This is the fourth entry in Self-Working Card Tricks (1). Listed in the ‘Impromptu Card Routines’ section, this trick is one of seven in the book that, in the words of Fulves, “the magician can work with any deck handed to him, without the need for special apparatus or elaborate setting-up procedures”.

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.

In its organization, ‘Any Deck, Any Time’ is more akin to ‘The Lazy Magician’ than ‘No-Clue Discovery’ in the manner that it does not provide an initial account of how the trick is meant to unfold as a performance. Instead of flagging the sought effect at the start or pointing to the intended result as the manipulations unfold, the step-by-step instructions specify a series of actions whose culmination in the identification and revelation of the card noted (in Paragraph 3) provides the basis for surmising the intersubjective perception sought.

Box: ‘Any Deck, Any Time’

  1. Although a trick of honorable ancestry, this card location still rates as one of the most impressive in the entire literature on the subject. In describing it here, I will give a step-by-step procedure that should make it easy for anyone to follow, and at the same time avoid ambiguities that might otherwise mislead the reader.
  2. Any deck is used. Tell a spectator to cut it into three piles. The exact number in each pile is no important, but the piles should be approximately equal in size.
  3. While you turn your back, ask him to pick a pile, shuffle it and note the top card. Then tell him to turn the pile face-up and place it on top of either of the two other piles on the table. When he had done this, have him place the remaining pile face-down on top of all.
  4. The condition of the deck now is that there is face-up pile of cards sandwiched between two face-down piles. Tell the spectators to carefully square up the deck. Then have him cut off half of the deck and shuffle it into the other half.
  5. Tell him to square the deck after the shuffle and give the deck a cut. At this point the spectator himself can look through the cards and verify that face-up and face-down cards are randomly mixed throughout the deck.
  6. Take the deck from him and turn it over. Run the cards from hand to hand. You will notice that small groups of face-up and face-down cards appear at random in the deck. But you will also note something that the spectator will never spot; there is a long run of face-up cards in the deck, longer than any other run.
  7. As you study the cards, pretending to look for his card, cut the deck so all of this long run of face-up cards has been brought to the face of the deck nearest you. Now beginning at the face of the deck, run the card from left to right until you come to the last face-up card in this long run. The next card (a face-down card) will be the spectator’s card. Reveal it as dramatically as you can.

In terms of my own undertaking of ‘Any Deck, Any Time’, as with the others, this was done through shifting myself between the role of the magician and spectator as I manually acted out and envisioned performing the steps. Both these activities entailed the work of conceiving of others through my own ways of thinking. So, in relation to the spectator, doing the steps involved imagining what thoughts and reactions I would have if I was in the place of the spectator as the trick unfolded. For each instructional step in Paragraphs 2–4, that meant assessing my ability to follow the instructions was done not only in relation to my own physical enactment of them, but how I anticipated how I would enact them if I were the spectator. What would I see, think and do when asked to cut a deck in thirds, shuffle a pile, turn a pile face-up, etc. including, in particular, what I would see when looking through the spread cut cards (Paragraph 5)? My own ways of thinking and acting were then the analog basis for attributing how others would think and act.

Within philosophy, the term ‘simulation’ refers to how we read the minds of others by emulating and ascribing mental states through such analog reasoning. In undertaking the card manipulations during my first reading of the instructions, my situation was in important respects in line with a naïve spectator: I had no sense why the steps were being undertaken or how the identification of the chosen card would be possible.

With subsequent practicing, simulation would take on additional complexities. After reading Paragraphs 6 and 7, my attempts at using my own reasoning for others was complicated by my insider knowledge of the basis of the trick, and thus what aspects of it might enable spectators to guess what was being searched for in Paragraph 7. In short, I had to try to simulate others by seeking to put to the side what I knew. There can never be another first time!

More than this though, because of my own limited experience in performing tricks up until this point in time, I also had little sense of the likelihood that spectators would or could go along with what was asked of them. Might they purposefully or otherwise cut the deck wrongly when my back was turned? I might be ‘simulating’ their thoughts and actions, but I was doing so by largely speculating how spectators and audiences were likely to behave within the contexts of magic tricks.

But there was the additional question of acting ‘inappropriately’ would mean. This subsequent practice brought mixed end identification results. While my first enacting of the instructions led to the card noted in Paragraph 3 being found at the end of the steps, I only achieved this result most of the time. In response, I tried to work out how the cards would move with pencil and paper, but I could not discern how the noted card would necessarily be at the end of the longest face-up card run. ‘Any Deck, Any Time’ was one of a few entries in Self-Working Card Tricks, that I read and attempted a few times but could still could not regularly achieve the specified outcome nor establish a definite ‘in theory’ model of its mechanisms.

Therefore, seeking to determine how spectators would act entailed considering how I anticipated how I would enact the instructions if I were a spectator, but with the further appreciation that I did not have a definite grasp of what, exactly, would be required from the spectator by the way of cutting and shuffling to achieve the sought effects.

In short, working through the instructions indicated the many ways my novice understanding as a magician served as a questionable analog basis for attributing how others would think and act in relation to their following out of the instructions.

What ‘Any Deck, Any Time’, ‘The Lazy Magician’, and ‘No-Clue Discovery’ do provide through their explicit indications of how spectators will behave and implicit suggestion for how spectators will not will behave. These form a kind of working theory of behavior for the particular domain of activity that is magic card tricks. It is a theory insomuch as the instructions predict how spectators will interpret situations, posit competencies, ascribe intentionality, establish expectations, and foretell reactions. It is a theory presumably distilled from Fulves’ considerable experience. Yet, as the predictions made set generic expectations abstracted from specific interactions, the work I had done in undertaking the instructions lead me to the conclusion they could only be bare bone starting guides for knowing how to do the work of a magician.

Missing from both my ‘simulations’ of the tricks and the accounts of spectators by Fulves then is what seems central to the undertaking of tricks: the lived interactions between people. This is not just to say that the instructions are no substitute for hands-on experience of doing tricks in front of audiences. It is also to point out that the instructions here don’t identify or contain all the resources needed for navigating the step-by-step performance of tricks. As Shaun Gallagher has contended, instead of simply understanding others through postulating or imagining mental states, we typically do so through a much richer vein of materials. While individuals might at times relate others by holding a theory about or simulating their mental states, interactions are typically characterized by a rich diversity of ongoing signaling that help individuals to understand each other: eye movements, facial expressions, posture, displays of emotions and the like make attempts to ‘mind-reading’ more like ‘body-reading’. These are the kinds of signals not present in the particular instructions surveyed in Self-Working Card Tricks. In this sense the written instructions could be understood as artificial and resource-poor.


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