10 Rules for Magicians

Rules are like inflatable armbands when a child is learning to swim: once you can swim the armbands become a hindrance. Once we start to become competent at magic we develop an intuitive sense of when to do certain things and when not to; continuing to think rigidly in terms of ‘rule #7 says such and such’ will hinder us. But when we are starting out our knowledge is less sophisticated and benefits from general guidance in the form of simple rules. The truth of many of these rules still resonates for years to come.

There are many rules for close-up magicians. If this had been written tomorrow or yesterday no doubt at least one of the rules below would be different. But on some etheric plane maybe there are an archetypal top 10 ‘commandments’ for magicians, and it’s interesting to ponder what they might be. Traditionally, magic books often contain 10 such rules which are worth studying, as each author has their own take.

These rules normally start with one or two classical rules and the reasons behind them before veering off into less familiar territory. We follow the same format here. (There is a difference between general advice and rules, and the aim here is to limit this to fundamental concepts.)

1. Never tell your audience what you intend to do

From an effect standpoint it spoils the surprise; methodwise it may nullify misdirection. Let’s say you ask someone to name a number between five and 10. They say nine and you deal nine. Why you deal and the mode in which you do this may depend on the effect and method. You may deal cards singly, in pairs or in threes, say; but not all deals are born equal.

If your audience knows beforehand what the significance is of dealing – that you need specifically the ninth card, say – then the way you deal becomes significant. However, if you simply need nine cards, then the mode of dealing becomes insignificant. If you need the ninth card but don’t let on beforehand, then the mode of dealing is less likely to be noticed and/or remembered after the fact. Herein lies the deception.

The same applies to the psychological st**: if you make a big deal about it before dealing, it has less chance of working; if you act off-hand before dealing as if it didn’t matter, and after the fact start laying stress on the card arrived at, you end up with the same end result but with greater chance of success.

Exception: Paul Curry’s ‘Open Prediction’.

I should say that I know about eight [tricks with cards]. – David Devant

2. Never repeat your tricks

This is another form of Rule #1 and is very much aimed at the neophyte. Experienced magicians often repeat their tricks. The point is that the beginner usually knows only one method per effect. What this rule means is, never repeat the same method with the same effect. Once we learn multiple applications (of both method and effect) we can safely repeat the same method with different effects (eg, ‘Linking Rings’) and the same effect with different methods (eg, ‘Ambitious Card’).

Mixing and matching methods is one of the great weapons of magic, particularly where those methods are improvised (adapted) according to current conditions (which change from moment to moment). Repeating the exact same trick twice not only gives people a second chance of seeing what you did the first time, but is insensitive to the ever-changing-moment factor; something about the conditions will not be quite the same as before.

Some classical tricks do use methodological repetition (‘The Lynn Pennies’), but maybe they shouldn’t. No effect or magician is sacrosanct – magic is constantly evolving, and some tricks that worked well in the past may not do so now; at least, not without some form of modification. The expert tries to use multiple methods which cancel each other out.

Exception: ‘Six-Card Repeat’.

3. Avoid verbalising your actions

This is for several reasons:

  1. Stating the obvious – ‘I’m now going to shuffle the cards… and now I’m dealing’ – is boring.
  2. Following on from reason #1, it’s too self-referential – it’s more interesting for people to hear about a story or a concept.
  3. It draws attention to your actions at moments where you may not wish to do so. We use patter and misdirection in these moments.
  4. Further to reason #3 we want people to remember specific moments. Hence we avoid verbalising actions that we don’t want remembered, but if we want a specific memory of an action to be retained, we may well verbalise that specific action even to the point of exaggeration: ‘I’m now going to deal the cards very slowly… watch…’
  5. It may arouse suspicion, possibly inspiring the audience to request that they shuffle, cut, or deal the cards themselves, or whichever action you are drawing attention to.
  6. Focusing outwards on the audience and the magic at hand can help one to relax; constantly referring to one’s own actions creates a self-conscious feedback loop and amplifies feelings of ‘being under the spotlight’.
  7. Self-consciousness blocks improvisation which is dependent on being outwardly focused.

4. Have a working repertoire

Many years ago at a convention in America, one of the top card performers there admitted to me that, when asked to perform by lay people, he never knew what to do. This was someone who knew more card tricks than most magicians put together. I remember saying ‘I have the same problem!’ We both knew too many tricks and had too many to choose from in the moment; too many methods for the same tricks, even. We had both long forgotten David Devant’s advice.

This is one reason why I later chose the route of improvisational magic: when you can improvise you need never feel stuck for a trick. But for the neophyte, as well as the dozens of ideas, concepts, sleights and tricks that you may already know, always keep a handful of practical effects (what magicians call ‘workers’) well rehearsed so that when asked (sincerely, not politely) to do magic you can perform a few effects without stalling. To stall may be to break the spell of the moment.

