Coin magic for the social magician

August 4, 2017

Alexander the Great claimed that his quartermasters were generally grumpy people because, as anyone who studies military history knows, you win by logistics rather than by strategy. They were possibly perturbed by the fact that Alex made sure they were the first ones executed if a campaign turned sour.

I know I mention Curtis Kam’s name often, but you have to understand how growing up with him as a mentor has really messed with my sense of the universe. Because of his influence, I developed a false set of assumptions about magic and magicians: all magicians at some point headlined a showroom and would occasionally build stage illusions in their living rooms. All magicians had an almost eidetic memory regarding publication history and could not only perform those obscure pieces well but were eager to do so. All magicians did coin magic, and all coin magic involved difficult sleight-of-hand that required near-constant practice. 

It took me a few years (but only a few other magicians) to learn how spoiled I had been to have had such a generous mentor. And I know I’m not the only one; I’ve met a number of magicians for whom Curtis’s VHS (now DVD and/or Penguin download) Palms of Steel was their first introduction to coin magic. That messes with your brain; however, it also makes you unafraid to embrace sleight of hand.

In this month’s issue, I provide the first two sequences of Curtis’s routine “Quartermaster.” Yes, it is done mainly with quarters, which means you can perform it impromptu without any expensive coins or gaffs. Yes, it’s interactive, meaning it’s magic at its best. Yes, it involves some sleight of hand, but if you’re scared of sleights with coins, this routine is a great way to practice some of the basic ones. Yes, it’s Curtis’s reworking of Terry Lynn’s “The Lynn Pennies” from Arthur Buckley’s phenomenally frightening collection Principles and Deceptions. The routine also appears in Modern Coin Magic as “The Seven Penny Trick.” Yes, it does something that is often absent in most coin magic: rather than repeat the same move to generate the same effect, you change the method for each sequence in order to build the mystery. 

Rather than think about this as an impromptu effect, Curtis sees it as a strong example of “Social Magic,” which is another way to describe magic for performers who don’t work professionally but are occasionally called on by friends, family, or (barring those) coworkers to perform. While the professional is hired, the social performer knows his audiences or chooses them. Also, the social performer can cater his presentation to the odd ideas his specific audience will enjoy, be they physicists or parolees (not that either can’t participate in both categories). Curtis has been reconstructing his lectures to cater to the social performer. The magic material sold on the interweb usually described as “commercial,” “practical,” “angle-proof,” or “instant reset” was no longer as important as an effect that would only be performed once the entire evening. In other words, you’re hanging out with your friends and family for an extended time; hopefully, you only perform for them once because you actually listen to them talk on occasion. Also, the convivial atmosphere could cause them to examine your sleeves and/or your props by tackling you. So social performers are most concerned with strong effects and cleanliness of method.

I think it’s safe to say that, like the quartermasters of antiquity, people who perform magic want to retain something important to them by being successful. No matter how social or professional the space, they’re always one moment away from losing their heads—another victim to the vicissitudes of history or a bad Double Lift. Modular, interactive, and clean, “Quartermaster” is a routine that will work for both the social and professional performer, making it one of those rarer resources in this magical world.


Created by Curtis Kam     

Besides a spectator and six quarters, you do need one other thing: a contrasting coin (referred to below as the “copper coin”) that is the same size as a quarter. Any contrasting coin the same size will do. Curtis suggests the 10 Yen coin from Japan, which darkens nicely for contrast with quarters. The Icelandic 5 Aurar is another good choice; the 10 Yen is slightly smaller in diameter and thinner than an American Quarter while the 5 Aurar is virtually identical in size (both of these coins have smooth rather than milled edges). These coins can be found on eBay. Obviously non-American readers will have to work out their own coin-contrasting issues. You’re just looking for a coin that is distinguishable from but is about the same size as the main coins.

Start by displaying the six quarters and the copper coin on your left hand, copper coin lowermost in the pile. The spectator should be seated to your left if there is a group watching or directly in front of you if it is an intimate performance. Ask the spectator to hold out his or her right hand. You’re going to be counting the coins from your left hand into their right mainly with your right hand, though both will eventually be involved. Note that this blocking assists you in covering the palm of their right hand with your left at key moments.

Unlike “The Lynn Pennies,” you count the coins in pairs. Pick up two quarters with your right hand, show them, and place them in the spectator’s hand. Notice that this is a “place” rather than a “drop,” so make brief contact with the spectator’s flesh. Pick up two more quarters with the right, display them, and place them in the spectator’s hand. Be sure to allow them to land on the two already there. You’re conditioning the spectator to interpret the sound as presence as well as attempting to create a messy pile of coins so that the spectator cannot visually determine the amount of coins prior to closing his or her hand.

