The difference between the casual card-trick doer watching YouTube and the amateur or professional magician, is that the latter always uses correct grips and positions with the cards and props, as well as purposeful choreography, patter, presentation and misdirection. The former simply muddles through using more or less homemade handling. In every field there are right and wrong ways, whether it’s golf swings, piano chord-changes or chess openings. The casual hobbyist is either unaware of their ignorance (understandable particularly when a youngster) or willfully ignorant through insufficient interest to do things properly. No harm is done if people just want to whack a ball, play Scott Joplin badly, or bluff their way through a chess game or card trick.
However, some people will be at a borderline between recognising their incompetence and realising the benefits that come from learning an art, craft or trade properly; but they may still be on the wrong side of the border where the reason is not obvious. (The paradox is that one can really only see and feel the reason once one has crossed the border and made a start on true learning.) The neophyte professional often has their own reasons (very often ‘money before art’) but for amateurs who feel they aren’t as good as they should be, here are four reasons why we aim for professionalism or simply doing things properly:
First of all, dealing, shuffling, cutting and handling cards neatly and professionally simply looks good and is pleasing to the eye. It separates us from the fumbler. When performing professionally, after introducing ourself as the magician, if the very first thing we do is a Pressure Fan and ‘pick a card’, then our spectators’ very first impression of us and our magic is one of professionalism. We are also communicating our role at the event as effectively as a waiter proffering a tray of drinks. So this is the first reason: we should handle cards at least as well as your average croupier.
The Green argument
Those who want the glory without the sweat and tears may argue ‘but Lennart Green is messy’. No he isn’t! He is deliberately messy-looking which is not the same thing at all; incompetently messy he certainly is not. Someone who is ‘messy’ in the normal meaning either cannot help it or is lazy. Green is neither incompetent nor lazy. So the Green argument holds no water. (Similar arguments are put forward by some mentalists, but at least the argument ‘I’m a mind-reader not a prestidigitator’ holds some water. The underlying motives can be interesting, however.) One cannot be deliberately messy in all the right ways, times and places unless one has mastered true card handling.
Economy of action, stupid
The second reason is economy. It’s a waste of time picking cards up in some awkward grip in the left hand, transferring to another awkward grip in the right hand, and then putting back into the proper grip in the left. I have seen this procedure and many like it so many times from self-taught magicians, especially those who have learned from YouTube from a random mixture of left- and right-handed magicians. Learning some moves left handed and some right handed is, from a choreography perspective, a disaster. Coming back to our previous example of the Pressure Fan, this procedure is also economically the best way to give someone a free choice of 52 cards.
There are logistical reasons why economy is essential. We have only a limited time frame to achieve certain things. If we are wasting time on mechanics, unnecessary patter and so on, we may be making the effect less deceptive. The method affects the effect.
Watching people like Criss Angel and David Blaine when I was younger, I always noticed that the performance was better than the secret. – Email from a beginner
It’s crunchy… no it’s chewy
Look carefully at the photo below. Is it a pile of cards or a spread of cards?
It could be anything. This is the third reason we do things clearly and professionally: communication. Here’s an analogy from everyday life:
I recently emailed our managing agents for them to raise a works order for our gutters to be cleared. A few days later I got an email back saying ‘Sorry for delay, this has now been done’. Of course, he knew exactly what he meant, but I didn’t; did he mean the works order had now been raised for the job to be done, or that the gutter job itself had now been done? The result was yet more time and effort wasted establishing the situation, when some basic thought about how the other party perceives things would have saved this.
In magic, perceiving how the other party (spectators) perceives things – what they see, think, and feel at any given moment – is an integral part of our worldview. It’s something that must come second nature to us, even though at the beginning it is the furthest thing from us; all we can see, think and feel are our own incompetence and nervousness. Our attention is focused inwards rather than outwards. This must reverse direction as we develop as performers.
So when we deal a row of cards cleanly and precisely, we know we are communicating to everyone present ‘this is a row of cards’, not a pile, spread or anything else. There is no ambiguity. This, in turn, means we don’t waste time (and bore people) saying ‘this is a row of cards’, and it also gives the effect clarity: it doesn’t detract from the effect by leaving people wondering exactly what we’re doing. (If you need another argument against the trend of being sloppy for its own sake instead of doing it purposefully, this is one.) Once again, with the Pressure Fan, it communicates freedom of choice without stating the obvious.
