Pleasure to Burn

By Pete McCabe - Tuesday, November 19, 2019

In this extract from Scripting Magic, Volume 2, Pete McCabe shares a routine inspired by Joshua Jay's Inferno. Tomorrow, he'll then share an update using a new release.

Inside—My Cousin’s Living Room—Evening

Pete smiles at his family.

      “It was a pleasure to burn.” That’s the first line of the book Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. It represents the temperature at which paper burns, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: that’s not really the temperature at which paper burns. Bradbury made it up. Just so you know, magicians aren’t the only ones who will deceive you for your entertainment.

Pete strikes a deceptive pose, then drops it.

      In this trick we are going to burn some playing cards. Fifty-one playing cards, in fact. The first decision is: Should we burn the spot cards—the number cards—or the picture cards? You all get to vote. So which do you want: Should we burn the spot cards or the picture cards? Raise your hand if you want to burn spot cards. Several people raise their hands. Pete takes a quick count.

      I see ten votes for spot cards. Check my math, I don’t want you to think I’m fixing the results. How many want to burn the picture cards?

A few people raise their hands.

      I get six votes for picture cards. Is that right?

General agreement around the room.

      Well it was close, but you decided to burn the spot cards. So now you are all going to act out the horrible death, by burning, of all the spot cards. Are you ready? The death of the spot cards—go!

This starts a little slowly but pretty quickly people begin wailing as they act out a death scene. It goes on a little while.

      You do have to die, remember.

Everyone gives their last groan and dies.

      Fantastic. The spot cards are dead. Now we have the picture cards left, so we need to decide if we are going to burn the male picture cards or the female picture cards. Raise your hand if you want to burn the male picture cards.

Lots of hands go up.

A popular decision. And who wants to burn the females?

A couple of hands go up.

      That one was very clear—we’re going to burn the men. So I would like only the men in the audience, please, to act out the death of a picture card. You can be a King or a Jack, but either way you’re gonna die. The death of the male picture cards—go.

The men compete to give the most dramatic death scene.

Ladies, let’s hear it for the dead men.

The women give the dead men a round of applause.

      We are down to four Queens: Clubs, Hearts, Spades, and Diamonds. I’ll need three women. Kendall, will you help out?


      What Queen would you like to burn?


      Clubs—excellent. The death of the Queen of Clubs. Go.

Kendall gives an impressive shriek as she sees her life flash before her eyes, then slumps in her chair.

      Very nice, let’s hear it for Kendall.

Pete leads a round of applause for Kendall.

      Paige, you’re next. Which Queen would you like to burn: Diamonds, Hearts, or Spades?


      Spades it is. Ladies and gentlemen, the death of the Queen of Spades. Go.

Paige withers and falls to the ground.


      Terrific—less is more. Paige, everyone.

Paige gets a round of applause as she returns to her seat.

      Avery, the last decision is yours. Would you like to burn the Queen of Diamonds or the Queen of Hearts?


      Hearts. Excellent. Here it is, the death of Avery, Queen of Hearts. Go.

Avery clutches her stomach as thought she’d been shot, and falls to her knees. She dramatically reaches out to her mom, then falls on her side.

Pete leads the applause for Avery as she sits back down.

      Great job. And so there is only one card left, the Queen of Diamonds. I knew that. I knew how you would make every decision.

Pete looks over the audience as he mentions them.

      I knew you would burn spot cards first, and I knew you would burn the male cards next, and I knew you would burn the Queens of Clubs, Spades, and Hearts. I didn’t know what order, but I knew the Queen of Clubs, Spades, and Hearts would be burned. I knew the Queen of Diamonds would be left.

Pete pauses and smiles.

      That’s why I folded up a jumbo card and clipped it to my pocket.

Pete looks down at a folded playing card which has been clipped to the outside of his breast pocket for the entire show.

Very fairly he unclips the card and unfolds it. It is a jumbo Queen of Diamonds.

      I knew!

The end.

This is pretty straightforward, especially in a chapter on equivoque, but here are the details. The first decision is to burn spot or picture cards. If they choose spot cards, you burn them, which leaves picture cards—should we burn the males or females? If they choose picture cards, fine—should we burn the males or females? The same technique goes for the male/female question: If they choose male, fine—burn the men, then move on to burning the women one at a time. If they choose women, you burn the women one at a time. The idea of burning cards was created by Larry Becker and is one of the most natural and invisible versions of Magician’s Choice.

The result is a very streamlined process that narrows you down to the Queens in just two questions. What seals the deal is the fact that the choice of which Queen is genuinely free, and it’s the last choice; fairness is what people will remember.

I borrowed this equivoque sequence from Josh Jay's “Inferno," which uses it with a lovely four-way out of Josh's own devising. His presentation was very theatrical, including lighting three matches—one for each decision. I wanted to do the trick for my students, but there’s no way I could light a match in my classroom. At some point I hit on the idea of having the audience act out the deaths of the eliminated cards, which I figured would play well. I was right.

You can buy “Inferno” from and use the gimmicks for this routine. What I actually use is a custom version of Mark Oberon’s Way Out, which I made with playing card images instead of words and printed on my laser printer. Each version has its strengths: With Josh’s handling you end up with a single ungimmicked card you can leave in the audience’s hands. With Way Out there is a side of the gimmick that is never seen, on which you can draw a reminder of which way to unfold it to show which card. This is a huge plus for me, since I don’t perform often enough to keep the different outs clear in my mind. Whichever method you use, you do not want any hesitation at that point.

