Making card magic magical

by Ariel Frailich

On December 6, 2003, I presented an online lecture in the chatroom at Ultimate Magic. It was structured as an interview, with Elizabeth, the host, asking questions. Here’s the transcript of the lecture.

What does ‘magic’ mean to you?
Magic means doing the impossible. Eugene Burger talks about ‘the experience of magic’, that moment when the jaw drops and the brain stops, the heart skips a beat and the emotions fire on all fours, because what has just been seen is completely, utterly impossible. Laws of nature have been broken; what has happened simply cannot be explained.

Doesn’t this happen automatically whenever a magician does a trick?
In his book “The magic way”, Juan Tamariz says that the spectator should not only be fooled, but should also feel bewitched, bewildered and fascinated by the mystery just witnessed, to the point of not even wanting to try to figure it out. If a spectator congratulated the legendary German magician Punx by saying “I have no idea how you did it”, Punx felt that he had failed for not having succeded in taking the spectator to the next level. So I think the answer is no — it doesn’t happen automatically. It’s something that has to be worked at.

How do you work at it?
You have to start by making it your goal. If your goal is to make people laugh, they’ll laugh. If you want to impress them with your dexterity, they’ll be impressed with your dexterity. If you want them to have an experience of magic, they’ll have an experience of magic. Of course, you can combine goals; for instance, wanting to create the experience of magic and making people laugh (for instance, Cardini).

OK, let’s say I’ve made it my goal. What do I do next?
You go through the tricks you do and eliminate everything that gets in the way of creating an experience of magic. For this, it’s extremely useful to look at things from a layman’s point of view — the problems and solutions become more obvious that way. The goal is to make the magic clear and understandable, to prevent possible explanations, and to present the trick in a way that helps create the experience of magic. There’s more to these things than meets the eye.

All right — let’s start with “clear and understandable”.
For the spectators to fully appreciate the impossibility of an effect, they have to know exactly what the effect is. This sounds obvious, but it’s a rule that’s often broken. We choose to perform a certain trick because it has an interesting effect, but the effect may not be obvious. The way in which we perform a trick — both the handling and the presentation — can make it easier or harder to follow. The harder the spectator has to work to follow and understand the effect, the greater the risk of confusion. And, as Dai Vernon said: “Confusion is not magic”.

When you perform a trick, you know what’s going to happen next, you know how it will end. The audience, however, doesn’t know any of that. Spectators have to think about every action you make, absorb it and remember it before going on to the next action. The more there is to remember, the greater the chance of forgetting — and thus of diluting the experience of magic.

What makes a trick easy to follow?
Tricks with a single, simple effect are the easiest to understand. Tricks with several simple effects, providing they’re related, are good too. Tricks with complicated effects and tricks with multiple, unrelated effects are much harder to follow.

By ‘simple effect’, I mean an effect that is simple, direct and unmistakable: a card changes into another card, a card is destroyed and restored, a lost card is found (in a simple, direct manner, of course!).

One of the best tricks with several effects is the ambitious card. The basic effect is simple and unmistakable, the effects are related (no matter which way you put the card into the deck, it ends up on top), and the repetition strengthens the magic.

Tricks with a simple effect often create the strongest reactions. As magicians, we easily get bored with simple effects and spend a lot of time and energy looking for stronger ones. Sometimes we’re successful, but more often than not, we end up with more complex tricks which have, in fact, a weaker effect.

A friend of mine does the following trick. He does a double lift to show the ‘top’ card (let’s say it’s the 9 of diamonds) and turns it face down again. As he takes the top card into his other hand, he has the spectator make a fist, thumb side up, and has him/her hold the card with the thumb (this makes it harder for the spectator to turn over the card prematurely). Then he asks the spectator to wave ‘the nine’ back and forth a little and say ‘quack-quack’ (it suits his style!). Finally he has the spectator turn over the card — the card has changed, of course, and the spectator’s jaw drops.

I have seen my friend do this trick hundreds of times — in restaurants, on the street, in formal shows, in trade shows, etc., — and it never fails to create an experience of magic for the spectator. Try it yourself and see what happens (if you do, change the presentation to suit your style but don’t make the trick any fancier).

What else makes a trick easy to follow?
I’m going to talk about ‘motivated handling’, but first, let me mention something that makes a trick harder to follow: rushing. Many magicians — especially beginners — rush through their tricks at breakneck speed and lose the audience.

This is a problem caused by nervousness. It is quite understandable that a performer, particularly one with little experience, is nervous in front of an audience — after all, you feel that you’re about to be judged! But the tendency to rush is something that has to be fought. If you’re nervous when you perform and rush through your tricks, force yourself to breathe, slow down by at least 50%, and watch your impact increase dramatically.

Just to be clear: I’m not talking here about dragging out a trick to the point of boredom, nor am I talking about a high-energy, fast-moving performance; I’m talking about the nervousness that results in something like “takeacardputitbacknowitsontopnowitsonthebottomnowitschangedcolour” etc.

Nervousness can also make the performer rush into the next trick before the audience has the chance to fully experience the impact of the previous trick. Don’t cut their experience short — let the impossibility sink in and wait for the spectators’s reactions to reach their peak before launching into the next trick.

You mentioned ‘motivated handling’
Right. Unfortunately, many card tricks suffer from requiring certain actions to be taken at inappropriate times or for no apparent reason (or both). Such actions are jarring because they break the flow of the main proceedings and risk weakening the final impact.

I remember a friend once showing me a beautiful trick. He took out the four aces and made them change to kings, one at a time. Then he picked up the deck, cut it and spread it to show the four aces reversed in the centre. Everything was magical — except for the ending. When he spread the cards to show the aces in the middle, I was still wondering how the cutting fit into the logic of the effect, so only half of me paid attention to the revelation of the aces and the impact of the climax was seriously diminished.

How would you fix that trick?
There are several way to deal with extraneous actions. Here are a few things I would consider:

  • provide a logical reason for the cutting:
    for instance, I could explain that the aces have dematerialized and that I would try to catch them with the deck, hold half the deck in each hand and make a circular movement in the air, with both hands, as if trying to trap something between the halves, then put the two halves together (thus completing the cut)
  • disguise the action:
    I could do a turnover pass to show that the aces aren’t on the bottom, turn the deck face down and show that the aces aren’t on top, then spread the deck to show they’re in the middle
  • use a different technique:
    instead of adding the palmed aces to the deck and cutting, I could establish a break in the middle of the deck and do something like a side-steal in reverse to insert the aces into the gap
  • use a different method:
    I could search for, or devise, a different way of doing the trick.

Here are a couple of ways that don’t fit this situation too well, but are useful for other tricks:

  • do the move casually, when attention is focused elsewhere:
    (this is not really suitable here because attention is focused on the deck)
  • hide the action (i.e., replace the cut with a classic pass):
    (also not that good here, for the same reason).

(Note, however, that the two ways above would work perfectly if attention has been focused elsewhere before picking up the deck (for instance, on the Kings).)

And finally:

  • drop the trick altogether:
    sometimes the only solution is to simply remove the trick from your repertoire.

All this should help make a trick clear and understandable.

You talked about preventing possible explanations
Yes. The moment the spectator comes up with an explanation, even if it’s wrong and even if it makes no sense, the experience of magic suffers or disappears completely. So I’m going to do everything I can to prevent the spectator from coming up with an explanation.

If you listen to magicians, particularly beginning magicians, you often hear things like “I got away with it”, “they never saw me do it”, “they didn’t have a clue”, and other such comments. That’s great! — but it’s not enough.

Eugene Burger wrote: “If I, as a spectator, see something I’m not supposed to see, the experience of magic is lost”. So if the spectator sees me palming a card, the trick can be explained by “he palmed the card”; that much is obvious. But what if the spectator sees my fingers working when I’m supposed to just be holding the deck? The spectator may well think: “he did something, I’m just not sure what”.

Now suppose I go rigid for a moment or speed up uncharacteristically, or my voice changes, or I smirk, or whatever — I do something that betrays tension at some level. What happens then?

Here’s a short story. A magician friend of mine was watching a stage performance. At one point, he saw the performer doing something he shouldn’t have seen and asked his wife if she saw it too. She answered: “No, but my stomach did”.

Translation: “I didn’t actually see anything, but I sensed his tension”. And that’s all the spectator needs to explain the trick — “I know he did something”.

In each case, there is no experience of magic. It is only when the spectator doesn’t see or sense anything, when the spectator thinks “but he didn’t do anything!”, that the experience of magic can be created. And that is why I feel that technique must be flawless.

What about misdirection?
Misdirection is an aid for concealing technique, not a substitute for poor technique.

Let’s say my misdirection is good. If my technique is so-so, unless the action takes place completely out of the spectators’s field of view, they are likely to see a blur of motion where there shouldn’t be any, and their focus will likely shift, even if for only a moment, to where they saw the blur. (This, by the way, is also why speed alone cannot make a move invisible. The hand is not quicker than the eye!)

Also, misdirection does not always apply. If I do the pass without misdirection, I don’t have a trick. But if I do a colour change with misdirection, I don’t have an effect! In other words, there are techniques that are meant specifically for being watched by the audience; for those, there would be no point in misdirecting.

What else can provide an explanation?
For some reason, many magicians believe that a magic act is supposed to be a display of manual dexterity, so they perform every action in a flashy, ‘skillful’ manner. Such an obvious display of skill is counter-productive. It goes squarely against the idea of magic: while magic is impossible, dexterity — however difficult it may be — is very much within the realm of the possible. Feats of dexterity are no more impossible than feats of strength, flexibility or speed; they can be easily explained, no matter how incredible they may appear to be.

Also, obvious displays of skill detract from the experience of magic simply because they’re yet another source of distraction.

So you’re against flourishes.
Actually, no — I have no problem with flourishes. But I do believe that they are best done separately from the magic — they are not part of the magic (most of the time) and therefore a distraction. If the trick requires a flourish to hide some technique, I would try to find a different technique.

How does presentation help create the experience of magic?
In several ways. A good presentation can make a complicated trick simple to follow and to understand. Here’s an example. In my book, Card Stories, there’s a trick in which the four Kings disappear from between two Jacks, then the four Queens appear between the Jacks, and to finish, the Kings are found inside the card case. Can such a sequence be made so clear and logical that anyone can follow and understand?

The answer is yes; the trick above is a version of the Cannibal Cards. The story is that four missionaries were eaten up by two cannibals, the village chief asks the witch doctor to bring the missionaries back (because they were supposed to feed the whole village), but the witch doctor made a mistake and brings back the nuns — last week’s dinner — instead. The trick ends with a fitting gag when the Kings are found in the card case.

There are lots of ways to present magic tricks. My favourite is through story — i.e., doing a trick while telling a story in which the actions of one parallels the happenings in the other. Now, most magicians, upon hearing the word ‘story’, react with “ewww”, “yuck!”, “I hate stories”, “stories aren’t for me”, and similar expressions of love and respect. Of course, this ‘hatred’ hasn’t prevented a single one of those magicians from performing one version or another of the Cannibal Cards trick…. but that’s another story.

Stories can also make magic come alive for the audience. People can’t really relate to a magic trick; the fact that a card rises to the top of the deck, or that aces turn over, is not something that has any relevance to people’s lives. By providing a story to go with the trick, a parallel can be drawn between the magic and people’s reality, more emotions can be brought into play, and the experience of magic can be made stronger.

Also, stories can be constructed so that every action in a trick is motivated, and finally, stories provide the best possible misdirection. If I present a trick as happening in the here-and-now, spectators are generally on guard and vigilant, whereas if I present it as something that happened in the past, spectators generally tend to relax and ‘enjoy the ride’.

And that’s it.

Thank you, Ariel!
And thank you, Elizabeth!

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