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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