Should I Learn the Pass?

August 3, 2017

It is the most magical of sleights. A freely selected card is returned to the center of the deck which is then squared in the magician’s hands. A split-second later, the selection is invisibly brought to the top, allowing the magician to reveal it in the most magical of fashions. When properly executed, it is as baffling as any piece of legerdemain.

Like all good things, the ability to execute the Pass comes with a hefty price, namely several years of practice to master the basic mechanics, followed by daily practice sessions to retain speed and muscle memory. If that sounds like an awful lot of work to perfect one move, it is. And as my friend Jon Racherbaumer pointed out in the September 2016 issue of Genii, there are many superb substitutes for the Pass which are not nearly as difficult to learn.

So why should you learn the Pass?

As someone who’s performed the Pass for 45 years, I’m here to tell you that it’s worth the effort to learn this move for more reasons than you might think. Professor Hoffmann called the Pass “the backbone of card conjuring” for good reason. Inherent in its construction is one of the most important principles of magic which allows the performer to fool his audience in a manner which other methods of controlling cards do not. For that reason alone, every serious student of card magic needs to study and learn this move. Let me explain why.

Derek Dingle’s Breakthrough

In the late 1960s, Derek Dingle burst upon the New York magic scene performing a brand of eye-popping close-up magic that caught the world of magic by storm, and eventually landed him television appearances with Dick Cavett and Barbara Walters. Derek was the hottest close-up magician in the world and a true force of nature.

Derek’s sleight of hand was otherworldly, and blew magicians’ minds. Every sleight in his vast repertoire looked like real magic, and that included his handling of the Invisible Riffle Pass. Other magicians in New York did the Pass brilliantly, most notably Dr. Ken Krenzel and Howie Schwarzman, but Derek’s handling was a cut above. In his gifted hands, there was no pause or get ready, just a quick squaring of the deck, followed by a riffle of the back of the cards with the right thumb. The move was over in a flash, and absolutely invisible.

As a gift for my 15th birthday, my older brother arranged for me to have private lessons with Derek at the Lamb’s Club in New York City. At that point in my magical life, I had a fairly high opinion of myself, having fooled my high school chums with simple card tricks I’d learned from magic books borrowed from the local library. One of the moves I was particularly proud of was my handling of the Classic Pass.

Derek proved to be no easy taskmaster. During my first lesson in the basement of the Lamb’s Club, I performed my tricks for him, and for a finale, did my handling of the Pass. I can still remember the grimace on his face when I was done. Taking the deck from my hands, he said, “Let me show you what you’re doing wrong.”

As it turned out, I was doing everything wrong. My fingers were in the wrong places and my handling of the break was exposed, not to mention the transposition of the two packets being blatantly visible from every possible angle. To put in bluntly, I sucked.

Instead of turning me away (which he had every right to do), Derek spent an hour breaking down the move while teaching me a number of practice tips that I use to this day.

For the next two years, Derek continued to work with me on my Pass, not only in formal lessons, but also while at magic conventions and at Bob Elliott’s home on Long Island. As my handling of the Pass grew more refined, Derek rewarded me by teaching me other variants, including his handling of the Cover Pass and several unpublished shifts at the gaming table.

One of Derek’s practice tips was to start each session by passing a small number of cards off the top, and gradually building up to half the deck. This tip led me to create a routine called “Vanishing Aces,” which uses the Riffle Pass a total of four times, and Derek was the first to see me perform it. I still can remember his nod of approval when the trick was over.

Meeting Fred Kaps

In the summer of 1974, the S.A.M. held its annual convention in Boston. This may have been one of the greatest magic conventions ever held and featured such performers as Norm Nielsen, Johnny Thompson, Del Ray, Fred Kaps, Dai Vernon, Derek Dingle, and David Roth.

