The Cups and Balls and Me
On March 30th, 2018, Vanishing Inc. released a new instructional video, available on DVD or via instant download, entitled Jamy Ian Swiss: A Masterclass in the Cups & Balls. I confess that a cynical reader might consider this essay simply a lengthy exercise in marketing. If that is your inclination, feel free to skip this piece. But really, I intend it as something much more than that.
Prior to the production of this release, I had never produced any kind of commercial magic video outside of two recordings of lectures: Live in London, a recording of my 1997 lecture at the Ron MacMillan convention and then, almost twenty years later, my Penguin Live lecture in 2016. But until now, I have never put out instructional video produced solely for that purpose.
What’s more, watching performance video is all but inescapably an artistically corrupting influence. When you read a written description of a trick or routine, you are compelled to fill in the gaps yourself—and above all, with yourself. With video, it’s difficult to separate the material from the performer, and the stronger and more distinctive the performer you are watching, the more challenging if not impossible it becomes to avoid being overly influenced by their personal style and manner. In short, I believe that books are for instruction; videos are for imitation.
Michael Close, in his superb ebooks, Closely Guarded Secrets and the recently released Paradigm Shift Volumes One and Two, in many ways offers the best of all worlds by providing written descriptions of the material along with accompanying video clips of only the sleights. This is a very strong approach, but it still leaves out the inherent precision that a photograph, or better still, a fine line drawing, provides. But the benefit of video over the drawing is that when it comes to sleights and other techniques, video best communicates timing.
The fact is that the lack of theory and history in most instructional video comprises my greatest concern of all. This is above all why video cannot turn out great magicians. I see magicians who can execute advanced technique at ever younger ages, but that technique lives in a vacuum, devoid of deep understanding of or thoughtful instruction in the inner workings of conjuring, that require considerations of construction, misdirection, presentation, and—perhaps the most difficult facet of art to acquire—taste. These elements and more can only be learned by studying the great literature of our art, and the works of its greatest thinkers.
Granted, these studies can certainly be assisted by studying great examples—which is to say, watching the performance of great magicians. This, to me, is the greatest value of film and video, namely in watching archival performances only, preferably devoid of instructional explanations. I have always collected such materials whenever I could obtain them, and as a teacher and mentor I have often shared such recordings with students and protégés, using it as a model and a basis to discuss the work of good magic and mentalism. And this value lies at the core of my art appreciation series, “Take Two,” begun in December of 2016 here at Magicana, for students and appreciators of the art, be they magic practitioners or merely interested fans.
Finally, in the particular case of my routine for the Cups and Balls, I have such long personal history with the material, and it is so dear to me, that I have long hesitated to share it in any form. And this is all the more true when considering the video medium, which I think tends to give short shrift to the most important ideas that lie within a routine as dense with theory, art and craft as the Cups and Balls.
However, in 2016 I embarked on a new publishing venture with Vanishing Inc., who published by new book, Preserving Mystery, along with producing new editions of my previous two books, Shattering Illusions and Devious Standards, in 2018. And when we began talking, Vanishing Inc. proprietors, Josh Jay and Andi Gladwin, encouraged me to consider producing some video projects with them. Since then we’ve conceived a number of interesting projects, the first of which is my routine for the Cups and Balls.
And still, I have mixed feelings.
Some projects are, I think, particularly suited to video. My second release will contain three routines that thematically belong together, are suited to my credentials and background, and lend themselves to video because it would not make sense to produce this particular content in book form. All of that will become clearer at a later date.
The Cups and Balls is another matter, however. I have had a relationship with the fundamental trick for almost as long as I have been doing sleight-of-hand magic. And the particular routine that I am teaching is one that I mostly completed about 1985, and have been steadily performing ever since. That’s a long time, a lot of thought, a lot of performance. Partly I simply hate the idea of tossing something so personally cherished into the rushing river of instant downloads that floods the magic world—all too often, and quite rightly so, headed straight for the proverbial sewer.
And, too, it would take me hours to genuinely explain the evolution of the routine; the why’s as well the how’s, the thinking and reasoning behind each segment, and every choice, both technical and artistic. Video instruction doesn’t really allow for all that. My video is not intended as a thorough instructional guide to all the standard techniques; it’s focused mostly on explaining my own particular routine, albeit that I do spend a little time on some nuances of several classic elements like the Vernon Wand Spin Vanish. But even then, the time allotted only enables me to provide complete instruction in the specifics of my routine—rather than considering the elements and years invested that would eventually lead to its fulfillment.
