The Power Of Presentation: A Concrete Example

At this point, most of us are so familiar with the phrase “it’s all about presentation” that it has begun to lose its meaning.

Yes, we know: it’s not about the trick, it’s about the performer. The effect is only as good as the story you tell with it. I could go on; you probably could too.

Yet what do these seemingly self-evident pearls of conventional wisdom actually mean? To the ambitious learner hoping to improve their performances, such advice can sound as vague and banal as follow your heart or stay true to yourself — tips that are rooted in truth but don’t really suggest clear, actionable steps.

What is often missing is a concrete example to demonstrate the principle. Magicians have always maintained that you can turn a boring trick into a miracle simply by changing the way it is presented. Seldom do they actually prove it.

Today, I hope to alter that. Together we’ll look at one of the all-time least amazing, most familiar card tricks to magicians and laypeople alike, and we’ll test the theory. Can we, changing the presentation alone, make that same trick more entertaining, more amazing, perhaps even virtually unrecognizable from its original self?

The trick I’ve chosen is the infamous “21 Card Trick.” Most of you will already know precisely which trick this is; but since it may go by different names, and there may be some readers who, by improbably good fortune, haven’t heard of it before, I will explain it briefly.

The 21 Card Trick is a self-working mathematical trick that uses 21 indifferent cards from a standard deck of playing cards. In routine fashion, the spectator chooses a card, which is then shuffled back into the deck. Next, the packet is dealt face up into 3 rows. Awkwardly, the magician then asks the spectator to look through and identify which row their card is located in — of course, without giving away the card itself. Upon being told which row, the magician abruptly regathers the cards, and then immediately deals them out into 3 identical rows once more.

This senseless process is repeated a grueling 2 more times. However, upon regathering the dealt cards for a mind-numbing 3rd time, the magician then nudges the dozing spectator to show them that — lo and behold — their selection is now the 11th card in the packet!

As I previously mentioned, the trick is mathematical and therefore self-working. All the magician needs to take care to do is ensure that, when regathering the rows, the row containing the selected card is always placed in the middle — above the bottom stack of 7 and below the top stack of 7. Regardless of where the selection is located within its row, so long as you repeat the process 3 times, the selection will end up sitting dead center in the packet, with 10 cards above and 10 cards below.

It is, admittedly, fairly interesting mathematically. However, as an effect, it is distinctively underwhelming.

Why?

It turns out, there are many reasons — and most of them have to do with the way the effect is traditionally presented.

In fact, trouble arrives the very same moment the trick begins. The first thing the magician does is remove 21 cards and discard the rest of the deck. For this, no explanation is given. Worst still, there is a reason for it, kept secret — the trick depends on this specific number in order to work. Simply dividing the deck in this way without ever providing an explanation makes the audience suspicious — and rightfully so.

Trouble continues after the selected card is returned to the packet, as do the unexplained actions of the magician. 3 rows of 7 are dealt out and the spectator is asked to point to the row containing their card. Why? From the spectator’s perspective (which is of course the one that matters) this not only serves no obvious purpose, but also seemingly reduces the impressiveness of the trick by a factor of 3. Now, instead of finding one selection out of 21, the magician is apparently finding the selection out of only 7.

Things only get worse still when the magician then gathers up the rows, only to recreate them a 2nd time, without even shuffling. What on Earth did that accomplish? To the spectator, this seems like total nonsense. Plus, the magician has once again been told which row the selection is in, further degrading the impressiveness of eventually finding it.

After telling the magician no less than 3 straight times which row of 7 the selection is in, all the spectator gets for a final reveal is that the card is somehow now number 11. This seems like an attempt by the magician to demonstrate some sort of mind-reading, premonition-type ability — but if the magician can just wave a hand and magically know where in the card will be found, why did it take several rounds of first asking the spectator where the card was? The whole thing is self-destructive, confusing, and dubious in the eyes of the spectator.

How might we go about fixing it?

First, we have to eliminate all this unexplained action. Since most of it is strictly necessary for the effect to work, that means we have to come up with explanations for it all which actually make sense.

Let’s start with the extraction of 21 cards from the deck. There is no reason for the spectator to know there are 21 cards, and every reason to be skeptical of the specificity of the number. Better to count out 21 while making it seem like only a random clump, roughly half the deck. This could either be achieved by casually counting out the cards ahead of time, then holding a break; or it could be achieved by counting groups of 3 in your head as you spread through the cards until you reach 7. Either way, make it seem random — it will attract less attention.

It will also be easier to explain. “Oh, I can’t quite do it with all 52 cards.” Or maybe “oh, I find it works better with fewer cards.” Not only does this seem immensely more understandable, it also aligns better with the way the effect pans out. If you’re trying to guess a selected card, it makes sense that it would be easier to do with fewer cards. It does not make sense that you would only be able to do it with 21 cards, no more and no less. That’s weird.

