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Card College: Volume One by Roberto Giobbi

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii April, 2005)


Few professional engagements go by that I am not asked by at least one amateur magician for a recommendation about how best to pursue the study of magic in general or card magic in particular. For almost as long as I have been asked, I have consistently provided the same answer: buy a copy of The Royal Road to Card Magic by Hugard and Braue. With the publication of Roberto Giobbi's Card College, this new and important volume will become the one which I endorse as the best basic guide to the study of sleight of hand with cards.

RoyalRoad was a remarkable text that served me well when I first purchased it at about the age of twelve, and for many years thereafter. Clearly written, precisely illustrated, intelligently organized, it was a superb and timely guide to its subject. Each chapter taught a particular sleight or related set of techniques, and then immediately presented a small selection of tricks, both classic and contemporary, utilizing the skills just taught. But Royal Road was penned half a century ago. There is an undeniable need for a contemporary manual intended for the novice and intermediate student—a thoughtful, intelligently-written escort that might rescue the future of magic from the seductive but distorting dutches of instructional videos that promise salvation on the cheap; that claim to be for beginners, but are all too often beyond the constructive reach of any novice. Video exposes without context, and presses unsuitable material that is too advanced, with descriptions far too brief, upon an impressionable audience. But the right book can truly guide a student, as would a good teacher—gently but securely— toward a future rich with appreciation, insight, and ability. Roberto Giobbi has now provided us with such a book.

Mr. Giobbi is a professional magician living in Switzerland whose performances and writings have gleaned praise in the past, induding a prize in the FISM closeup card competition. Card College was first published in German, acclaimed throughout Europe, and has now been elegantly translated by Richard Hatch. As with the recent Ted Lesley book, this English edition has been gently improved and expanded under the guiding hand of publisher Stephen Minch. With the venerable Royal Road undoubtedly a well-deserved influence, Mr. Giobbi has set out to write a definitive course in sleight of hand with cards, reflecting the passage of time since Hugard and Braue's seminal text and the present. Volume One clearly signals that the author is up to this daunting task, and will likely have succeeded by the time the complete series has seen the light of day.

Volume One of Card College is primarily intended for the beginner. The publisher also points out that the book will be of use as "a retraining course for the experienced card magician who has likely picked up a few bad habits and inferior techniques during previous study." I will endorse that claim, with the reservation that "experienced card magician" will likely mean different things to different people. The advanced cardician will have little to gain from this work, although there are a couple of odd entries that have not seen print before, including a finessed handling of the riffle force and an odd riffle shuffle flourish. Were an intermediate student to already know every sleight described by Mr. Giobbi, it remains almost a certainty that there would be new insights to be gleaned, especially in the area of up-to-date technical finesse—as in, for example, the series of misdirective covering actions the author provides for the thumb count. And if you are relatively new to the art of card magic—with only a few years invested in the specific area of card magic (the sum total of your overall time in magic notwithstanding)—you will certainly find this book a bargain.

The questions that come most obviously to mind when considering a work of this nature concern its overall organization; the clarity of description and illustration; the choice of techniques; and the selection of tricks. Indeed, one of the most remarkable elements in the author's catalog of successes in this carefully systematized volume is the clarity and succinctness of his descriptions. The author consistently achieves a precision that is at times wondrous, as he boils his text down to the most essential and efficient of choices. Similarly, the choice and style of illustrations, by Barbara Giobbi-Ebnöther, serves the author's purpose in like manner.

By and large, the choice of sleights is well considered and appropriate, and here is where the student gains greatly by both the expanse of time since Royal Road, and as well by the author's depth of perspective and expertise. A basic spread cull is taught here, as is the Vernon double-undercut—which is in fact the basic control that I teach my own students. It is interesting to note that both of these techniques were absent from Royal Road, the latter no doubt due to its then recent advent, the former because while its origins lay with Hofzinser, it had yet to reach the popularity it now enjoys. The top change selected by the author, dating back to Robert-Houdin, is one I also endorse, as opposed to the more common but inferior alternative that requires a change in fingering in the course of the move. But the author has not made choices for novelty's sake—he has wisely included, for example, the straddle-type grip for the overhand shuffle, utilizing the fourth finger at the inner end, which was described by Reginald Scot and later echoed by Erdnase and again by Hugard and Braue. And there are modern sleights included like ATFUS and the Braue addition, although these are assembled in a chapter of miscellany without applicable tricks accompanying them. Students may well find it difficult to acquire a meaningful grasp of these techniques until the time when appropriate tricks are provided.

