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What Is the Circus Card Trick?
The Circus Card Trick is a classic money-making illusion in which the performer suckers a spectator into a bet using the key card principle—the identification of an unknown card based on its proximity to a known and controlled card.
- The magician instructs an audience member to select a card and return it to the deck, then deals out the cards face-up in an attempt to find the chosen card.
- When the magician intentionally deals past the card, the spectator thinks they’ve blown the trick.
- The magician then offers a bet that they can find the card, and the spectator, confident that they have the upper hand, takes it, only to lose when the magician unexpectedly finds their card.
How to Perform Penn & Teller’s Circus Card Trick in 8 Steps
All you need to perform this illusion is a deck of cards, a table, and lots of practice. Take note of the wording, and use particular wording and lines to maximize the effectiveness of the deceit.
- Step 1: Gather your audience around a table. The trick will only be effective if people can clearly see the tabletop to notice the selected card when you deal it face up. If spectators cannot see the dealt cards, the ending will have no impact.
- Step 2: Invite someone to pick a card. Ask a spectator to shuffle the cards, and to place them onto the table when they’re finished. Ask them to cut off a packet of cards and set them onto the table next to the bottom half. With your right hand from above, thumb on the inner end, fingers on the outer end, pick up the top half. (This precise grip of the packet is important for the next step.) Ask the spectator to look at the card they cut to—the top card of the bottom packet—and to show it to everyone.
- Step 3: Identify your key card. Tell the spectator to return the card; as you do so, use your right index finger to point to the tabled packet. Pointing down at the packet will tilt the packet in your hand just enough that you can see the bottom card. (You’ll need to practice this maneuver so you can tilt the packet as little as possible and as quickly as possible and still peek the bottom card.) The card you see is now your “key card,” which you will use to identify your spectator’s card. When they return the card to the top of the tabled packet, place your packet on top and square the deck. Your key card is now right on top of the selected card. At this point, you don’t know what the selected card is, but you do know your key card, and the selected card is directly below it.
- Step 4: Cut the selected card to the middle of the deck. To maximize the impact when you eventually deal the cards, you want the selected card to be near the middle of the deck. You may need to make a simple adjustment to bring the card close to the center. If the spectator initially cut a small packet, you will cut about two-thirds of the deck and complete the cut. This will center the selection. If they initially cut a thick packet, putting their card near the bottom of the deck, you will cut about one-third of the deck and complete the cut. If they initially cut close to half of the deck, you will now cut it near the middle twice. This cutting seems to mix the cards while returning the selection to near the center.
- Step 5: Prep your audience to let you “fail.” Pick up the deck and hold it in your left hand. Tell everyone, “I am going to use my instincts to find the selected card. It’s important that you keep a straight face and not react if you see your card.”
- Step 6: Deal to identify the spectator’s card. Start dealing cards, one at a time, face up in a pile onto the table. (You’ll need to practice dealing them into a fairly neat pile, but not too neat. It needs to be just messy enough so it looks natural that the selected card can still be seen after you’ve dealt a few cards on top of it.) After dealing about eight cards, pause and say, “My instincts tell me that the next card is going to be... No. Not yet.” Continue dealing cards face-up. You are looking for your key card. When you see the key card, continue dealing. Note the card immediately after it—the spectator’s card. Remember that card and try to forget your key card so you don’t mix the two up later.
- Step 7: Entice the spectator with a fool-proof bet. Deal a couple more cards, but make sure you do not entirely cover up the selected card. You want the audience to clearly see it, and think you have failed at the trick, because you have already passed the selected card. Pause and say, “My instincts tell me that the next card... No. Not yet.” Deal three or four more cards. Say, “This is it. The next card I turn over will be your card!” Take the top card of the deck into your right hand and hold it face down. Say, “Do you believe that’s possible? That the next card I turn over will be your card? Yes or no.” Having seen you deal past their card, the spectator will say no. Introduce the wager. Say, “Would you be willing to bet a dollar on it?” (Keep the amount reasonable. You don’t want to scare them off or bankrupt them.) They may try to inform you that you’ve “messed up” or already gone past their card, so if they say anything other than “No,” interrupt them and say, “Don’t say anything. No spoilers,” or, “Just yes or no. Are you willing to bet?”
- Step 8: Turn the chosen card over. If the spectator is willing, expecting you’ll flip one of the random cards, take the bet. Then put the right-hand card back on top of the deck, reach down, pick up the card they chose, and turn it face down. The next card you turned over was the selected card! And all you needed to pull off one of the slickest card magic tricks was a little cheating and a few clever words! Be quick and efficient with the climax. You don’t want to dig through the dealt pile looking for the selection. That’s another reason you left the selected card visible as you dealt the last few cards.
Learn more magic tricks and performing techniques in Penn & Teller’s MasterClass.