Whether a new or old hand to card magic, practicing the instructions set out below alongside reading my account will likely greatly enhance what you take away. As magic is an embodied, situated undertaking there is no substitute for trying it yourself; both to understand it as an activity and to appraise my account of it as an activity.

As noted in the Philosophy section, magicians are dissuaded from sharing the mechanisms for tricks with ‘non-magicians’ — not least because doing so would spoil the aura of magic for audiences. What such general prohibitions should mean in practice though is often characterized by uncertainty and disagreement. I am approaching the disclosure here as a compact: you are being invited into the world of magic in the spirit of a student, like me. And study requires practice.

Finally, attempts to describe in words forms of action can often prove dry in the abstract. By contrast undertaking magic can be great fun! This is an opportunity to make strange what is already familiar or to get a measure on what has been otherwise untried.

Be warned though! While enacting the instructions will open up new mysteries, you won’t look on a deck of cards in the same way.

The first entry in Self-Working Cards Tricks (1) is a trick grouped with others under the heading of ‘Card Locations’: tricks performed through knowing the identity or location of a particular card in order to provide the ability to reveal another card. The box below gives the trick instructions with additional numbering of the paragraphs for ease of reference. Photographs approximating the original sketches are also given.

Box: ‘No-Clue Discovery‘

  1. A spectator chooses a card and returns it to the deck. He then cuts the deck and completes the cut. His card is lost in the pack and no one – not even the magician – knows where the card is.
  2. The magician takes the deck and begins dealing cards one at a time into the face-up heap on the table. fig1bAs the magician deals, he instructs the spectator to call out the names of the cards. The spectator is asked to give no clue when his selected card shows up. He is not to pause, hesitate, blink or change his facial expression. Nevertheless, the magician claims, he will be able to detect the faintest change in the spectator’s tone of voice at the exact instant the chosen card shows up.
  3. The cards are dealt one at a time off the top of the deck. The spectator calls them out as they as are dealt. It does not matter how he calls them out; he can disguise his voice, whisper, shout or name the cards in French; when the chosen card turns up, the magician immediately announces that it is the card selected by the spectator.
  4. Method: This trick makes use of a principle known as the Key Card. Before performing the trick, secretly glimpse the bottom card of the deck. This can be done as the deck is being removed from the card case. In Figure 1, the Key Card is the 3D*.
  5. Hold the deck face-down in the left hand. fig2bThen spread the cards from left to right, inviting the spectator to choose a card from the center, as in Figure 2.
  6. As the spectator removes his card, separate the deck at the point from which the card was taken; see Figure 3. Tell the spectator to look at his card and remembers its identity. As he does this, place the packet of cards in your right hand on the table.
  7. Tell the spectator to replace his card on top of the packet that lies on the table. Your instructions should be something like this: “Please place your card back in its original position in the deck.” As you speak, point with the right hand to the tabled packet. As a matter of fact, the spectator is not returning his card to its original location, but this fact is never questioned.
  8. When the spectator has placed his card on top of the tabled packet, place the packet in your left hand on top his card. Tell the spectator to carefully square up the deck. His card is apparently lost in the deck, but really it lies directly below the Key Card, the 3D in our example.
  9. Now begin to deal cards off the top of the deck, turning them face-up as you deal. fig3bExplain that if the spectator names the cards are they are dealt, you can determine which card is his no matter how he tries to disguise his voice. Encourage him to announce each card in a different manner; he can speak in a dialect or an obscure foreign tongue; he can shout, scream or whisper. The more variety he uses, the more impossible the trick seems.
  10. All you need to do is wait until the 3D shows up. Then deal the next card. This will be the spectator’s chosen card, and you announce it as such.

    * The Three of Diamonds. This standard form of reference, with numeral and initial suit name, will be used in the book from time to time.

How then do such instructions enable learning?

