Cancelling Made Easy for Magicians

From the best-selling author of Scripting Magic

Illustration of a bar magician

You may have heard of the idea of cancelling. And you’ve probably read about tricks with methods that cancel each other out. But how do you add cancelling to tricks you already do? How do you make it a regular part of your magic?

I believe the best way to make a magic trick more powerful is to combine two or more methods. This is the basis of most of the cancelling I use. 

In this article, I’ll focus on card tricks because that’s the easiest way to understand the principles involved. However, the basic idea of combining methods to cancel each other can be applied to all magic.

Cancelling the Invisible Deck

Let’s start with probably the most-performed trick of the last 75 years—the Invisible Deck. You show a deck of cards, the spectator names any card, and you very fairly spread the deck to show one card is reversed. It’s the named card!

To improve this trick, we need to cancel the method. When Eddie Fields created the Invisible Deck presentation that Don Alan made famous, he used Joe Berg’s “Ultra-Mental” rough-and-smooth gaffed deck as the method, and this is what we need to cancel.

But, and this is the first rule of canceling, don’t just cancel the method you’re using—you should also cancel the methods you aren’t using. Fortunately, this is a lot easier. 

Lay audiences who see this miracle have two basic ideas. The first is sleight-of-hand—you secretly reversed the card. The second is that you have some kind of tricky deck. We need to cancel both.

The idea of Sleight of Hand is pretty well eliminated by the extreme cleanliness of the Ultra-Mental deck. But this only happens if you invite the spectators to watch closely, to make sure you don’t do any sleight of hand. If you don’t mention sleight-of-hand specifically, it won’t be cancelled.

This is the second rule of cancelling: you have to say it out loud. Tell people what you’re cancelling. Oherwise it’s not really cancelled.

For any card trick, the "trick deck" theory won’t be cancelled until you let the spectators examine the cards, so they can “make sure it isn’t one of those tricky decks.” Tell them, or it’s not cancelled.

To cancel the trick deck theory, we add another method.

Cancelling a trick deck

Plan A to cancel a trick deck is a deck switch. Hand a spectator a deck to examine, take it back, and switch it for your trick deck. We'll use The Invisible Deck for this example.

In close-up, you can hand the spectator a regular deck and have them examine and shuffle it. Then, take it back and announce that you are going to reverse one card without looking, and they are going to magically sense which card you reversed. 

Take the deck under the table, but instead of reversing one card without looking, switch it for an Invisible Deck you have hidden in your lap. 

The spectator magically senses the card you reversed, and you spread the Invisible Deck to show that they are right. 

On stage, you can bring a spectator up, have them examine the cards, and secretly reverse one without looking. Now, they sit in a chair and “visualize” a single card facing the wrong way—this is a great opportunity to expand the presentation. Meanwhile, a servante hangs on the back of the chair, and the deck is switched very naturally as the magician politely holds the chair for the spectator. 

Cancelling a trick deck without a deck switch

A marked deck can be used to cancel a trick deck. To do this, we expand the presentation to a do-as-I-do effect. The spectator takes a deck, shuffles it, and reverses one card without looking at it. You do the same. 

Their deck is spread face up on the table, revealing one face-down card, which you know because of the mark. Spread your Invisible Deck to reveal one card reversed. 

Show your card, then have the spectator turn over their card. They match! 

The marked deck changes the apparent timing of the trick’s method in a way that neatly cancels out both the tricky deck and sleight-of-hand theories. The order of the reveal is key. Because you reveal your reversed card before their selection is shown, it never occurs to the audience that you might be using sleight of hand or a tricky deck. Neither idea would explain what they saw you do. 

Cancelling Sleight-of-Hand

A deck switch can also be used to cancel sleight-of-hand. Let’s take Triumph. In a perfectly cancelled world, the spectator can examine and shuffle the cards face up and face down themself. You do nothing but spread the cards across the table. 

No problem. All we need to do is combine two methods: a way to switch decks on the table and a force. For the switch, there are devices like Christian Engblom’s Cooler, Greg Wilson’s Cold Case, or the criminally underused deck shell. 

Start with two matching decks. Take one, reverse the Queen of Hearts (or whatever), and load that deck into in your switching device. In performance, introduce a matching deck, force the Queen of Hearts (or whatever), and let the spectator return it to the deck and shuffle face up into face down. 

Don’t forget: the cross-cut force is the best force in magic. 

Now, you put the deck down and read the spectator’s mind, eventually naming their card. Under the cover of this process, you do your deck switch. After naming the card, you can ask the spectator to spread the deck that they themself shuffled face up and face down, revealing their card is the only one reversed. 

Please don’t make the common mistake of thinking that the mind-reading phase is a throw-away effect just for cover. It is an absolute miracle to lay audiences. And because of that, it’s the perfect cover for the deck switch. 

In this handling, the force and deck switch cancel each other. Neither secret alone would explain what happened. But the effect also involves mind-reading, which means you might want to cancel one more thing.

Cancelling Mentalism

There is one audience theory every successful mentalist must cancel with each trick: the assisting spectator is a stooge. It’s the first thing people will think of if you read someone’s mind. It must be cancelled, or there will be a very low limit on the reaction you can get.

What this means in practice is that when you choose a spectator, there must be some procedure that seems to put that choice out of your control. 

Here’s the most effective way I’ve found to do it. It’s not another method—it’s another entire trick.

When I introduce my book test, I mention that I’m going to need someone who can send me shapes. This will come into play during the mind-reading phase, when I ask the spectator to concentrate on letters that stick up above the others, like b, d, f, t, etc., and then letters that descend, like p, g, j, and q. 

So, I start with a little test. I’m going to project two simple geometric shapes, like a square, and I’d like everyone in the audience to see if they can receive my thoughts. I focus, then I say that I was sending a circle and a triangle. Did anybody get that?

If you have never tried this classic psychological “force,” it is remarkably durable. Usually, at least half the audience will raise their hand—the lowest I’ve ever gotten was 25%.

This is a profoundly powerful effect—don’t forget to be openly amazed at how well it worked. And then, one of those people is chosen for the main trick. 

If spectators were truly analytical, this procedure does not actually cancel the stooge method. But the procedure involves the entire audience, and gives a very strong impression that anyone could have been chosen. And the additional effect creates a wonderful atmosphere for the book test (or any other mind-reading effect).

If you’re doing mind-reading as part of an impossible triumph routine, maybe you don’t need this because the mind-reading isn’t the climax. But with mentalism, it’s pretty much a requirement.

Cancelling a Stacked Deck

This is another case where the easiest way to cancel one method is to add an entire other trick. 

Let’s say you want to switch in a stacked deck whose top card is the Jack of Clubs. Put that deck in your pocket and a piece of cardboard to make sure the decks stay separate later on. 

Take the (matching) deck that’s in play and force the Jack of Clubs on a spectator. Give them the deck and have them shuffle freely. 

Now, to make sure you can’t cheat by peeking—don’t forget to cancel the methods you’re not using—you’ll put the deck somewhere out of sight. In your pocket should work. Put the deck on the other side of the cardboard from your stacked deck.

Make a magical gesture, then reach into your pocket and pull out the top card of the stacked deck, which is their card! Then, you remove the rest of the stacked deck so you can go on with your next trick. The original deck stays in the pocket. 

This deck switch could not be easier or cleaner. You can use it to introduce a stacked deck or a gimmicked one—the switch cancels both ideas. 

Cancelling a Magic App on your Phone

There are a ton of magic apps you can carry with you at all times on your phone. And they all have the same potential audience theory: It’s a tricky app. 

The first step in cancelling this idea is making the climax happen somewhere other than your phone. 

Say you have an app that lets you reveal any named playing card. I’ve used a half-dozen of these myself over the years. Many of them are very clean and strong, but they all have the same limitation: the final revelation is in an app on your phone. 

The same marked deck “time shifting” strategy that cancels the Ultra-Mental deck can be used here. A spectator shuffles the deck and selects a card without looking at it. You read the mark, bring out your phone, and show the card wherever the app reveals it. 

Only now do you have the spectator turn over their card. They match!

This procedure cancels the “tricky app” theory, and the final revelation, instead of being on your phone, is literally in the spectator’s hand.

Needing a marked deck does reduce the “Always with you” benefit of the magic app. A center tear with whatever paper you have handy does the same cancelling. 

Cancelling a Nailwriter

This is pretty much the same as cancelling a magic app, except that the benefits are even greater. 

In a typical nailwriter card prediction, you pretend to write a prediction, then the spectator chooses a card. You nailwrite the card onto the prediction and show it. 

The problem with this is the audience. After the spectator names their card, everyone turns their full attention to the prediction. That is when you are supposed to do your secret nailwriting, at the worst possible time.

A marked deck fixes this. The spectator chooses a card but leaves it face down. You read the mark; let’s say it’s the three of clubs.

Pick up your (blank) prediction, unfold it, and pretend to read it, saying, “I predicted the three of clubs. What did you get?”

As soon as you name the prediction, everyone turns their attention to the face-down selection. As the spectator is turning it over, that’s when you do your nailwriting. You could not ask for a better cover.

This is a very clear example of the power of using two methods for cancelling. Neither a marked deck nor a nailwriter by itself would explain what you are able to do. 

Beyond Cards

We’ve looked at card tricks. Now, let’s think about what we’ve seen in more general terms so you can apply it to everything else. 

We’ve seen that you can take every theory an audience may come up with to explain your tricks and make that theory seem impossible. Even better, sometimes, we can keep them from considering that theory in the first place. 

We’ve seen that we can do this by using multiple methods, neither of which by itself is sufficient to explain the trick.

We’ve seen that we need to cancel all methods, not just the ones we are using. 

We’ve seen that we need to tell people what we are cancelling, or it isn’t really cancelled.

For card tricks, two very flexible cancelling methods are deck switches and marked cards. Switches, in general, are valuable for cancelling gaffed props. Marked cards, in particular, let you change the apparent timing of your method, allowing you to cancel multiple theories at once. 

What’s next is for you to apply these methods, so you will see how they can improve your magic.