the table and prepare to fan it across the surface. As you pick up the deck, look straight ahead into the eyes of your audience and re-adjust the deck at the same time. Your goal is to see the bottom card and for this demonstration; let’s assume it is the eight of hearts.

This provides the genesis of the trick’s success: if you know the bottom card, you will be able to accomplish the trick. If you were unsuccessful in learning the bottom card, you may hope for a reflection from the surface below or hand the deck to any audience member and ask them if they are satisfied with the state of the deck. This allows you another chance to ascertain the bottom card’s identity. If you have failed to get the card’s identity, you can still salvage a majority of the cards but it is moderately apparent to this writer that you are likely an idiot. Let's assume for the sake of not beating a dead magical horse and armed with the assumption that somehow you will eventually know the specific bottom card, the trick can continue.

The next phase needs the mastery of a critical skill: the ability to fan out a deck. Luckily, this is a skill that anyone with a horizontal surface can eventually master given enough time and patience. An elegant wave of your hand must present a balanced and concentric semi-circle with no card jutting out or appearing out of place: these fifty-two cards must be faced down, orderly and all organized with an easy elegance. Finally mastering the fan, you have to remember to repeat your declaration that you are on the verge of initiating the “world’s greatest card trick” while the marks gather around to experience your definition of wonderment.

After waiting for the crowd to re-focus on you, begin with describing the trick with a quiet confident. At this moment, the crowd does not know what the “world’s greatest trick” involves so you need to educate them.

You allow the sound to mute and then look in the eyes of each person and declare, “I will be selecting three cards out of the deck without ever seeing them.”

In and of itself, a declaration of that magnitude should get everyone’s attention. The pause before moving into the trick allows the audience time to try to decipher or determine how you are going to do it. By this time, you can remind them that the deck was likely shuffled within an inch of its inert life and momentarily pausing to seek any questions (none should be forthcoming); it is time for the show. Feel free to repeat the mantra of “I will be selecting three cards out of the deck without ever seeing them” at anytime during the trick because it is effective in keeping folks engaged. In fact, ask someone to write down the three cards so they have now an accountable record of accuracy that will scrutinize your actions. However, fear not, because your trick transcends mere mortal scribblings.

The cards are now fanned and if there is a God, you had the time to identify the bottom card and we have agreed to use the eight of hearts as our generic identifier for instructional purposes. It is time to take an inventory of what you know and the inventory is minimal: the bottom card is the eight of hearts and you have no idea the identity of the other fifty-one cards. However, since most magicians are trick glass-half full sorts, the one card will be plenty.

When you have completed the fan, review the deck to make sure that any card you wish to pick up during the selection phase is easily grabbed and the bottom card (eight of hearts) must be also ready to go. You cannot delay or fumble the card pick-ups because that will cause the audience to start thinking; that isn’t good. Review the card fan and if you wish, pass your index finger over the semi-circle to double check that any card you decide to grab will come to you with no incident.

The next step is finally simple: declare the first card you will pick is the “eight of hearts” and grab a card in the middle or first half of the fan. It doesn’t matter what the card is at this time but just grab it, look at it, subtly nod and place the card off to the side but ideally, in your shirt pocket or a hat. Do not let anyone see it because it is magic time. For our narrative, let’s say the card is the ten of spades even though the audience is assuming it is the eight of hearts. At this time, it doesn’t matter because you said three cards and if asked or challenged, smile and say “the more cards, the more magic.”

Now, step three is to point at another card, located somewhere different that your first selection and not too close to the bottom (or end) card (the real eight of hearts).

You now point at the second card and say, “The ten of spades.” Take the next card, subtlety nod and place the second card in the pocket or pile and resume your search. For this example, let’s assume the third card is the ace of diamonds and we are finally coming to the end of the trick.

You move down to the last card and let your finger meander around for awhile; allow it to circumnavigate the fan and once an appropriate amount of time has passed, state that your next card is the ace of diamonds and quickly scoop up the original eight of hearts. In layman’s terms, you were piggybacking one card ahead but finishing with the only known card in the deck. Since all three cards are in your pocket, you eliminate the curious individual who sees their selected order. Keep the cards close and move them around a bit in your hand with homage to Judy Holliday. Once satisfied, request the group to parrot back the three cards and each time they name the playing card: drop it on the surface and watch the mouths drop. You will feel a rush of adrenaline and enjoy the warm feeling of success; it doesn’t last long.

Now, while you are flush with the confidence that only comes with a successful trick, there are several dogmatic standards of the post-trick world that need compliance. The first is not to show the trick more than one more time: if you continually repeat the trick, the pattern of grabbing the bottom card as your last card will become obvious.  When asked to repeat the trick, allow some time to pass to allow your new street cred to gain some momentum. Shooting your magical wad too early leaves you with nothing when they demand more.

The second rule was stated early on in this primer; don’t tell them how it works. If someone insists, make every attempt to mitigate the curiosity because if you decide to tell one person, remember they are not bound by any magician code and will likely begin to blather the secrets of the trick to an audience that may be quite content in allowing things to remain magical. One person will tell another person and it will all unravel before your eyes: your audience immediately evolved from happy person with some wonderment to a group of people that feel either stupid or momentarily superior.

The third rule is the toughest because rarely can we be superior to others and when you know something they don’t know; it is easy to drive a schism between the haves and have nots (or in this case, the knows and the knows not). The urge to let the audience know they are stupid but you have to preserve their dignity. You have worked very hard to get them to trust you and you can throw it all away by turning on them when they are their most vulnerable.

Take a bow and leave the room: the show is over. Good night.


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