Music & Entertainment

How to Do Penn & Teller’s Famous Cups-and-Balls Trick in 12 Steps

Written by MasterClass

May 20, 2019 • 6 min read

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We’ve all seen it before. A magician presents three empty cups and three small balls. As the magician casually chats with the audience, she appears to make the balls appear in random cups, disappear entirely, or become replaced with a totally different object like a lemon or an old sock. Is this magic? Or just brilliant sleight of hand?

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What Is a Cup and Ball Routine?

Some magicians consider the cups-and-balls routine to be the oldest magic trick in existence. Roman conjurers had a version of it. A drawing in a burial chamber from ancient Egypt appears to depict it. And it remains in use today—from glitzy magic shows in Las Vegas to birthday parties in backyards. There are even variations used by street hustlers—often called a “shell game” or “classic cups.”

How Is Penn & Teller’s Cups-and-Balls Routine Different?

The Penn & Teller version of the trick conveys the following effects.

  • You’re seated at a table, with an inverted cup before you.
  • Twice, you make a small ball vanish from your hand and appear underneath an inverted cup.
  • You offer to explain how the trick is done.
  • You confess that it uses two balls.
  • You lift the cup and underneath it, a huge ball has materialized.
  • Then, with a tap of your magic wand, a second huge ball appears underneath the cup.

4 Props You Need for Penn & Teller’s Cups-and-Balls Trick

A great thing about the cups-and-balls trick is that it can be performed with very basic items. You can probably find most of these at a dollar store.

  1. An opaque cup of some sort. This can be a coffee mug, Styrofoam cup, opaque drinking cup, or a metal magician’s cup (which can be purchased at a magic shop).
  2. Two small, identical balls, approximately one-inch in diameter. They can be rubber, wood, plastic, or rolled up pieces of aluminum foil. Rolling up approximately four inches of a one-foot roll of aluminum foil will give you a ball that is the right size.
  3. Two large balls. The ideal size will vary, depending on the size of your hands and the size of your cup (each ball needs to be able to fit inside the cup). Two-and-a-half inches will work for most people. You probably don’t want the balls to be smaller than two inches or bigger than three inches. Rolling up approximately two-and-a-half feet of a one-foot roll of aluminum foil will give you a ball that is the right size. The two balls do not necessarily need to be identical. In fact, the second one can be a piece of fruit, like a lemon or a small apple. Magicians call the large balls in this trick “final loads.”
  4. A magic wand.

How to Perform Penn & Teller’s Famous Cups-and-Balls Trick in 12 Steps

hands holding paper cup with tinfoil ball

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You need to be seated at a table. If you’re wearing a jacket or blazer, you can begin with the final loads in your right jacket pocket; if not, just put them in your lap.

Place the cup, one of the small balls, and the wand onto the table. Take the other small ball and conceal it in your right hand in finger palm. It is held by the little finger, which curls around it.

  1. With your right hand, pick up the wand and display it to the audience. Make a comment about it: where you got it, or the power it possesses, etc. You are utilizing the wand principle here to conceal the ball you have hidden in your hand. Place the wand under your left arm and hold it there.
  2. With your left hand, pick up the cup and casually display it, letting the audience see it is empty. Make a comment about it if you’d like. Place the cup mouth down into the right hand, so that the rim of the cup is right above the finger-palmed ball. As the right hand places the cup down, secretly slip the ball under the cup. This is called “loading.”
  3. With your right hand, pick up the visible ball, and do a French drop. With the right hand, take the wand from under your arm, and use it to make the ball vanish. Tap the cup with the wand. With your left hand lift up the cup to reveal the ball. You are now in an interesting position, almost identical to the situation you were in at the beginning of the routine, and therefore you can repeat this entire sequence, as follows:
  4. Place the wand under your left arm. Place the cup mouth down into your right hand directly above the ball concealed there, then set the cup down onto the table, secretly loading the concealed ball under it. With your right hand, pick up the visible ball, and once more, do the French drop. Take the wand into your right hand, and vanish the ball, then tap the wand against the cup. With your left hand, pick up the cup, and show that the ball has again magically materialized there.
  5. Place the wand underneath your left arm. Place the cup mouth down into your right hand (above the ball concealed there), then set the cup down onto the table, secretly loading the concealed ball under it. You could repeat this vanish/reappearance sequence over and over again, but twice like this is enough. Repeating a trick just gives the audience another opportunity to catch on.
  6. After the second time say, “I’m going to put the ball away.” With your right hand, pick up the ball and put it into your right pocket (or lap if that’s where you have the final loads). Pick up one of the final load balls and hold it in your right hand, held in place by your curled little finger, and keep the hand under the table.
  7. With your left hand, pick up the cup, and show that the ball is once again under the cup. While the audience is reacting to this surprise, the left hand (with the cup) moves back to the edge of the table, where the right hand (with the final load) comes up, and the cup is placed mouth down into the right hand, directly on top of the final load ball. Your (implied) motivation for placing the cup into the right hand is that you want to pick up the small ball with the left hand; in order to do this, you have to free up your left hand by placing the cup into the right hand.
  8. As your left hand picks up the small ball, the right hand places the cup (with the final load concealed under it) onto the table. This is the same as the load move you have been doing, except the ball is bigger.
  9. Say, “I thought I got rid of this.” Take the ball into the right hand, and place it into your pocket (or lap if that’s where the second final load is.) Let go of the small ball, and grab the second final load, holding it in the right hand.
  10. Say, “Would you like to know how I did this trick? Well, I have a confession to make. I used an extra ball. But I didn’t think you’d mind…” With the left hand, lift up the cup to reveal the large ball. “…because this one is bigger!”
  11. During this moment of surprise, you load the second final load into the cup and set it onto the table, in the same way that you loaded the first one.
  12. Say, “But that’s not the real surprise. This is the real surprise.” Lift up the cup and reveal the second large ball.

Learn how to perform magic tricks in Penn & Teller’s MasterClass.