I recently explained to a fellow magician why the popular Scrape Cut (eg, Searles, The Card Expert, 1938) is no good for lay people: it’s all to do with the Greek tragedies. What I meant is that the actors in those plays wore masks portraying caricatures of human emotions, so that people right at the back of the amphitheatre could understand each actor’s role. The Erdnase Blind Cut (‘II – To Retain the Complete Stock’) communicates to a lay person much more clearly that ‘this is a cut’. The strength of the Scrape Cut is also its weakness: that it’s more or less over with by the time people twig that you are doing something; but they don’t know what.
I once went to a stage play where one of the characters (played by an English actress and an acquaintance of my family) was American. Afterwards I asked her ‘Why did your accent keep changing from New York to midwest to southern and then back again?’ I thought the changing accent indicated she had been playing some kind of impostor and that I had somehow missed this subplot. She explained that, in fact, she hadn’t noticed until I mentioned it that her accent kept changing; it was all just ‘an American accent’. This seems a relevant metaphor for how we can avoid muddying our magic with unintended red herrings.
If you have ever seen a really good academic lecture – not just anyone but maybe the top person in their field – they are usually able to communicate advanced concepts very simply and beautifully with no extraneity so that even a 10-year-old could understand them. This is how we should do our magic: each effect should be beautifully clear, and not only streamlined down to its simplest level but also using actions that communicate clearly what is (apparently) taking place.
While we marvel at the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile, we also appreciate a beautifully succinct philosophical message.
Know thyself – Proverb
Labour of love
Lastly, we should do our magic with skill and precision because we want to. As stated, the Green argument is often pulled out as an excuse to disguise incompetence or laziness, both of which indicate a lack of a desire to learn the art of magic properly. Doing things neatly is often just doing them properly. Most accomplished magicians should not actually be in need of reading this other than intellectual curiosity or affirmation that they’re on the right track. It may help them on some finessed level to improve something, but on a general level they should know most of this already.
The paradox is that once we have learned precision we can then deliberately let things go a little and mould our magic to our true personalities, body language and style. If, like Lennart Green, we are normally sloppy (or that style, at least, fits our appearance), we can add this back into the mix with the way we handle props. As mentalists we can claim to be (and act) incompetent even though in reality we are as competent as any magician; our ‘incompetence’ will be carefully staged and choreographed for maximum deception.
There is a certain amount of leeway: the inherent act of performing or presenting magic normally requires a certain amount of stage presence, grace, choreography and so on, even in the amateur or everyday milieu, but not to the extent we become robotic or mechanical. We should be capable of such handling, but should, for the sake of naturalness and lack of tension, relax and execute our magic in a manner true to our normal body language, even if we are normally a little careless.
What type are you?
Many years ago I wanted to produce a professional-looking booklet on magic and wondered why my WordPerfect (similar to Word) document didn’t look professional. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Eventually I found out: Word or WordPerfect and the like are word-processing programmes, albeit those that allow formatting that closely mimics typography and typesetting. Page-layout software such as Quark or InDesign do what traditional typographers, typesetters and graphic designers did manually or via analog machinery.
You can look at two samples of type, both of which use the same font and have been justified left and right to create solid blocks of type. One is done on a word-processor and one via typesetting/page-layout. The average person won’t quite know why one looks more professional than the other, but the difference will be felt on some level. You can see and read why here.
People may not quite know why your magic is more professional than the average card-trickster, in a similar way that one’s homemade Bolognese sauce is never quite like your favourite Italian restaurant no matter how hard you try to replicate it. It’s all part of the mystery, which is as it should be; but a mystery that we, as artists, must penetrate. As the saying goes, the art is in concealing the art, but we must know the art in order to conceal it.
Before the internet, magicians learned from books; videos (which appeared in the early ‘80s and were at least £50 each) only ever supplemented books. There have always been good and bad magicians, but the potentially good ones became good through reading. When a book says ‘Step 1: hold deck face down in left-hand Mechanic’s Grip. Step 2, take a br*** under top card’ and so on, the reader slowly and diligently follows along. This slowness and carefulness, and attention to detail (without which further explanation won’t make sense), practically forces them to develop correct technique. If you read too fast, you’ll have to go back to the beginning.
When we see things in their immediate entirety on video, we don’t need to follow along slowly and carefully; we can just take an immediate shot at mimicking something that looks vaguely similar. In our impatience and greed we kid ourselves into thinking it’s the same. We even look upon books disdainfully as ‘technologically inferior’ compared to digital/visual media because books ‘just contain typescript, not video’.
I once thought it would be clever to fake a cappuccino in my kitchen by vigorously shaking very hot milk in a cocktail shaker. It exploded with a loud bang.
Thankfully, there will always be those who have the time and patience to learn to do the real thing.