My Favorite Card Tricks: Dr Gustav Kuhn

By Alex Robertson - Thursday, May 28, 2020

We asked some of magic's greatest minds to share with us their favorite card tricks. This week is the turn of Dr Gustav Kuhn, Reader in Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and director of the MAGIC-lab. You may know him from his his top selling book: Experiencing the Impossible. Over to Gustav:


Studying magic scientifically has changed the way I think about magic and the type of tricks I perform. As magicians, we often spend too much time focusing on methods. We get caught up in clever tricks and dextrous sleight of hand, without considering how our audience perceives the effect and what goes on in their brain. In the MAGIC-lab we scientifically test some of the assumptions we hold about magic, and investigate how people experience magic tricks. For example, we investigated how people feel about different card forces, and the results have been truly surprising. It turns out, people feel freer when physically selecting a card (i.e. spread on the table) than when asked to name a card. Such findings, combined with scientific insights into human cognition, now drive many of the decisions I make about how I perform tricks

Any Card At Any Number: This is a trick that I no longer perform. It’s a wonderful intellectual and technical challenge, but from a psychological perspective it doesn’t make much sense. ACAAN belongs to a large group of tricks that don’t consider how people mentally represent magical effects. It’s based on the erroneous assumption that when spectators name a card the trick is more powerful than when it is physically selected. Our research shows that prediction effects are equally effective if the spectator chooses a card from a face-down ribbon spread, compared to freely naming a card - so why go through all the hassle?

Card on ceiling: This trick does not make sense. You throw cards to the ceiling and one remains stuck. From the performer’s perspective the trick is pretty rubbish, but I think it’s one of the most astonishing and memorable effects. The trick works because our brain actively reconstructs the past, creating memories of events that never took place. In the spectator’s mind you have made a signed card magically appearing on the ceiling. People forget that you threw the cards in the first place - seen like this, you have a genuine miracle.

Card in pocket: When asked to perform a magic trick, I typically resort to an ambitious card routine which ends with the cards in my pocket. The final effect is a visual transposition in which the deck vanishes in front of the spectators’ eyes and magically appears in my pocket. I love this trick for its simplicity – I use attentional misdirection to prevent the spectator from seeing me put the cards into my pocket (in full view). The trick also includes a powerful, yet simple perceptual illusion that allows me to vanish the cards right in front of their eyes. I love this trick because it combines sleight of hand and psychological tricks to create an astonishing, and memorable illusion.

Photo credit: Pal Hansen/The Observer

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