Back to previous post: “In the groove with Harold Wilson, violin.”

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: Mindreading

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

July 31, 2008

Card Tricks
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 08:29 AM * 53 comments

Did someone tell you that the way to be popular is to learn politics and join parties? No! The way to be popular is to learn parlor tricks and go to parties!

I’ve always preferred sleight-of-hand with common objects. That way you’re not caught out if you’re somewhere without your Special deck of cards or your Special coin. And there’s nothing for anyone to find on examination of your props.

Your self-working (“Requires no skill!”) card tricks can get tedious after a while. “Count the deck into three piles. Great! Now count it into three piles again!” Requires no skill? Making that entertaining requires a ton of skill.

Here’s a really good manipulator doing a nice trick: Four Twos

Spoiler alert: How it’s done. Four Twos Revealed. Notice that even knowing how it’s done doesn’t remove the entertainment value of that particular effect. Heck, everyone knows how jugglers do it, but folks still turn out to watch jugglers.

How to do another card trick. And another.

Y’see? Sleight of hand isn’t all that tough. (Except when it is.) Like playing the piano isn’t all that tough. (Except when it’s Rachmaninoff.)

If you want to learn card magic, there are far worse places to start that with Jean Hugard. (Oh—and if you’re serious about it, get the video demonstration too. Some of the moves are hard to describe but easy to show.)

While I’ve got you here: Spoon bending by sleight of hand.

Coin magic: The best book is Bobo’s Modern Coin Magic.

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, my boy. Practice.”

Comments on Card Tricks:
#1 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 09:00 AM:

I saw someone make a pencil disappear just last weekend; that trick worked really well in getting everyone's attention, too.

#2 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 09:47 AM:

Implications? Them's vacations imps take.

#3 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 09:57 AM:

Except when it's Rachmaninoff

There are ways around this. (Ways that may not be original.)

#4 ::: Tom ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 10:19 AM:

I know a good card trick you can do with just a deck, but people keep screwing it up because they don't know the difference between rows and columns.

#5 ::: Adam Lipkin ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 10:20 AM:

John L -- I saw that same trick. As did millions of others, according to the news.

#6 ::: Effie Nell ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 10:26 AM:

Platitudes! That's the opposite of plongitudes!

#7 ::: joel hanes ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 10:30 AM:

Out-of-the-blue cross-reference:
if this posting interests you, you may enjoy
Fifth Business by Robertson Davies.

#8 ::: G D Townshende ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 11:28 AM:

I rather enjoyed the disappearing pencil trick, but I wouldn't recommend trying it at home.

#9 ::: G D Townshende ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 11:28 AM:

I rather enjoyed the disappearing pencil trick, but I wouldn't recommend trying it at home.

#10 ::: G D Townshende ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 11:29 AM:

Oops. :/ Sorry for the double posting. It didn't look like my computer had responded.

#11 ::: Skwid ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 01:23 PM:

I'm convinced I know how the pencil trick works, but I've been having trouble eliciting a volunteer from the audience...

#12 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 01:42 PM:

I've been living in a cave. What's the pencil trick?

#13 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 01:54 PM:

I've been living in a cave. What's the pencil trick?

It's a reference to the Batman: The Dark Knight movie.

#14 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 02:00 PM:

Yo, Tom @#4! Welcome to Making Light!

Would that be the Atlas, Bible, Goose, Thigh trick?

If people keep screwing it up, then it isn't quite a good trick yet. You might check out Magic and Showmanship by Nelms (a book that I recommend to everyone anyway) for a sleight-of-hand method of performing a similar trick.

Or, improve your handling so that folks do know the difference between rows and columns, or so that whether they know or don't know the difference doesn't matter.

#15 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 02:14 PM:

TexAnne @12
Are your new digs a cave?

I haven't seen the new Batman movie either.

#16 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 02:17 PM:

#13: Oh, right. Thanks, Jim. I keep meaning to see it, but apparently the matinees in my new town cost $6.50. (As opposed to the evening price of $7.25. I foretell a great deal of Netflix in my future....)

#17 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 03:00 PM:

A Neat Vanishing Pencil Trick.

Lbh'yy arrq: 1) N pbva. 2) N crapvy. 3) Gebhfref jvgu cbpxrgf.

Lbh'er fgnaqvat. Fubj gur pbva gb rirelbar. Gryy rirelbar gung lbh'er tbvat gb znxr gur pbva qvfnccrne. Ubyq vg va lbhe yrsg unaq, jvgu gur unaq va n svfg, onpx hc, nebhaq jnvfg yriry.

