“Penn’s Favorite Card Trick,”and Props vs. Sleights

Fooling Garwulf 8 social

It’s another week, and another episode of Penn & Teller: Fool Us – and last night’s episode was one of the strongest so far this season. It was also pre-empted on at least some East Coast CW channels by a baseball game… so here it is if you missed it.

And, without further ado, the performers:

Kostya Kimlat: It’s not often that you see somebody get under Penn’s skin like Kimlat did. The reason has to do with the trick itself – Kimlat was performing a version of Dai Vernon’s Triumph, which is perhaps one of the most famous card tricks among professional magicians (and most amateur ones). Any magician watching would have known it was a version of Triumph the minute the deck was riffle shuffled with half the cards face-up. And then, Kimlat modified his method to make the usual means of performing the trick impossible. So, this was a trick that by all rights should not even have had a chance of fooling Penn & Teller, and Kimlat baffled them. It was a great performance, and it nearly ended up being the best performance of the night… but not quite.

Frederick Falk: It may be a disservice to Falk that his trick might be most remembered for having Simon Pegg unexpectedly brought onto the stage. But, celebrity cameo notwithstanding, it was a lovely piece of mentalism that started with the mind reading of the time on the watch, then revealed that the watch had no hands, and then added a prediction using the bag of coins. It may not have fooled Penn and Teller, but it was a good, solid performance with some nice twists and turns that used its theme of the perception of time very well indeed.

Thurston levitation

Chris Funk: The rising card is a staple of magic tricks with a number of different methods, some of which involve props, and some of which don’t. By combining it with music as he did, Funk elevated what is otherwise a simple trick, first making it comic with the bad rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and then making it beautiful with his skilled playing of the violin. The disappearance of the violin at the end was just the perfect last touch. Penn and Teller were not fooled, but that really doesn’t matter – Funk managed to present the best performance of the night.

(In his comments, Penn mentioned Ed Balducci, 1906-1988, who was a New York magician most famous for creating a levitation trick wherein the magician rises off the ground for a very short time.)

Nate Dendy: This was a wonderful, whimsical performance, made all the more fun by the fact that Dendy performed in silence. That he succeeded in a silent patter is impressive – it’s not easy to do, and it requires the performer to be a very good mime, with a mastery of body language. The closest comparison is to Teller, and while Dendy’s movements weren’t quite as confident and assured as Teller’s, it probably won’t be long before they are. It didn’t fool Penn and Teller – as Penn noted, it’s a variation on a trick called The Sands of the Desert, but it was a very good performance.

Penn and Teller: This was a charming trick with a surprise twist at the end. It was great fun to watch somebody get to “be” Penn Jillette on stage, and it really looks at the beginning like Teller is going to step into the box and grab the selected card while they’re flying around him. So, when it turns out to be a metamorphosis illusion instead, with the showgirl dressed up as the card, it’s a great reveal that gives the audience exactly what was promised, but not in any expected way.

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Now, back in the opening installment, I talked about the three parts of a magic trick: the effect, the sleight, and the patter. But that was actually a bit of a simplification – not all tricks have sleights, and a number of tricks are done using a special prop, build specifically to perform the trick.

It’s called prop magic, and it can be a contentious issue among magicians.

Magic can be divided into three basic approaches: using sleights, using props, and using a combination of both (often the most popular of the three). Most large-scale stage magic is dependent on props, with the illusion consisting of the magician presenting the patter while the prop or apparatus creates the effect. For the modern magician, it can be as simple as introducing the trick and pressing a button on a remote control.

While anybody who moves beyond the smaller tricks involving sleights has to use prop magic, in the past – if not today – there was a stigma against magicians who only use props. Harry Keller (1849-1922), the great American magician and founder of what is considered a magic “royal line” extending to Lance Burton today, faced criticism that he wasn’t a real magician because he only used props and apparatus. His successor, Howard Thurston (1869-1936), was held in higher esteem – like his contemporary Harry Houdini (1874-1926), he had begun with card tricks, and fashioned himself “The King of Cards.” Houdini, famous as an exciting escape artist and a fire-and-brimstone style debunker of spiritualists, was at best a competent magician who was criticized in his later career not just for his reliance on props, but for his often poor presentation of them.

But while a reliance on props was considered the sign of a poor magician, the magicians of the last Golden Age – and even before – were crazy about new technology. As soon as it became possible to project an image, magicians started projecting ghosts into smoke and presenting the first slide shows. Performers such as the Maskelyne family – John Nevil Maskelyne (1829-1917), Nevil Maskelyne (1863-1924), and Jasper Maskelyne (1902-1973) – and David Devant (1868-1941) engaged in what was in effect a technological arms race against the general public, seeking out new science and technology and rushing to put it into their shows before the public could learn of them. To create magic tricks and illusions was to be a cutting-edge engineer, developing new applications of optics and mechanical engineering. To be a successful touring magician often meant leading a caravan with thousands of pounds of expensive equipment, and frequently having to cut trapdoors into stages to install it. During their shows, Harry Keller, and then Howard Thurston, presented an illusion stolen from the Maskelynes titled “The Levitation of Princess Karnac” – the apparatus involved a complex arrangement of wires that had to be carefully balanced out before each performance.

Magicians were also early pioneers in robotics, decades before the invention of anything resembling a vacuum tube. Many of the performers just prior to and during the first Golden Age began as clock and watchmakers, and used this mechanical know-how to create astounding automata. Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) created an orange tree that would blossom and bear fruit in front of the audience, as well as Diavolo, a mechanical acrobat on a swing who would do a routine when wound up. John Nevil Maskelyne created Psycho, an automaton that could play and win basic card games, although the method most likely involved help from an assistant off-stage. To this day, we use the phrase “smoke and mirrors” to refer to illusion without ever quite understanding the degree to which it refers to applied and advanced technology.

But while it is advanced mechanical engineering that allows David Copperfield to fly today, there remains a tension between props and sleights. There is something special about making the magic happen with one’s own hands which cannot be captured by standing to the side and pressing a button on a remote control. At the same time, a large stage illusion cannot be carried out through sleights alone, and many magicians today use thousands of dollars of equipment in every show.

The technological arms race between the magician and the public is long gone, and one of the problems that magicians face today is making their tricks matter to their audience in a world inundated with technology. But one thing remains certain – so long as there are magicians, there will be sleights and props, and any new technology will probably have magicians figuring out how to use it in their tricks.

Author’s Note: Since this is a feature about magic, we must ask for discretion when it comes to discussing methods in the forums. For the sake of preserving the mystery for those who do not want to know how the tricks are done, as well as to avoid accidentally exposing the hard work of some very talented magicians, please avoid revealing methods in the discussion threads. If you must talk about a method in a way that might expose it, please use spoiler tags.

Robert B. Marks is the author of the new and revived Garwulf’s Corner on The Escapist, as well as Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, the original Garwulf’s Corner, and the co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora. His current fiction project is The Eternity Quartet, with Ed Greenwood. His Livejournal can be found here, and he is now on Facebook. He can be reached by email at garwulf at escapistmag.com.

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