The Definition of Magic: Clean and Dirty

December 13, 2017

There’s more to magic—and how to describe it—than just calling everything a ‘trick’. That’s why we’re highlighting and exploring important terms, concepts, and ideas with The Definition of Magic on GeniiOnline.

A friend is over at your house and asks if you have a random deck of cards lying around. He takes the pack you gave him and fans it out for you, requesting that you pick a card. You oblige, look at your card, and place it back in the deck. He shuffles the deck and asks you to pick a number; you say five. After dealing five cards, your card is right there on the top. He hands you the deck to inspect at your leisure; it’s perfectly clean.

In magic, a clean trick is one leaves the magician’s hands free of gimmicks or vanished objects. A clean prop can be examined, passed around, touched, and scrutinized as closely as possible without revealing the method behind how it was used. A magician’s hands can be inspected, and nothing noteworthy would be found. The cleaner the trick, the less likely it is to use gimmicks that could be exposed. If the example above used nothing but a plain deck of cards, it would be considered very clean.

Conversely, if the trick used a marked deck of cards, or relied on other gimmickry to perform, it would be considered dirty. The dirtier a trick, the more heavily it relies on objects that could give away the entire method if exposed, whether via flashing or through careful observation. A magician could also be considered dirty as long as they’re still holding any gaffed or gimmicked items in their hands.

When a magician wants to make a dirty trick clean, they’ll perform cleanup by disposing of the item or prop in question. This can be surreptitiously through misdirection (pocketing an item when the audience is looking at something else), or can even be done out in the open as part of the routine (burning a scrap of paper with the secret on it as part of a “holy ritual” in the performance).

Here are some video examples of clean and dirty tricks:

This is a simple card trick, but it’s incredibly clean. There’s no prior planning, no gimmicks, you can use any deck of cards you find, and there’s absolutely no cleanup involved: 

This mentalist trick is dirty at the beginning, but builds the cleanup directly into the performance: