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”. 

A mentalist claims they can read minds, and calls upon an audience member to say the first word that comes to them. The mentalist pulls out a slip of paper with the same word on it—impressive, right? After the show, you catch a glimpse of the mentalist giving the supposedly random audience member a wad of cash. Turns out, the the mentalist was stooging you the whole time.

Stooging is the act of using another spectator, either temporarily or permanently in the magician’s employ, to drum up excitement for a magician’s act, or to even trick an audience into believing that the act is genuine. Stooges can also be referred to as confederates, shills, or plants—the fact that there are so many different colloquial terms to refer to the same thing shows how prevalent stooges can be, not just in magic, but in a variety of showbiz schemes and confidence tricks.

In fact, many instances of stooging are considered illegal in order to protect innocent people against fraud, especially when it comes to gambling or selling products. Hiring a person to pretend to win a game of three-card monte in order to trick passersby into parting with their money is a form of stooging that could land you in jail. However, planting confederates in an audience to applaud (thus causing the rest of the audience to react more positively) is generally considered legal, even if it’s morally gray. (Claques, as they’re known in theatre circles, have been around since antiquity and are used in everything from stage plays to tech conferences.) Casinos also use legally hired shills to keep card games going in case there aren’t enough people at the table for a full round.

Interestingly, many magicians are divided on the practice of stooging. Some see stooging as especially dangerous because reputable magicians stake their livelihood on their ability to dazzle audiences with skill that often takes years of training. When a magician who uses stooges is exposed, the general perception of the ability of all magicians can decrease: “If this person is using hired plants to make their tricks work,” the public wonders, “maybe the rest of them are, too.” It’s especially problematic now thanks to video and computer technology, where entire routines can be exposed as fake thanks to clever editing or camera work—hiring stooges on top of that just adds insult to injury, and can serve to make people think that even honest volunteers are in on the trick.

On the other hand, some magicians merely see stooges as another tool in their bag of tricks. Stooges can often act as ‘performance insurance’, used only as a last resort against hecklers or to improve a failing routine. Some magicians use stooges for comedic effect—a juggler asking for random objects from the audience can make their performance much funnier if one of them just ‘happens’ to hand them a watermelon. And some routines are basically impossible without the use of stooges. For instance, the ‘shirt trick’ masterfully performed at the end of this video by pickpocket and comedian Bob Arno requires a confederate to ‘set’ the trick backstage for it to even work (otherwise, it looks like this). In those cases, the performer must weigh the risk of discovery against the impact of the effect.

Ultimately, the burden is on the performer to stooge audiences responsibly. As long as no one is hurt and everyone is entertained, stooges can help sell tricks that otherwise wouldn’t work. However, if the con is discovered, a magician’s credibility can vanish in an instant. 

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 every week with The Definition of Magic on GeniiOnline.

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 every week with The Definition of Magic on GeniiOnline.

A magician holds up a single coin between two fingers. She waves her hand over it, says a few nonsense words, and suddenly, the coin is gone—vanished from this world entirely. Or, she’s probably stuffed into a coat pocket when you weren’t looking. Until magicians figure out how to bend the physical realities of space and time, they’ll simply have to make do with practicing their sleight of hand.

The word ‘sleight’ is derived from the Middle English word ‘sleghth’, which in turn was derived from the Old Norse word ‘slœgth’, which means ‘cunning’ or ‘skill’, and the phrase has been used to describe trickery with the hands for nearly as long. Other words for sleight of hand include ‘legerdemain’, a word derived from the French phrase léger de main (literally translated as ‘light of hand’), or ‘prestidigitation’, a word derived from French (preste = ‘nimble’) and Latin (digitus = ‘finger’).

