The real trick that magicians perform happens long before you’re amazed. When many non-magicians picture magic tricks, they focus on sleight of hand: some fancy fingerwork alongside misdirection that allows the trickster to get away with monkey business that wouldn’t play if looked at directly.
For magicians, sleight of hand is the (relatively) easy part. Of course it plays a key role in close-up magic; without it, most tricks won’t work. But the prestidigitation distracts from where the hard work takes place, such as practicing card tricks endlessly, privately, in front of a mirror, until the moves become deeply ingrained and subconscious.
Whether it’s the French Drop, the Zarrow Shuffle, or some other maneuver, the magician’s goal is to perform the actual trickery long before they make you look in the wrong place at the right time. You think you’re watching yourself getting fooled, but the fooling happened before you even thought to look.
Find the lady
When my father sees an amazing trick performed live, what he describes is impossible: “He never touched the cards! My card appeared inside my jacket pocket, and the magician never touched me and never touched the cards!” Of course, that’s not how it happened. But that’s how it felt — which means the magician did his job.
I’m my dad’s go-to explainer when an illusion leaves him perplexed. My father calls me for insight into the dark arts because I became obsessed with magic at a young age, attended a summer camp for years where magic was part of the curriculum, and even appeared onstage with David Copperfield. Okay, that last accomplishment happened when I was five and called up as a volunteer, but the point remains: I love magic.
I prefer close-up magic to stage magic. I like tricks that involve objects we see every day — items that spectators are free to inspect. When even my favorite magicians (Penn & Teller) perform large-scale tricks onstage, they use props they made themselves, standing on their own stage; it feels more like theater or special effects to me. But close-up magic is right in your face with everyday objects. The deception and maneuvers involved in stage magic may well be more difficult, but close-up magic can often be performed without any special investment beyond time to practice.
That’s why I love card tricks. Sure, there are all sorts of trick decks (stripper decks, Svengali decks, invisible decks, and so on), but a traditional, unmarked, gimmick-free deck of cards offers a near-infinite number of tricks for the well-prepared magician. And for the beginning magician, the real magic is that you can perform hundreds of card tricks after learning only one significant move.
I am lying
You know that magic is mostly about lying. If magicians told the truth, their tricks would suck: “Now we’ve put your signed bullet into this trick gun. I’m going to pretend to shoot the fake gun in a moment.”
The big lie for card magicians is the well-worn phrase “pick a card — any card.” The phrase’s built-in repetition implies that you’re choosing your own card. But it’s much easier for the magician to work his magic if you’re taking a card that the conjurer knows in advance. The technical term for such a maneuver is a force. There are many dozens of forces, but you only need to master one to perform hundreds of card tricks.
You want your mark to pick the card of your choosing. Shuffle the deck as you’d like, and then flip the cards face up, so that you and your audience can see them. You’re ostensibly showing that the deck is legitimate and well-mixed. In fact, all you care about is spotting the top card in the deck. Let’s say it’s the King of Spades.
After you’ve shown the deck, flip it back over, square the sides, and place it on the table. Ask a member of your audience to split the deck roughly in half, setting the top half of the deck face down next to the bottom half. Now you have two side-by-side piles of face down cards: the top half of the deck is in one pile, and the bottom half is in the other. You take the pile of cards that comprise the former bottom half and place it perpendicularly atop the former top half.
Your mark cuts the deck into two piles, laid parallel to each other.
You see what just happened? You know that the top card of the top half of the deck is the King of Spades, and it remains exposed as the top card below the split deck. But by putting the bottom half of the deck at a right angle on top of that part of the deck, you make it look to your mark as if the deck was randomly cut in half and swapped. Your victim might realize that too, but only for a fleeting moment. Your job now is to distract the audience briefly. This is your force’s misdirection. You want the mark to look away momentarily from the cards.
The bottom half of the deck sits perpendicularly atop the mark’s cut. You know its top card.
It’s easy. You know your audience better than I do. You’re going to say something — anything — to get your mark’s attention up to your eyes. You might say, “Do you believe in magic?” Or you could try, “Did I tell you the story about [mutual friend’s name]? Remind me to tell you after this trick.” Maybe it’s, “Now, watch this.” Or, “I haven’t practiced much, so I might screw this up, okay?”