Pick up the last two quarters with the right hand, leaving the copper on your left hand. You now pretend to place both quarters into the spectator’s hand, only releasing one of them. Hold one back by simply putting your right thumb on one of the coins. This is where placing rather than dropping is important since with this brief touch and your fingers covering the coins the spectator has no reason to doubt your actions. As the right hand pulls away, two things happen: the right hand finger palms the concealed quarter and the left hand tips over dropping (yes, dropping) its copper coin onto the pile in the spectator’s hand. You notice that there’s a lot of things going on here. First of all, you have to manage your finger palm. Depending on the size of your hands in relationship to the coins you’re using, a high finger palm (closer to the upper phalanges of the second and third fingers rather than the bases) might be in order. Likewise, a low finger palm with the third finger and pinky might also make you feel better. You roll the way you do, stud muffin. Secondly, that left hand turning over to drop the copper coin is additional cover for you since it keeps them from seeing their palm. In any event, as soon as you drop the copper coin into the spectator’s hand, ask them to close the hand and turn it over.

Notice that this count can be performed slowly with the spectator counting along (again see the performance video), or it can be done as simply as “that’s two, that’s four, that’s six, and the copper makes seven.” The only pause you need between the phrases is how long it takes you to pick up two coins. It’s also quite helpful if you have them confirm the value of adding two more coins to the four in their hand. This not only makes sure you’re perform- ing for an audience member who can count, but it also helps with the rhythmic misdirection if the move makes you nervous. It’s probably also worth pointing out that performing the move should look exactly the same as not performing it, so see what your fingers look like when you perform the holdback and then mirror that action when genuinely putting the coins in.

The spectator has a closed hand that he or she believes contains seven coins; you have a coin concealed in right finger palm. You have a few options here; your goal is to load the concealed coin from your right hand into your left hand. You could perform the L’Homme Masqué Load, but homie don’t play that game. Curtis simply talks about reaching through the back of the spectator’s hand, removing a coin, and placing it into his. As he does this he takes advantage of the Ramsay Subtlety and mimes taking a coin with his right hand and placing it into his left, allowing the finger palmed coin to fall from the right into his closing left hand. After your load and some mumbo jumbo, open your left hand to reveal the coin, place it aside to your right (think of this as beginning the discard pile), and have the spectator count their six coins one at a time back into your left hand.

We’re going to repeat the effect using a slightly different counting procedure. This time pick up a quarter and the copper coin (copper coin uppermost) with the right hand and count these as two as you place them into the spectator’s right hand (copper now lowermost). Pick up two more quarters with the right hand and pretend to place them into their right hand, again holding back one of the coins in right finger palm. Your left and right hand then work together to perform a Pick-up Utility Switch: the right hand approaches the left hand’s displayed two coins. The right hand briefly plants its concealed coin on top of the two. Now both thumbs push the top two coins forward, bringing one to each hand’s fingertips (photos 1, 2, and 3), retaining one coin in left finger palm. The hands separate at the completion of the move, fairly (?) displaying the two coins. This is a very casual action that is over quickly but should not be rushed. It’s also a nice move to use with any sized coin instead of a Utility Pass because you (perhaps rightfully) feel silly tossing coins around. The “No-Shuttle Shuttle” in its most basic form (as a “take” rather than “put” switch, the Shuttle Pass being the latter) is described as a one-for-one transfer in the Nelson Hahne handling of “Winged Silver” in Bobo’s Modern Coin Magic.

Drop both of these coins into the spectator’s hand (again notice that this is a “drop” and not a “place”) as you count these last two out loud, and then instruct the spectator to close his or her hand and turn it over. The Pick Up Utility Switch is the sort of thing I believe a lot of magicians have come up with independently (I know I have—my version is in Coinapalooza, Volume 1), but perhaps the best published association is to think of it as a simplification of Roger Klause’s No-Shuttle Shuttle from the fifth volume of Apocalypse, but with more coins.

