Recently, I was messing with a deck of cards, and a layperson asked me what I was doing. I responded that I was practicing my shuffles. A conversation then ensued about card tricks, magic, etc. After several minutes, the subject of the conversation shifted to that of card cheating, “So, like, could you, like, cheat at cards?” Following the question, I shuffled the deck several times, and said I would deal five hands of poker. I instructed my friend to name the hand that should receive good cards, and he selected hand number two. I gave the deck several more shuffles, cut the deck, and then dealt out five hands, dealing the second hand’s cards face-up. My friend expressed how impressed he was as the second player received a full house. This sense of respect turned to one of awe and excitement as I proceeded to reveal each hand which in turn would be better than the last, culminating in my own hand, the Royal Flush. Never one to miss an opportunity, I had begun preparing for a poker deal routine as soon as the topic of cheating had been introduced. My friend was awestruck and an emphatic conversation about my cheating abilities ensued. My friend left this encounter clearly entertained, and with far more respect for me than I merit. However, was he astonished? Had he been fooled? It is to the ramifications of this sort of showoff routine that I wish to devote this article.
The poker deal that I performed is, at its root, a display of skill. When considering these demonstrations of skill there are essentially two schools of thought. First, there are those that endorse gambling routines as very interesting and entertaining to laypeople. Card cheating is used, quite often, as a presentational hook. The second school of thought consists of people opposed to showing the audience any sort of technical skill. For example, Johnny Thompson follows the second ideology and the fanciest flourish that you will ever see him do is a table spread. These magicians believe that revealing technical skill to the audience can diminish or even destroy the impact of further magic tricks.
This first position, that gambling routines are entertaining and interesting to laypeople is, in my experience, a correct one. In order to fully investigate this topic, I continued to perform the poker deal as I developed this article. Each time, the laypeople have engaged me in intense discussion about card cheating and shown real interest. The poker deal described above has consistently impressed and inspired awe. Setting aside my own experience, performers such as Richard Turner and Darwin Ortiz have enjoyed successful careers performing almost exclusively these “demonstrations of skill.”
However, do these routines truly astonish? That is the question that has been bothering me. After several of my own performances I have concluded that these routines do not astonish in themselves. Rather, I astonish. My skill astonishes. This is gratifying to my ego, but I feel a sense of discomfort. Something is missing. And after giving myself the past several weeks to reflect, I believe it is the lack of wonder that bothers me. There is a definite difference between expressions of respect and awe that follow my poker deal, and the reaction of astonishment and wonder that succeed a magic routine.
Recently, I performed a card trick for one of the people to whom I had shown the poker deal. His reaction was both interesting and disconcerting. He watched the trick intently, and, upon its conclusion, shook his head and began a conversation revolving around my incredible sleight of hand skills. Again, my ego was gratified, but something was very wrong. As much I was trying to make it so, the focus was not on the magic moment. The focus was on me and what I was or wasn’t doing. With the revelation that I supposedly possess god-like sleight of hand skill, why would a spectator watch anything else? This is the solution to every trick as far as the spectator is concerned. There isn’t any magic anymore. I am no longer a magician; instead, I am a sleight of hand artist.
In performing a “showoff routine” you are showing your audience that you are not, in fact, a magician. Whatever suspension of disbelief that once existed has been destroyed, and I do not know if it is possible to regain it. The performance is not about the magic, but about you. My conclusion, then, is that both sides of the argument are correct. Yes, “showoff routines” are entertaining; however, when a magician shows off, he is essentially giving up his role as a magician, and assuming a different one (that of a sleight of hand performer). Darwin Ortiz and Richard Turner are very successful with their sleight of hand exhibitions; nevertheless, they clearly assume the roles of gamblers and card cheats. The decision of whether to perform these routines should then be based on the question, “What do you want to perform: magic or sleight-of-hand?” The audience will likely be equally entertained whether you are a technician or a magician. But you cannot be both. So, what do you want to be?
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A well thought out post. I’ve had this same thought when introducing a deck of cards in my show. I like to tell someone to take a card and make sure it’s a free choice and that I’ve in no way influenced their decision. After the card is chosen, I say “as long as it isn’t the 2 of clubs” which they are holding. I take the card back and reshuffle giving them another choice which again is the 2 of clubs. I repeat this until I finally just hand them the deck and tell them to choose any card and hand me back the rest. Like you noted, at the point I hand them the deck, I’m no longer a magician but a slight of hand artist. I’ve certainly gratified my ego by demonstrating my skill with cards but am I ultimately diminishing the impact of the magic I am hoping to share? It may be that I am. As a magician, I think people expect you to have extraordinary skills with a deck of cards. The trick is to move them beyond believing you’re simply performing amazing slight of hand. For example, when their card ends up in the box sitting in front of them. That’s no longer slight of hand, it’s magic. If it’s stuck to your forehead, it’s still amazing (more importantly to me – funny!) slight of hand. Both are entertaining. My point is, I don’t think showing you’re an amazing slight of hand artist necessarily means you can’t also create truly magical moments with a deck of cards.
Wow! I enjoyed this quick read! And I respectfully and LOVINGLY disagree to an extent!
What I mean is that you’re spot on, IF you define “magic” in a particular way. But after 35 years, gazzions of audiences and spectators, and a literal daily focus on magic, thinking, tricks, sleights, presentation, relationships with spectators, timing, (etc etc etc ad infinitum) I believe the issue isn’t if a flourish is magic, or if a card trick is magic, or WHAT the heck IS magic and what isn’t? It’s more about what IS magic in the first place? What is astonishment? does it have to be something that seems to be done with supernatural powers or more so, something that is done WITHOUT METHOD… to qualify as magic?
I see a future where, you’ll likely alter you’re ideas here, and drastically. You’re not wrong at all, but you’re perspective and angle is at this point where you are, much different than mine.
Magic isn’t about fooling. at least not in my mind. thanks for the nice article and your efforts on my behalf!
(I tend to think that all of the magic in the world is being done to help me along my path! Hee hee!)