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Why do magicians use cards?

Why do magicians use cards is a common question. Are there specific props that spring to mind when someone says the word “magician” out loud?

A top hat? A cloak? A cane?

We all picture something differently. However, professional magicians and playing cards have formed a symbiotic partnership through the years – or indeed, through the centuries.

It is acknowledged in socio-historical circles that playing cards originated from…. Do you fancy a guess?

9th Century China!

This spread across India, Persia, and Egypt before becoming a staple throughout Europe. By that point, multiple variations had already come to the fore.

The oldest deck of playing cards is in the possession of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, America. They have been identified as mid-15th Century with Dutch visual designs. A collector purchased them in the 1970s for $2,800 before selling them to their current owner for an astonishing $143,000. Not a bad turnover, to say the least.

Why playing cards were invented?

The exact reason playing cards were invented is up for debate. A strong argument put forward by scholars though is the undeniable connection between playing cards and the calendar year. Unfortunately, however, it could just be pure coincidence – we will never know. Either way, it unquestionably makes for a compelling read. There are fifty-two cards in a deck, and there are fifty-two weeks in a year. The two colours (red and black) are believed to represent day and night. There are four suits in a pack (clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds) – just like there are four seasons. There are also twelve court cards and there are twelve months in a year. And finally, each suit contains thirteen values (ace through king) just as there are approximately thirteen lunar cycles in a year. Interesting right?!

Playing cards became a staple of a magician’s arsenal during the 15th Century, as a host of unique routines blossomed throughout the world.  Proficient performers know exactly how to manipulate the 52 pieces of paper, warp a subject’s memories, as well as gain authority over their attention, and influence their decisions.

This undeniably sounds intriguing, but how does it actually work? By manipulating and subverting expectations.

For example, if I am juggling four balls simultaneously whilst talking to you, you might not necessarily notice if I add or remove another ball mid-conversation. This form of misdirection is achieved by distracting the viewer’s attention with the magician’s conversation, physical movement, and visual magical moments.

As adept as we are, it remains an incredible difficult proposition to focus on multiple things simultaneously.

Don’t believe me?

Try tapping the top of your head with your left hand, whilst rubbing your stomach in a circular motion with your right hand. Now switch.  And switch. And switch again. It’s a tricky prospect!

Still, why do magicians use cards?

A deck of playing cards is almost synonymous with contemporary magic. Why do magicians use cards? Glad you asked!  A deck of playing cards are universally recognisable and a staple of a magician’s repertoire. Due to its inherent structure and nature, a deck of playing cards provides an endless amount of possibilities as to what a magician may perform.  They are an economical financial option, and extremely easy to find.

Most homes usually have a deck of cards lying around. You probably have one in your home too! Have a look! If you find a pack and want to learn some incredible cards trick and amaze your friends, then download my app Magic Masterclass available here on the app store.

These props are extremely malleable and can work across many magical disciplines from magic to mindreading as well as from close up magic to stage magic. For the convenience of the magician, they are easy to transport and are conveniently replaceable.

Should you be on a budget, don’t be shy to enter a casino. They often stock up with new card batches, so they have the potential to resell them for next to nothing. Cards are regularly discarded because of their regular use. You’ll notice they have their corner clipped and this is so card sharks cannot take them, alter them to their advantage and sneak them back in to the casino.

There are many visual iterations of contemporary playing cards – you may choose to opt for the magician’s choice, bicycle cards. These are used because they are the perfect mix of quality and price. Magicians get through a tremendous volume of cards so we need cards that are affordable but also meet a very high standard. If you see a magician perform, most of the time they will be using a bicycle pack. For that very reason, you may want to opt for a more individual design to ensure your performance stands out.

The following brands are ideal when incorporating playing cards into one’s routine…

Types of playing cards

Poker 808 Bicycle Cards
SWE Deck
Absinthe Playing Cards V2
Bicycle 52 Proof
Sleepers Deck
Bicycle Black Ghost
Pipmen Playing Cards
Ellusionist FATHOM Playing Cards
Bumble Bee Playing Cards
Theory11 Union Playing Cards
Joker and the Thief: White Gold Edition
Ice Plastic Playing Cards
Prism Night Playing Cards
Magic Makers Orange Reversed Deck Bicycle Playing Cards

A person who specialises in card manipulation is often described as a card sharp, a card shark, or a card mechanic.

Some of the most memorable magicians who are renowned for incorporating cards into their acts include Dai Vernon, Tony Slydini, Ed Marlo, S. W. Erdnase, Richard Turner, John Scarne, and Ricky Jay.

Memorable card manipulation techniques include:

False Deals
Side Slips
False Shuffles
False Cuts
Colour Change

What are your thoughts?  Do any memories of a card-waving magician leave you flabbergasted spring to mind?  Please do share with the community!  I would love to hear from you!