I find this a strange subject to be writing about. The use of cards in mentalism was never even questioned when I was going through my formative years. I have a Tannen's Magic Catalog in hand as I write this. It is Catalog number 10 from the year 1973. Turning to the mentalism section, I find Dr. Jaks' Supersonic Card Prediction, Supreme Control Deck, Perfected Mental Masterpiece, Vantastic, Menta-Match, X-Credible, etc. Other catalogs I remember, such as Abbott's and Hank Lee's, had the same type of line-up. Just about every fourth or fifth mentalism effect used playing cards.
The Amazing Kreskin was always on TV during those days and he always did card effects. From what I had read of Dunninger, he did many, too. When I bought books about Annemann, Corinda and Koran, there were all kinds of card routines in those pages. The thought that playing cards were inappropriate for mentalism never existed! How could they be when every mentalist I looked up to used them?
To be fair, the magic scene was much different then, also. There were far fewer magicians and magic club membership was much lower. Card magic, as we know it today, was also not so prevalent. Yes, it was true that most everyone in my local club did some card work, but it was usually just part of their repertoire. After two or three card effects, most guys moved on to something else. There were about three or four Harry Lorayne books out, a couple of Garcia and Vernon books, along with the standard material in the major texts from which to draw from. The inventory of hundreds (if not thousands) of tomes on every variation of every card sleight ever concocted simply did not exist. The result was that a magician was not automatically a guy who did card tricks. Now, of course, things are often different. I can't help but wonder just how many card effects any audience is willing to sit through before they scream, "Enough!"
I believe many performers who come from this magic club environment assume everyone in the world thinks of playing cards as something magicians use to do tricks with. This may come as a complete shock to them, but most regular people think of cards as something you play games with! This is only reinforced with the present popularity of casinos, online gambling, and tournament poker. To bring out a deck and do something mind bending with them, especially if it relates to gambling, is right on target these days.
It should also be mentioned that since time immortal, there have been those who use cards for telling fortunes. Long before Tarot decks were so readily available, this was standard fare. Along those same lines, playing cards were often used to test ESP before the Rhine cards became more common.
I have to mention, and this should go without saying, that you have to choose your effects wisely. You cannot, for instance, attempt to do card mentalism that obviously uses sleight of hand. (For that matter, you should not do any magic that obviously uses sleight of hand! Any such sleights should be hidden and invisible.) You should also try to stay away from long and involved effects that smack of mathematics. If there is anyone in the group who knows a card trick or two, it is probably the 21 Card Trick or a similar effect. Using a direct approach that seems to offer no room for trickery will completely throw off the occasional magic dabbler you might run into.
There will be those, of course, who choose not to use playing cards in their performances for one reason or another. That is their prerogative and I certainly won't get into a debate about their reasoning which, I'm sure in their minds, is sound. My point is that if you do choose to use them, there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn't and precedence is on your side.
Finally, please do not feel guilty about taking out a deck of cards. The moment you look suspicious doing anything, you telegraph that to the audience and the entire mood changes. Try using some of the gambling patter I used on this DVD and see if it doesn't instantly get the interest of your audience.
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