Moving from my working through the instructions of the three tricks into drawing more general reflections, this page offers some provisional lessons and future learning-directed questions.

Limits of Instructions

A starting point for the analysis of the tricks has been the contention common in social and philosophical studies that instructions cannot act as some simple guide to action (read: “be straightforwardly followed”). This is because so what it means to adhere to them is always at some level unstipulated. Situations in social life are never identical, and therefore how instructions should be enacted cannot be set out one and for all. As a result, those reading tricks must manage the relevance of instructions, what it means to adhere or deviate from them, and what consequences are likely to follow from different courses of action. In this sense instructions are not so much standards that dictate required action, but resources that help give meaning to acts and situations.

While this has been a starting orientation, like instructions themselves, what this tack means for the undertaking of magic card tricks is something that needs to be worked out in relation to the activity of card tricks. In doing so for each of three card tricks, I have sought to go beyond the bald and uncontentious statements that knowing how tricks are done (‘the theory’) is not the same as knowing how do tricks (‘the practice’). Moreover, in going through each trick in some detail, I have also suggested that working through instructions need not be a matter of identifying a general principle or mechanism underlying a trick that then can be applied in different contexts. Instead, at each step efforts must be made to assess what ‘adequately following’ entails; different kinds of coordination and correspondence might be required. More, the descriptions of the tricks need not even speak to an underlying general principle or mechanism as in the ‘just-do-it’ account in ‘The Lazy Magician’.

If ‘following’ is a questionable language for characterizing my relation to the instructions, ‘aligning’ offers some advantages. Rather than implying adherence, it suggests making ongoing adjustments such as to achieve an overall line of direction. If achieving a specified effect is the crucial goal (for instance, dramatically revealing a spectator’s chosen card), then aspects of the instructions may be foregone or altered if an act gets judged as undermining movement towards this goal. Certainly this was my experience, asking if I could ‘pull off’ the trick was a prime imperative as the instructions were read and enacted. With my growing familiarity with card tricks gained by having a go at all the entries of Self-Working Cards Tricks (1), my working through individual instructions more and more entailed seeking to suss out which manipulations and utterances were essential and which were tangential as I was reading along. A bit of directed patter or a cut of the deck could be envisioned as too risky. Aligning as a term characterizing my engagement with the instructions also signals need to attend to the physical positioning of magicians and spectators as part of the performance of tricks.

I perceived other types of self-development. As I gained experience practicing tricks, I was able to attend to how I was using my own ways of thinking and acting as a basis for attributing how spectators and audience members would think and act. Repeatedly I was pulled outside of my sought role of magician to instead look with the eyes of another – this to gauge the appropriateness of the instructions and my attempts to enact them. At times, while the instructions provided the core basis for my imagined simulations, the simulations provided the terms for assessing the adequacy of and amending the specifics of the instructions.  

With the realization of the importance of such imaginations too came a developing sense of the likely stunted potential of the scripted behaviours in the instructions as well as of my novice speculations on the probable spectator/audience behaviour. In some cases such audience considerations combined with my inability to discern the basis for tricks. These points suggest the importance for me in the future to attend to how spectators and audiences are conceived in the anticipation of performing tricks and how they are crafted during the undertaking of tricks.

As a final issue of note in relation to the limits of instructions, the diversity in the organization and content of ‘Any Deck, Any Time’, ‘The Lazy Magician’, and ‘No-Clue Discovery’ illustrate that there are a range of ways of describing any trick. Such a potential suggests the need to attend to what is and is not being offered in specific portrayals. The other sixty-nine entries in Self-Working Card Tricks present a further range of organization and content, but one I will not detail here. But more than the text themselves taken in the abstract, my discussions of the tricks has suggested the varying kinds of work done to find their adequacy. This variation too underscores the need to attend to any specific set of instructions and the consequences that follow from them for readers.

In the future then as I go on to read other instruction manuals, my plan is keep an eye on various questions: What sort of limits are noted in the magic explanation books about what the instructions are providing? How do other types of instructions compare to written ones in terms of the work needed to assess their adequacy? How can ‘good’ beginner’s magic instructions be defined?

Success in Magic

The second question refers to ‘good’ in question marks because, as already suggested in the account of ‘No-Clue Discovery’, what counts as successful magic appears by no means straightforward to me at the very early stage of learning. Wider than the points considered in ‘No-Clue Discovery’ about the success of a particular step, it is possible to forward number of different criteria for what counts as ‘good’ magic:

  1. The (visible) affects generated in the audience (for instance, wonder, laughter, awe)
  2. The novelty of trick in relation to the known existing canon
  3. The technical skill required to achieve the sought goal
  4. The consistency with which the sought goal is realized
  5. The fluency of the performance

While these criterion are not unrelated, they can pull in different direction. For instance, if a trick is exquisitely delivered but generates no noticeable reactions in the audience, what claim can a magician make that it was ‘successful’?