Sleight of hand can mean a lot of things. It can mean hiding an object, moving objects around, or even giving the illusion that you’ve done these things. It can be done with cards, balls, cups, coins, dice, even vegetables—anything that can be easily manipulated and moved without much notice. Magicians can palm cards from the deck, or perform a ‘pass’, which makes the audience think the object has moved from one hand to another even though it’s stayed in exactly the same place. As the magician performs sleight of hand, they’re often gesticulating and engaging the audience in playful banter—known as ‘patter’—both of which are designed to keep the viewer’s mind as distracted as possible so as not to see the secret movements behind the trick. There are many ways to perform sleight of hand, and all of them require lots and lots of practice.

The important thing to remember is not all magic is sleight of hand and not all sleight of hand is magic. A lot of stage magic for example, with its large, elaborate contraptions, isn’t built for sleight of hand, especially since the performer is dealing with a larger audience than a close-up or street magician. And less scrupulous card sharps wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves magicians, exactly, but they use many of the same skills a magician would—palming, counting cards, etc.—to pull one over a card dealer. (Because of this, many known magicians are actually banned from casinos. Poor Derren Brown.)

For examples of some impressive sleight of hand, check out these videos:

The incomparable Cardini shows off his skills with a variety of props in this vintage video.

Yann Frisch’s cup and ball routine has to be seen to be believed.

Here’s Steven Bridges messing with two people’s heads with a bunch of different kinds of sleight of hand card tricks.

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 every week with The Definition of Magic on GeniiOnline.

Someone walks up to you on the street and asks you to think of your favorite food. She hands you a notepad, you write down what you’re thinking of, tear the paper out, fold it up and put it into your pocket. She thinks really hard for a second and says “I’m imagining that you’re biting into a big juicy steak.” You throw the paper at her and wonder aloud how the hell she knew that—you just got your mind read by a mentalist.

Mentalism is one of the oldest genres of magic in the world, with its modern roots found in 18th century performances called ‘second sight acts’ where spiritualists would make claims they could see into the mind’s eye with a variety of tests. One of the earliest mentalists on record, though, was Italian magician, juggler, and diplomat Girolamo Scotto. Born in 1569, Scotto performed for royalty throughout Europe during the height of the Renaissance, and a description of one of his performances notes his expert card magic, along with his telepathic abilities.

Like many genres of magic, mentalism can take many forms. Mentalists can be expert hypnotists, read minds through telepathy or clairvoyance, divine facts about the future, move objects with telekinesis, or even perform relatively benign but highly complex feats of memorization, deduction, or mathematics. Various tricks can be performed entirely with acute awareness and attention to detail or through gimmicks or sleight of hand—a lot of mentalists use a combination of techniques to achieve the desired results. As with sleight of hand, not all magic is mentalism and not all mentalism is considered magic.

The mystical approach mentalists have taken for their craft has changed throughout the years. Some, especially performers during mentalism’s early days, leaned into the occult trappings of psychic magic. Others, such as modern mentalists like Derren Brown or Colin Cloud, embrace the logic and skill required to successfully ‘read’ someone’s mind and attribute their abilities to their keen detective work and perception, a la Sherlock Holmes. In fact, many mentalists—such as early 20th century pioneer Joseph Dunninger—often use their knowledge to debunk paranormal mediums and supernatural fakers of all stripes.

Here are some example of what mentalism can look like

Colin Cloud reads Mel B’s mind, and Howie Mandel unlocks Cloud’s iPhone with six randomly chosen numbers.

Derren Brown messes with a clinical psychologist through reverse word association.

And here’s David Blaine, reading minds and never, ever breaking eye contact.

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 every week with The Definition of Magic on GeniiOnline.

Because magic is performed in a three-dimensional space in front of a live and skeptical audience, how a trick is viewed and received can be wildly unpredictable from one show to the next. A magician will do everything they can to make sure every single way a trick could go wrong doesn’t, but even the most practiced trick can have its secrets revealed due to unfortunate happenstance. When the secret to a trick is accidentally exposed, magicians refer to this as a flash.