And yet, having said all that, I liked the idea of being able to perform the routine as part and parcel of teaching it. Because while my version is unquestionably based on the Dai Vernon classic, there are many features that are distinctive, and the sum total, in my opinion, represents a particular gestalt that can’t quite be grasped without actually seeing the performance.
So in the end, we made a video. And the one thing that I am most pleased with is that we did get a satisfactory record of a performance of the routine.
And still, maybe someday I will write a detailed description within the context of a larger book of my material.
But for now, what is clearly missing is the background—the story of this routine and how and why it came to be. And so I have decided—finally, after this lengthy prologue of sorts—to provide that here. And that, above all, is the purpose of this essay—in essence, a companion piece, or the liner notes, to Jamy Ian Swiss: A Masterclass in the Cups & Balls.
The Cups & Balls: Liner Notes
Louis Tannen, the founder and original proprietor of Tannen’s Magic in Manhattan, was the first person to teach me sleight of hand. He taught me sponge balls when I was about ten or eleven years old, and later dice stacking, and the Chop Cup. By the time I was about 13 I was performing the Chop Cup for my parents’ friends at home cocktail parties, behind our four-stool home bar. For those performances I used a rigid, foam layered, velvet covered close-up pad that I created for the purpose, and that turned out to be an almost identical precursor for that which Bob Sheets would show me how to build twenty years later, when I became a professional Magic Bartender performing five nights a week behind the world’s largest Magic Bar, at the Inn of Magic in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, Lou Tannen had basically taught me the Don Alan routine, except using a standard final loading maneuver, rather than Don Alan’s own rather eccentric procedure, which entailed banging the cup on the edge of the table an in instant prior to the load. I did manage to learn that technique a bit later, at about 15 or 16, from my pal Bill Schmelke, who worked in the back at Tannen’s assembling card castles and the like, and had somehow managed to connect with Don Alan and learn it from him. Bill and I would later share a subscription to Al Koran’s limited edition magic trick series, after we both met Koran at the shop, and Bill would go on to become one of America’s premiere professional illusion builders. (And speaking of magic shops, and catalogs, Bill would also one day present the single funniest talk in the history of the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History—about lousy mail order catalog magic tricks—but that’s another story.)
Thus began my love affair with the Cups and Balls. One of my earliest books of general sleight-of-hand conjuring was Classic Secrets of Magic by Bruce Elliott, and I endlessly and repeatedly pored over its chapter on the Cups and Balls for many years (not to mention chapters on the Miser’s Dream, the Egg Bag, and the Sacks dice routine, among other items). Within the cups-and-balls chapter I studied the Benson Bowl routine, which I would see Al Goshman perform many times at the Tannen’s Jubilee, and that was also used and marketed by Don Alan. Over the years I would buy a set of the small metal cups that came with the Charlie Miller routine for the Indian Cups and Balls; various miniature Chop Cups (until I figured out they were pointless because they reduce the size of the load to insignificance); and eventually I bought a set of copper Ross Bertram-style cups from Magic, Inc., to accompany my eventual studies of the Dai Vernon routine, from the pages of The Dai Vernon Book of Magic.
I studied and practiced the Vernon routine for years, but rarely performed it. I was more comfortable with the snappy directness of the Don Alan routine, to which I would add a double penetration sequence and one genuine vanish of the ball from the hand. Mostly I could not figure out quite what to say that would sustain the full three-cup routine. This is a perennial challenge in the cases of three classic conjuring routines: the Cups and Balls; the Linking Rings; and the Egg Bag. These classics are performed with props that obviously can only be obtained from a magic shop, but unlike so much unnatural and suspicious small apparatus that has largely fallen by the wayside (or strictly into children’s shows) and for good reasons, these particular props are so apparently simple in their construction they can still be convincingly portrayed as innocent or unprepared (and in the case of the cups, they generally really are). (A fourth close-up example would be the Okito Box.) As Michael Close has observed, it can be very difficult to figure out what to say that makes sense of the accompanying script with these rather abstract props, and that also reflects the character and point of view of the performer.