Gnxr gur crapvy va lbhe evtug unaq. Vg'f lbhe zntvp jnaq. Envfr vg uvtu va na nep (gur rknpg nep jvyy orpbzr boivbhf va n zbzrag), naq ybjre vg gb gnc gur onpx bs lbhe yrsg svfg, juvyr pbhagvat "Bar." Xrrc lbhe rlrf svkrq ba lbhe yrsg unaq. Ercrng gur zbir naq pbhag "Gjb." Zbivat rknpgyl gur fnzr nf orsber, envfr gur crapvy naq chg vg oruvaq lbhe evtug rne. Qb guvf ng gur fnzr fcrrq nf lbh'ir orra qbvat rirelguvat fb sne, naq jvgu lbhe nez sbyybjvat gur fnzr nep. Oevat lbhe abj-rzcgl unaq qbja, naq pbhag "Guerr."

Ubyl Onanan! Gur crapvy'f inavfurq!

Jnvg n zbzrag sbe sbyxf gb abgvpr vg oruvaq lbhe evtug rne. Be, vs ab bar abgvprf vg, jnvg n zbzrag gura cbvag vg bhg. Gnxr gur crapvy naq jnir vg nobhg n ovg. Ybbx ng gur crapvy.

Juvyr rirelbar vf ybbxvat ng gur crapvy, ynhtuvat, naq bgurejvfr qvfgenpgrq, chg gur pbva va lbhe yrsg unaq vagb lbhe yrsg gebhfref cbpxrg, gura erghea lbhe yrsg svfg gb gur fnzr ybpngvba vg jnf va orsber.

Ntnva, gnc gur onpx bs lbhe yrsg svfg jvgu gur crapvy, pbhagvat "Bar" gura "Gjb" gura "Guerr," rknpgyl nf orsber. Qba'g fgvpx gur crapvy oruvaq lbhe rne guvf gvzr. Vafgrnq, ba guerr, bcra lbhe yrsg unaq naq Jbj Tbyyl! gur pbva unf inavfurq! Pbby! Fubj obgu fvqrf bs lbhe unaq, svatref jvqr ncneg. Vg'f ernyyl tbar!

#18 ::: Tom ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 03:33 PM:

James @ 14
People screw it up because of a breakdown in communication. You deal out four rows of four cards (face up). Tell someone to pick one and keep it to themselves. They tell you what row it's in. That's where the problems start, because no matter what, someone will get rows and columns confused (I even explained what I meant, but I guess I know a lot of stupid people) and this botches up the rest of the trick.

After that, you pick up the cards, but make sure the four cards in the row your victim selected are on top of the deck. This time you deal them out so the first four cards form the first column (columns are down, rows are across). Ask your victim again what row it's in. The first card in that row should be their card. If it isn't, somebody screwed up somewhere. The rest is just showmanship.

Pick up all sixteen cards (order doesn't matter now; you know which one is theirs), and deal them out in a cross shape:
- -
Like that, where each line is a card. Do four of these. Now ask your victim to pick two of them. If the ones they pick contain their chosen card, remove the two they didn't pick. Otherwise, remove the two they did pick. Then ask them to pick one of the two remaining crosses and do the same thing. Then in the last remaining cross, do the exact same thing with individual cards until you're left with just the chosen card. Hopefully, your victim will be amazed and love you forever.

#19 ::: Tom ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 03:34 PM:

By the way, maybe "someone always screws it up" was an exaggeration. On reflection, it's more like "one time, someone screwed it up", but that sounds less impressive. Also, I'm not new here, it's just my first time commenting.

#20 ::: Fred A Levy Haskell ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 06:09 PM:

I'm just sad that so few bars these days have good, branded swizzle-sticks. One of my very best bits of table magic years ago (at one of the early Archons in St Louis) was a simple paddle move with a hotel swizzle-stick...

#21 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 06:27 PM:

No swizzle-sticks and no Gibsons. What's the world coming to?

#23 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2008, 07:24 PM:

For a real sensation one performs the pencil trick ... without a pencil.

(Although one only does this at the Magician Trials.)


#24 ::: JimR ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2008, 01:21 AM:

This reminds me--Jim, that card trick on your webpage...Where'd you find that? Or did you program it yourself?
It baffles the heck out of me, and I love it.

#25 ::: JimR ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2008, 01:24 AM:

Oh son of a...
I just did it again and figured it out.
Someone tell me I'm not dumb...cause I sure feel it.

#26 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2008, 04:16 AM:

joel hanes @7: Second the recommendation. Fifth Business was my introduction to Davies' writing, and after that I had to inhale as much as I could find.

