The Magic of Cards

Written by by Thibaut Rioult Translated from French by Alexandra Igna (2019) Invented in the 14th century in Europe, cards are assimilated to games of chance. Cheaters and scammers took the game and explored its technical possibilities long before the illusionists. This is the subject of Robert-Houdin's work (1805-1861) devoted to Tricheries Des Grecs Unveiled (1861). Other artists seized the theme of cheating and integrated it into their illusionism shows, like Belgians Luc Apers (1969-) and Christian Chelman (1957-) or American Ricky Jay (Richard Jay Polash 1948 -2018).

Cheaters or Magicians

Characterized by the manipulation of cards, balls, goblets or matchboxes, the three-card monte is not, strictly speaking, a magic trick. The practice takes identical forms but the staging and the purpose differ radically. The cheater diverts the attention of the barge by a simulated codified game. The practice of illusion, registered with respect for a natural order, takes place outside any magical reference in order to make its technical actions invisible. The conjurer is distinguished from the cheater by his fundamental transgression of natural laws. He goes too far, crosses the limit, and breaks the code by creating a distance or rather a distance with the spectator. The spectator is invited to approach it in terms of performance linked to a spectacular act. This magical transgression paradoxically makes it possible to establish an implicit pact concerning the illusory nature of what he is witnessing. The magician displays his honesty by making his dishonesty visible. He manifests and accepts the truth of his "lie".Cheaters simulate awkwardness or innocence to better trap their dupes. Magicians use different modes of presentation. For most people, they practice classic, clean and elegant card magic, without excessive frills and extravagance, often tinged with humor. Others, in a different style, (over) play with delight a more "messy" and disorderly card magic, from which all technique seems to have disappeared. The magic effect is then amplified by this discrepancy between an inextricable starting situation and a miraculous ending that mysteriously brings order. Thus, from the Spanish school, Juan Tamariz (Juan Tamariz-Martel Negrón, 1942-), an extraverted and overexcited card magician and Dani DaOrtiz or the Swedish Lennart Green (1941-), with their chaotic style, give the illusion of manipulating cards in completely random order while keeping their secrets.

The Magic Object

Magic card tricks are directed towards the manipulation of large audiences on stage as well as on close-ups, also known as close-up magic. There are four types of close magic presentations: abstract, illustrative, symbolic and realistic. The most common "abstract" or experimental magic card tricks focus on effect and procedure. The cards are lost and found, they appear and are transformed: the magician shows his talents and powers. The speech is generally descriptive and makes the manipulation of the cards the main purpose. It seeks to communicate the impossibility of the presented effect. The card game is considered in its generic dimension. It is potentially replaceable and, unlike the "realistic" form which uses a singular card game, the cards can be borrowed. The focus is on the time and the reality of the experience. What prevails is a direct exchange between the magician and his spectators. This particular form of the act promotes the spectator’s involvement in the magic trick. Magic thinker Eugene Burger (1939-2017) underlines that a simple demonstration of "cutting the aces", far from being meaningless, sparks up the imagination.

Sign and Narration Support

In "illustrative" magic, cards are considered signs and they are often times personified. The Valet is an inspector who is investigating a chosen card. The Queen is a worried lady who disappears and reappears magically. A Houdini card escapes from prison while handcuffed. In other words, the cards reflect a singular reality. "The cards have revealed to me things from the beginning of the world, a certain philosophy of life, the reason for certain beliefs, the mystique and the foundations of existence." The "symbolic" magic lies between abstraction and illustration. It requires constant double reading. Belkhéir Djénane, known as Bébel, offers a poetic evocation, based on a simple and effective sales pitch of La dame de trefle. A transposition of the card symbolizes the fact that the magician relieves the spectator of his worries (the spades) by giving him his heart. The accessory remains the same in its technical possibilities but becomes symbolic support. Contrary to illustrative magic which creates a distinct world, symbolic magic maintains the connection between the magician and the spectators. Finally, the "realistic" approach to the magic object is based on a singular card game, unlike "abstract" magic that uses a simple card game. This game exists by itself through its history, its full individuality and its deep specificity. It is anchored in the universe of fantastic illusionism. Christian Chelman explores this path by developing an approach centered on hauntics, which are loaded objects. In The Quan-Tri Paradox, he revisits the theme of "the ambitious card", a card that cannot be lost in the game, with a game that has "authentically" belonged to a Vietnam War soldier. To strengthen the credibility of the story, the game is associated with the environment of the G.I., a time capsule made up of a lighter, Vietnamese banknotes, military medals and various photographs. Thus, two dividing lines distinguish the conceptions of the magic object. The first one is based on the opposition between the towers which use the deck of cards as such (abstract and realistic form) and those which use it as a sign or reference (the illustrative and symbolic form). The second distinction restores the polarity between a realistic approach (illustrative and realistic form) or a more suggestive one (abstract and symbolic form).

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