The convention hotel featured a bar in the basement where the magicians could be found at all hours, trading tricks and talking shop. I worked up the courage to take a walk through the bar, hoping to spot one of my idols, when I heard my name called out. It was Derek, and he was sitting at a table with Fred Kaps who was doing triple duty at the convention (stage, close-up, and lecture). Derek told me to pull up a chair, then asked me to perform my “Vanishing Aces” routine.

I have never been more nervous in my life, yet managed to do the trick without dropping the cards on the floor. Kaps was gracious in his praise and seemed intrigued with my handling of the Riffle Pass, and asked if I would show it to him. I happily did, and was rewarded with Kaps teaching me his unpublished handling of the Torn and Restored Card and a superb Prediction routine, both of which I used for many years.

Meeting Kaps was an important lesson in my magical upbringing. A great magician was willing to share secrets because of my ability to perform a single move. I don’t believe that Kaps would have taken me into his confidence had I done a trick with the Glide or repetitive Double Lifts. My handling of the Pass said that I was a student of the art and worth talking to.

My Calling Card

Upon graduating from NYU, I had a choice to make. Become a professional magician (I’d been offered a job as a house magician at an upscale resort in the Florida Keys) or go to work on Madison Avenue in the magazine business. I opted to go into publishing and never looked back. But I continued to hone my skills and taught myself every variation of the Pass I could find as well as every card trick that uses the Pass. This knowledge allowed me to befriend some of the world’s best magicians and share secrets with them. This group included Harry Lorayne, Ken Krenzel, Frank Garcia, Darwin Ortiz, Michael Skinner, Larry Jennings, Bernard Bilis, Paul Cummins, and Bill Malone. Back in the day before video downloads and DVDs, magicians shared their secrets in confidence, and rarely tipped their mitts to amateurs unless those amateurs had something to share in return. Because I could perform the Pass, these fantastic performers were willing to bring me into their confidence. As a result, my repertoire and abilities as a magician expanded beyond my wildest dreams.

Of all these friendships, one of the most profound was with Larry Jennings. Larry was a larger than life character who’d performed close-up magic at The Magic Castle and also beat the casinos in Nevada using sophisticated sleight of hand. There wasn’t anything Larry hadn’t done.

During our first meeting at The Magic Castle, I told Larry that I’d learned every routine he’d every published. Larry said, “I don’t want to see my own tricks. Show me your Pass.” I demonstrated my Riffle Pass, then performed a trick called “Anastasia” which uses the Pass Palm (a move that invisibly moves cards off the top of the deck into the palm). Larry had devised a Pass Palm of his own, which he used in several routines. We instantly became friends.

Larry’s obsession with the Pass was equal to my own. Larry had analyzed the move to death, and believed that its proper execution would turn an ordinary card trick into a miracle, something which was not true with other card controls. Larry was gracious enough to explain his thinking to me, which I will now share with you.

Being Ahead

Laymen aren’t stupid when it comes to magic. There’s been enough exposure of magic on TV and the internet for a curious layman to have a basic grasp of our art’s inner workings. This is particularly true with card magic. The average layman understands the concept of the Bottom Deal, false shuffling, and the Double Lift. It doesn’t help that the very names of these sleights are exposures, but I suppose it’s too late to change this.

The Pass is different because a layman cannot grasp its mechanics. The notion that a magician can invisibly cut a deck of cards sounds preposterous, and as a result a layman can’t conceptualize the move. (A case in point was Derek Dingle’s exposure of the Riffle Pass during a TV special with Barbara Walters. Derek exposed the move with the cameras burning his hands, yet Walters couldn’t grasp what he was doing).

This is why the Pass is such a powerful weapon. The Pass puts the magician ahead of his audience, since the audience continues to believe the selection is buried in the deck. If the magician produces the card from his pocket, or his wallet, or makes the card stick to the ceiling, the layman is baffled since he still believes the card is lost.

Larry called this principle being ahead. Once you are ahead of your audience, it’s impossible for them to reconstruct what took place, turning an ordinary trick into a miracle.

How can I Learn the Pass?