In my own case, given my longstanding interest in the history of magic, it made sense for me to begin to develop an accompanying script that reflected that obsession. However, I certainly did not want to deliver a didactic lecture on the subject, and so eventually I began to take a somewhat ironic approach, that collected some actual facts but presented them in a manner that was simultaneously light-hearted while also somewhat subversive. This was where I was headed with the script in the early 1980s.
Along the way, other routines influenced me, some more directly than others, but I studied them all, including John Mendoza’s “Combination” Cups routine; my friend Bob Read’s hilarious routine, all but unrecognizably based on Vernon’s; Michael Skinner’s beautiful routine that I saw him perform early in our friendship; Scotty York’s “X-Rated Cups and Balls,” diabolically designed to fool magicians familiar with the Vernon routine; and later still, routines by David Williamson, Michael Ammar, and more, along with the two different one-cup routines that Larry Jennings published. And even though Tommy Wonder’s routine was vastly different than the Vernon routine and its many variants, it was still a though-provoking source of inspiration, which I first saw him perform in 1978.
The technical content of my routine evolved significantly in the early 1980s, as my years of study had finally led me to some conclusions and particular preferences.
For one thing, after working on the Charlie Miller penetration sequence in various ways – with three balls in view versus one ball in view, with the cups lined up in a horizontal row versus stacked in a column—I came to the conclusion that the penetration sequence is both most clear, and most mystifying, if the cups are positioned in a horizontal row, and if only one ball is apparently in use, thus concealing the presence any additional balls.
I also came to like the idea of making the additional balls appear magically, and I was influenced in this by a number of routines, including Michael Ammar’s. I did not care for the somewhat random mix of procedures and effects in his routine, in which the Miller penetration kind of came and went and then came again, in order to suit the necessary construction; nor did I like the vanish sequence consisting of three sets of acquitments, which to me misses the point of Vernon’s unarguably sly construction. But I liked the idea of the appearance of the third ball atop one of the cups, a misdirective effect that was somewhat related to an original Peter Samelson sequence, from his Chop Cup routine, that he had shown to me in the late 1970s.
Sometime in the early 80s I also came across the soft drawstring bag that I still use to contain the cups, and the combination of the relatively thin soft material, plus the extra material that extended above the drawstring, somehow led me to create my original method for secretly introducing the first two balls into the cups. This, combined with a technique that Michael Skinner shared with me for visibly introducing a single ball while secretly introducing another, are combined in order to enable me to get three ahead at the start of my routine.
This situation prepares me for the three-time performance of the Charlie Miller penetration, with nothing more than a single ball apparently in use. But in order to get from this condition directly to the visible production of two additional balls, without resorting to roundabout procedures that break the inherent logic and directness I sought, I had to create a handling that would simultaneously get two balls out of play and secretly into my hands while apparently merely executing the consecutive penetrations. This was one of the most challenging puzzles I faced for a time, eventually solving it hand-in-hand with creating the handling for the subsequent productions that at the same time apparently demonstrate the hands to be otherwise empty. The entirety—from first penetration to the appearance of the third ball—is a textbook example of my friend Geoff Latta’s pet phrase, “Every move’s a move.” But in the end, it worked, and it’s a sequence, or two, that I enjoy performing, and take some pride in having created.
As it turns out, the opening sequences—the introduction of the wand and the cups, the Wand Through Cup (which I eventually came to follow with a self-deprecating joke lest the audience think I am presenting that effect as a deep mystery), the traditional Cup Through Cup, the three Miller penetrations, and finally the production of the two additional balls—all serve as a prologue of sorts, because once the three balls are at last in play, this is when I invite a spectator to get involved (or to join me on platform or stage) and examine all the props. I believe that the best solution to the unnatural prop problem mentioned above is to make certain to allow the cups and balls to be thoroughly examined. I became convinced of this with the cups by watching Bob Sheets; with the Egg Bag by watching Johnny Thompson; and with the Linking Rings by watching Harry Riser.
