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Self-Working Tricks: What’s the Price?

As magicians, our main tool for deceiving our audience is offering false or misleading information. Spectators observe events as they unfold, and from what they observe they draw conclusions as to the outcome of those events. But because they have been given false information, their conclusions are faulty, and the outcome is unexpected and surprising (perhaps even magical).

Sleight of hand provides us with an effective way to offer false information. I wrote in Workers 5 that there are three types of sleights: sleights that simulate real activities (such as false shuffles and false deals); sleights in which the secret action is concealed within an overt action (the double lift, culling, the Elmsley count); and sleights that contain no concealing mechanism of their own, and must be performed without the spectators’ knowledge (the pass, the top change, palming). In each of these cases, there is a discrepancy between what the spectators observe happening and what is actually happening: a deck is being shuffled, a card is being turned over, or (in the case of a well-executed palm) nothing is happening at all. When the spectators attempt to reconstruct the series of events in order to figure out how the trick works, they are stymied because they are basing their reconstruction on bad data. They do not have all the facts.

Using a gaffed object such as shell coin or a double-faced card produces the same result – the spectators misinterpret what they are seeing.

But what happens when we do a trick that does not involve sleight of hand or gaffed objects, for example a self-working card trick? In this case the information the spectators are being given is uncorrupted (although some information, such as a set-up, may be withheld). And this means that a clever spectator might be able to reconstruct the workings of a semi-automatic trick.

One great way to derail the reconstruction process is to toss in some low-level sleight of hand. For example, in Stewart James’s classic Miraskill, we add in (usually through palming) four extra cards before the start of the second phase. In Paul Curry’s Out of This World, we false shuffle the deck as we deliver our opening patter. But if we don’t use sleight of hand or gaffs, then we must distort our spectators’ memories another way, using words and gestures.

In self-working magic what we say is of vital importance. If we choose our words carefully, we can make it much more difficult for an astute spectator to reconstruct our tricks. The Guatemalan Miracle makes use of this approach.

[Excerpt From The Guatemalan Miracle]

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