Still, the selection and handling of the many tricks included lend further tribute to the author's informed outlook. Though it is often difficult to find sound tricks that rely on limited technology, I think even advanced students may find a few tricks here worth considering, as the maximum effect is consistently wrung out with the most minimal of tools. For example, Mr. Giobbi offers a flashy four ace revelation with a royal flush kicker that is truly remarkable given the simplicity of its technical requirements. And throughout, the author offers cogent advice on theory, timing, psychology and performance issues that any cardician would do well to consider. The student is not merely receiving a handbook of techniques and tricks here, but rather an all-around guide to beginning the process of learning to perform card magic in a deceptive and entertaining fashion.

Mr. Giobbi briefly addresses the subject of credits in his introduction, explaining that "...where the inventor of a particular technique or trick is straightforward, credit is provided in the text, along with a source. More detailed discussions of ideas, plots and concepts have been left to works written for the students and researchers of magic history." Clearly the author has pondered these problematic issues and reached a considered decision. The credits are accurate, but while the author is quite responsible concerning credit by name, he often dispenses with providing specific sources in the published record. Obviously he does not intend this work as a tool for researchers. That is certainly his right, and indeed, the choice is understandable if disappointing to those who might have found detailed literary sourcing an inestimable improvement in their potential use of such a book. But perhaps the forthcoming project along such lines to be penned by Jon Racherbaumer may provide better use in such a light, and if so, it may also serve as a complementary text to Mr. Giobbi's work.

While it is always unfair to review a book in terms of what it is not—or not intended to be—nevertheless I cannot help but wonder if more thorough references would not have been of great use even to the novice for which the book is explicitly intended. What of the student who wishes to learn more about a given technique? He or she will require the advice of an informed guide in order to locate even the original sources to which Mr. Giobbi incompletely refers, much less to discover further elaboration upon such subjects. A brief bibliography at the close of each chapter, or a thorough concluding bibliography referenced by footnotes throughout the text, would have served as a better chart for the student wishing to navigate deeper waters. The bibliography that is provided is cursory at best, and does not begin to include all of the many credits mentioned in passing but not specifically identified in the body of the text. Nevertheless, the author has made deliberate choices in these matters, for better or for worse, and has at least included a useful index.

As to the inclusion of the sleights, such selections are perhaps even more subjective than judgments about crediting. Nevertheless, as one with significant experience as a private instructor, I have never believed in the teaching of "remedial" techniques, and so I would not have included the inferior beginner's double lifts the author provides in Volume One. Unquestionably, Mr. Giobbi is aware of the limitations of these choices, as he promptly cautions the reader to this effect at the start of the description. As well, he also teaches the beginnings of a two card push-off, while mentioning that it can serve as the foundation of a more sophisticated double lift that will be described in Volume Two. I imagine the author simply felt compelled to include some kind of double lift in this first volume, but it is unfortunate that he felt so pressured by some of the conventions of the form to provide such a bald compromise. If he wishes to correct our common mistakes—as is clearly one of his intended goals—then perhaps he should have confronted this issue head-on, and either waited, or provided a superior technique earlier, such as the strike or hit lift.

As well, the discussion of the classic force toward the close of this volume strikes me as premature, and probably inappropriate for a true beginner. The description and extended analysis, while not exhaustive, is quite thorough, and will certainly serve as an invaluable introduction at such time the student is adequately prepared. But the technique's requisite psychological, timing, and spectator management skills put it beyond the reach of the tyro, in my estimation. Similarly, I disagree with the author's inclusion of the little-finger or pinky count. This is an extremely difficult technique, one that will probably distract and discourage the primary audience for a work of this type. By all means, if you think you are in the market for this book, you will be making a wise and extremely cost effective investment—but skip pages 201 and 202. These reservations aside, this work is an impressive, invaluable achievement, and I am quite eager to see the succeeding volumes in the series. Hermetic Press hopes to release Volume Two before the end of the year. I strongly suspect that even the experts will stand to benefit from Mr. Giobbi's continuing efforts. Meanwhile, I believe that Card College will endure as a new standard for at least the equivalent fifty years that The Royal Road to Card Magic reigned as the definitive text for the teaching of conjuring with playing cards.

7" x 10" hardcover, full-cloth binding with laminated multicolor dustjacket; 250 pages; hundreds of line drawings; 1994; Publisher: Hermetic Press