My Favorite Card Tricks: Harrison Greenbaum

By Alex Robertson - Thursday, January 23, 2020


We asked some of magic's greatest minds to share with us their favorite card tricks. This week is the turn of Harrison Greenbaum. You may know him from America's Got Talent, Conan, or Last Comic Standing. Over to Harrison:

ALT TAG

My Three Favorite Card Tricks

Always honored to be asked to do, well, basically anything, so here are my favorite three cards tricks:

  1. Anything but a card trick

Card tricks make up close to 95% of the close-up magic performed today and close to 0% of the close-up magic audiences enjoy. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t perform any card tricks, but at least take a second to consider how much playing cards have come to dominate our art form. Think about non-magicians: how often does anyone actually encounter, let alone use, a deck of cards in their normal, non-magic life? About as often as magicians encounter exercise equipment, which is to say, almost never.

Magicians always like to claim they love playing cards because they’re so versatile, that they’re essentially the Swiss Army knife of magic. And playing cards are very similar to Swiss Army knives, in that most people own one or two tops, keep them locked away in a junk drawer, and the only people who actually carry them around are old white men and weird teenagers.

Regular people don’t use cards regularly, unless they’re sad gambling addicts or retirement home bridge players. So unless your main audience is senior citizens or senior citizens, have you ever asked yourself why you use cards so much? If you’re aiming for maximum astonishment, shouldn’t you focus on making magic with things non-magic people actually use in their everyday life? Objects like cell phones, food, or condoms? (You’re a magician, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it about the regular use of the last one.)

  1. No, seriously, literally anything but a card trick

Most of the time, when people try to invest artistic meaning into a card trick, they add some ridiculous story on top of a pre-defined plot. Ambitious Card becomes a metaphor for a person’s striving to be on top; Twisting the Aces becomes a metaphor for a person’s striving to stand out in a crowd; and Cannibal Cards is racist.

You can’t make art by taking something that already exists and trying to layer a half-baked analogy on top of it. Real artists start with an idea and then turn to technique to express that idea. If you start with someone else’s card trick and then try to make it art, you’re not making art: you can do a Paint-by-Number of a clown, hang it up, and then tell anybody who listens that the reason you did it was to get over your fear of clowns, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s not art, it’s not yours, and it’s not surprising that no one wants a second date after discovering there’s a shitty painting of a clown on your bedroom ceiling.

  1. Vernon’s Variant by Dai Vernon

Just kidding! Card tricks still kinda suck! But that doesn’t mean that learning them is a complete waste of time. (Unlike writing blog posts for free, which almost certainly is.) The concepts and techniques behind any magician’s favorite card tricks can be applied to objects that have a lot more relevance to you personally, things like postcards, credit cards, trading cards, flashcards, recipe cards, driver’s licenses, dollar bills… Start with an idea (something with emotional resonance and deep meaning to you) and let it guide you to the props. And then begin to think about if there’s a concept, technique, or method you’ve picked up from studying card tricks that you can apply to magically express that idea. Whatever you end up with will not only be more unique and resonate better with your audience, but will be infinitely better than any regular old card trick.

Except for MacDonald’s Aces. That trick is a goddamn masterpiece.


Reader comments:

Michal

Friday, 24 January 2020 13:00 PM - Reply to this comment

Darwin Ortiz has left the chat

Iain

Friday, 24 January 2020 17:40 PM - Reply to this comment

God what nonsense. The list of magicians who do amazing, commercially successful material with cards alone is massive. Tamariz, Aragon, and Ortiz are famous to regular lay people in their home country on cards alone. The number of card routines that have KILLED in the last few years on Fool Us is huge. The best close up shows I've seen (Jared Kopf, Noah Levine) closed with punch-in-the-gut card routines. David Blaine and Dan White choose them for tv appearances. Cards have an intellectual element missing basically any other form of magic. While they may not be to your taste, saying "Card tricks make up close to 95% of the close-up magic performed today and close to 0% of the close-up magic audiences enjoy." is just demonstratedly wrong.

You know what sucks? Magic with cellphones. Could we get something more banal in today's world than a cell phone???

Billy

Saturday, 25 January 2020 03:04 AM - Reply to this comment

Anything but a card trick?????.
Shin Lim won a million dollars with a card trick. top that.

Leandro

Saturday, 25 January 2020 19:06 PM - Reply to this comment

The image you used is a picture of Harrison Greenbaum doing a card trick.

Could you imagine if someone made this same argument against playing the guitar? So many musicians play guitar, so many regular people own guitars but don't know how to play them, most of rock music has guitars in them, lots of musicians play other peoples' songs on the guitar.

I just... why am I even engaging with this? This is a troll post. This has no real argument behind it. It's a waste of time to even wonder why it was written.

Rick

Saturday, 25 January 2020 20:11 PM - Reply to this comment

Josh Jay was part of a seminar at Magic Live in Las Vegas where they presented research from surveys and focus groups, and for lay people, the number one (by a huge margin) thing they said they hate about magic, is card tricks. So, there is truth in this blog post.

Kole

Sunday, 26 January 2020 18:43 PM

Hi Rick,
I think Joshua Jay's study focused on the memorability (how clearly and how long the spectator remembers the trick) of the magic. An effect can be powerful and still have not as much memorability; in his study, it was found that card tricks had less memorability than other tricks. However, it never said anything about hatred for card tricks.
In addition, many people hate card tricks because they are quite commonplace; many people have seen a card trick or two from family members; many plots can be quite boring and have little magical value. But if you look at the Spanish school of magic-which is flourishing with the advent of many theatre shows-they do 2 to even 4 hours of card magic and the audience seems to love it

Michal

Sunday, 26 January 2020 21:40 PM

I don't think lay people hate card tricks. But, I'm pretty sure they hate _bad_ card tricks.

I can only guess that the people who took the surveys weren't exposed to some really good stuff card magic has to offer.

Tony

Sunday, 26 January 2020 17:19 PM - Reply to this comment

Just what a blog post should be. Entertaining and provocative, but with a serious point for us to consider,

Iain

Wednesday, 29 January 2020 06:57 AM - Reply to this comment

The irony of the intro "You may know him from America's Got Talent"........ uh, nope, but I heard about that other guy, you know, with the cards.

Dean

Thursday, 06 February 2020 20:37 PM - Reply to this comment

Obviously this post has left a few people upset, but I understand what Harrison is trying to say. Card tricks are a magician's low hanging fruit. It's a stretch to try a non-card trick, and not nearly as satisfying as watching yourself perform color changes in the mirror. But his sentiment is solid...we should strive to be more with our magic, and that may require stepping away from the comfort of our pasteboards.

Also, he didn't say avoid card tricks altogether, but made great suggestions that some of your favorite card miracles could mean more to you and your audiences if performed with objects such as trading cards, postcards, your driver's license, etc. Set a goal to eliminate all of the card tricks in your act. If you let one stay in the lineup in the end, it’s probably the one that actually should stay. Think about it.

Harrison definitely got one thing right with his final comment—MacDonald’s Aces is absolutely a masterpiece :-)

an

Friday, 07 February 2020 10:08 AM - Reply to this comment

Interesting post, but I don't agree with your point of view, maybe it is you that have problems with playing cards. Or you don't choose the right audience, or the right tricks for your style.

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