Now, once the spectator is involved, we proceed to the vanish sequence. I believe that Vernon’s structure here is literally perfect—two false transfers followed by the Vernon Wand Spin, which serves to cancel the method of the false transfers—but for particular reasons (to be explained shortly) I choose to save the wand spin for the end of the routine, hence I substitute a vanish of David Williamson’s that also relies upon a secret transfer of the ball—but not his Striking Vanish, which is far more effective as he originally intended it, done with a purse and coins, than with a wand. (It’s nice with a capped pen and coin as well, if you combine with some elegant handling for the reproduction of the coin from the cap.)
What comes next? The spectator selection sequence from Vernon’s routine. It is always amazing to me—and not in a good way—when magicians leave out Vernon’s phase in which the spectator chooses cups as targets for the arrival of the vanished balls. The Cups and Balls is most engaging and entertaining when the spectator is involved—check Don Alan’s Chop Cup routine if you have any questions about this. To eliminate this phase dramatically alters the overall sense of the routine by turning it into display-only magic. If you are not speaking, if you are performing silently to music, if you eliminate the spectator, you’ve pretty much blown the entire point of the Cups and Balls. (But this may not stop you from winning a FISM Grand Prix.) (With apologies to Fred Kaps, who also performed the Cups and Balls with sponge balls, another choice I more or less abhor. If the exception tests the rule, this exception simply serves to barely test the rule that Kaps was one of the greatest conjuring artists of the 20th century. Hey, it’s the only Kaps routine I don’t like—deal with it.)
In my own routine, after years of experimentation, I’ve ended up added something to the spectator choices, and eliminating something as well. I’ve added another opportunity for the spectator to choose a cup immediately following the vanishes, not only to create an additional magical effect (for the moment), but then to create a powerful revelation of the remaining balls that also garners a laugh. This also sets up a justification, in a very logical fashion, for the traditional Vernon selection phase, because I am now allowing the spectator to make a selection again, but under apparently fairer conditions.
Nevertheless, I never much cared for Vernon’s repetition of this effect, which he essentially utilized merely to clean up where the extra ball secretly lays. He never put a lot of emphasis on this repetition in his performances, because I believe he knew it served more practical than magical purpose. But I always wanted to find a way to eliminate its unnecessary redundancy, and eventually I did. The solution is one that has been complimented by both Bob White and Roberto Giobbi, among the few magi I’ve shared my routine with prior to today.
I choose to leave out Vernon’s brief stacking and unstacking of the cups because after the introductory sequences with the cups – primarily intended to simultaneously deliver and disprove the secret additional balls – I did not want to ever stack the cups again during the routine, a procedure I tend to associate with self-working routines such as performed with the Adams plastic cups that come with toy magic sets.
The most important theory behind the Vernon routine has to do with its overall conceptual construction, which in turns explains why the routine has become such a standard, and the basis of virtually every major cups-and-balls routine of the 20th century with the sole exception of Tommy Wonder’s. This is the one theoretical area I do explore in some depth on my instructional video. So now this point in the routine, as a thorough reflection of that theory, all three balls gather beneath the center cup, thereby concluding this portion of the routine – in my performance preceded by a decades old sight gag from a college friend, and concluding with a joke from Peter Samelson’s Chop Cup routine that he kindly gave me permission, decades ago, to use.
Which brings me to the final loading sequence. Vernon constructed this brilliantly, with the goal of assuring thorough misdirection for loading the cups at extremely close quarters, perhaps for spectators seated at a small nightclub table. Vernon knew that the Cups and Balls was largely a busker, parlor or platform routine throughout much of its history, and not in fact a close-up trick. Vernon’s routine modernized the ancient Cups and Balls for modern audiences and modern intimate conditions, and part of his surefire misdirection was the false explanation of a ball vanish, which both thoroughly engaged and satisfied the audience as it seemed to fulfill his initial promise of “explaining it all at the end,” enabling him to effectively load the cups right under their noses.
While I recognize the genius inherent in this approach, I prefer to avoid the pseudo-exposure. Michael Skinner convinced me decades ago that magicians should generally avoid using jargon terms like “palm” or “switch” and the like in their presentational scripts, because such words speak directly to method rather than effect, and hence undermine the experience of magic and mystery that many (albeit not all) magicians strive to create. Michael made occasional deliberate rare exceptions, as with the Open Travelers, in which the reference to palming is obviously tongue in cheek and purely imaginary, serving if anything to enhance the magical quality of the trick’s effects. But this was a rare case, and I try to adhere similarly to his perspective.