Like any equivoque this script shows only one possible version of the trick. It follows the choices made at my family reunion, and it is pretty close to the best-case scenario. When I perform it for my students, most classes chose to burn spot cards first. This works very well. And every audience has chosen to burn the men at that point in the script, which is great. It is possible the first choice will be picture cards, then women, in which case you would only get the three acted-out deaths. Hasn't happened to me yet, but it’s still a miracle prediction.

The Real Work
What makes this trick really sing is getting the audience to act out their deaths in a fun way. It helps if spot cards or men (or both) are chosen, so the first death is acted by a group; no one has to die alone. People are more willing to take this kind of risk if they are part of a group. If you’re a professional you can borrow a spectator’s phone and video their death. That’s something people will share.

Let’s Recap
Note how the speech at the end serves to recap the selection process, but not in a “let’s review what’s happened” kind of way. If you have read SM1, you may remember Eugene Burger talking about “Gesprache: Speech in which nothing is revealed.” It goes without saying that most of the time when you are reviewing what happened, nothing is being revealed. But here, it reminds the audience of the procedure while seeming to add new information to the presentation—that I knew all the decisions in advance. This is a small point but I think it is an improvement. You can apply it to many tricks that require a recap.

First Lines
“It was a pleasure to burn.” That’s the first line of the book Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

This is a very indirect way to begin, which introduces the idea of burning without giving any indication of why. Then there’s the tangent about 451 not really being the temperature at which paper burns. So it all has very little to do with the trick to come. What it does have to do with is me. I love books in general and Ray Bradbury in particular.


  • Joshua Jay’s “Inferno” is available from Vanishing Inc.
  • Mark Oberon’s “Way Out” is available from many stores, or from Mark himself at
  • Magician’s Choice, aka Equivoque, aka Le Choix du Magicien, goes back at least as far as 1785, in the book Testament de Jérome Sharp by Henri Decremps.

Reader comments:


Friday, 22 November 2019 14:18 PM - Reply to this comment

Absolutely love this! Thank you for sharing... this is perfect for the Number 4 envelope. ( A method I enjoyed, searching for a presentation, now resolved!)
I am curious how the choices of burn spot cards then burn queens would go; in this case, the Jacks and Kings are ignored? It is unlikely given what Mr. McCabe has experienced with his performances, but still, it remains a possibility. Any ideas on presentation adjustment given this scenario?

Thanks again for sharing this!



Saturday, 14 December 2019 06:08 AM - Reply to this comment


Yes, if they pick spot cards, go ahead, burn the spot cards, and then if they pick queens, okay, we’ll need three ladies, which queen do you want to die as? In that scenario you don’t mention the Kings and Jacks.

This is slightly not consistent, but I’ve never heard of anyone getting asked about it. The inconsistency is only visible after the trick is over, when it’s too late. That’s one big benefit of using an engaging presentation like this; people are thinking more about the death scenes than they are the method.

And even if they are, the final choices of three queens are entirely fair. Those are the ones which are acted out by individuals, so they are more memorable. That fairness will spread over the memory of the earlier part of the process.

BTW I am not a professional, so I don’t have all that many data points. But none of my audiences have chosen to burn the women at that point—so far! In fact, it has never really been that close. I think this is a good thing; in my experience, men are more willing to overact their death scenes—or maybe I am better at encouraging men to do that—which makes it easier for the women to do the same.

I’ll tell you who has done this a huge number of times: Joshua Jay. The underlying equivoque process here is the same one used in Inferno. Fortunately, Joshua Jay, personal friend of mine. So, JJ: Is there ever a problem if it goes Spot cards then Queens, and if so, how do you deal with it?

JJ: In "Inferno" there is a moment where it's possible people can choose to burn the number cards (I never, ever say "Spot" cards because I find few people know that terminology, whereas "number cards" are self-evident) and THEN choose to burn the Queens. Here's my thoughts: it's so, so, so much more about attitude and flow than about what is technically discrepant and not. Confidence plays a much bigger role in this than most people presume. If you ACT as though you're doing things completely fairly and entirely according to what the spectator has named, I find they will follow along without the slightest bit of suspicion. 

And here's the "tweak" that makes it all logical. It sounds like this:

Do you want to burn the number cards or the picture cards? And remember: whatever you say, that's what we'll burn. The number cards? Fine, we'll burn the number cards. We burn the Sevens. We burn the Threes. We burn the Tens. We've burned the number cards. 

That leaves Jacks, Queens, and Kings. Men and women. Do you want to burn the men or burn the women? The women? You're sick. You know that? 

(This joke is purposely placed here. The joke is a release from the seriousness of the moment, and puts people at ease and out of focus for just a moment, which helps.)

Fine. We'll burn the Queens. That's the Queen of Hearts, Queen of Spades, Queen of Clubs, and Queen of Diamonds. But I said at the very beginning that you could save ONE. Which Queen will you save?

(Note here that I'm not using any ridiculous wording such as, "Okay you chose Queens so we'll burn the men." Instead, I go with their selection, and then immediately "zoom in" on burning the Queens by asking which one they will save. I don't deny that we're burning the Queens. I only ask which one, finally, they will save.)

(Back to Pete) Obviously, I agree with Josh. The best thing about the “burning cards” metaphor—Larry Becker’s idea, I believe—is that it eliminates the reinterpreting-after-the-fact that occurs in most equivoque routines. The spectators know what they are doing—they are choosing cards to burn, and that is what happens. I don’t see how anyone could remember the exact details well enough to notice a slight inconsistency in the process.

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