History of Card Tricks

English Magician Guy Hollingworth performs an amazing card trick on stage at the Magifest magic convention

Whether you saw one on David Blaine’s recent TV special or your uncle or grandfather performed one at a family event, nearly every person has been exposed to a card trick at some point in their life. And, even though new card magic tricks are being invented almost every day, the roots of most card tricks can still be traced back centuries to the earliest days of conjuring.

It's not just card magic that has an interesting history, almost every genre of magic has a rich history. Coin magic, mentalism, even Zoom magic all have their own fascinating tales to tell. These stories are often swopped at magic conventions, late at night. When the magic props and flash paper has been put away, older magicians regale younger generations with tales of how it all started.

Today, we explore the exciting history of card tricks...

The Origins of Playing Cards

It would be quite difficult to perform card tricks without a deck of cards and, according to some historians, playing cards were around long before the first magic trick that used cards. In fact, some believe that playing cards may have first appeared as far back as 9th century China. However, it wasn’t until the late 14th century that we saw our first recorded appearance of playing cards when a German monk named Johannes wrote a manuscript about them and the variety of card games they were being used for.

As the years passed, playing cards began to grow in popularity around the world. Throughout the 15th and 16th century in Germany, France and England, the original suits and symbols (polo sticks, coins, swords and cups) were evolved into the more familiar standard playing card design (clubs, hearts, spades diamonds), and the rest is history. More than 500 years later, a deck of cards can be found in nearly every home and is still an essential tool used by magicians to amaze audiences.

There is now even a burgeoning community of custom playing cards and a massively popular card flourishing performance art known as cardistry.

Card Tricks are Born

Magician Jeff McBride pulls playing cards from his mouth at the McBride Magic and Mystery School

When you look at the overall history of playing cards and magic tricks, card tricks are actually relatively new—especially compared to more traditional sleight of hand magic tricks like the cup and ball trick (which is often referred to as the “oldest trick in the book”). While the cups and balls may have originated through hieroglyphics in Ancient Egypt in 2500 B.C., it wasn’t until 1,000s of years later that card magic truly became its own form of magic.

Many magic historians believe the origins of card magic are largely based around the unique efforts made by avid gamblers to cheat at cards. In fact, The Expert at the Card Table, which is considered by many professional magicians to be a book that every card magician should read, features routines and sleights based mostly on gambling trickery and card manipulation.

Going back even further, one of the first written references to card tricks actually came in the early 1400’s when an article referenced a card cheat in Paris using card manipulation and trickery to gain an unfair advantage at the card table. A 15th century monk and mathematician Luca Pacioli also mentioned card tricks in his book De Viribus Quantitatis (or The Powers of Numbers) and a 16th century piece from Girolamo Cardano mentioned how a Spanish magician named Dalmau used playing cards to perform magic for Emperor Charles V. Yellow aged pages in an open Discoverie of Witchcraft magic book by Reginald Scott In 1584, Reginald Scot—a skeptic who was eager to prove that “witchcraft” was actually just well-disguised conjuring tricks (similar to the efforts made by James Randi to expose fake psychics and fraudulent mediums)—published a book called The Discoverie of Witchcraft. This book is widely considered to be the first official book of magic tricks and featured a whole section dedicated to card tricks.

However, despite these earlier references, most historians attribute the first iteration of card magic as we know it today to Giovanni Giuseppi Pinetti, an Italian magician who rose to prominence in the 1700’s. His boisterous personality and willingness to share his card magic with large theater audiences, as well as royal figures such as King Louis XVI, helped lay the groundwork for card magic to start building its own unique identity within the magic community.

Since Pinetti, the torch has been passed on through a variety of incredible professional magicians. Famous conjurers such as Howard Thurston (who is known in the magic community as the first master card manipulator), Robert Houdin, Dai Vernon, Ed Marlo, Tony Slydini, John Scarne, Ricky Jay, Richard Turner, and modern magicians like David Copperfield, David Blaine, Dynamo, Criss Angel and Michael Carbonaro, have all played their own distinct role in furthering the development of card magic. Even the legendary Harry Houdini once billed himself as “The King of Cards” before becoming world-famous for his death-defying escapes.

Famous film director and magician Orson Welles holds a cigar in his mouth as he performs a card trick

Since playing cards like Bicycle Playing Cards are so inexpensive and widely available, they’re often the first tool that beginner magicians use to learn magic tricks. Most beginner magic books feature a plethora of easy card tricks and, as noted before, the first magic trick many people are exposed to is often a card trick.

Playing cards also offer a ton of versatility for everyone from close-up magicians to street magicians and even parlor and stage magicians. They can be used for a variety of different magic tricks from the skillful art of card manipulation to complex sleight of hand effects and even self-working card tricks for beginners.

Where Can I Learn Card Magic?

Dan and Dave Buck perform a basic thumb fan with a deck of cards

As its own branch of magic, card magic and card manipulation has a vast catalog of card tricks like the Ambitious Card or Three-Card Monte that magicians can learn.

There are also a variety of basic card sleights like the dealer’s grip, card spread, swing cut or card spring, fancy card flourishes like pressure fans and deck flips, and even more advanced sleight of hand techniques like giving the illusion of a free choice with card forces or secretly controlling a playing card with palming, false shuffles, false cuts and more.

Are YouTube Magic Tutorials Good for Beginners?

Vanishing Inc. YouTube Playist filled with tutorials for learning free bar bets and bar scams Some of you reading this may have already started your card magic journey and have come across some of the awesome YouTubers offering free card magic tutorials like 52Kards, Jay Sankey and Chris Ramsay. While these can be helpful resources, they are rare gems in a field of mostly subpar teaching.

The problem with YouTube magic tutorials is that they typically involve someone teaching a card trick or card sleight that they have either just learned themselves or have not taken the time to master. As a result, you end up with a poor instructional video that can lead to learning bad fundamentals or habits that will be very difficult to break later on in your career.

Even worse, some YouTube channels are simply devoted to exposing the secrets behind the card tricks performed by magicians like Mat Franco, Jon Dorenbos or Shin Lim on America’s Got Talent. These videos not only typically make incorrect guesses at the method, but do nothing to push the art of magic forward.

While YouTube can be a great supplemental resource for bar scam style magic tricks or easy self-working card tricks, we’d suggest not using it as your main source of learning card tricks. If you want to learn magic like a professional magician, your best best is to stick to magic books, DVDs and downloads like those that can be easily found online through the Vanishing Inc. magic shop.

Free Card Magic for Beginners

We want every beginner magician to have a chance to learn card magic the right way! So, we’re making our 10x10 beginner card magic video FREE for a limited time. That’s right, you can learn 20 basic card tricks and card moves from card magic master R. Paul Wilson for FREE. No strings attached or obligation necessary.

Download your Free Card Magic Lessons