I also believe in doing all the vanishes and transfers ambidextrously, an idea that comes from Charlie Miller, eliminating the oddity of moving a ball from one hand to the other only to move it back again into position for a false transfer. I adopted this approach not only in the Vernon vanish sequence, but also as I worked out the loading sequence, and this choice seems to have contributed to its development. Eventually, as I puzzled my way through trying to eliminate the pseudo-exposure, I hit upon on a solution that ended up also streamlining the loading sequence by one step, moving it along slightly more quickly and directly. I never gave it much more thought once I had found what worked for me as a solution. I wasn’t until some fifteen years later that somebody else noticed.
It was around the year 2000 or thereabouts, and I was at John Thompson’s house for dinner, along with Lance Burton. After the meal the three of us retired to a magic session in the living room, where we discussed the Cups and Balls, which Lance was working on for his next TV special. I gave Lance some tips on vanishes, which he grasped with alacrity and startling facile acquisition. Then we got to discussing loading sequences, so I broke out a couple of additional sets of cups, each of us sitting around the table with them, and John and I went back and forth with some thoughts and techniques. Then I went through my loading sequence from start to finish, at the conclusion of which there was a silent pause from John. Upon which he said, “You beat me,” his pet phrase for when a magician fools him. No one was more stunned by this than I.
John then said, “Can I use that?” At which point my life in magic felt pretty much complete. I recount this story in The Magic of Johnny Thompson and, at John’s request, include a full explanation of my loading sequence, because indeed, that is what John adopted and uses in his own routine to this day—a fact that fills me with no small measure of delight.
There are small elements of my load sequence that have been influenced by other performers, including Frank Garcia, Bob Sheets, and Michael Skinner. It was Garcia who I first saw lift the cups after they are loaded, demonstrating their apparent emptiness, before revealing the loads. Truth be told I never cared for it Frank's routine, thinking it was overproving. But in developing my own routine, I adopted an element that Michael Skinner taught me, involving the spectator in the final revelations, so that all three loads are revealed simultaneously. (I discuss this in further detail in the video.) Because I involve the spectator at this point, and I instruct her to hold each cup "down" (only to prevent her freom prematurely lifting them up), it seemed to me a natural gesture to flash the emptiness of the cups in a gesture, while directing the spectator, rather than in a stand-alone set of actions bringing focus on the method of showing the cups empty, which in fact is not that strong a technique at all. The instructions and the gestural displays are, I think, natural, and do add to the shock of the final revelations. Michael also explained to me that I should have the hip pockets of my suit pants enlarged in order to hold the loads and enable me to readily retrieve them.
Part of my final load revelations also includes the production of a large rubber ball, prior to the fruits. The idea of this structure came from years of working with and watching Bob Sheets perform his signature comical routine, who reveals his first load singly, before the rest of them are shown. Although I never actually discussed the theory of this with him, I use my first load to establish that all the loads will be genuine and solid, and also to garner a reaction from the audience before all the final revelations, so they have a moment to consider the implications of what is unfolding.
Following the final loads in my routine comes one more kicker, a liquid finish. In the late 1970s I purchased from Jeff Busby a set of lecture notes by Brad Holbrook. Holbrook described therein a finish for his cups-and-balls routine ending with the production of a liquid-filled shot glass from between the cups, which began my years of thinking about this effect and experimenting with the method. Among other things, my design for the gimmick further evolved when I read Eugene Burger’s barehanded Shotglass Production in his first booklet, Secrets and Mysteries for the Close-up Entertainer. I had dreamed for years of a working a liquid finish into the routine, and finally I had it. For the first time, I publicly explain all of the working details for this in the Masterclass video.
Bit by bit the many parts and pieces of the routine came together, along with the script – and it should be noted that while my Masterclass video includes a performance of that script, the video comes with a notice that the script is purely there for purposes of seeing the routine in action, and that permission to use any of that script is quite specifically not granted. Some may find this unusual, but frankly it shouldn’t be regarded as such – as Eugene Burger said, “Presentation is the point at which you put yourself into your magic,” and consequently, if you use someone else’s presentation, you are putting someone else into your magic, which by definition will produce a weak and inauthentic outcome. If magic is to be an art, art is a means of self-expression – emphasis on the “self” part. (Despite what some amateur magicians who publish magic magazines might cluelessly opine to the contrary. See my essay, “Hacked To Death,” in Preserving Mystery, for further thoughts on the nature of being a hack, and why cover bands are lousy art.)
