A special, two-book review by Jamy Ian Swiss
STANDUP CARD MAGIC BY ROBERTO GIOBBI
If you want to do card tricks on platform or stage, in front of audiences larger than are suitable for close-up magic, what do you do? The simple and direct answer is that there are only a handful of choices:
- Use bigger cards
- Use cards as objects
- Use mental effects
A fourth option that may occur to some is to use video projection. This only goes so far as a solution, however. While one can conceivably perform actual close-up magic at a table on a stage, in classic Slydini/Goshman format with a spectator or two seated beside the performer, and then project this onto a screen for a larger audience, this approach has severe theatrical limits. Quite simply, if you are booked to perform for 500 or a thousand people or more, this will not deliver a satisfactory result. And it should not. It’s one thing to utilize this kind of thing as a segment of a full performance program, as Juan Tamariz often does, but for him it serves as only a portion of the show, and is treated as a special portion at that. (And briefly: as Juan does, the camera should be focused only on your hands and the props. Don’t project your face on the screen. Make the audience watch the actual performance live, and use the screen for reference. Of course, countless magicians violate this every day. And the results fail accordingly.)
Let’s unpack the other options a bit further. Using bigger cards comes with its own set of problems, not the least of which is: whatever those things are, they’re not playing cards. They might be fine comedy props (which is how I use them), but not much more. (I do not include here the ever so slightly enlarged cards that, for example Bob Sheets uses so effectively with his handing of the Homing Card [not the Jimmy Grippo card-to-pocket popularized by Francis Carlyle, but rather the Tenkai stranger-card-keeps-returning plot popularized by Fred Kaps]. In the right context these cards can be used because at a distance they appear as standard-sized, regulation playing cards.) Then again, I must admit that I have seen Juan Tamariz, in Spain, effectively perform a version of the MacDonald Aces on stage with jumbo cards. Perhaps the exception tests the rule.
Using cards as objects is a classical solution to the problem, and that’s why the small handful of tricks that fit this category are indeed classics. Cards Up The Sleeve (which sometimes incorporates the values of the cards but as an enhancement; it’s not the fundamental plot), Card Across, the Six Card Repeat, and the Victor Eleven Card Trick, are all tricks in this small but invaluable category. Any trick in which the identities of the cards simply do not matter and are not pertinent to the plot will serve in this manner. However, you can only use so many such effects in a single program—in most cases, just one, before the idea becomes painfully repetitive.
Performing effects of mentalism or mental magic with cards is an excellent solution, because the identities of the cards needn’t be seen by the larger audience, but rather only by the spectators directly involved and assisting the performer, whether on stage or off it. As long as these assistants identify the cards, and their identification and reactions clearly register with the audience, the small size of the cards simply doesn’t matter. Johnny Thompson calls this branch of effects “radio magic”—because in theory you can do it on the radio and it’s still effective.
But these are solutions for truly larger audiences, of perhaps 150 or much more. And as it turns out, that’s not really what Roberto Giobbi’s Standup Card Magic, released late last year, is about. The widely acknowledged authority on close-up and sleight-of-hand card magic, and author of the most popular books ever written on the subject, Card College Volumes 1 - 5, states in his first chapter that:
We will define standup magic, in contrast to close-up and stage magic, as an independent genre within magic. On the one hand, it seeks the immediacy of close-up; on the other hand it does so in a more formal framework, without relying on the techniques of the larger stage.
The size of the audience is limited to around 150 people. A particular aesthetic results from these conditions, shaped by principles specific to the genre. We will investigate this aesthetic in theory and practice in this book.
Ah-hah. So that means that I played a little trick on you with my prologue, because that brief discussion more or less assesses my own personal approach to card magic on stage, of which I have done a great deal in my career. But having given you a little to think about when it comes to that particular direction, I will now steer myself to Mr. Giobbi’s rather distinctly different track.
