My Favorite Card Tricks: Jamy Ian Swiss

By Alex Robertson - Thursday, May 14, 2020

We asked some of magic's greatest minds to share with us their favorite card tricks. This week is the turn of Jamy Ian Swiss, you may know him from his books Shattering Illusions, Devious Standards and Preserving Mystery. Over to Jamy:


My Most Performed Card Tricks: The What and the Why

I invariably have a hard time answering these simplex poll questions, because I immediately think of the implications, exceptions, and interconnections that demand my considering the broader ideas. When Conjuring Community asked me, “What are your three top magic books?” I responded with a 4000-word essay discussing more than thirty books. I found the question … vague.

Here, I will attempt to address the following task: “We’d just love to know the top three card effects that you perform the most.” So what I most wish to make clear at the start is that these are by no means my favorite card tricks. The answer to that question would include routines like the Vernon/Dingle All Backs with Selection, Vernon’s The Travelers, Card Under Glass, and John Thompson’s $100 Prediction (the latter being a platform and stage routine).

So if I adhere strictly to the question posed, then I have to answer with the following:

Color Changes
Ambitious Card

Okay, there are five items on that list, but (a) I’ll explain, and (b) just deal with it.

I know these routines comprise the core of my most accurate answer because, with the exception of “Name-a-Card,” they have comprised my opening card sequence for some 35 years or more, back to my early days of strolling magic, and then as a Magic Bartender at Bob Sheets’ “Inn of Magic” in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, in the mid-1980s. After performing five long nights a week there for almost two years, I estimated in the aftermath that I had probably performed my Ambitious Card Routine – which in fact I title “The Big Apple Card” – somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000 times.

So when I say these are what I’ve performed “the most,” I know whereof I speak. I’ve done all of these … a lot.

What is more interesting to me than the specific tricks, however, is why this sequence developed: the purposes they serve, and the reasons they were chosen. I lack the space here to examine all the why’s and wherefore’s here (a subject I addressed in detail on my “Live in London” lecture DVD), but briefly …

Color Changes. One of the reasons I’ve allowed myself to include five items is because this really doesn’t constitute a trick, albeit it is a brief routine of sorts. It’s really a set sequence of five color changes – three of one method with slight handling variations, followed by two of another method that serves to cancel the previous one – performed with a succinct but carefully written script.

I actually start out before this with two one-handed shuffles – essentially the only flourishes I perform – because this combination of the shuffles and color changes takes up a grand total of about 50 seconds, and in that efficiently utilized passage of time, I have (a) seized viewers’ attention (b) credentialed myself (c) performed purely visual actions and effects that require nothing of the audience (i.e., their shuffling the deck, taking a card, etc.), deliberately leaving them briefly in a passive condition to allow them to consider whether what I’m doing might warrant their valuable time and attention; and (d) demonstrated things they have likely never before seen in their lives. If their old Uncle Ralph used to torture and abuse them in their traumatic childhoods with endless repeat versions of the 21 Card Trick, it’s clear that I’m not him. Uncle Ralph never did anything that looked like that.

Think of a Card. One of the oldest effects in card magic – a version is described in Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot in 1584 – the effect of the magician identifying a card merely thought of by a spectator is a venerable and compelling one. The plot fascinated Dai Vernon, who dramatically advanced the field with the creation of his iconic piece, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” (in More Inner Secrets of Magic by Lewis Ganson, and also Card College, Volume 5 by Roberto Giobbi).

One of the great strengths of an effect of this nature is that it anticipates and avoids the experience, upon asking someone to take a card, of immediately being faced with the obnoxious and silly – yet not uncommon – challenge of, “I’ve seen this one.” And now you’re left debating instead of performing. Having someone just think of a card is a powerful effect because of its impossibility and fairness (if indeed the method and procedure is sufficiently deceptive and convincingly fair!), its intimacy (you’re apparently in the spectator’s head), but it also presents an implicit cancelling of a common objection before it can even be expressed. What’s more, such effects develop strong spectator management skills, in managing a spectator’s attention, focus, thinking, and also behavior, and in utilizing psychology, timing, and misdirection in general.

In my Magic Bar days I relied on Derek Dingle’s routine and handling (from The Complete Works of Derek Dingle by Richard Kaufman), based in turn on Charlie Miller’s (from Expert Card Technique by Hugard & Braue). Some time after that I moved on to a different technique, but still within the range of that kind of approach, in which the spectator simply looks over the cards and thinks of one.

