Archive for October, 2008

How NOT to do the Classic Pass #1: Don’t pull with your left fingers!

Many card workers seem to think the secret of the classic pass is to use the left fingers to pull the upper half around the lower as quickly as possible. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even if you manage to help the appearance of the shift from the perspective of a spectator watching from directly above, pulling with the left fingers guarantees a flash on your right side. That’s right folks! If you want to eliminate visible finger movement from the shift, you have to stop moving your fingers! Crazy, huh?

Remember to use your left fingers as little as possible. These digits will always want to move, but your shift will succeed only to the extent you can keep this impulse under control!

1 - pulling with the fingers


Your Turn

Do you pull with your left fingers when you do the pass? Tell us where you learned this habit, and what you’ve noticed it’s effects are on the shift and the way you use it – and don’t worry, with a little practice, you can unlearn any habit you choose!



Help with Sleights

Reader Kim McCastle just sent me an excellent question. Here it is, followed by my response.

The Question

“Aaron I am reading Paper Engine with great interest.  I now have workable solutions for the pass which I always found difficult.  So thanks very much.  I was interested in your opinion of where I might find a description of a really great top change.  Sorry this seems so basic but I’m working my way back into close up after many years out of magic.”


The Answer

What a great question! First, I’ll give the basic answer – then I’ll talk about the issues that really matter in the study of the top change.

I personally use the excellent method described by David Williamson in his book Williamson’s Wonders. Close-up workers regard this volume very highly, but frankly, it’s still underrated. Dave’s book is a modern classic, and a must have resource for any serious sleight-of-hand performer. ‘51 cards to pocket’ has been a staple of my repertoire for over a decade and provided the inspiration for my own highly visual effect Panic


Dave Willamson


What Really Counts

The top change gives  sleight of hand students a very hard time. No matter how well you execute any top change technique, you will never learn this move in front of a mirror. This is one sleight you simply have to perform.

The top change bears a great resemblance to it’s cousin, the shift for several reasons:

  • Both sleights require strong misdirection built into the routine to ensure success.
  • These moves have no ‘built in’ cover. The double lift, for example, is performed during the action of turning over the top card of the deck. The turnover pass happens as you turn the deck over. Both the top change and the classic or half passes take place with no such open action to cloak them.
  • Students of both sleights tend to pursue ‘unseeable’ handlings, and in the process, run into trouble. While both of these techniques can be performed invisibly, neither of them can be used effectively unless the performer mastered the requisite timing, focus and misdirection.


Mandy Davis and Me and some annoying magician at the IBM/SAM combined convention a few months back in Kentucky.


The Real Secret of the Top Change

When you see a master card magician execute a beautiful top change in performance, it’s seems impossible – truly magical. There’s nothing to see, and seemingly no cover or misdirection. That, my friends, is the effect. Simply put, it’s an illusion.

The truth is that anyone can learn to have this facility. But if you are in your first couple years with the sleight, and you try to cover it with a casual glint, prepare for disappointment. That sort of mastery takes years to acquire.

In the meantime, you can experience success with these sleights if you structure routines with strong ‘built in’ misdirection to cover the change. At the moment you make the switch your spectator should be actively involved in some action – revealing another card, or picking up a wand.

Using the sleight in such a calculated fashion will help you learn how to direct the audience and command focus. Once you have real confidence in these important areas, you’ll notice a change in your powers. You’ll have confidence in the sleight’s deceptiveness and in your own ability to cover it. Before you know it, you’ll find you can merely turn your head, and in that action, cover just about any sleight with attention to spare.

Your Turn

We all find in our studies that some techniques come easier than others. What sleights have frustrated YOU? Tell  us your story – I’d love to read it and so would your fellow readers!

What you CAN’T learn from the Paper Engine!

The Paper Engine was written to help you get more fundamental success out of your sleight-of-hand. But no matter how well you learn the material inside, there are many lessons about being a magician you can only learn from a living breathing audience.


close up room 2

A Truly Awful Spectator – What do you do?

In formal close-up situations, it’s often useful to choose a couple spectators to sit at the table with you for the duration of the show. My act, even more than others, is all about encouraging free and open interaction with my audience. At times I feel like 90% of the set depends on the quality of the people sitting in the chairs beside me.

Last week I performed my 200th show in the Magic Castle close-up room. One of the people I chose turned out to be a bad pick. I selected a big, hulking guy with what seemed like a congenial attitude. But within a few moments of starting the show, I saw forming what could only be called a situation.

The guy would not shut up! For every line I uttered, he spoke two. He stepped on the pace of the show relentlessly, and seemed oblivious to every single clue I offered as to his appropriate behavior. Over the next few minutes – his conduct got worse. He stepped on punch lines. He ruined effects. To be clear, I don’t think the audience felt he was ruining the show – but from my perspective, he was really crippling the act.

About halfway through the show, I felt we were reaching the point of no return. We were coming to the point in the program where the effects get notably stronger and more mysterious. I had no sense that this blackguard was going to let the show happen. He didn’t mean to be a turd – he just didn’t have any concept of how to behave. Plus, he was drunk.

So even though I normally work with the same spectator for the duration of the act, I asked the audience to give this bozo a round of applause, and had him switch seats with an amiable fellow in the front row.