Most working pros, including the part-timers (and in fact, particularly part-timers), will likely recognize those conditions described by Mr. Giobbi. We bump into them in all kinds of situations, circumstances that just aren’t quite right for formal close-up, but that don’t demand or provide an actual platform or stage. The fact is that if you’re going to try to do formal close-up for an audience larger than about 35 or 40, you have to meet a couple of key requirements. One, people have to be able to see (and hear) you. The only way to manage the seeing part much beyond that number is with some degree of raised seating. In ideal conditions, with steeply raked seating, I’ve effectively performed formal close-up magic for a hundred people.
But the other requirement—that, like visual and audio concerns that have nothing to do with the tricks—is that you need a big enough performance persona to effectively reach out and into such a crowd. I was trained as a Magic Bartender, sometimes working without a mic for 150 or more on busy nights. I play big, and I play loud. Street performers know how to do this too. So do trade show workers (albeit typically with amplified sound). But your mileage may vary. My advice, as the philosopher said: Know thyself. Then act accordingly. Disaster lurks if you fail in that mission.
This means that many if not most performers, faced with audiences larger than that 35 or 40 number, effectively at the limits of close-up magic, need to do something else. In short: stand up. Either without a table altogether (other than a small side table for props), or with very careful and judicious use of a table, one that can serve to display props, but not generally one that the performer “performs at.” And even those of us who are capable and comfortable (if not downright happy) doing close-up for larger groups are going to find ourselves in situations when, as we move into that 50-to-150 range, we’re going to elect to stand up too. Because if the conditions are not ideal, close-up magic is a very risky thing in that situation, and standing up—and adjusting the repertoire accordingly—will provide for far more surefire and effective results.
And that’s what this book is about.
If you’re interested in this kind of work, there is precious little to be found in the literature. There’s some, to be sure. “Night club” style magic, popular in the aftermath of vaudeville and during the rise of the movies, performed in swank clubs in the best hotels in the biggest cities in America in the 1940s and into the 50s, featured card magic of this nature, exemplified in the work of the great Paul Rosini, for example. The stylish Rosini, an accomplished card worker with a big repertoire, would use small apparatus or what I'll dub "small-prop/big-plot" tricks as his feature pieces—Linking Rings, Egg Bag, Thumb Tie, Cut-and-Restored Rope, along with big-plot card routines like Card in Cigarette and the like—and then vary the program further night to night with a repertoire of card magic that he could put across on the night club floor. This is a wonderful kind of magic in the right hands. (I wish I could have seen him.)
The point being that if you investigate this kind of nightclub magic, you will find examples strewn around the literature, and also notably in the journals of the era. But you will have to hunt for it.
Here, Mr. Giobbi gives you a concisely thorough manual neatly packaged between two covers. It’s almost too easy, when you have a book like this lay it all out for you, and I will confess that there are the occasional such “silver platter” books that sometimes annoy me a tad, because they so readily deliver, in a pretty and homogenized and readily digestible form, that which has taken some of us (including the author) many years of hard won slogging through the muck and madness of trench warfare in order to learn.
But the time is unarguably ripe for such a book. In the wake of examples like Ricky Jay, and generous influencers like Juan Tamariz, now more than ever, magicians go out and do magic shows that often vary little beyond card magic. Never mind that those examples might be more wisely considered as exceptions rather than rules; the age of the card program is well upon us, like it or not, and there is little doubt that many hunger for a book like this, which should have little trouble finding an audience. (My friend Tim Conover advised that when building an artistically and commercially viable platform act, you should save deciding on your one card trick until later, since there are countless quantities from which to choose; rather, focus on finding all the non-card material—the opener, closer, and all the rest—and eventually, the right card trick will become clear. The right card trick. I’ll just leave that here for some to ponder.)
And so, to the contents. The book begins with a chapter on craft. (As ever, many will mistakenly consider this theory. There’s plenty of actual theory in this book, but when you’re discussing how to position the chairs, that’s not theory, it’s craft. Pay attention.)
In this chapter, terms are defined (as quoted above), conditions are considered, history is provided, and the subjects of trick selection, script creation, and spectator management are introduced. As always, the author offers both practical insights based on experience and insightful guidelines based on serious consideration. Although this quote actually appears in a different chapter, it’s gems like this that invariably mark Mr. Giobbi’s writing:
Fred Kaps, who was considered by connoisseurs of magic to be the greatest all-round magician, always said, ‘you should use the precision of close-up when performing onstage, and generosity of movement of stage performance when doing close-up.’
