Wrestling with Magic: The Three Presentations

By Curtis Kam - Monday, May 9, 2016

Ninety Five Percent of all magical presentations are either stories, lectures or games. Yes, there are exceptions, I probably perform some of them. But I doubt that all of the special cases, taken together, add up to more than 5 per cent of the magic being performed today. Besides, even if my numbers aren't quite right, thinking about presentations in these groups makes important issues spring out. Stay with me here, and see. Here are the definitions:


Most magicians found their first experiences with story presentations in The Four Robbers, Thieves and Sheep, Sam the Bellhop, or Dai Vernon's famous presentations for Cutting the Aces and Triumph. The most prevalent form involves a story of some sort being told while the props illustrate events in the story. When magic occurs, it's because the story requires it. Sometimes, as in the Vernon scripts, the props (cards) represent themselves. At other times, (i.e. Thieves and Sheep or The Four Robbers) the props represent characters in the story.


Also fairly called "demonstrations" or "pitches", these presentations are actually or ostensibly about something other than the magic itself. The performer is, or claims to be, demonstrating a novel magical or scientific principle, a particular skill, (as in psychic or gambling demonstrations) or is selling the audience an idea, service, or product. (as in trade show work.) Examples include David Roth's Portable Hole routine, Michael Ammar's presentation for the floating bill, most Oil and Water presentations, trade show pitches and motivational speeches using magic.


By "games" I mean situations in which the trick is performed solely for its own sake. The performer has no intentions other than getting the audience involved in the game, and winning. Obvious examples are "observation test" presentations and other direct challenges to the audience. Sometimes the rules of the game are articulated, as in Paul Harris' Reflex, (aka Whack Your Pack) Don Alan's Chop Cup, Bank Night (aka Just Chance) or the Hopping Half. These are games where the audience is expressly invited to watch as carefully as possible, and to try to catch, outguess, or otherwise beat the performer. In other games, the rules are not stated and the game is proposed solely through the magical events. I consider Albert Goshman's coins and shakers routine to be an elaborate "game" played with the audience. Goshman starts by defining the game, (coins will appear under the shakers) adds a "rule" (you have to say "please") and then later ups the ante by proposing to do the same effect under a glass. Slydini's Knotted Silks is a flat-out challenge, and his Flight of the Paper Balls (i.e. the "Balls over the Head") is a game with one spectator, and a demonstration for everyone else. A demonstration of a game, if you will.

When a magic trick is performed without a presentation, the audience can only assume that the performer is trying to engage them into a game of "catch me if you can". Thus, the despised "blank narrative", in which the performer merely verbally describes the progress of the trick as if the audience was blind, is a "game", albeit an extremely unsatisfying one.

With any luck, this is where it gets interesting. There are any number of ways to define the categories above, but they're only useful if they serve to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. If we have categorized wisely, our list of strengths and weaknesses makes it easy to identify the optimal presentation for any given effect. That, by the way, is the point of all this. Sorry I didn't mention that earlier. Here are the pluses and minuses:


A story can provide outward motivation for otherwise illogical or unusual procedures. For example, The Professor's story of a one-armed gambler excuses the odd one-handed cut that the method requires. A suspicious bit of handling can slide by unnoticed if the plot of the story requires it. Further, an engaging story can encourage the audience to be less critical. If they are caught up in hearing how the story turns out, they will be less likely to stop you along the way.

Similarly, a story can diminish the confrontational tone of a magical performance. You're trying to tell them a story, not fool them. When the magic occurs, everybody wins.

Aside from assisting in the task of deception, stories can add an emotional hook, perhaps even "meaning" to the magic. The presentations used by Kevin James or Peter Samuelson for A Snowstorm in China are wonderful examples of how a story can give meaning to an essentially pointless effect. By allowing the props or events to represent things the audience cares about, the story makes the magic meaningful.

In addition to meaning, a story can clarify an otherwise vague or abstract outcome. Consider the last two examples. What is the basic effect of the Snowstorm in China? Magical "drying" of wet paper? Ditto Thieves and Sheep and The Hotel Mystery. Without a story, the outcomes can leave the audience scratching its collective head. And in effects that depend on repetition, like the Six Card Repeat and The Ambitious Card, a story can serve an indispensable role--it tells the audience when you're done.

