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What Is Card Magic?
Card magic, or card manipulation, is a popular branch of magic in which a magician creates effects with playing cards using sleight of hand: dexterous hand movements designed to manipulate objects and deceive spectators.
- Card tricks work best for close-up magic, parlor magic, and street magic—intimate settings where an audience member can closely observe the cards and the magician for their sleight of hand.
- There are approximately 100 basic principles and techniques that magicians build upon to create card illusions. Performers often differentiate their card tricks from other people’s with their particular presentation, the context they provide to spectators, and their patter (rapid-fire speech that overwhelms and distracts the brain).
- Not all card tricks require sleight of hand or misdirection. “Self-working card tricks” work automatically because of the mathematics inherent in the card deck itself.
13 Different Techniques Magicians Use to Do Card Tricks
Just as there are a wide variety of card tricks, there are many different manipulation techniques that magicians use to create illusions. The best card tricks often require a combination of these techniques.
- Lifts. The magician extracts one or more cards from the deck. Typically the audience is aware of the cards because a spectator has selected them or the performer has identified them as part of the illusion. The “double lift” is a sleight-of-hand version where the magician extracts two cards from the deck, holding them together so they appear to be a single card. The magician can then show the audience the card’s face and maintain control of it when they mix the unseen backing card into the deck to create the illusion that they’ve lost track of the card.
- False deals. When dealing cards, the magician appears to distribute them fairly and evenly but actually doles out predetermined cards or ones whose identity they already know. They may deal the second card of the deck, retaining the top card (second dealing), deal the bottom card instead of the top card (bottom dealing), deal from the middle of the deck (middle dealing), deal greater or fewer cards than expected (false counts), or deal the top card and bottom card together (double-dealing).
- False shuffles. Instead of randomizing the cards in the deck with a legitimate shuffle, the magician appears to mix the cards up while actually maintaining the order of the cards as suits the particular trick they’re performing. False shuffles can preserve the position of one or more cards or even the entire deck.
- False cuts. In a legitimate cut, a person splits the deck of cards at a random position into two packets, swapping them so nobody knows which card is on the top of the deck. In a false cut, the magician or an instructed spectator appears to randomly cut the deck but the magician secretly maintains control of a predetermined card on the top of the deck.
- Forces. While maintaining the illusion that a spectator has free choice, the magician manipulates them into selecting a particular predetermined card.
- Side slips. The magician takes advantage of depth-perception in order to bring a predetermined card to the top of the deck or to just underneath the top card. Spectators’ eyes and their inability to register the precise positioning are thus complicit in this maneuver.
- Passes. After inserting an identified card into the deck, the magician quickly swaps the portion of the deck underneath the card, with the portion of the deck above the card. As a result, they bring the card to the top or the bottom of the deck for an impressive reveal.
- Palming. The magician holds or conceals one or more cards by hiding them behind what appears to be a naturally curved hand so they can produce them when the illusion requires.
- Color change. The magician creates a pronounced card transformation, typically from one color to another, using an extra card they force on a spectator, or a double lift and an imperceptible drag that flips the position of the top and bottom cards.
- Crimps. To make it easy to identify a particular card while performing a trick, the magician purposefully marks, creases, or bends it.
- A jog. In order to keep track of a card’s location while performing other maneuvers, the magician manipulates the card or cards so they jut out slightly from the rest of the deck. Typically the performer hides the protrusion from the audience, but not always.
- Peek. While openly searching for a card the audience knows about, the magician sneaks a glance at another card. They then control that card and can force it upon a spectator to create the illusion that they have found or predicted a card.
- Reverses. Using sleight, the magician changes the direction of one or more cards, flipping them from face-up to face down, or vice versa.
5 Easy Card Tricks to Learn at Home
There is plenty of easy card magic you can do with a little practice and patience. If you don’t nail the sleight of hand on your first time, just stay at it until you can do it without thinking. And you don’t need ten tricks to put on a show. By mastering just a few of these magic card tricks, you can develop an entertaining routine.
- The Whispering Queen. The magician creates the illusion of free choice while cutting forcing a predetermined and known card on a spectator. With theatrical performance, they pass a selected Queen through the shuffled deck and she “whispers” the chosen card’s identity to them. Learn more about the Whispering Queen here.
- The Circus Card Trick. Using the key card principle—the identification of an unknown card based on its proximity to a known and controlled card (the bottom card of one half of the deck, in this case)—the magician identifies a spectator’s chosen card. They then sucker them into a bet by dealing the cards out in an attempt to locate the selected card, appearing to blow the trick by dealing past it, and wagering that they can find the card, whose identity they already know. Learn more about the Circus Card Trick here.
- Card to Impossible Location. Using a pre-positioned duplicate of a card they force on a spectator, the magician makes the selected card appear in an “impossible” location, such as in their pocket, between the pages of a book, or underneath the spectator’s seat.
- The Four Appearing Aces. Having pre-positioned the four aces on the top of the deck, the magician cuts the deck into four packets, sequentially “shuffles” three cards to the bottom of each packet and deals one card to the top of each of the other piles, ultimately dealing an ace to the top of each packet for a grand reveal.
- The Snap Change. In this color change trick, the magician performs a double lift with two visually contrasting cards (red and black face cards, cards with different color backs, or one court card and one number card), then quickly shifts their position with a snap that drags the top card underneath the bottom card, creating the illusion of a transformation.
Learn more magic tricks and performing tips in Penn and Teller’s MasterClass.