Spend a little time wrapping your head around that little jewel. I did. (I would point out however that the assessment of Kaps should refer to in his own time.)
The second chapter is a brief but effective guide to “spectator management.” Every magician who uses spectators on stage—which pretty much means every speaking performer, and as the author points out, standup magic is essentially speaking magic—will benefit from this cogent guide, drawn from years of experience, and delivered succinctly to the reader. Trust me: you will likely benefit from this, if you don’t have a lot of flight time logged.
Following these two cogent chapters, the third chapter expands to more than sixty pages on the subject of Card Technique for the Standup Performer, divided into five sections, to wit: False Shuffles; Card Controls; Forces: Palming; and The Top Change. As with the Card College series, Mr. Giobbi is offering personal choices here in favor of a definitive, encyclopedic approach. Hence what he chooses to include and exclude cannot be judged as incorrect, but rather merely as matters of preference. That said, some (including this reader), might find it odd that there is no mention of the Dribble Force, since he does describe the dribble as a control, and in my estimation, both techniques can be particularly useful for standup card work.
The section on forcing includes some excellent guidance on the Classic Force, including a modified version for platform use that is highly reminiscent of Al Koran’s Sure Fire Force from Professional Presentations by Hugh Miller, along with some nice guidance for “outs” if the force fails. And the Top Change segment includes a superb Dai Vernon handling that has been known to insiders for a long time but never before fully described in print.
Most of the techniques in this section will be found within the skill range of average to moderately advanced performers. There is something to be said for the notion that the further you are from the audience, the less demanding the techniques required to fool them. But that doesn’t mean that expert and excellent methods will not serve you well in this kind of magic, and help distinguish your work—and your choice of effects—from the average bungler who goes out every night armed with little more than a Hindu Force and an Invisible Pack. Rather, in these conditions there are close-up techniques that simply will not work when you stand up, the audience is spread wider, and the angles change accordingly.
Finally, we arrive at the section for which you’ve all been waiting, namely Chapter Four: Performance Pieces for the Standup Magician. Twice the length of the previous chapter, this one describes thirteen routines in detail. As an exercise, before opening the book, I took a guess at some of the plots, tricks, and effects that it might contain. As I anticipated (and this is not a criticism—in fact, you’re welcome to stop reading now and try to formulate such a list for yourself, before continuing beyond this closing parenthesis), there is a multiple divination routine; a Pat Page comedy card trick I learned decades ago from a Pat Page audio “Trick-a-Tape” on the Top Change (and have used professionally, and taught on rare occasion to working pro students); a routine which concludes with (but is not limited to) the production of four cards from four pockets (as in Vernon’s “Travelers,” but based on the method devised by Doc Daley and utilized by many others including LePaul and Lorayne); a piece related to the Vernon “Brainwave” plot but significantly different in approach and method; a multiple prediction routine; a card-in-impossible-location routine, specifically the Card in Cigarette; a second example of the plot, namely the Card in Lemon (a version that Derek Dingle was fond of and which I also first discovered and adopted in my youth from the cited Alton Sharpe book); and a card stab (in this case, the Malini version).
That’s not bad, considering, since it means that in addition to those seven (and actually I only guessed there would some kind of card-in-impossible-location, not these in particular, albeit I also have some prior knowledge of the author’s repertoire there as well) items, there are six more I didn’t guess at all. Call it a more or less even split.
And of course, there is no small significance in the fact that Mr. Giobbi is not merely drawing examples from the literature and explaining them, but he is describing his own detailed handlings and presentations that he has developed over many years of his own professional performances. This is what makes studying these tricks worthwhile, because only with such details can you attempt to raise these pieces to the heights of their true deceptive and artistic potential. Without studying and replicating and applying these subtleties of thinking and finesses of execution … well, see: Hindu Force and Invisible Deck.