The new fellow came up, the show picked up tempo and energy and ended as it should – on a high, satisfying note.


What you can learn from this sad tale

Don’t be afraid to relieve a bad soldier of his post. I knew this guy was a lame by the end of the first trick. Instead of waiting for him to do something truly terrible, I could have sent him packing at the end of the first effect, seemingly as a matter of course. Nobody would have known the wiser, and I could have saved myself about 6 minutes of heartache. And remember, 6 long minutes on stage feels like a lifetime of hard bondage.

To whether storms like this, on stage in real time, you require two things: experience and confidence. You need to have done enough shows to have suffered, and enough self-assurance to make the call quickly – and nip the problem in the bud.

When I first started, I endured this sort of thing often – at that point, I hadn’t had much experience picking spectators. Not surprisingly I bet on the wrong pony a good deal of the time. This week, I only put up with it for about 8 minutes.

Next time I notice a problem like this, I’ll give it about a minute, just to make sure I’m not trigger happy. Then I’ll fire the clown in question and get on with the show! 

Have you ever had a truly terrible spectator?

Drop a comment on this post and tell us about it. We can all learn from hearing these stories, and I’d love to read yours. Be sure to include how it ended, what you did about it, and what you learned from the harrowing experience!


Do you want an Invisible Pass?

Blog reader How Tah Lun has been studying my book The Paper Engine. He’s been experiencing some difficulty using the Gravity Half Pass when he’s seated at a table – he sent me an email asking for help. I understand his concern. Many shifts are much easier to perform standing, working for an intimate audience of also standing spectators.

A simple way to execute the pass effectively while seated at a table

Here’s an idea: Don’t do the shift over the table at all! I often turn to a person sitting next to me on my left, and as I do, rest my right elbow on the table. Now the audience sees only the right side of the deck. Performed this way, neither the Gravity Half Pass nor the Classic Pass can be seen.

Despite the excellent quality of the reader’s question, it bespeaks a bigger problem that many of us grapple with.


The Real Path to  ‘Invisible Card Magic’’

Shift students tend to get hung up on the notion of ‘invisibility’ – that you should be able to do the pass undetectably while the audience burns your hands. The truth may hearten you. If you want a truly invisible pass, the ‘technical perfection’ you seek only makes up a small piece of the pie. You’ll acquire the reputation you desire much sooner if you spend time on other  concepts many of us ignore.

Do you focus on the following ideas? Whether or not your pass is invisible, mastering these areas will make your spectators think your moves are unseeable. And whether or not you believe me yet…that is the secret of the perfect pass.


Do your routines encourage the audience to focus on the pack at the moment you execute the shift? For example, many card guys use the classic pass as  a color change. If that’s the way you work, you stand very little chance of being credited with truly ‘invisible’ technique. If a spectator exclaims,  “Man, you did that so FAST!” you’ve missed the mark.


Even if you structure your magic to cover the pass, you still need to perform the sleight softly. Remember, passes are like children – better to be seen and not heard. If you tense up at the moment of truth, it doesn’t matter how well you’ve constructed the effect. The audience will be drawn back to the pack at the wrong moment. Even if they don’t see it, they’ll think they did. WARNING: most serious shift students lose the battle on this front.


Do you actively focus  attention where you want it at all times? If you’re obsessed with the pass, it doesn’t matter how well you execute it. You will likely draw focus to your hands at the moment of the shift. If you  focus on the shift at all, even subconsciously, the game is lost.

The Paper Engine was built…

because I don’t like getting busted by my audience. With the material in the Paper Engine, I know that whether I’m having a perfect set, or a show that’s a little off, I still won’t have any trouble. I know that when the move comes  the audience will be looking elsewhere.

Learn the routines in The Paper Engine carefully, and apply the truly essential concepts of tension, focus and design to your own work. Then you’ll experience the joy of having your audience focus on your magic – not your shift.

Then you’ll be able to say you have a pass that is TRULY invisible.


Welcome to Card Magic

If you’ve recently decided to get serious about close-up card magic, here’s a tip that may make you a little angry. You’ll thank me one day.

Don’t Practice with a close-up pad!


dean mat

photo by Jason Dean


When my teachers first gave me this advice, I was about 18 years old. At the time, I loved my close-up pad and carried it everywhere. I broke it out all the time –either to do a few tricks or just to practice.  Not only did it make my magic look more “professional”, it made a lot of handling, like shuffling the cards, much easier to perform.

I trusted my teachers, generally speaking, but even so, I put up a fight. After all, if I was faced with a glass table, I could barely even pick up the deck. It took me a few months to finally get the point.


Real sleight of hand under any conditions

One of the most seductive aspects card magic is the promise of real miracles, done any time, anywhere and with any deck of cards.  It only took a year or so (maybe two) to learn how to handle cards effectively on a hard service.

Since that time I sometimes use a close-up pad in performance, but I never have to fear performing because I don’t have a close-up pad and can’t work without one. It’s a feeling of comfort you’ll always appreciate.

The campers at Sorcerer’s Safari learn these important lessons much younger than I did. It’s an awesome thing to see. One morning last August, just a few days into camp, I opened my cabin door one morning to find a gift from one of

the campers – a photo of the gift appears at the top of this post.

I was so proud I nearly cried.