Next, we need an explanation for dealing out the cards into 3 rows. Why would the magician do this? During the demonstration of what particular magical ability would doing this be necessary? In addition, we also need a stealthier way of determining which row the spectator’s card is in.

One solution that comes to mind is the premise of Hellstromism, or muscle reading. The spectator can see which row their card is in, so it becomes an enticing challenge. Knowing this information, can they conceal it from the magician? Holding their wrist, guiding their hand slowly over each pile, the magician can seem to be feeling for any involuntary movement over one particular row. Already, the audience is having way more fun than before — this is an intriguing premise. Plus, now it makes perfect sense why the cards would be dealt out in 3 rows face up as they are.

Of course, the magician really has no clue where the card is; although spectators can often be surprisingly easy to read, depending on the situation and environment. It’s possible they’ll give themselves away, but assuming they don’t — the job is simply to guess, with a 1 in 3 chance of getting it right.

Getting it right is a win. The audience will be impressed, and you’ll get the info you need without having to ask for it. However, if you get it wrong, there are still 2 rows left. Simply try again. Now, either you get it right on the 2nd try, or you get it wrong twice in a row. At this point, no matter what, you’ll know what row the card is in — and you still never had to ask.

If you do get it right on the first guess, you can justify repeating the process by saying something like “oh, that may have just been luck” or “let me give you another chance to throw me.” If you don’t get it on the first guess, you can appear to be struggling; therefore, you can justify repeating the process by saying “give me another try.”

No matter what, the whole process can be seamlessly repeated the 3 necessary times without arousing much suspicion and without losing momentum. Either the magician gets it right and says “let’s try again” or once again fails and says “let’s try again.” The magician gets another chance to get it right, or the spectator gets another chance to thwart the magician. In any case, the procedure makes sense.

Eventually, the cards will be gathered up for the 3rd time, and the magician will now secretly know the exact location of the spectator’s card. The muscle reading routine is therefore about to reach its climax. There are multiple ways this could be handled; the one that seems the most straightforward and impressive to me is by simply spreading all 21 cards face up, but feel free to come up with your own finale.

Trust me — I’ve performed both — the difference in reactions you get from this handling are vastly, almost hilariously, more explosive. It’s not hard to see why. Instead of a rigid series of oddly specific steps for which there is no other explanation than mathematical necessity, you lead the spectator through a fully coherent narrative. That narrative is also centered around a very alluring and outwardly plausible concept: muscle reading.

Better still, the effect, instead of getting progressively stranger and less believable as it approaches its climax, gets more impressive: after attempting a few muscle-reads that are 1 out of 3, the magician suddenly goes for 1 out of 21 (or however many are supposedly in this random pile of cards) and correctly guesses not only the row but the very card itself.

There are still further ways the trick can be improved. For instance, there is really no reason to have the spectator pick a card in typical fashion. They can just as easily think of one that is in the packet, either by having the magician fan out the cards for them to view, or — even better — thumbing through the packet themselves.

Another way to reduce potential raised eyebrows and improve the overall effect is by allowing some time between regathering the cards and re-dealing them. There is no way around the fact that you can’t shuffle the cards — even though it would realistically make sense to do so each time. However, you can distract from the fact that you’re not shuffling with patter. It doesn’t have to be much — merely enough to interrupt the narrative. Regather the cards, then ask a question, or explain what you’re going to do next, or make a joke — it doesn’t really matter. Just insert a beat, of your choice, between the regather and the re-deal. A quick interruption, even if brief, can easily disguise much bigger sins than a mere lack of shuffling.

By doing nothing more than restructuring the presentation of the effect, it is possible to transform one of the world’s most mundane tricks into something spectators will tell their friends and family about for years to come. If you don’t believe me — try it.

Imagine what is possible if you take the same approach to even better tricks. How might The Biddle Trick be enhanced? What about Wayne Houchin’s Sinful? What stories can you tell with Cipher by Ellusionist?

This is exciting food for thought — but then again, what is the approach, really? What did we do?

The reason the new handling of the 21 Card Trick is so effective is because it eliminates all unnecessary action and explains all necessary action. The more an effect consists of unexplained moves or steps, the less convincing it is. Likewise, the less unexplained moves or steps a trick consists of, the more realistic it seems.

I’ve gotten in the habit of asking myself 2 fundamental questions when I approach the handling of any effect. 1 — what magical ability am I apparently demonstrating? 2 — what would this effect look like if I actually had that magical ability?

So far, it’s proven to be a stellar tactic for identifying, then either eliminating or justifying, suspicious action; thereby making the effect more believable, improving its presentation, and — most importantly — greatly improving reactions.

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Jake Aaron Ward

Jake Aaron Ward

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Lead Singer for Watch Me Breathe. Songwriter, Record Producer, Magician, Traveler, Questioner