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The Definition of Magic: Burn


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.

You’ve just called a couple of people from the audience to come up on stage and help you out with some card tricks. For most of the show, people have been playing along, doing what you ask, and enjoying the act of being fooled. But now, there’s that one guy… all he’s doing is staring at your hands as you shuffle the deck. No matter what you say or do, he keeps staring, trying to figure out your every move. Right now, you’re being burned.

Now, laypeople are generally keen to find out how tricks are done—it’s only human nature to explain the unexplainable, of course. However, through presentation, patter, body language, and plenty of practice, magicians can usually get their audiences to drop their guard long enough to draw them in and get them to enjoy a routine without asking too many questions (at least until the show is over).

But inevitably there’s that one person who will try to burn an illusionist’s hands, no matter the amount of misdirection they employ. They will stare transfixed, their gaze unbroken, attempting to suss out exactly what the conjurer is doing. At that point, they’re no longer trying to be entertained; they’re trying to compete.

So how do you deal with someone who’s trying to burn your tricks? A few members from the Magic Cafe forums offer some tips. The most important thing is to have your patter down. Lance Pierce says: “If they consistently look at the cards or your hands, it’s because that’s the most interesting thing to them at the moment. You have to give them something else more interesting than that to occupy their attention.” Have a good intro to build their trust, and ask them questions to keep them distracted.

That won’t always work, of course, especially when someone is intent on burning you. One way to get around those individuals is to actually acknowledge what they’re trying to do, and then perform the move when they’re caught off guard. Chris Ramsay offered some advice in a video on his YouTube channel, explaining one way he likes to deal with people who are compelled to solve his tricks is to compliment them. Point out that they’re analytical, that they like to work out solutions, and explain that they’re actually the hardest people to fool. By complimenting them, you’re giving something to them, building them up, and it might be enough of a distraction to sneak your method right on by. 

Or you can take the other route and treat them like a heckler, like returning their stare until they notice what you’re doing. One user on the Magic Cafe forums even described a scenario where they held the cards directly in front of the burner’s face and proceeded to shuffle them, joking that he was making sure they got a chance to see everything. As always, you’ll need to read the situation to see if this is the best way to go—not everyone takes kindly to this approach.

A few people from the forum offered this important bit of advice from Max Malini: wait. If someone is trying to burn you, move on to another trick, one that doesn’t require sleight of hand, and perhaps come back when the audience is sufficiently disarmed. Magic is about sharing the enjoyment of wonder and mystery, and there’s no need to push through if someone is trying to spoil that for everyone else.

And if you’re a layperson, it’s ok to be curious, but don’t intentionally try to burn tricks. The magician isn’t going to give you a medal for figuring it out, the audience will likely be upset if you’re being a poor sport (and will be even more upset if the magician ends up quitting the routine because of you). But perhaps most importantly, you’re going to miss out on so much of the other stuff that makes magic fun—the jokes, the patter, the timing—if all you’re doing is trying to “win”.