The specific types of tricks in Self-Working Card Tricks are interesting in this regard because as tricks that, to use Fulves’ words, are ‘easy to master’ and require ‘no skill’(2), they would rank low according to Criterion 3. As the book also recounts tricks with a long lineage and tricks that Fulves’ popular book has itself ensured are part of the existing canon, they would rank low according to criterion 2 today. And yet, most audiences might well be as impressed by the performance of ‘self-working’ tricks, perhaps as affected as tricks that rely on much more manual dexterity. In this regard, within Self-Working Card Tricks, Fulves points out that a number of the entries are written to achieve the same outcome as more technically demanding methods, but without the need for highly refined card manipulation skills.

The Show and Trickery

The limits of instructions and the varying determinants of success come together in relation to the question: What is vital for magic besides the proper physical manipulation of objects? Fulves speaks to what is missing from the instructions varyingly as ‘presentation’ and ‘showmanship’. As he comments ‘At least half the secret of acquiring a reputation in magic is knowing how to act while presenting a trick’. He speaks to his treatment in the introduction to Self-Working Card Tricks: ‘For most of the tricks, I have sketched in the proper presentation or suggested a presentation idea that can be exploited, but I have not delved into the details of this aspect of the trick’. As noted in the case of ‘Any Deck, Any Time’, this can take the form of him recommending to reveal a spectator’s card ‘as dramatically as you can’.

A central concern for me looking ahead then is how ‘presentation’, ‘showmanship’, or related notions like ‘style’ are defined, achieved, and their relevance for performances.   For now I will bring these yet to defined aspects together in a shorthand with the term ‘the show’. This term points to how magic is something that takes place in the interactions between people. A question moving forward then is what can be accounted for through such an umbrella term.

The centrality of ‘the show’ was suggested to me in reading Self-Working Card Tricks as I had the impression that a few of the entries were tricks I learned in childhood but bored of fairly quickly. As I recall, I enacted them with little more than attention on the physical card manipulations themselves. The show was also suggested to me in reading Self-Working Card Tricks because of the way working through the tricks frequently entailed speculating on more dramatic or plausible ways for undertaking them that than specified in the instructions.

As part of the wider show, one prominent matter that became apparent for me in going through Self-Working Card Tricks is the importance of how individual tricks are ‘strung-together’ and how they ‘hang-together’.

In terms of the former, most of the tricks in Self-Working Card Tricks rely on a certain starting arrangement. Although some of those set-ups are simple, others are more intricate. While using a preconfigured deck, for instance, might enable some of the intricate arrangements to be achieved, it seemed difficult to believe that even highly skilled magicians would be about the move from one trick with intricate requirements (for instance, making sure all 13 Clubs are at the top of the deck in increasing order of value) and another trick with the similarly steep set-up requirements. Instead, my thinking at this point in time is that pointing tricks of varying together is one way to be able to perform a multi-trick performance: some tricks only require knowing the top or bottom card, some require the magician to turn her back (or even leave the room), others require a precise placement of one card within the deck, and others still that all the cards be turned up at some stage. Assessing how tricks could be sequenced in such a way one trick helped set the conditions for the next one was a type of additional work I did in making sense of the adequacy of the instructions in Self-Working Card Tricks.

One of the topics I would like to think about more, later on, is how (beginner-level) magic trick books could be alternatively organized. Self-Working Card Tricks groups its entries together largely on the basis of the mechanism, effects and complexity. Another basis would be how each trick begins and ends, this in order to know how to fit them together.

In terms of the show ‘hanging together’, this refers for the need to think about the repertoire of tricks as a whole. Seemingly, a convincing performance could not rest on doing multiple tricks with the same specified mechanism or sought effect; this could lead to the audience growing bored or guessing what manipulations were at play. Instead, my thought are that it would be necessary to bring together tricks with varied aspects in order to keep the audience guessing. That does not mean tricks that differ completely, tricks that involve the same basic effects but with contrasting mechanisms could be one strategy.

[1] Fulves, K. (1976) Self-Working Card Tricks. Dover publications, pp. 128. ISBN: 9780486233345.

[2] Ibid., page V (introduction).