That book was part of a trilogy (the other books, The Manticore and World of Wonders; the latter was centered more directly on the magician). I liked his approach to trilogies. He didn't write one big book split into three parts; he wrote more-or-less independent stories centered on different characters related to the same events. He used this approach in some of his other books.

I wondered if John M. Ford liked him; Davies had an interest in theater, similar to what I had seen in Mike's writing. A lot of real wit in his work, too.

#27 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2008, 04:28 AM:

Did someone tell you that the way to be popular is to learn politics and join parties? No! The way to be popular is to learn parlor tricks and go to parties!

This was the punchline to an early Mad magazine spoof of 'Pogo'. Coming back from a visit with the big city cousins, Pogo introduces politics to the swamp. Everyone there is shown to be an analog of a real life political figure. It ends in tears (and a mushroom cloud).

The big city cousins show up at the end to view the devastation. Minnie blames Donald's speech impediment; he didn't say politics, he said parlor tricks!

#28 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2008, 10:03 AM:

Department of Good Timing:

Neil Gaiman's latest blog entry has a link to a New Yorker article about close-up magic that's well worth reading.

#29 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2008, 12:07 PM:

The 1902 "Bible" of card tricks mentioned in the New Yorker article is available as a PDF from

I've also added a couple of other early books on card tricks here. (The Erdnase will join them a bit later today.)

#30 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2008, 10:01 PM:

That's a good article in the New Yorker.

I'll have to respond in some detail: rather that Trauma and You, Magic and Me.

My copy of Erdnase is right here on my desk. I just reached over and grabbed it. It's a 1945 printing, with notes by Professor Hoffman.

My life could have gone another direction: I was another of the kids and teenagers who hung out at Tannen's in the late 'sixties.

A longer post will follow, I'm sure. With Dr. Faustus, I say, " 'Tis magic, magic that hath ravished me."

#31 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2008, 01:11 AM:

JimR @ #25:

You're not dumb. A lot of people have fallen for that trick.

#32 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2008, 02:25 AM:

Rob @ 27: Thank you from the bottom of my heart for remembering that. I knew the line, but I had no idea from where. I was hoping to get to sleep tonight, and now I can.

#33 ::: Mark D. ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2008, 09:43 AM:


Having read the New Yorker article with great interest and as a long-time fan of Ricky Jay, I look forward to your "Magic and Me" series.

I do exactly *one* sleight-of-hand card trick, learned from Bill Tarr's basic resource, but it's always a knock-out. The "real work" is presentation, just like they say.

#34 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2008, 10:14 AM:

BBC's The History of Magic: Close-up Magic:

#35 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2008, 12:08 PM:

Rob Rusick @ #26: Mike (Ford) liked Robertson Davies very much. So did his friend Jim Rigney (Robert Jordan), and the two of them turned me on to the Deptford Trilogy when they found I hadn't read any Davies.

Mike and Jim were also fans of Ricky Jay. Once when Mike and I went down to Charleston to visit Jim and Harriet, we all went to see Ricky Jay perform. The tickets were split into two pairs, one set much closer to the stage, and Mike insisted that I sit up in the closer pair. Jim was next to me, because Harriet did the same insistence thing, and we were both absolutely transfixed. Well, OK, when we weren't cracking up laughing. For years after, the phrase "the pachydermatous hide of a watermelon" gave me the giggles.

(Jay picked me as the audience person to be part of a trick. It involved a curious automaton and a card torn into four parts. I was in such fangirl transports that I could barely stand.)

#38 ::: Mark D. ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2008, 08:51 AM:

I live 1/2 mile from the Cabot Cinema, home of Le Grand David. Come see me when you come see them!

#39 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2008, 02:02 PM:

A question about a mentalist: some years ago a friend with ADD showed me a DVD that had come in at work of a guy in the UK that was astounding--the best cold reading I've ever seen, and an amazing stunt where he got an ad agency to duplicate a prediction he made for what they'd create for a fictional ad campaign by controlling the route they took to the meeting and what went on outside their taxi on the way over. (There was also a fake "seance" in a normally disused lecture hall/courtroom under one of the bridges in London that looked like a minature of the lecture hall in Young Frankenstein.) Unfortunately I was without paper or PDA, and when I got a chance to call and ask he'd misplaced the disc. Does this ring any bells for anyone?

#40 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2008, 02:13 PM:

Bruce, 39: I remember the ad campaign segment! Given my TV-watching habits, it was on cable. It might have been on either right before or right after Mythbusters, but I can't swear to it.

#41 ::: Sica ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2008, 06:57 PM:

#39 Bruce.

