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Encyclopedia of Playing Card Flourishes by Gerald P. Cestkowski

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii November, 2002)


Robert-Houdin said that "the magician is an actor playing the part of a magician," and chose to add, although many may overlook it, that "he is not a juggler." In Our Magic, which has stood the test of time as one of the great theoretical conjuring texts (perhaps the greatest, according to Vernon, yet vilified by the contentious Stanley Collins), Nevil Maskelyne lamented that "... due recognition of the artistic claims of magic and magicians can only be brought about by proving that those who practice magic are something more than common jugglers [emphasis mine), on the one hand, or common mechanical tinkerers, on the other hand ... This they can only do by treating (magic) as a true art not merely as an embodiment of more or less intelligent skill."

Well, not according to Gerald Cestkowski who, admittedly, is not alone in the search for displays of juggling and skill that, to him and his fellow enthusiasts, are just as good as magic any day if not better as long as you can wow an audience with them.

Yet juggling is not magic, and it may be pointless to debate the subject of which is "better;" once you have established that they are clearly different, you are free to select your preference, and I only urge you to not confuse the two. The author of this book seems bent on debate, however or at least on defending his position in an imagined debate as he demonstrates in his provocative, sometimes flippant, but generally well written opening salvos, namely in the book's introduction and an essay immediately following entitled "philosophy."

In the introduction Mr. Cestkowski goes to some length to establish what is and is not, in his estimation, a flourish, and how demonstrations of skill differ from magical effects. Thus in his universe a color change is a magical effect, and not a flourish. I agree heartily with all of this. As we dive into what he deems his "philosophy," however, much of our agreement comes to an end. Most of the author's premise appears to be based upon an anecdote about Michael Jordan doing a flourish of sorts before stuffing a basketball through a hoop for a remarkable 13th consecutive goal. The point is that instead of merely scoring that goal, Mr. Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time, decided to, in the author's words, "show off." Case dosed.

The author appears to contend that the fact that you can show off means that you should, and the fact that audiences will react to such displays also means that you should. The author appears to contend that this comprises a complete and immutable argument. In these assumptions he is severely mistaken.

One area of longstanding and substantive objection to the inclusion of wanton flourishes in conjuring suggests that flourishes speak to skill, and that skill speaks to method hence one dilutes and distracts from the mystery of magic by allowing the audience to merely attribute all conjuring effects to feats of skill. Mr. Cestkowski accuses those opponents who would raise such objections of engaging in "sophistry" whereupon he cites an example of a miserable trick method as some kind of evidence that the other side in the debate is apparently as stupid, incompetent, and perhaps insane as the particular method he cites. Sophistry, indeed!

The author seems determined to become a master of that debating strategy, however, since he then goes on to repeatedly quote, throughout his book, excerpts from great magic books that refer to skill, as if he believes (and perhaps he does) that any mention of skill is intended as a reference to visible and apparent skill, and that there is no skill in conjuring other than skill which can be seen. Any reference to "magic" is belittled by the author as intending that the audience literally believe in magical powers clearly a false dichotomy and a spurious misrepresentation.

We are presented, for example, with a quote from Paul LePaul, who addresses the claim of some magic factions that "modern methods have eliminated the need for great technical skill. This is a delusion ... ," declares LePaul, but clearly he could not be more explicitly addressing the subject of method, nor effect. To maintain that these comments concern flourishes is nothing short of perverse. LePaul even concludes the same cited epigram by claiming that skill is "instinctively felt" by an audience a point on which I agree. But what, may I ask, is "instinctively felt" by a flourish, when the flourish comprises as overt a demonstration of skill possible? Of course, LePaul was in fact referring to the concealed skill of advanced sleight of hand, as required by the expert execution, for example, of his finessed handling of the Bottom Palm. (Then again, it is interesting that LePaul chose to cover his Spread Pass control with an initial flourish; it is equally interesting to note that modern practitioners have eschewed the flourish for the control.) Perhaps the author's blindness to these obvious points is not deliberate sophistry; more likely, he is merely wrong.

While I don't intend to belabor the point, suffice it to say that the author's argument, such as it is, is flawed at best and bereft of subtlety at worst. Reasonable people may differ about the role of skillful display in conjuring—be reminded, please, that Dai Vernon himself created the Wand Spin Vanish—but meaningful discussion requires a far more nuanced approach than this if anyone is to be swayed. I was entertained in the reading, but I remain not only unconvinced of the author's position, but indeed unconvinced of whether he understands much about conjuring at all. His offhand barbs aimed at magical thinkers perhaps a bit greater than he—Vernon is herein deemed "wacky do little to help his cause. But I grant you, his writing style is generally quite amusing, and his tendency toward sprinkling the dense instructional [Ca with the occasional wisecrack often made me laugh. "You could also do the ... standard one-handed (fan) close, unless you do it with any sort of accompanying pantomime ratcheting or winding motion of the other hand, in which case you may be violating federal law." We can only hope.

That said. however, we can safely proceed to the remaining contents of the book, because this is not a book about conjuring, it is a book about juggling—which happens to utilize a conjuring prop, specifically playing cards. I certainly would not be one to argue with anyone's inclination, much less even their right, to juggle playing cards. I would only argue whether such displays are magic (the author and I agree that they are not); and whether such displays belong as part of a magical performance; and although my position is a complex one that I have stated elsewhere and will not take space to further explicate here, it appears to be at odds with that of Mr. Cestkowski.

