Should Magic Be Flawless?

In this post, we learn a card control first published in 1938, and explore why Derren Brown is so brilliant at embracing mistakes.

Should Magic Be Flawless?

I find myself asking this question when consulting for new performers. Every magician has a different take on this.

Some magicians believe magic should be presented as something real, while others happily tell you it’s all a trick. Some magicians believe magic is theater and a well-rehearsed art, while others see it as an impromptu talent of sorts.

I appreciate the argument that magic should be flawless—such that every move appears fine-tuned, the script well-rehearsed, with perfect music and lighting.

But no thanks.

Unless you are creating a piece of artistic theater, I opt for mistakes. I think for the magic to work well, it needs to be grounded in reality. This does not mean every move should not be fine-tuned, the script perfectly rehearsed, and the music and lighting just right. It simply means it should perhaps not appear as polished as it truly is.

Derren Brown is world-class at making every night on stage feel totally impromptu and unrehearsed even though, in reality, he and his team have worked hard on every detail. There are moments in his performances that feel derailed in the best way. The mood in the theater becomes electric as the audience feels they’re witnessing a totally one-off performance.

Plus, when you embrace the idea of imperfections and mistakes, you can exploit them for methods and convincers.

A good example of this is found in a card control Steve Faulkner showed me when we were consulting on a project together. Steve is the best magic teacher in the world right now, offering brilliant courses.

Imagine a card is selected and cut back into the deck. The magician shuffles the cards and spreads through them only to notice one random card is facing the wrong way. The magician fixes the accidentally reversed card before continuing with the trick.

Of course, the reversed card was far from accidental — it’s actually a key card, allowing the magician to openly cut the selected card to the top of the deck.

The idea is first described in the 1938 publication of Greater Magic by John Northern Hilliard and taught as an “improvised key card.”

John recommended overhand shuffling of the cards and hopefully revealing the ‘accidental’ reversed card inside the deck. At which point, you end your shuffle and fix the reversed card.

If you never see the reversed card during the shuffle, you can simply fan or spread the deck after the shuffle.

The reversed card acts as a ‘key card,’ and in the process of reversing it you can easily and openly cut/pause with the selected card ending on top of the deck.

To perform this sleightless card control, begin with the reversed card at the bottom of the pack. When a spectator selects a card from within the deck, swing-cut the remaining cards.

The spectator will return their card between the two packets of cards, placed immediately below your key card/reversed card — ready to be discovered and resolved.