Once your victim’s eyes have left the piles, however briefly, you can pull off this next move. All you need to do is act like there’s nothing untoward about it. You return to the two piles and pull the top card of the lower pile — in our example, the King of Spades — slightly forward. You’re extending it so that it protrudes from the rest of the deck, pointing right at your audience, still face down. The subtle implication: this is your card, that you selected at random, and the one you should now pick.
The unsubtle instructions that you speak are simple: “Go ahead and grab the card to which you cut the deck.”
Make the top card of the bottom half of the deck protrude a little.
Again, let’s be clear: You’re lying. And this force sounds painfully stupid when written. But in performance, when the whole card selection piece takes fewer than 20 seconds, the steps involved seem completely natural. Your victim believes that the card he or she grabs — the one you pulled out after the cut — is the randomly selected, cut-to card. You know it’s the top card. You know it’s the King of Spades.
It’s very important that the mark be the one to pull the card from the deck — not you. That subconsciously drives home the (entirely false) notion that “I picked this card myself.” Ask the mark to memorize the selected card. If there are other folks around watching you perform your feat, make sure they memorize the card, too. Card tricks are far less impressive if the audience can’t remember which card was picked. (It was the King of Spades, you guys.) Have the mark put the card back in the deck and shuffle things up.
At this point, you can perform limitless variations.
Is this your card?
Here’s where the magic trick becomes jazz. Sure, you could just say, “You picked the King of Spades.” Don’t do that. That’s a lousy trick.
Instead, play. You might look through the deck with patter. “Now’s the time when most magicians would look through the deck and try to find your card. And then they’d say, ‘Aha! Here it is, your card: The Four of Diamonds!’” “Um…no,” your audience will reply. “But I’m not most magicians!” you continue, before revealing their card.
Alternatively, if you can know which card will be on top of the deck ahead of time — in other words, if you pre-select which card you force — you get a slew of fancier options. You could have a duplicate of the selected card in your pocket. Or a slip with the card’s name inside a sealed envelope that you present. You could “screw up” and guess the wrong card, say, “Let me check the instructions again,” and then turn to your iPhone, which sports a lock-screen wallpaper of the selected card.
You can have the audience hold onto the card, and then you’ll quickly look through the rest of the deck and use your powerful memorization abilities to figure out which card is missing. The key with a lie (trick) like that one is to make sure that you struggle a bit as you quickly fly through all the cards, “memorizing them.” “Ah, the only one missing is the, uh, it’s a face card — the King, of, um…I saw Hearts, Clubs, and I think Diamonds…I’m going with Spades!”
Heck, you could say, “Never mind, I forget how it works,” and then iMessage “You picked the King of Spades” two hours later.
Once you force your audience to choose a specific card, there are a huge number of payoffs you can offer with that intel. The key is to make the rest of the trick seem like it’s where the magic happens, to lace that part with as many flourishes as you can.
Of course, you won’t want to perform three tricks in a row using the same force; the unusual card-selection process arouses suspicion after a couple go-rounds. But by simply mastering one simple force, you gain the ability to perform countless tricks — as long as you can devise masterful payoffs.
Free as in beer
What’s the point? Why deceive your friends with a regular deck of cards and some general chicanery? I love magic as both spectator and performer because I love that feeling of amazement and disbelief at the impossibility on display — coupled with the searing knowledge that you have been deceived. What happened can’t happen.
My favorite tricks to perform are the ones whose moves I’ve mastered so well that I don’t think about them as I perform them, because I end up impressed by the magic, too.
But if the sensation I’m describing isn’t enough, know that you can use your newfound card trick prowess to score a free beer, so long as you’re not performing for other readers of The Magazine. Here’s how:
Do the force. Shuffle the deck. Even have the mark shuffle the cards; it doesn’t matter, because you already know the selected card. Now, start slowly flipping cards one by one from the deck face up onto the table. Pass the forced card without any indication that you’re passing it. In other words, flip past the card you know was selected, and just keep going, flipping up more cards. Six or seven cards later, pause, with the next card from the deck face down in your fingers.
“I’ll bet you that the next card I flip will be yours. If I’m right, you buy me a beer. If I’m wrong, I buy you two.”
The mark will all-too-eagerly take the bet. You’ll lean over and flip the already exposed card over and smile smugly.
Photos by Marco Arment under direction from Lex Friedman.
Lex is an author, senior contributor to Macworld, and podcaster. He heads up podcast ad sales for The Mid Roll. Lex has three kids and one wife. His hobbies include writing third-person bios for Internet publications.