And so, we are presented with an Encyclopedia of Playing Card Flourishes. And now is certainly the time for such a thing, considering the flash-fire intensity of interest in the work of the Buck Twins, as well as that of Brian Tudor and others who have come before and will no doubt follow after. The book is almost 550 pages. It is illustrated with far more photos than I are to count. There are 12 chapters included, starting with one-hand single cuts (19 entries) followed by one-hand multiple cuts (13) and moving on to fanning (26); springs and drops (13); two-hand single cuts (13); two-hand multiple cuts (16); arm-spreads (19); two-hand shuffles (8); one-hand shuffles (6); deck flips. twirls and spins (14); table flourishes (27); and finally throwing and juggling (15).

That's a lot of flourishes, and quantity seems to be the point of the term "encyclopedia" in this case. as opposed to implying thoroughness. There are plenty of flourishes out there that will not be found here. What's more, there are plenty of flourish creators out there who might have been willing to contribute to a true "encyclopedia of card flourishes," but it doesn't appear that they were asked. Maybe this should have been called the "Really. REALLY Big Book of Card Flourishes," but I only mention this to indicate that this is by no means a survey of what is going on out there; among other things, you'll have to obtain the three Buck Twins' monographs as well as their video, and that of Brian Tudor, for starters.

So much for the terminology. But there are also some serious questions worth posing about credits in this book. While at times there are credits to be found, it appears that the author provides them only when he knows them, and when he doesn't, rather than make an effort to fill in the blanks, he just leaves the blanks empty. There are many problems with this approach, not the least of which is that the reader may mistakenly assume that the item included, unless it is a standard like the Pressure Fan or similar, or unless the author explicitly declaims credit, must therefore by default be the author's creation. This would be a serious error, and inviting that possibility is an egregious flaw. Just for starters, the Paddle Wheel Cut was the creation of the late Mike Rogers; more recently, the One-Hand Giant Fan is the creation of another force in the flourish world, Joey Burton. Although I arts far from expert in this area, I strongly suspect there are many more missing credits that someone out there knows not the least of which would be the creators themselves and insufficient effort was made to seek out that information. The author probably isn't so much a thief as he is lazy which makes him an irresponsible author nonetheless.

As to his own creations, however, they appear to be substantial. Mr. Cestkowski lays claim to perhaps a third of the material, including deck twirls, weird table cuts, L-Cuts including the "Interpolation Move," the Upright Arm-Spread, the Overhead Spring, and he points out that the derailed instructions for actually juggling cards are all making their print debut here.

Nevertheless, these various and nor insubstantial complaints aside, if you want to team some flourishes, this is clearly the book you need. Much appreciated is that the author makes a sincere effort to help the reader actually learn these moves, from valuable, precise re-descriptions of classic maneuvers like Springing the Cards, the Pressure Fan, and basic Arm Spreads, to pages and pages of photos attempting to completely instruct the reader in the workings of complex modern-day maneuvers. Some of these items are delightful conceptions; the One-Hand Overhand Shuffle makes me laugh just to think about it, and if you haven't seen it. well, you might want to try thinking about it yourself. The Double Arm Spread seems impossible, and was long claimed to be so, but the author insists otherwise. The Full Gearscrew Cut is a two-hand, eight-packer cut that requires 40 photographs to describe.

As a resource concerning the present trend in flourishes and jugglery, this book is unquestionably valuable. The production is minimal the photos are screen-captures taken from Hi-8 video, and they look it. The book lacks an index which is a serious flaw; it would not only have made finding specific en-tries easier, but it would have also been a useful tool concerning credits and creators. As to the author's stated theories about the use of flourishes, even the Buck Twins would likely present a more balanced case, since they do not only create flourishes, but they also have a knack for visual effects, and they appear to know the difference; I would frankly be interested in seeing their take on such matters. Lee Asher is cited in this book as an influence, yet while it is true that Mr. Asher brings a spectacular level of skill to his work, some of which is very much on display, he also retains a passion for the value of a true conjuring effect. As he said to me, concerning his own interest in flourishes, "I may collect them like baseball cards, but I don't display them like the Smithsonian."

The subject of the use of skill in magic is a complex one, and you ignore it, or cavalierly embrace one extreme position or another, at your peril. It is interesting to ponder why Ricky Jay chose to make his first Off-Broadway one-man show, Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants, so clearly about skill rather than about magic (there were barely more than two or three routines that were presented outside of the skill framework). Even in his current show, On the Stem, skill is once again far and away the primary subtext; clearly Mr. Jay is more at home with presenting "skill" than with presenting 'Mystery," as is perhaps true of most magicians who gravitate toward gambling demonstrations, which present the easiest opportunity to demonstrate not only skill but indeed actual method. Paul LePaul said that flourishes "play a very important role in arousing interest and ... add spice and color to a performance." This I believe is true but I don't believe that juggling cards in the manner generally described in this book has much to do with what LePaul was talking about. Magic is about mystery or at least at its best should, in my estimation, attempt to be. Magic is about achieving the impossible not the improbable, or even the merely difficult.

8" x 11" hardbound •545 pages • Illustrated with 2,800 photographs • 2002