We can borrow a technique from the improvisational school, which is to just get started in your performance with one trick and see where it leads; during that effect you will recall others and the routine will flow. Improvisation does not inherently mean creating new effects in the moment. If you know 10 tricks, you can improvise

  • which of those tricks to do
  • the order in which you perform them
  • the way you present them according to audience demographic
  • the precise methods used (eg, a T** Change might be substituted for a D***** L***)
  • other, non-repertoire tricks that come to mind, lines and gags, and what the old-timers called ‘bits of business’ as inspired by the moment

One of my students saw a magician at a function. The thing that really impressed him was not the tricks per se, but the way the magician kept the pace as a showman for 10 minutes without losing energy and rapport with the audience. Having a repertoire and knowing how to improvise is the key to this kind of spontaneity.

Not only is improvisation a ‘good idea’, it is indispensable. It is the true meaning of interactive magic. This brings us to the next rule.

Study the position of the body and hands in relation to your audience – angles are important. – Harry Clarke

5. Practise mechanically, perform organically

Mechanically practising drills – once you have established the correct action through experimentation in front of a mirror – makes sleights become part of our being, transferring them from our intellectual processing down to our mechanical movements. We likewise mechanically rehearse our routines over and over to polish them. But when we perform, we cannot do so with the same mechanicality as when we practise. A performance is not a rehearsal with people present (technically, that’s a dress rehearsal).

An analogy is driving through central London: we unconsciously accelerate and brake, change gear and so on, but we are mindfully peering out over the top of these automatic reactions and adapting to the moment through conscious, here-and-now perception. When we daydream, we nearly drive into someone, so clearly there must be some degree of conscious override as well as mechanical, reflex action.

We’ve all seen those filmed experiments of rats running around a maze; they stop every few moments to assess the situation and then carry on running. That’s like a caricature of how we do magic.

6. Understand context

Performing organically allows us to notice many things about magic and the contexts in which we perform. Much confusion exists in magic due to different magicians performing in different contexts for different audiences, and this is surely due to lack of perceptiveness. Many a disagreement could be avoided by (a) knowing there are differing audiences and situations, and (b) knowing that you or other magicians specialise in different areas. A bad magic trick may actually be a good one performed in the wrong context.

Here are four interlocking ways of categorising magic according to context. After a while you will get an intuitive feel for these or similar categories (interpret them in your own way):

  1. Sit-down versus stand-up – Most of us probably know what this means, but remember that some table tricks can be done standing when the spectator is able to hold certain props (bearing in mind this can easily become tiresome when overdone – see Rule #9).
  2. Interaction tricks (such as pick-a-card tricks where people are inherently involved) versus demonstration tricks (eg, Ace Assembly) where spectators usually sit there and watch – As noted elsewhere, there is a difference between interaction tricks and interactive magic as a whole.
  3. Saturday night versus Sunday afternoon magic – This is one way of categorising quick, visual magic versus slow, intellectual tricks. For example ‘Be Honest, What Is It?’ is Saturday night; the ‘21-Card Trick’ is Sunday afternoon; they have a completely different vibe but are both excellent tricks in the right context. What it really means is lively/fun/quick tricks versus gentle/calm/longer routines.
  4. Magic for lay people versus magic for magicians – That modern version of ‘Red Hot Momma’ (aka ‘Chicago Opener’; the one with the convoluted ending when the f**** doesn’t work) is for Magic Castle audiences, not people who have never seen magic before. So is any weird trick where a Two splits into two Aces, magically catches their selected card, and then they all turn into four Kings. ‘Quick As a Wink’ is layman magic. When selecting tricks for lay people, always ask, ‘Is there a simpler version that communicates the same, underlying effect?’

When one has developed an intuitive understanding of performing one can then start to do tricks in theoretically the wrong context; for example ‘Out of This World’ is theoretically a Sunday-afternoon trick, but some professionals use this at gigs… at the right moment. Ultimately, there are no categories, just perception of appropriateness.

7. Make notes after a show

If you want to really improve then be your own teacher. Perform a post mortem of your show and work out what went wrong and right, and why. Albert Goshman was once asked how many times he tried lo**ing the coin under the salt shaker before he stopped getting caught. He replied ‘about forty times’.

Many years ago I noticed a fellow magician always exposing his br**k during the Double U*******. To be polite, instead of directly pointing this out I said ‘Sometimes when I do this move I accidentally expose the br**k.’ His response was ‘That never happens to me.’

I was giving a lesson in a hotel lounge recently, quietly minding our own business, when one of those extremely rare instances occurred (in fact, the first time ever) of being heckled by a layman sitting at another table. I was running my thumb down the side of the deck asking my student to call out stop, when this gentleman (with a strong Bulgarian accent) called out ‘Magician [sic] never stop where you want them to!’

I tried to placate him by performing what I thought was the cleanest ‘Stop Trick’ ever. He admitted that my deal-and-stop was impeccably fair (it wasn’t); but then suggested (incorrectly) that my prediction card (which was plainly sitting on the table in full view from the start) had been switched when he wasn’t looking. One can learn a lot from such encounters.

Have a sense of timing, which can only be developed fully by experience. – Bert Allerton

8. Never ask to show magic

…and when asked, politely decline unless they ask you again (they may only have been asking out of politeness). Asking if we can show magic makes us appear desperate which puts us at an immediate disadvantage. The main exception is at a function where we have a specific role; hence the selling is not really cold, but warm or even hot.

It’s far better to subtly make it known that you do magic and then wait to be asked, than to ask and be refused. A friend used to sit in a café and start fanning and springing cards. While not very subtle, it usually prompted a request from someone for a trick, sooner or later.

Related to this rule (another one of the classical ones) is ‘Never outstay your welcome’. I saw this violated at a magic convention recently at a lecture by a top professional. Within moments of the due end time, people started chattering and wandering out because it was lunchtime, and it deflated what could have been a great ending to the lecture. In a choice between intellectual nourishment and the physical kind, the latter always wins. Extra time exists in football, not magic.

In the classical rules we are told ‘Always leave your audience wanting more’. The exception is performing at a function, in which case deliberately end the gig a few minutes late (unless circumstances dictate otherwise).

9. Don’t be needy

This is an odd one to find in the top 10 rules, but like Rule #8 we need to remember that as magicians we are meant to be entertaining our audiences; they are not meant to be entertaining (tolerating) us.

One of my students told me what two lay people said after a magic-club show. When asked who their favourite performer was, the two women replied (to my student) ‘You’. When asked why, the spectators said ‘It’s because your act was self-contained’ (ie, demonstration, not interaction, type tricks). When pressed further they explained, without any joking or sarcasm, ‘The other magicians all seemed needy’.

I have heard many things said about magicians over the years but ‘needy’ was a new one on me. I can’t help feeling they had lifted the lid on something possibly paradigm-shifting which as magicians we are all blind to because we are so close to the action. My understanding is that needy means in this context ‘constantly needing other people’s attention or interaction’, psychologically insecure, desperate to please and be liked and so on (as opposed to ‘poor and needy’).

We are all led to believe that we must involve people as much as possible with our tricks to make them feel involved. This is clearly wrong; maybe an old magic rule that’s past its sell-by date. Using a spectator’s hands as a table ‘just to involve them’ (not because it makes the magic more incredible) is not some silver bullet to magical success but a way of boring and even annoying people. I suspect it’s sometimes a substitute for being genuinely entertaining (‘just get loads of interaction out of the spectator and you’ll be all right’).

Second, how we involve spectators is key. If we are humiliating them with lines that were embarrassing and passé 30 years ago (‘Hold out your hand… no the clean one… oh that was the clean one’), then they are entertaining (tolerating) us.

Be interactive and have fun with people, to be sure. But interactive magic is not ‘use people at all times’ magic; it is ‘interact with the reality of the moment’ magic in order to genuinely connect with people on a human level, not a theoretical, magician’s level.

If an effect is genuinely enhanced by having people hold props or shuffle the deck, do it; but constantly asking ‘Can you do me a favour?’, ‘Can you hold your hand out?’, ‘Can you do this?’, ‘Can you come up and help me?’ and so on in tandem with a desperate-to-please attitude and fixed grin, can be tiresome for an audience and (apparently) make us come across as needy; not a good vibe for someone supposedly blessed with mystic powers.

I’m probably as guilty as anyone of tacking the words ‘for me’ onto the end of a request: as in ‘Can you hold the deck for me?’ instead of ‘Can you hold the deck’. An old magic friend (and comedy scriptwriter) calls this ‘personal-trainer speak’. I think it’s probably because we want to appear polite. Let’s live dangerously and try not to say this next time.

Do not copy another’s act or patter. – Marvin Kaye

10. Be yourself

At the root of the problem behind Rule #9 is this fundamental issue: magicians don’t know how to be themselves on a basic, normal, human level. Somewhere between starting out in magic and becoming a performer they lost their way and started to mimic other magicians. You end up with the equivalent of a tenth generation photocopy of a photocopy. The original source might be David Copperfield, Paul Daniels or whoever someone’s favourite magician happened to be 30 years ago. Imitation is like Zeno’s dichotomy paradox: forever approaching the original but never arriving.

When it comes to self-understanding and psychology, forget magic and magicians. Many of us learned magic as a means of coming out of our shell and integrating more effectively with the world; noble aims. But learning to perform and interact ‘like a magician’ is a false path. When performing just be your normal self doing magic, and you will be a more natural and entertaining magician.

The irony is that ‘be yourself’ is what all the old-timers – those performers whose lines that might one day have been entertaining and who we are now all unknowingly copying – always include in their top 10 rules of magic.

But what is yourself?

It’s the way you were before you became a magician.

2 thoughts on “10 Rules for Magicians

  1. As stated, there are many published rules for magicians, but if there is one set of rules that I believe surpasses all others it would be that of Robert-Houdin, Les secrets de la prestidigitation et de la magie, 1868, pp. 43–47, ‘Principes Généroux’, translated by Professor Hoffmann as The Secrets of Conjuring and Magic, 1877, pp. 32–36, ‘General Principles’. While the language may be old-fashioned, the message is as relevant 150 years on.

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