Punctuating the script were several lines I had come across over the years from other performers, either in legitimately published form (a few came from veteran magic dealer and eccentric performing character, Bob Little), one or two from friends with permission, others which I rewrote in order to keep them original, and several I drew from much older texts, to serve as homage of sort to my many influences and predecessors. In this way, each time I perform this routine, I invariably feel the presence beneath me of the shoulders on which I stand. This approach echoed a practice I also followed around the same time when I at long last finalized a version of the Ambitious Card on which I had been working since adolescence, incorporating published lines of my influences and predecessors in ways that remind me to this day who helped shape me and how. That card routine includes a line from Max Malini; my cups-and-balls routine include a line from Dai Vernon and, among others, another from Frank Garcia, who was a direct influence in my years of growing up in magic in the Tannen’s scene. For me, it is a way of expressing my gratitude publicly, and enjoying the sensation of that long line of history of which I am but a part.
Some of the props would get finalized still later. In the late ‘70s I purchased two Pressley Guitar wands, which were carried in two pieces in a leather case, then screwed together, one of the first versions of such a wand design, if not the first. I liked the idea of doing this in front of the audience. Pressley’s wands were steel, with small brass rings just against the end piece that were black and made from bowling ball material, so as not to scratch the cups. They were quite heavy however and a bit difficult to use for the Vernon Wand Spin Vanish, but I continued to obtain various kinds of break-apart wands over the years, until I finally would, years later, end up with a Mark Teufel wand that I purchased from Andy Greget. (That wand is showing its age and may yet require an upgrade someday. As per Charlie Miller’s advice, I like to bash the wand and cups around a lot.)
Although the routine was more or less finalized circa 1985, when I solved the loading sequence to my satisfaction, my thinking continued to evolve, particularly under the influence of John Thompson, whom I first spent time with in 1989 in Japan (and he and his wife Pam Hayes and I have been more or less family to one another ever since). Some time later, John generously presented me with a set of genuine Paul Fox cups, manufactured by Danny Dew (one of the last such sets he made, if not the very last, according to Danny and John), with which I replaced my Bertram cups. I enjoyed using those cups for quite a few years, and I also hunted down a set of original Paul Fox “Chick Cups” for use on platform and stage, which would fit regulation baseballs as final loads, and for which Mike Rogers, the creator of the small baseballs for use with the Cups and Balls, kindly made me a set of small baseballs identical to those he used with his Chick Cups in trade shows, about an inch-and-a-quarter in diameter. I don’t perform the Cups and Balls as often these days on platform or stage, but when I do I still use the Fox Chick Cups. For close-up, however, I eventually came upon an early set of cups made by Auke van Dokkum out of heavy stainless steel, that I purchased from Andy Greget, and which I have relied upon ever since.
John also taught me a wonderful idea from Danny Dew for a final vanish of the three balls, all at once via the Wand Spin Vanish, rather than openly replacing them in a pocket. This too is taught in the Masterclass video, and the original version, which is probably slightly superior to my adaptation, is explained in The Magic of Johnny Thompson.
Is the routine finished? Well, it’s close, and the routine as it appears on the video is taught completely, and reflects the way I’ve been doing it for most of some 30 years, albeit there is always fine tuning under way. A couple of years ago I began working with a new added technical element, but I’m not ready to let that out yet as it’s not really completed, and it’s not a necessity by any means, but merely a refinement. I think it might have just confused matters on the video, so I performed and taught the version I know best and have done the longest. But will I ever completely stop tinkering with it? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Most likely the latter—keeping in mind that no less than Johnny Thompson decided to change his loading sequence after doing his routine for half a century or thereabouts. The best magicians remain lifelong students. I sincerely hope, as you pursue your student path, that this essay, along with A Masterclass in the Cups & Balls, serve to assist you in your journey.
Jamy Ian Swiss: A Masterclass in The Cups And Balls is available from Vanishing Inc. as a DVD or Instant Download. $15.00 USD