Again, you pretend to remove a coin from the spectator’s hand (taking advantage of the Ramsay Subtlety occurring now in your left hand as you close it and then open it to reveal the coin). Place this coin to your right, stacking it on top of the already discarded coin. The spectator then reveals that they have only five by counting their coins back onto yours. Now, you’re going to count the coins into the spectator’s hand one more time (remember, you officially only have five coins now in play), but this time individually. Again, note that the construction of the routine is designed to seem more and more fair yet becomes more and more devious. Count the copper coin first, then two silvers regularly, then perform the original “Lynn Pennies” steal with the third coin by simply tapping it on the three already in their hand but retaining it with your thumb. Immediately perform a Shuttle Pass (see CoinMagic, David Roth’s Expert Coin Magic, or any David Roth DVD), supposedly placing the coin in the left hand onto the right fingers, but retaining it in left finger palm as the right hand pretends to catch this coin. The visible coin in the right hand is then dropped cleanly on to the spectator’s pile. Have them close their hand again, do the magic, reveal your coin (adding it to the discard stack), and have them count the coins back to reveal they have four.

This discard pile will now allow you to perform a very simple “Copper/Silver Transposition.” One of the better examples of using a stack of coins to obfuscate how many coins are actually in play is Daryl’s “The Mysterious Cross of India” from Secrets of a “Puerto Rican Gambler,” and is worth examining. Here’s how you’ll use the idea: your right hand takes the three remaining quarters and apparently adds them on the pile, while the left hand continues to display the copper coin. In reality, you only place two of the quarters on the stack, retaining one in your right finger palm. The audience really can’t tell and you’re focused on the copper coin anyway. Pick up the copper coin with the right hand and perform David Roth’s version of Earl Johnson’s Palm-to-Palm Change as you then place the quarter into the spectator’s hand. If that frightens you, you can perform any vanish as a switch or even do a Bobo Switch to place the quarter surreptitiously into their hand. The nice thing about this moment is that you’ve been conditioning the spectator to close his or her hand this entire time. In most “Copper/Silver Transposition” pieces, the spectator is experiencing this interaction for the first time when you’re doing the switch, which can make it challenging.

Now for the fun part. The copper coin is in right classic palm. The right hand reaches over to the pile of coins and pretends to pick up one of the quarters. This just takes a little bit of a clinking and a whole lot of acting. Allow the copper coin to drop to your fingers so you can toss it to the left hand as it closes. See what’s happening here? You’re getting a very clean moment. Open both of your hands to reveal you only have the copper coin. Have the spectator reveal the quarter.

Yeehaw! If you made it through all that, you got yourself a little gem to perform. Also, as I mentioned above, this is a great routine for practicing basic coin sleights. And come on, you just stole coins from their hands and changed one, too. So put the coins away and go back to being an ordinary person. But as you do so, remember to give a small prayer of thanks for Curtis Kam.


• Do you have to do all of this routine? Nah, it’s modular. The transposition at the end is optional, so you can skip it. Heck, they might like it so much when you do it the first time you only have to perform it once.

• A nice subtlety here with using quarters is that you can have a great miscall moment just before the transposition. At the beginning, I mention that all the quarters I have are from different states I’ve visited, and I call them by name. When I hold back one quarter while placing the rest on the stack, I make sure I know which state it is. Now when I pretend to take a quarter off the top of the stack, I stare at the copper coin (hidden behind my fingers) and name that state. Muhahaha!

• But why the weird copper coin? Why can’t you coin magicians just do magic with borrowed objects everyone is familiar with? Well, the copper coin gives you a very clean ending, but you could do this routine with only quarters. I sometimes refer to the copper coin as being there to distract, which the ordering of the sequences somewhat explains as well as helps to set up the transposition in the end. However, even when starting with borrowed props, I think bringing something extra to a performance is never a bad thing. As I discuss in the new Inferential DVD, if I’m a magician, I think it’s okay to have something different in my pockets though I look fairly normal. I always giggle to myself when a performer with dramatic facial hair and a costume addiction shares his self-concocted concern that spectators only want him to perform with borrowed money. That’s a character issue worth figuring out, especially since that person should have cooler things in his pocket than anyone else.

• Could you do this with regular half dollars and an English penny? I guess, but that assumes the spectator’s hands are pretty big. The reason for using the pennies in Lynn’s routine was because audiences have a hard time determining the weight of a group of lighter coins. Also, a group of small coins held tightly do not reveal their exact number.

• Could you do this routine with pennies and a dime? Heck, yeah. Could you end with a bent penny instead of a copper/silver transposition? Um, I guess. Could you use this counting sequence as a prelude for any number of endings? Duh, but why mess with a good thing?

• The discard pile is a sneaky place. When I perform this routine I usually pull out more quarters than I need, so my discard pile is very very big at the end. But the bigger the pile, the more you can hide: I use that pile to conceal a quarter shell and something else that’s special, so at any time I can move into a very different routine if I am so inclined.