Originally published in Genii magazine.
I receive quite a bit of email. In fact, I think that we are only at the tip of the future email iceberg--the point where all of us realize we are getting so much email that the whole process has ceased to be easy, fun and convenient and has turned instead into a horrible nightmare. Until we hit that iceberg, I will continue to answer the email that I receive, but I make no promises for the future.
Much of my email is from magicians who are asking questions. Sometimes they ask so many questions I would need to write a small booklet just for them if I were to answer them intelligently. Often the questions are the same. One of the recurring questions that has been asked on more than a dozen occasions is this: "Can you tell me the best card tricks?"
I am reminded of a posting on one of the Internet magic bulletin boards where a writer explained he had purchased a specific (large) book and asked whether anyone would be interested in splitting the reading of it with hi--so they could tell each other the best card tricks.
Or just lazy?
Since I suspect I will be asked for my recommendation of the "best" card tricks many more dozens of times in the future, it seems like a good idea to answer this question once and for all here. Eventually, I think we'll put this answer up on my website and then I'll be able simply to refer new email questioners to that place for my answer. Tidy.
This question, I might add, cuts across age. I have been asked it by fourteen year olds and forty year olds. Many who are drawn to the art of magic come under its spell. But, perhaps sadly, some spells need to be broken.
Ready? I strongly feel that there are no "best" card tricks. The notion that there are "best" card tricks is a purely imaginary idea, a fantastic and fantasy-driven concept, that exists purely in thought, in your head, and not in reality. If you take it too seriously, the search for the "best" card tricks, further, can drive you crazy--and destroy the fun and satisfaction that the art of magic might bring you. For me, seeking the "best" card tricks is a supreme example of climbing the greased pole.
Let's put this another way: the "best" card tricks are the ones that you can perform to great audience impact and response. And that "you" is also "me." The "best" card tricks for me are the ones that I am able to perform to a powerful response.
I am saying, in other words, that what makes a card trick--or any magic effect--great or the "best" always involves the performer. Much as I don't much appreciate the performance of disembodied sleights, I really don't believe in disembodied card tricks--that is, card tricks that supposedly exist independently of their performance. A card trick, of course, can exist as a text in a book with illustrations. Yet, as Alfred Korzybski, the founder of General Semantics, repeatedly told his students: the map is not the territory. A card trick in a book is very much like a map. A card trick in performance is the real territory.
Reading card tricks in books, and talking about them with our magician friends, helps us create this illusion in our minds that card tricks do exist in some real sense independently of their performance. But I think it's just an illusion. It's an example of what Alan Watts called eating the menu instead of the dinner.
Again, this suggests that magic in performance, at the very least, is equally about the performer and not simply about the card trick in isolation. I have seen even very simple card tricks produce a tremendous response (sometimes, a much more tremendous response than I even imagined it could receive!). Why? Simply because the performer knew the card trick so well that it was presented in a way that made it a very special--and powerful--experience the audience.
The "best" card tricks for me and the ones that fit (1) my personality and performing style, and (2) my range of technical expertise with cards. Attempting to perform a card trick beyond my technical competence is very much like walking into quicksand. There is no magic; only disaster. Yet this is something that we sadly see all too often.
How did I find these "best" cards for me? Today, my answer may not be wholly pleasant to many readers: I found them through study and experimentation!
I studied magic books when I was young. I experimented with the things I read. Other magicians showed me card tricks and sometimes, really rather rarely, I experimented with them as well. Of the probably thousands of card tricks I have experimented with over the years, only a very few have made it into my performing repertoire. Those that did were the ones that "called" to me in some way.
The idea that card tricks can "call" to us isn't as spooky as it might first appear. During an Olympic television broadcast some years ago, an athlete, who was proficient, in several sports was asked how he finally decided upon the sport in which he would compete. He replied with breathtaking brevity: "I let the sport choose me."
In much the same way, the magic effects in my repertoire have chosen me and I have responded to their call. Consequently, and this is the important point, they are all card tricks that I genuinely love to perform. The performance of any of the card material in my repertoire really does bring great pleasure to me, the performer. When that powerful connection between card trick and performer happens in the context of a performance, we can talk about "best" card tricks.
Do I think there are "bad" card tricks? Well, that's another story.
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