The guy is Derren Brown, he's a really good performer and famous for his mind trickery. He mixes suggestion with standard sleight of hand, showmanship in addition to really good people reading etc.

He's also spent a lot of effort into trying to debunk frauds, mediums and people who say they're psychic etc. so he does things like a really good "seance" where the person they contact is actually alive and well etc.

I'm a huge fan.

He started out as a card magician and published a dvd explaining his tricks, it's a dvd aimed at the magician community and you need to dig a little bit to buy it but it's not hard to get at if you just try a bit. For me seeing how the tricks are done doesn't diminish the 'magic' at all. The showmanship and presentation in addition to sleight of hand just makes it more facinating.

He sometimes upsets the press like when he had a stunt where he supposedly played live russian roulette on TV (with himself as the potential victim)

Here's him doing a card trick for Stephen Fry:

Here's the advertising clip:

A pickpocket type scam where he simply asks a random person for their wallet, house keys etc. and they give it to him:

#42 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2008, 12:00 AM:


Thanks for the information! As an ex-SAM member I should be able to scare up the card magic DVD, but I'm uncoordinated enough that it's not an area of magic I've been that interested in--I'll have to think about it. It looks like he has one affordable book, a series that SciFi channel is carrying (and that Amazon has as a web video for $1.99 each), a DVD on psychic frauds and conmen that's PAL only, and a "book for the trade" at $339.00 over at Amazon...

#43 ::: Sica ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2008, 04:56 AM:

Bruce - He's had tv specials and short tv series on Channel 4 in the UK for years now. So there's a bunch of dvd's of those available. You'll probably find more over on

The "book for the trade" one is out of print and just being sold second hand for very high sums it seems. I don't know what the price was originally, but the publicly available 'Tricks of the Mind' is great fun.

#44 ::: Ev630 ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2008, 06:34 AM:

My humble effort at card magic. Plus! Added Otis Spann goodness!!!

#45 ::: Ev630 ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2008, 05:32 AM:

I said Spann. Spann, not Spam.

#46 ::: Joe McMahon ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2008, 05:16 PM:

Jim @14: Magic and Showmanship is another one of those books that is applicable to so many things other than magic alone: I've successfully used some of the pointers in there for public speaking, designing a presentation that actually kept people's attention, even sequencing music on a CD.

It's a treasure.

#47 ::: Tejas ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2008, 01:04 AM:

[ Spam deleted ]

#48 ::: David Goldfarb notes probable spam ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2008, 01:37 AM:

Vacuous one-liner, pointer to what looks like a commercial site.

#49 ::: Magicians ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2009, 04:54 AM:

Hello, I'am George. Visit my website, if you want to learn Card Tricks Revealed. All tricks are video explained, so you can learn very easy. Thank's and have a great day.

#50 ::: David Harmon sees possibly-relevant spam ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2009, 07:17 AM:

But I'm too wary to try the URL.

#51 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2009, 08:12 AM:

Nothing horrible there, but on the other hand I have scripts blocked.

#52 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2009, 10:30 AM:

Hmm. OK, then I'll look... A collection of poorly-titled links to articles on stage magic. The articles include videos hosted at the legitimate video-hosting site, Expert Village. (Which site is interesting in it's own right -- Jim, have you ever been tempted to make instructional videos?)

Some attempt at ad-farming? Certainly relevant, but still looks kinda spammish.

#53 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 17, 2009, 10:31 AM:

And I'm realizing that the recent developments in malware have me more spooked than I realized....

Welcome to Making Light's comment section. The moderators are Avram Grumer, Teresa & Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Abi Sutherland. Abi is the moderator most frequently onsite. She's also the kindest. Teresa is the theoretician. Are you feeling lucky?

Comments containing more than seven URLs will be held for approval. If you want to comment on a thread that's been closed, please post to the most recent "Open Thread" discussion.

You can subscribe (via RSS) to this particular comment thread. (If this option is baffling, here's a quick introduction.)

Post a comment.
(Real e-mail addresses and URLs only, please.)

HTML Tags:
<strong>Strong</strong> = Strong
<em>Emphasized</em> = Emphasized
<a href="">Linked text</a> = Linked text

Spelling reference:
Tolkien. Minuscule. Gandhi. Millennium. Delany. Embarrassment. Publishers Weekly. Occurrence. Asimov. Weird. Connoisseur. Accommodate. Hierarchy. Deity. Etiquette. Pharaoh. Teresa. Its. Macdonald. Nielsen Hayden. It's. Fluorosphere. Barack. More here.

(You must preview before posting.)

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.