Flashing can take on many forms. It can come from a mistake on the performer’s part; maybe they moved their thumb too much, or aren’t good enough at misdirecting the audience’s attention and the secret is easily spotted. It’s also impossible to predict how the people will interact with a magician or react to a trick. An errant passerby could bump into a street magician and ruin the entire set-up.

And that’s just magic performed live and in-person. Now that we’ve got televised broadcasts, YouTube replays, social media, and the ability to freeze frames, screencap anything, and blast it out all over the internet, a magician could unwittingly flash their secret to the world thanks to a poorly placed camera angle. It’s why having magical consultants on general talent shows is so important—someone needs to be there to know how best to set up cameras, lighting, and performer placement so the illusion remains intact for the in-house audience and the viewers at home.

When watching videos like the ones below, it’s always best to remember that a flash doesn’t necessarily mean a failure on the magician’s part. There are a lot of things that can go wrong during a live performance—and sometimes they do. 

Here are some examples of what a flash can look like

Here’s a trick that got only got revealed because internet detectives paused the video feed and posted screens—had this not been performed on TV, it’s likely no one would have been the wiser. 

This video shows just how unpredictable street performances can be.

Colin Cloud flashed pretty badly on the 2017 America’s Got Talent semi-finals thanks to a crummy camera angle. See if you can spot why.

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:

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 every week with The Definition of Magic on GeniiOnline.

Nearly everyone likely knows the trick where a magician saws their assistant in half. It’s a classic to the point of parody in Bugs Bunny cartoons or deconstruction by Penn & Teller. But not everyone knows how the magician makes it look as if one person is sliced into two pieces. The steps behind pulling off a feat such as this is known to magicians as the method.

There are two elements to any magic trick—the method, which is the technical workings of a magic trick, and the effect, which is what the audience sees—and there can be many different methods for achieving the same effect. For instance, if a magician wants to find a chosen card out of the deck, their method could involve memorizing the deck order, or using marked cards, or using a second deck of cards that they switch out mid-trick, and so on. All of these methods are viable, but they all achieve the same effect for the layperson watching the trick: the magician finds the correct card.

It’s the magician’s job to decide which method is the most appropriate and least detectable for the situation. A method can be clean—that is, it requires as little set-up or gimmickry as possible—or it can require props or other gaffs that need to be disposed of during the performance. Method can be deliberately secretive, or it can be hidden in plain sight as part of the performance. And while method can often contain the secret that makes the trick work, not all methods have to contain secrets. The method a mentalist uses in a memorization routine, for example, could just be the way they actually memorize things around them.

Because method is the backbone of what makes magic tick, many performers prefer to keep their methods secret from those who aren’t practicing magicians. In fact, one of the longest and most important debates in magic is about how magicians protect method from exposure. Should anyone who reveals method be ostracized for potentially destroying someone’s livelihood? Or is keeping method hidden from the general public holding magic back from further evolution? Some magicians like Penn & Teller even enjoy revealing certain aspects of method as part of their act, using their detailed breakdowns of classic tricks as a form of misdirection for the real trick at the end.

There are even debates on whether method can be considered the intellectual property of the creator, and some magicians have sued copycats and exposures to varying degrees of success. Right now, the legal recourse magicians have to protect themselves from theft are often full of loopholes, or in the case of patents, end up exposing the method to the public anyway.

That said, both the International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Society of American Magicians adhere to a jointly-issued ethics statement, which aims to prevent exposure of method to the general public, either through willful disclosure and accidental negligence. Because while there’s more to magic beyond the method, once it’s exposed, a lot of what makes magic special is lost.

Here are some videos with contextual examples of method (without giving anything away!)

Here’s Penn Jillette talking about how Kostya Kimlat fooled them using a method they’d never seen before on a trick they’d done on the Today Show two months prior to Kimlat’s appearance:

And here’s a Penn & Teller routine explaining the method behind Teller’s sleight of hand, except… not really: