Why Do Some Sleights Get Forgotten?
A Guest Article Written By Biz
Magicians use various tools to perform the tricks you all know and love. One of these is sleight of hand - the ability to manipulate an object such as a deck of cards or a coin to help you achieve a specific magical effect. We call these skills that magicians learn and practice “sleight of hand techniques” or “sleights”.
For example, one of the most popular sleights you might know of is palming. Palming is the act of secretly holding out a card in your hand while the audience perceives your hand to be empty.
A magic trick is often the combination of multiple different sleights. In magic, just as in any other industry, there are performers and creators. Creators come up with new sleights or tricks, which they then publish in various magazines or, more recently, websites, and performers pick them up and then use them in their shows.
Since “The Discoverie of Witchcraft”, the first-ever ‘manual’ of magic, published in 1584, thousands of sleight of hand techniques have been published. Some of these have survived and evolved throughout time, while others have been forgotten between the brown pages of old books.
I’ve always wondered why some sleight of hand techniques get left behind while others prosper and are never forgotten. So, after quite a few years of merely asking myself this, I’ve recently taken the time to hide myself inside books and find out the answer! To answer the question, I took a ride through 145 years of card magic and observed how and why one single move has managed to survive the test of time. I decided that focusing on just one special move would be more fruitful and quick.
I’ve chosen The Top Change as my subject as it piqued my interest from the fact that, even though it’s such an easy move to execute, many avoid it or perform it poorly, making you wonder, “What is this move and why are magicians so afraid of using it?” This move is also perfect for my question as the move is still being used today by magicians (courageous ones).
What is a Card Change?
To achieve specific magical effects, magicians use various sleight of hand techniques. Sleights, as they get referred to, like palming and switching, you might have seen in Hollywood movies such as Now You See Me or Ant-Man.
Magicpedia, a sort of Wikipedia for magic, defines colour changes as “a generic term for any card sleight in which one card is apparently (and often visually) changed into another “. To achieve one such transformation, magicians often use other techniques such as palming, switching or shifting to help them accomplish this visual feat.
Andrew Galloway, a Scottish magician, put it quite poetically in his 1980 book “Diverting Card Magic” when talking about colour changes:
“There are few sleights in card magic more effective (or difficult) than the change, and the very thought of openly switching one card for another in full view of the audience is enough to daunt all but the most confident of conjurors. It is one of those moves which is best learnt' under fire' as it were, with the performer waiting for the right psychological moment (when the spectators' attention has relaxed) before making the change. However, this is not always possible, and sometimes the sleight has to be executed without delay. “(Andrew Galloway - Diverting Card Magic, 1980 p.11)
Changing a card’s identity from a 3 to a Jack is called a ‘colour change’. If you change a card into a coin, though, that’s called a ‘transformation’. “Color change” refers to an object changing its colour - be it a card, a coin, silk or anything else.
So, what exactly is The Top Change?
The term Top Change is usually understood to mean the exchange of a card with the top card of the deck. It is an easy sleight to learn, as its method is pretty straightforward.
“When doing the basic sleight, you show the audience a card held in one hand while holding the deck in your other hand. You then exchange the displayed card with the top card of the deck. The switch is done secretly, without anyone perceiving it.”
Magic Christian, an Austrian magician, historian and master of the top change, writes the above in his famous book on the very subject of the top change.
Sounds relatively easy. Still, it is one of those sleights that are easy to pick up but hard to master. Similar to Kendama or card throwing. Many magic books feature magicians complaining about the sleight poorly done by others.
Interestingly, it isn’t quite the move per se that gets executed the wrong way, but rather how the movement is covered so that the spectator doesn’t catch it. Magic Christian writes about this in his book: “For centuries, many performers covered the actions of Top and Bottom Changes with body turns and broad sweeps of the arms. The underlying theory was that these large actions concealed the smaller ones of the exchange. However, such motions were often out of character with the performer's usual movement style and therefore appeared hectic or artificial. This only drew attention to them and created confusion or suspicion.” (The Top Change, 2017)
As you can imagine, cover means everything in magic. Hiding the secret is the key behind every magical effect out there. As such, many times, magicians will spend an equal amount of time deciding how to mask a move as on how to perform it. Roberto Giobbi, a Swiss magician of great renown, explains why this is important in his book “Card College” Vol. 1, p. 236:
“The top change, like palming and the pass [...] is a technique with no "external reality" (to borrow a phrase from the great Spanish master Arturo de Ascanio )-in other words, your audience should not be aware that any action has taken place.”
This is why even if you perform a move perfectly, if you fail at providing proper cover for it, the spectator will see everything, and you will have failed your card trick. This is why cover plays an essential factor in determining a move’s quality and longevity.
Reason 1 - The Cover
It’s the 1870s, France declared war on Prussia and invaded Germany. The United States ordered all Native Americans to move into reservations. And in 1876, Professor Louis Hoffman published “Modern Magic”, the first attempt at recording magic in an encyclopaedic fashion. In this book, we will find the first English description of The Top Change. Here, Prof. Hoffman also writes about how one should cover the sleight through “a half-turn of the body to the left or right”, making this the official go-to cover for the move.
Once you’ve trained a sleight enough as a performer, you want to put it into application. The Top Change is one of those sleights that needs misdirection to fly by. Other sleights, like the pass, can work with or without misdirection with practice. With the Top Change, one must either direct the spectator’s gaze to something else or cover the move entirely with the use of their body. But, even when all the requirements for good cover are met, magicians don’t always do an excellent job at misdirecting their audience.
Ken Brooke, an English magician, consultant and magic dealer, talks about this phenomenon in his book “The Unique Years” from 1980:
“Over the years I've seen many magicians attempt to top (or bottom) change a card. In the great majority of cases they signal that something is about to take place by either waiting too long before making the change, or ruin the entire effect by making a series of twist turns and erratic movements of both body and hands. I wish to assure my reader neither of these common faults are necessary for the correct execution of the move. It can and must be brought about in a calm manner and you can do that under cover of misdirection - natural misdirection brought about by natural movement.”
Even if we know the wisdom and get told to find our own misdirection, it sometimes doesn’t come to us. It would take almost 100 years since the Top Change’s first publication in English for very detailed cover actions to start appearing in speciality books, offering students of magic specific instructions of what exactly to do to make the move invisible. I believe this delay in explanations was due to the philosophy carried over the years regarding this topic and which I have found through my studies. Jean Hugard’s tips in “Royal Road to Card Magic” (1948) sum this up perfectly:
“First master the switch while holding the hands relatively motionless. Once you have learned the feel and light pressures necessary to switch the cards smoothly, unhesitatingly and with minimal finger motion, begin to add a cover action that suits your style and the surrounding circumstances of the trick (a gesture with the left hand, using it to obtain or move some object, a stroke, snap or tap of the right hand's card, etc.). First comes the fluidity, then the covering context.“
A snap, a tap, or a wave don’t always fit seamlessly with the performer’s character or the card trick he presents. And even if students are asked to come up with their own ideas, not everyone is so creative. As such, in reply to the demand for more ideas for covering the sleight, almost 100 years later, these started appearing in publications.