Name-a-Card. Magically revealing a spectator’s named card is the relatively late addition to this sequence of routines, which grew out of my adopting extensive use of the memorized deck in the late 90s. I see this segment as optional in this list, however, because sometimes the entire sequence is performed using a shuffled deck, in which case the only element that changes is that I leave out this segment. In the early days of my memdeck studies I only riffed a single named card; today I routinely do three in a row, with very different revelations, and in some circumstances I will extend that even further.

I will note importantly that these riffed revelations, while flexibly chosen in the moment, are not simply off the cuff, they are carefully refined and rehearsed. In the closing moments of my first appearance on “The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” Craig quite unexpectedly asked me to perform two more tricks. I was prepared for one, even though I never expected to actually need it. In a live-on-tape broadcast on national television in front of a live studio audience, I riffed two cards. (And no – the thought never occurred to me that Craig, being Scottish, would even know, much less think of, the Nine of Diamonds as “the Curse of Scotland.” Of all the wacky stuff ever written about my work on magic forums, that proposal still stands as the funniest.) I had the confidence that I could riff in the moment to named cards, with powerful and effective results, because my catalog of approaches is well rehearsed and hence readily available.

Triumph. Triumph is certainly one of my favorite tricks as well as being among my most often performed ones. One of the greatest effects in all of card magic, it challenges the public’s expectations of what is and is not possible with a deck of cards, beginning with an event – the face-up/face-down shuffling – that violates their very notion of their own experience with a deck of cards.

Recognizing these facets is important, so that the magician approaches the effect with sufficient commitment and earnestness. If you toss this trick off casually, you’re missing the whole point. If you’re not getting a response that leaves a spectator utterly stunned and often speechless, you’re missing the whole point. The trick should be approached with a certain level of gravitas, even if your performance style is a humorous one.

There are countless methods for this effect, offering an extraordinary range of quality; in plain English, most of them suck. The problem is that they are invariably laden with unnatural procedures, which may be deceptive to a point, but are not so convincing as to be unsuspected, as in “the most critical observer would not even suspect, let alone detect” that any deception is afoot. My advice: Stick as closely as possible to Vernon’s original handling, even if you’re translating the trick to an in- the-hands version. To my eyes, I think a faro shuffle in this case is vastly inferior – meaning, less convincing and compelling – than a riffle shuffle. On the table, I’ll go so far (and yes, some will argue) as to say that I think a stripout shuffle – Vernon’s original method – is preferable to the use of a Zarrow Shuffle. (Not as in Stars of Magic [which isn’t bad, mind you], but as described in our book, The Magic of Johnny Thompson, and also on the Johnny Thompson videos produced by L&L.)

For the in-the-hands version I use … well, maybe we’ll chat about that sometime, over a cocktail. But I will let you in on something in my approach to the routining here that I think is useful. I prefer to perform Triumph using a named card, by relying on a stack. Hence in my sequence of riffing to named cards, I will eventually move on to Triumph when I think the time is right – that is, when I’ve found named cards sufficient times, typically three but not always – or when I get a card that doesn’t give me a natural reveal, so I may as well move on to Triumph because locating the card may initially require some open cutting procedure. In other words, even when I’ve determined that I’m ready to deliberately move on to Triumph, if the spectator names an easily accessible card in the stack, I’ll take advantage of the opportunity to do an additional riffing revelation, and then move on to Triumph with the next named card. And furthermore, when riffing to cards in a memdeck, it is a critically important necessity to continually mix the cards, apparently shuffling and cutting between effects, in order to cancel the otherwise vulnerable method. And there is no better way to achieve this cancellation than by performing Triumph, since it is a trick that is explicitly about shuffling -- and which therefore puts you in a strong position for the subsequent performance of any routine that will further utilize the memdeck.

Ambitious Card. Last but not least is the venerable Ambitious Card. I began working on this routine when I first obtained a copy of Close-up Card Magic by Harry Lorayne as a young adolescent. I studied and experimented for years, incorporating work from Royal Road to Card Magic, and later significantly from Vernon’s routine in The Stars of Magic. Eventually I settled on a routine around the time I turned pro (at the ancient age of 29), and then did the routine thousands of times as a Magic Bartender. There are certainly different ways to approach this plot, and when working with students I typically encourage a short routine, done slowly and deliberately, making every effect count. The routine I devised for students many years ago turned out to be almost identical to that described by Roberto Giobbi in Card College Volume 5, with one small exception that is improved in his version. I recommend it.