One basic feature of this description is its two-part organization. While paragraphs 4-10 provide a specification of various actions, the first three call forth a sense of imagination. Would-be magicians are invited into an illustration of the trick from a third person perspective. But more than just being a fly on the wall mechanically observing what is happening, readers are positioned as party to the sought perception: the pack is such that “no one – not even the magician – knows where the card” chosen by the spectator is located. The disruption of this imagined collective perceptual situation through the revelation of the magician serves as the basis for the generated effect of the card trick. Despite being lost, the magician finds it nonetheless. The instructions make relevant certain features of the scene for the identification of chosen card: it is somehow found on the basis of the details of the utterances of the spectator – even as the details don’t appear to matter.

In this way, the ‘No-Clue Discovery’ begins by setting out a puzzle. With no apparent way to make sense of how the trick was accomplished, paragraphs 4–10 then give the ‘How to…’ methods starting with the naming of the ‘Key Card’ principle.

Despite what might be regarded both the relative simplicity of the instructions and of the underlying mechanism, I found seeking to act in alignment with the instructions required significant work. Arguably there is nothing unique in this requirement to card magic or to this specific set of instructions. The distinction between concrete action and descriptions of that action is a recurring theme in the social sciences. Through engaging in wide ranging forms of practical reasoning – from how to play checkers, to how to construct an origami figure, to how to follow a laboratory chemistry manual – in his book Ethnographies of Reason, Eric Livingston concluded that: “Realizing what […] instructions describe depends on the work that we do to find their adequacy. The ability to find their adequacy is, to some extent, what ‘skill’ is” (2). Work is required because instructions themselves are never forms of embodied action, they are a reduction of situational practice to written accounts. As such, attempting to follow instructions necessarily entails effort to figure out what they meant to describe.

What kind of work then was entailed in the case of the ‘No-Clue Discovery’?

As I tried out this trick for the first time, my initial reaction was to get beyond only reading the words to attempting the steps. In terms of paragraphs 4 and 5, this meant recreating the actions of both the magician and the spectator: removing the cards from the case, spreading them out, and choosing one as them as if I was the spectator.image007

To use Livingston’s terminology, that work entailed a good deal of effort at ‘cor­re­spond­ence’. Because of words and two-dimensional figures are not the same things as a process of physically manipulating cards, continual effort is needed to coordinate our actions with instructions. In this case a significant amount of the corresponding entailed repeatedly visual checking of the position of my hands and the cards against Figures 1-3.

Through this inspection, points of divergence becomes evident. For instance, while Figure 2 show a relatively small number of cards laid out with uniform distancing, my attempt at spreading an old deck of cards on my wooden study desk resulted in a far more clumpy arrangement (see above photo). So too with this table spreading, my hands were taken off the cards rather than cradling the ends as shown in Figures 2 and 3.

While such divergences were noted, knowing whether they mattered for the undertaking of the trick was not evident through reading the text up to paragraph 6. As a result, I stopped undertaking the trick to scan the instructions that followed and then re-read the description in paragraphs 1-3 in order to judge if the differences noted would affect the outcome. Learning how the chosen card was identified and revealed, I judged that these differences were not germane to the basic method of the trick (even if the clumpy spreading might well be regarded as clumsy).

With the subsequent practicing of other tricks, what has become evident to me is that the kind of correspondence work needed can vary and part of developing skill with aligning to magic descriptions is determining what kind of correspondence is necessary at each stage in the unfolding of tricks. For instance, at times a precise physical correspondence with instructions is required in order to achieve the sought manipulation of the cards. Through this work of visual correspondence, otherwise taken for granted qualities of the cards – such as their dead flatness – can emerge as critical; a slight curving up of the ends (as from extensive usage) could jeopardize a step. At other times, a looser physical correspondence would suffice as what was needed to achieve the overall effects did not hinge on this or that close physical correspondence between my manipulations and the instructions.

Relatedly, to return to my working through the ‘No-Clue Discovery’ instructions, the sixth paragraph outlines the bluff that provides the basis for identifying the chosen card in relation to the ‘Key Card’. It does this by detailing what verbal signals and gestures should be made by the magician. But more than just the achievement of some physical movements, the instructions evoke and rely on securing a certain outcome: the non-questioning of the card placement by the spectator.

Reading the instructions closely for the first time led me to wonder how the proposed verbal signals and gestures would be responded to. I did this by imagining myself as a spectator and then speculating if I would have queried the command to “Please place your card back in its original position in the deck”. By doing so, I came to the impression that the claim that spectators or any other audience members would never question the fact of what was taking place was highly optimistic and the basis for identifying the chosen card in relation to the ‘Key Card’ too obvious to not be frequently discovered. But I also recognized this assessment was based on having prior knowledge of the basis for the trick and, as it were, trying to predict how it would appear to others. This left me wondering whether would have been better to have seen the trick performed first in order to gauge how I would made sense of it without the insight of the instructions.

What followed was conjecture on how the steps might be altered to make the methods of the trick less detectable. For instance, I imagined and then tested out how easily I could glance at the bottom card of the deck in a way that would go unnoticed through shuffling the deck. I also speculated whether a rewording of the command to place the card would be more likely to pass by omitting the qualification “in its original position in the deck”. In this way, attempting the instructions was not simply a matter of whether certain physical actions (spreading cards, cutting a deck, making an utterance) could be undertaken. Instead, attempting the instructions – that is, attempting to pull off the trick – entailed imagining scenarios in which the bodily actions would play out in front of a make-believe audience.

By playing out such projected scenarios it became apparent that there were a range of possibilities for what could count as doing the No-Clue Discovery trick ‘successfully’:

  • No one noticing the placement (most of the time);
  • at least some not noticing the placement (most of the time);
  • at least some not noticing the placement and (during the trick) no one explicitly pointing out the placement to others (most of the time);
  • the noticing not mattering so long as the audience enjoyed the performance (most, well hopefully all, of the time).

Definitions of the ‘success’ of the trick would bear on other aspects of interpreting the instructions.

In this vein, have you noticed, dear reader, that the instructions post-replacement of the chosen card differ in an important respect? Have a re-read if not. I did not notice the disconnect until my third or fourth go at ‘No-Clue Discovery’. Paragraph 1 asks the spectator to cut the resulting deck whereas no such commands are given in Paragraph 8. While cutting the deck further substantiates the belief that ‘no one – not even the magician – knows where the card’ is, it comes at a price. If the spectator cuts the deck between the Key Card and the chosen card, then they will become separated. My initial fear in noting this was that the trick would embarrassingly bomb (though shortly after I started performing for friends I encountered this separation and was able to adjust). Although the risk is small (with, in theory 1/52 tricks affected), the recognition of different instructions force even the most strident rule adherer into a situation of choice.

While pointing out variances in the descriptions make apparent the need to think beyond the written words given in the instructions, this demand is a recurring feature of seeking to adhere to them. This is also apparent in relation to how the instruction relates to the spectator and any wider audience for the trick. A determination of the adequacy of the rules has to be produced in relation to audience, but an audience in these written instructions that is stultified into scripted roles. Working through the instructions engendered within me an appreciation of the implications of how their actions are not anticipated by the instructions, and thus the need for some sort of adjustment to be made to the written instruction in undertaking the ‘No-Clue Discovery’. For instance, the extent to which the spectator picks a card towards the left or right hand side of the card spread has knock-on effects for the subsequent steps: assuming no subsequent cut is made, picking card towards the left results in the location of chosen card being fairly guessable just by looking at the deck, and picking cards towards the right means the announcement of each card from the top of the deck as set out in paragraph 9 becomes a lengthy undertaking that might dull the audience.

As I worked through the tricks in Self-Working Cards Tricks, my speculations about the behavior of onlookers would lead to repeated concerns about the sufficiency of the instruction. For instance, almost none of the tricks in the book speak to the physical positioning of the audience around the magicians, though this would directly bear on matters such as the ability to spot the identity of the bottom card of a deck without being noticed.


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

[2] Ibid, p. 100.