Cool trick! We asked a magician how a beginner can get into card tricks

Julie Eng has advice for becoming seamless at sleight of hand.

Julie Eng has advice for becoming seamless at sleight of hand

(Credit, images: iStock/Getty Images; art: CBC Life)

"Magic has this power, you know. It has a gift of offering the performer the chance to do something that is different — that is against science or logic," said Julie Eng, a Toronto-based magician. "And that causes an attention to be switched on. And I think that's the lure for so many people in magic."

Magicians use card tricks in particular for seamless sleights of hand that wow audiences and entertain children and adults alike. And cards — which have gone hand in hand with magic for centuries and might be the quintessential magic trick — are some of the most accessible for novices.

To find out more about the magic of card tricks, we chatted with Eng, who's also the executive director of Magicana, an organization that promotes the art of magic. Naturally, she safeguards the mystique of her work, so her trick effects are not disclosed here. But she still has lots of tips for those who are coming into magic for the first time.

Why card tricks

There are any number of reasons to learn card tricks. Perhaps the trickery itself is the lure or learning a new skill to impress your friends. For Eng, it's not so much about fooling someone as it is about evoking a sense of wonder and delight in an audience. "For me, the goal is to entertain," she said, referring to magic and card tricks as "diversion entertainment." "I'm not going to change the world with a card trick, but I think I can make someone smile or open a conversation or open a dialogue or create some form of engagement. And that, for me personally, is a really interesting tool."

There are other lesser-known benefits to learning how to perform card tricks. As part of her work with Magicana, Eng volunteers with My Magic Hands, a program for at-risk and hospitalized youth. The program aims to build self-confidence, dexterity and creativity through learning magic tricks, and Eng said adults can reap the same benefits.

How to get started

The intricacies of learning and performing a card trick pose a series of technical challenges, which Eng said can be ideal for experimenting, and with a clear way to measure progress (your ability to do the trick versus knowing nothing when you started).

"I think that journey is really important because you transform as the magician," she said. "The card trick stays the same all the way through, but … the showmanship, the smoothness, the choreography, the direction of it — all of that has to be worked on. And I think students take on that challenge because it allows them to change a little bit and to be a little more outside of their usual selves."

(Photo by May Truong)

Eng has always had cards close at hand. "My father was a magician, so the deck of cards were always around," she said. In fact, she carries a deck wherever she goes, ready to perform at a moment's notice. "The second they find out I'm a magician, [people ask],… 'Can you do a card trick?'" she said.

While you don't have to be prepared to perform everywhere you go, almost anywhere can be an opportunity to do so, be it for friends or family or just yourself.

Beyond a standard deck of cards, Eng said good instructions are vital to learning card tricks. Though many contemporary learners gravitate toward video tutorials, of which there are many, Eng recommended books like those her father used to sell in his magic shop. She named authors Joshua Jay and Mark Wilson, both big names in the magic world.

Eng said you can also find exceptionally good magic books in libraries — resources that will lead you to the right card trick for you. "From there, you get to find a path that makes it interesting for you," she said. "You'll find an effect that speaks to you. And then that effect will go well … and that resource will then put you [onto] another resource [and] onto another resource."

If you like to learn in a group setting, it's also possible to take classes. "That's the other way to learn as well: find a group — but at your level — and progress together, you know, because then you can have a safe [space] to perform and to bounce ideas off," Eng said. She frequently practices new tricks with a group of friends, and they give each other constructive criticism about what works and what doesn't.

How it's done

There are many card how-to's online. Here's a favourite trick tutorial from our friends at CBC Kids.

There are a variety of card tricks — even the simple "pick a card, any card" trick has variations. "Some people like very procedural magic tricks. Some people like ... what we call knuckle-busting or finger-flinging magic tricks. Some people like very direct magic tricks. Some people want eye-popping, impossible, shattering-reality magic tricks," said Eng, "There's a range that you can hit."

Like any other skill, practice is key. Many people mistakenly believe magic is easy to do and expect to be good at it right away, but there are a myriad of things to remember when learning card tricks and preparing for performances. "There's a lot of preplanning," Eng said. "I think of it like a little mini-play: how are you going to start? How are you going to execute it?… How do people know when you're done? And how do you conclude your performance? That's just as important, I think, to a good experience."

You could buy a magic kit — but Eng warns that your audience might credit the prop you bought rather than your skill. If you're serious about performing and learning a card trick, it's worth practising on your own and even recording yourself as you master it. "By practising and performing for yourself, I think it makes it very satisfying when you finally … get the trick," Eng said. "There's a huge sense of satisfaction to that — that it worked out or the sequencing that you've been working on made sense." When you're ready, perform in front of someone you trust — and ask for notes, which Eng pointed out are key to improving your performance.

"Work on a couple people first, then maybe think, 'You know, the comment that that person had after I did the trick was interesting because that indicated that they understood something inside of my execution of the effect, and I would like to eliminate that problem,'" she said. "So you see, you learn from the listening of your audience too. And that means you have to be so practised and prepared for your own performance that you can have that objective eye out there while you're performing."

According to Eng, taking the time to learn and love the craft is entirely worth the challenge. "I think it will pay you back quite richly. You know, that's always been my belief," she said. "And don't be afraid of the struggle."

Sebastian Yūe is a Toronto-based writer, model, voice actor and player of many games. They are the author of Lake of Secrets, an adventure for Dungeons & Dragons (5th Edition), and CORPUS, an unofficial supplement for Heart: The City Beneath. Sebastian has been playing card games since they were six. Follow them on Twitter here.

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