Why Magicians Do Card Tricks (and why your uncle does them)


Just as everyone has seen a movie,
everyone has seen a card trick.
There are awful ones, and there are outstanding ones.
The awful card tricks appeal to some.
The outstanding card trick appeals to the rich and poor, the wise and foolish, the tall and short, the young and old, the drunk and sober. Few people have witnessed an outstanding card trick in person.

Card tricks can be awful for these reasons: 

  1.  Everybody knows one, and most who do them spend more time performing than practicing.
  2.  Many card tricks are long, complicated, and difficult to follow. This leads to confusion. Confusion is not magic.
  3.  They are predictable. Most card tricks laypeople are familiar with have the same plot. 
    A card is lost, then--surprise--it is found.

Regarding 1., most people do a card trick badly simply because they believe the secret of magic is in knowing the secret to a trick.  There are many important factors that can make or break a card trick, including misdirection, technique, humor, and plot (hint: the plot must be better than, "The card was lost, but now I found it."

Regarding 2., most card tricks are too long, too convoluted, and hard to follow. 
Why is this?  Most people performing a card trick spend 90% of the time on the discovery and 10% (if that) on the revelation. In other words, they have some method that may take take minutes just to find the card. This is dull for everyone except the performer.  

One example is that chestnut, the 21 Card Trick (there are, in fact, two tricks often called by this name, but I'm referring to the lame one...the one you've probably seen). 
After the card is selected and returned, the deck is dealt into three columns of seven cards. 
The performer asks a question, picks up the cards, and then it gets even less interesting. 
The cards are dealt into three columns of seven cards--again. 
The performer asks another question. 
After this--finally, the climax--the performer reveals the card (in an interesting way, it is hoped).

I do confess that the first time I saw this trick, I loved it.
Admittedly, I was six years old. 
I was nonplussed how my card could be found. 
I knew he had not seen it, and I knew it had been utterly lost among the other cards. 
At the time, that was enough for me.

Now when I see that, I fight a yawn. 
It's not enough for a trick to be perplexing. 
It has to be astonishing.

If it doesn't tell a story, then I want stories told about it.

To perform a card trick entertainingly, not only must you know how the trick is done, but how to do it. There is a huge difference between the two. 

Knowing the secret of a trick is not the same as knowing how to perform that trick--and knowing the secret to hundreds of tricks is means nothing unless each one can be performed gracefully.

Most of the performance of that little charade of 21 cards is taken up by the dealing of cards into rows and columns.  All this so the performer can discern the card.  A champion magician can discern the correct card within mere seconds, and he is done with that necessary (but insufficient) phase of the trick--then he can choose to spend as much or as little time as he needs on the presentation.

Why not instead learn a better, quicker, and more invisible method? There are many methods that grant you the knowledge of the chosen card in seconds, not minutes.

Jon Finch card magic

One may argue that all that time can be filled up with dramatic patter, but that is a cop-out.
If you are restricted to that method, you are restricted to your performance being ruined amid interruptions. If your dramatic patter is essential, all the more reason to choose a better method--that way, you can focus more on your theater and less on your clumsy method.

There should always be one goal--simplicity.  Simplicity is not easily achieved.
One of my favorites to perform is the card under drink (or saltshaker, or candle, etc.).
My participant chooses a card, draws a picture on it if desired,
slides it back in the middle of the deck and this participant mixes the cards.
At this point, I often step back 5 or 10 paces.
I remain, I snap my fingers, his defiled card is now under his bottle.

In the above scenario, all the burden is on my shoulders.
The magic happens almost entirely in the participant's hands--it is near and personal. It's not a spectacle happening far off in the magician's hands and tucked close to his chest.
The plot is clear, with surprising climax.
I have full confidence that my participant, young or old, wise or foolish, won't have any trouble telling that story.

Regarding 3, fortunately, most professional magicians--even the bad ones--are knowledgeable enough not to stop at simply finding a card.  Some of the best card tricks I do have no such theme; furthermore, in all the tricks I do where I do find the card, the revelation is far more arresting and memorable than the discovery. 

By "revelation," I mean the manner in which I reveal that I know the card. 
It may appear in your pocket, it may appear on the ceiling, it may appear folded up inside an ice cube in your drink, it may appear under your drink, it used to appear folded up in my mouth but I don't do that anymore because I feel it's in bad taste. 

At times I'll have two people choose a card, one for each of them, then remember their cards, then have both cards switch places in their hands so that the first person is holding the second person's card and person two is holding the first person's card--I'm sure you'll agree that this is more surprising than my finding either card.

All the above still doesn't answer the question, "Why do magicians do card tricks?"
Why don't you see a magician doing three pencil tricks, followed by another magician doing his best pencil tricks?  Or umbrella tricks or thimble tricks or shoe tricks?  

I know what you're thinking...

It's because there are four suits in a deck and four seasons in a year; 52 cards in a deck and 52 weeks in a year; 13 cardvalues and 13 phases of the lunar cycle.  Surely this must be the reason magicians like playing cards.  


Magicians do card tricks because of the following:

1.  Versatility.  With one deck of cards, I could entertain and astonish a group for hours.  There aren't that many umbrella tricks (plus, I'd rather walk into a party with a deck in my pocket than an umbrella). That's not to say I actually do that, but it's comforting to know I'm prepared in case I forget my thimbles.

2.  Audience Familiarity.  Incidentally, thimble magic used to be all the rage; but nobody knows what a thimble is these days. 
Any mediocre trick with a familiar object is ten times better than a great trick with an unfamiliar object.  Everyone with half a brain knows what a deck of cards is.  The same could be said of coins (which explains why coin magic is right behind card magic in popularity).  You might say that coins are more common than playing cards.  That's correct, but this is only one reason for card magic's popularity.  The next reason is...

3.  Practicality.  There aren't many props as small as a deck of cards that can hold an audience spellbound for several hours.  As I have advanced in magic, I've come to appreciate the value of showing up to an event without any props and presenting.  When my point of contact asks, "Do you need anything?" I feel very comfortable saying, "No."  It helps that I have a pack of 52 assistants in my pocket.  Does that mean all I do is card tricks? Certainly not. I've performed at events where I didn't do even one card trick.

The Final Verdict on Card Tricks

If used correctly, card tricks can be extremely effective magic.

Now you know that there are three reasons magicians like playing cards. You also know that card tricks are like movies: there are good ones and bad ones.

If you or someone you know has ever performed or been witness to a bad card trick,
please seek a professional magician immediately.

If you're reading this and your uncle has shown you a card trick this year, relax. It just means it's easier to pull quarters out of your ear than to have a stimulating conversation with you.


Jon Finch is one of the most popular magicians in Indianapolis and entertains around the Midwest.

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