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What Is Sleight of Hand?
Sleight of hand, also known as prestidigitation and legerdemain, is a collection of dexterous hand movements designed to manipulate objects and deceive spectators. It is a fundamental discipline that makes tricks work in every branch of magic.
- When a sleight-of-hand artist performs their secret move well it looks like an ordinary, natural, and innocent gesture or change in hand-position or body posture.
- Magicians commonly use sleight of hand in close-up magic and street magic—intimate settings where the audience can pay close attention to their movements. The close proximity also allows the audience to rule out the possibility of gimmicks or planted audience members.
- Typically, close-up magic features coin tricks, card tricks, rope tricks, and other forms with easily manipulated everyday items.
- In addition to manual dexterity, sleight of hand relies upon misdirection, psychological manipulation, timing, story, and natural choreography. An example from coin magic is the French drop, where the magician appears to transfer a coin from the right hand to the left hand but actually keeps the coin palmed in the original hand. By motivating the sleight, timing the drop to a moment when the left hand obscures the sleight, and selling misdirection by focusing on the left hand, the magician completely fools the audience.
- Basic sleight of hand features in every magic effect, from production (making something appear) and vanishing (making something disappear) to levitation (making something appear to defy gravity) and penetration (making a solid object pass through another solid object).
- Although sleight of hand tricks are less common in stage magic, due to the larger audiences and greater distance between performer and spectator, magicians such as Penn & Teller do incorporate sleight-filled rope tricks and card tricks into stage routines.
How Does Sleight of Hand Work?
Long before neuroscientists studied how the human brain functions, magicians learned through centuries of trial and error that they could control what an audience sees and does not see. This understanding of the brain and psychology is key to effectively performing sleight of hand.
- “The spotlight of attention.” When people don’t focus specifically on something, they don’t notice it. Even as their eyes receive visual input, their brain focuses only on what it considers to be important, the “spotlight of attention,” filtering out the rest. Also known as inattentional blindness, this phenomena allows the brain to function without abundant information overwhelming it. Magicians take advantage of this, directing focus to something unimportant so people don’t notice their sleight of hand moves.
- The human brain recognizes and is drawn to symmetry and patterns. Using patterns, structures, and routines—what scientists call mental models—makes people efficient. Routines are so ingrained that people can do them without thinking: getting dressed in the morning, driving to work, doing laundry. The ability to go on autopilot means their brain can use that time to think about something else entirely—a distinct evolutionary advantage.
- The brain seeks symmetry where there is none. This creates a vulnerability that magicians exploit. Patterns are comforting, and people project patterns onto situations where there are none. It’s easy to set up an expectation for an audience and then introduce an element that is not what they perceive it to be.
- Human memory is inaccurate and unreliable. Magicians take advantage of the fact that the audience won’t accurately remember something that happened a short while before.
- The human mind is susceptible to suggestion. Magicians can make audiences remember events that didn’t even happen. For example, with limited audience participation and a few choice words, a performer can convince spectators that they shuffled a deck of cards when, in fact, the performer did, and theirs was a false shuffle of a stacked deck, retaining the order. Once the audience misremembers that they shuffled the deck, they eliminate the possibility of this misleading sleight of hand.
- The brain simplifies and streamlines. By relying on experience, logic, and generalization, people make assumptions about the things they see, so they don’t have to stop and examine every single object they encounter. Magicians exploit people’s instantaneous assumptions, particularly the ones people make about the side of objects that they cannot see.
- The brain needs to perceive cause and effect. If people don’t see cause and effect in everyday life it confuses their brain and makes it impossible to function. Magicians create “magic moments”—the tapping of a magic wand or some other indication that magic is happening—so the brain attributes the effect to that action rather than the sleight of hand that is actually behind it. This triggers a gut-felt connection despite a lack of logical connection.
- Humans understand object permanence. Understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen, heard, touched, smelled, or sensed in any way helps people in everyday life but leads to exploitable assumptions in magic.
10 Sleight of Hand Card Tricks to Try At Home
Magicians use sleight of hand in a wide variety of tricks, but one of the most popular genres of sleight of hand is in card magic. The following are basic sleight-of-hand techniques that card magicians perform with playing cards, both freestanding and at the card table. Such card manipulation takes years of practice to perfect, but these card flourishes will open up a world of possibilities.
- The False Cut. The magician appears to make a real cut but leaves the deck in its original order. They can use this to control or force spectators’ cards.
- Palming. After laying their hand on the top of the deck, the magician pulls the slightly curled and clenched hand away with the top card secured and concealed in the palm of their hand. As sleights go, palming cards is an easy magic trick.
- The Elmsley Count/Ghost Count. Using a block push (forcing a card out slightly) and double peel (taking two cards), the magician conceals a card while counting out a pre-established number of cards.
- The Riffle Force. In this classic force technique, the magician applies pressure to the top card of the deck, maintaining control over it while pulling a chunk of other cards out of the deck. As a result, they know exactly where the top card is.
- The Double Lift. The magician lifts the top two cards as one, making it appear as if they only picked up the top card. When they show the card to the audience, spectators believe they are seeing the top card when it is actually the second card. Thus, when the top card is relocated within the deck, the magician retains the card the audience saw on top of the deck.
- The Double Undercut. By pushing down slightly on a card they are placing in the middle of the deck, the magician separates it from the top half of the deck. Then, by halving the bottom half of the deck, creating three total piles, they shift those piles, creating the illusion that the card is lost in the deck when in reality the magician brought it back to the top of the deck.
- The Spread Cull. The magician relocates a card chosen from the middle of the deck to the bottom by splitting the deck, forcing it out slightly, then dragging the card across the faces of the spread half of the deck and moving it to the bottom of the pile while closing the piles.
- The One-Hand Cut. Known as a “Charlier” cut, this is when a magician uses a single hand to separate the deck into two portions, flipping the upper half and lower half to switch their positions. It adds a cool flourish to easy card tricks, and it’s a necessary move to progress to a more advanced card trick. Plus, it leaves an empty hand free to perform misdirection or additional sleights.
- The Pivot Cut. Whereas the One-Hand Cut involves flipping two portions of cards to switch their positions, the Pivot Cut twists the two stacks to achieve the same effect.
- The Swivel Cut. The magician breaks the deck into thirds, swiveling them in such a manner that the sections appear to change places while ultimately staying in the exact same order. This can create the illusion that someone’s card is in the middle of the deck when the magician actually controls it on the top or bottom of the deck.
Learn more magic tips and tricks in Penn & Teller’s MasterClass.