That said, however, my routine is exactly the opposite. It evolved at a different time in my working career and in my tastes. It’s fast, furious, and consists of eleven phases! I still enjoy doing it to this day – along with the rest of this entire sequence of opening effects (except the name-a-card), it’s been a staple of my act in the Close- up Gallery of the Magic Castle since 1987. For me, it used to serve, and sometimes still does, an important purpose in the sequence. At some point or other, magicians need to lure the spectator out of challenge mode – even if that mode is only in their mind rather than in any overt action – and learn to experience the magic on a more openhearted level. There are countless ways to do this. As Whit Haydn has written, we help soothe the cognitive dissonance that magic induces by using story, humor, and charm: “The sword of magic is concealed in the cloak of theater.”

That’s the best way to do it, and that’s how most of us do it. In my own case, however, while I am certainly using those elements, in the case of my Big Apple Card routine I’m also using a muscular element that ultimately amounts to a sheer overpowering of the audience’s reasoning abilities. They lose the will to mentally challenge the magic, and instead give into it, raising a mental white flag, and recognizing that there is an easier, and far more enjoyable path, of how to process and engage with the experience.

This speaks to the fact that the wealth of methods available for use in the Ambitious Card presents us with the opportunity to use the routine as a blank canvas, upon which we get to paint our own particular interpretation. That’s a potent artistic opportunity that should not be overlooked or wasted.

Finally, I will add a thought that I have written about (and been quoted from) elsewhere. I strongly believe that the act of choosing tricks and creating a repertoire is in and of itself a significant creative step. I am strongly opposed to the phenomenon of the generic repertoire, with five magicians showing up at a gig and all doing the same routines. I’m also a great supporter of the use of classics. And while superficially it may seem like these two statements are in conflict, they are not. The beauty of a true classic is that it can often serve as a flexible vehicle that is open to the performer’s individual interpretation.

However, true classics aside, the fundamental endeavor of choosing and adding to your repertoire can and should amount to a creative act. I knew I was finally getting somewhere in understanding my own character and style when I began to reject tricks that I liked, that were good, and that I was capable of executing, but that didn’t truly suit me, and did not inherently express my character and point of view.

So yes, by all means do the Ambitious Card. But please, make it your own. And if a trick isn’t a classic, but rather the latest popular marketed item, I encourage you to leave it to the others, and walk – run – in the opposite directly. Run to your library, and open an old book, and find a good idea no one is using, and make that your own instead. And eventually, develop a repertoire that is a true expression of – as the maestro Tamariz dubs it in his masterpiece opus, The Magic Rainbow – persona. And in considering that pursuit, what is important about my list of three (or slightly more!) most frequently performed routines is not the what, but the why.

Cover photo by Michael Bulbenko

Reader comments:


Friday, 15 May 2020 12:51 PM - Reply to this comment

Wow such incredible information.Thank you Jamy for that.I'm still working on a script around James Joyce after an email exchange we had years ago.You were the best part of 'Genii' All the best.

Jamy Ian

Friday, 15 May 2020 23:14 PM

Thanks for the kind words, Mark, and you're most welcome. Hope your script is a little more accessible than "Ulysses." ;)

Thanks for reading!


Tuesday, 19 May 2020 11:18 AM - Reply to this comment

Oh how I love getting to peek inside your thought processes. It is as enjoyable as it is informative. So many important lessons here, I need to reread. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Jamy Ian

Thursday, 21 May 2020 01:38 AM

Thanks for the kind words, sir!


Tuesday, 19 May 2020 17:14 PM - Reply to this comment

This is, I think, the most helpful post on this topic/series yet. And I'm glad my taste in Triumph is confirmed! Now off to read CC5... ;-)

Jamy Ian

Thursday, 21 May 2020 01:39 AM

Glad we agree about the right way to do Triumph. ;) And thanks for the compliment.


Wednesday, 28 October 2020 05:39 AM - Reply to this comment

Bravo Jamie?

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