Back in the day, the only way to learn the Pass was through private lessons and practice. While the practice still remains, it is no longer necessary to pay someone to teach you the move, as there are several fine descriptions in print and on video. I would strongly suggest that you purchase one of these books while also getting a DVD or download, allowing you to both read and see how the move is supposed to look.

The Complete Works of Derek Dingle by Richard Kaufman. 

The detailed description of Derek’s signature Riffle Pass is worth the price of this classic book. When the book came out, I pulled it open to the section on the Pass. The first Pass is simply called Riffle No.1 and is on pages 56-58 with 10 illustrations which break the move down. This is the pass that Derek taught me and Richard has rewritten the description and included it in this article. Be sure to study the illustrations and positions of each of the fingers—it will save you loads of time in learning the move. Also included are Derek’s handling of The Stroboscopic Riffle Pass, The Silent Pass, The Silent Half Jiggle Pass, and The Classic Pass False Cut.

The Card Classics of Ken Krenzel by Harry Lorayne. 

Dr. Ken Krenzel was a true student of the Pass, and performed the move as well as anyone. Krenzel’s handling of The Classic Pass and all the information he shares is must reading.

Also included are Krenzel’s handling of The Riffle Pass, Cover Pass, the K-E (Krenzel-Elliott) Pass, several variations of the One-Card Middle Pass, the Block Cover Pass, and the Dribble Pass (one of the best Passes ever invented). All of these moves are worthy of your attention.

The Card Magic of LePaul by Paul LePaul. 

No one performed the Pass better than LePaul. His description of the Invisible Turnover Pass and Spread Pass should not be missed.

Dai Vernon’s Ultimate Card Secrets written by Lewis Ganson. 

Dai Vernon spent his life devoted to magic, and our art is greater because of it. Vernon’s handling of the Pass along with his observations on the correct mechanics can be found in this wonderful book, along with The Black Pass, Location Pass, Sprong’s Pass, and the Fan Pass Transformation.

Miracles with Cards by James Swain. 

I have performed a handful of lectures for magicians. Interest from those attending seems to peak when the Pass is discussed. In a chapter entitled Secrets of The Pass, I share a number of tips that will hopefully make your practice sessions more productive.

On the Pass with Richard Kaufman DVD. 

Richard learned from the best and it shows on this amazing disc. There are 13 Passes taught in painstaking detail along with a number of amazing routines that you will want to try once you’re comfortable with the move. I don’t know of another DVD which has so much great material on the Pass.

The Classic Pass with Jason England.

Jason does a superlative job of explaining the Classic Pass on this download from Theory 11.

Miracles/The Magic of James Swain/ Volume 3 

At the suggestion of Louis Falanga, a detailed explanation of the Riffle Pass was included in my routine, “Vanishing Aces.”

Tricks with the Pass

If you are going to practice the Pass, do so with a purpose in mind. Here are several terrific routines using the Pass that are worthy of your consideration.

• “The Ladies’ Looking Glass” (Expert at the Card Table)

• “Acrobatic Jacks” (Expert at the Card Table)

• “Cavorting Aces” (Dr. Daley, Stars of Magic)

• “Anastasia” (Miracles with Cards)

• “Vanishing Aces” (CardWorks, Richard Kaufman)

Learning the Pass isn’t easy, and will take several years to perfect. So why should you sacrifice the necessary time and effort to learn this most difficult of moves when there are alternative methods of controlling cards that will get the job done?

The answer to this question is simple. By learning the Pass, you will elevate your magic to heights you never dreamed were possible. No other move in card magic requires that all 10 fingers work together in perfect harmony. Practicing the Pass is the perfect exercise, just like playing the scales on the piano. Once you have perfected it, other card sleights will become easier to learn due to the time you’ve spent mastering this move. The Pass is the gateway to great card magic. Once mastered, infinite treasures will await you. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Genii Magazine. If you want to learn how to perform this illusion, check out Derek Dingle’s Riffle Pass by Richard Kaufman, a companion piece featured in the same issue.