On the downside, the effectiveness of a story depends largely on one's ability as a storyteller. That is a craft unto itself. A story poorly told, or poorly chosen, will only confuse things. A simplistic story can trivialize an otherwise strong effect. And even the best story will draw time, words, and attention away from the proceedings. If you're short on time, the crowd is restless, or if people can't hear you, a story presentation will do more harm than good. Similarly, if you're presenting a flat out miracle, an impressive impossibility under test conditions, a story will just get in the way.

Just a note on story presentations: evoking sentiments like longing for loved ones or the passing of youth aren't hard, in fact, they're the easiest hook to set. If you doubt this, try being inspirational. Try being enlightening. Try inspiring laughter from joy. Try doing a trick that makes them feel good about their own lives. Those are hard. Just saying.

The audience's role in a story is generally passive, and understandably so, since you have invited them to watch and listen. A certain amount of dramatic "distance" is inherent. Finally, some people believe all stories are trivial, just as there are some people who simply disregard all card tricks.


Like a story, a demonstration of a strange pseudo-scientific principle can justify certain procedures that are necessitated by the method. In The Portable Hole for example, David Roth explains that the coins are not hidden under the hole, nor do they go through it, they actually fall "into" the cloth "hole". In so explaining, he rearranges the props as necessary for the next effect, and another “moment” slips by unnoticed.

One advantage to the lecture format is that the performer is speaking directly to the audience. Where certain details must be highlighted, in a lecture you can state them directly. Because lecture presentations can convey a specific message, they are commercially quite useful.

Like stories, lectures are generally monologues, although a good speaker will actively engage the audience. There's the potential for more interaction, and less distance, but lectures and demonstrations usually lack an emotional hook. They appeal to the mind, not the heart. The obvious exception is the psychic Question and Answer act, in which one can directly address the emotional, financial and social concerns of the audience.

Public speaking is also a craft unto itself, and boring lecturers are probably as common as bad storytellers. Thanks to these examples, you can quickly lose the crowd, especially if you assume an authoritarian role. A good rule of thumb is if you set out to use a lecture simply as a premise for your presentation, but you end up actually teaching the audience, you're doing something wrong. You shouldn't have to present five minutes of background information on quantum physics just to vanish a dime.

Finally, because a lecture is supposed to be about something else, the magic does not have to have a clear, stunning climax. Certain effects that illustrate a point, but have lackluster endings, can be very effective here. Usually, the presentation will end with the conclusion of the speech, not the trick.


At first, it would seem that game presentations invite scrutiny and make it harder to fool the audience. But that's only true if you tell the truth about the nature of the game. The most rudimentary application of game-based misdirection is to challenge the audience to catch you doing one thing, while you're really doing something else.

The inherent advantage to games is that they are interactive, and they're supposed to be fun. The good ones seem ridiculously simple to win. Most people enjoy a good game, so long as it looks like they have a fair chance of winning. The problem, of course, is that the audience must ultimately lose.

In that sense, repetition can quickly become tedious, if not outright rude. The trick is in allowing your “opponents” to lose gracefully.

A game presentation is almost always available when nothing else fits. It’s a sad fact that magicians have discovered wonderfully intricate and devious ways to do things that are insignificant. If you feel compelled to perform something like this, a game is the way to go. The Hopping Half is a good example. The effect is minor any way you look at it--no matter how many times you place one of two coins in your pocket, you always have two in your hand. So what? As a game, however, the simplicity is appealing. After all, who couldn't follow just two coins?

“Stunt” or “Spectacle” is the flat-out miracle that I mentioned earlier, which is so impossible that the very fact that you can do it is its reason for being. Usually, the audience has no other role than to bear witness, as in a levitation or pulling a live rabbit out of an empty hat. And although this describes a lot of stage magic, it can also apply to close up. In particular, I'm thinking about Gary Kurtz's description of the effect he was trying to obtain from a series of visual coin effects:

Many people have remarked that watching me perform is a little like hallucinating. Performing a one climax trick is not going to create that effect, but a series, a seemingly endless assault on the senses will. That’s what this routine is. You’ll have them amazed and at the same time laughing, not out loud and boisterous, but a laugh the sensation of which should stay with them for a long time. Kurtz, Full Frontal Assault (1989)

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