So in addition to the plots previously mentioned, there are two-card transpositions; there’s a multi-climax routine based on Vernon’s two-deck You Do As I Do; a version of the Nap Hand Deal; and still more.
Importantly, some of these plots are subtly layered, fully developed, and thoroughly explained. A previously unpublished two-card transposition handling from Vanni Bossi, staged with a stemmed glass as made famous by John Scarne, provides an elegantly structured and magical effect. In the routine featuring the production of the four cards from the pockets, this effect actually comes as a climax to a nicely staged routine in which four cards transform, effectively vanishing and then transporting to the pockets, along the lines of the classic plot of Arthur Finley’s “Matching the Cards” (a favorite plot of Vernon’s, which he famously tipped to Nate Leipzig, with multiple consequences). The Card-to-Cigarette routine, inspired by a routine of Fred Kaps’, essentially and mystifyingly involves a thought-of card; unfortunately for magicians it’s almost impossible to use cigarettes in any sort of tastefully acceptable way in this country these days. But the principles and handling details are carefully described, and represent elements that could conceivably be applied to other routines. The same is certainly true of the details in the author’s experienced approach to the Malini Card Stab, which amounts not so much to merely a description but rather as a guided, in-depth study of that classical plot.
When you examine this list of effects, what becomes quickly apparent is that most of them fall outside the categories of card magic for stage that I enumerated earlier. And that is because rather than featring many mental effects (with only a couple of exceptions), or any cards-as-objects routines, most of this material consists of genuine card conjuring plots. The identities of the cards matter, and the plots are often concerned with the location of selected cards. I suggest that this comprises the true pleasure that lies in this kind of intimate standup card magic: namely, the exploration and performance of interesting and engaging card conjuring. Tricks that are in fact a little too big for close-up, and a little too small for stage, but that can become utterly fascinating and magical in the right conditions.
And so, there are lessons to be revealed throughout these pages that are, quite simply, bound to enhance, if not transform, both the artistry, and the commercial potential, of your work. And this is what is most significant to glean from its carefully wrought contents. If you buy this book with the intent of grabbing tricks wholesale from its pages and hurling them into performance, you will have licked the silver platter without pausing to admire the beauty of its sheen. Rather, study the entirety, then select a piece and focus on that. And once that piece has been brought to life before multiple audiences, then consider the many lessons in these pages, and go out and seek your own repertoire choices. (In potential service to that end, the author kindly provides an amazing six-page appendix that provides a detailed annotated list of routines suitable for standup performance, drawn from no less than ten of his other books.) The truth is that despite the fact that I successfully predicted some portion of the content of this book, I also guessed at a number of standup card plots that turned out to not be included between its covers. (And thank goodness for that, because some of them are in my repertoire, and I won’t be naming them here!) But as I have often said, the very act of selecting repertoire is in itself a creative act. If you consider this book a guide toward enhancing your ability to be similarly creative in your own work, then you will gain its greatest benefits, and do yourself, and all of us, and our art, the greatest possible service.
Standup Card Magic by Roberto Giobbi; 7” x 10½” hardbound with foil stamping and glossy dustjacket; 279 pages; extensively illustrated with photographs; 2016; Publisher: Hermetic Press; Price: $59.95. Available from Penguin Magic
Hidden Agenda by Roberto Giobbi
The publication of Hidden Agenda, also by Roberto Giobbi, followed closely on the heels of that of Standup Card Magic. While Standup comprised the first Hermetic Press publication since that imprint was purchased by Penguin Magic, Vanishing Inc. (full disclosure: the publisher of my forthcoming book) is the publisher of Hidden Agenda.
Hidden Agenda is in fact a follow-up volume to Giobbi’s Secret Agenda, published by Hermetic in 2010 [reviewed by me in Genii, January 2011]. The original volume was a first in the magical literature, drawing on a form that has long existed elsewhere, namely that of a “day book”—a book of 365 entries, one for every day of the year. This is not a book to be read from cover to cover, but rather, one to place on your nightstand, thereby assured of having readily at hand a thoughtful and magical palate cleanser with which to complete (or begin) every one of your days for a year’s duration. The concept was well received, and so now, we are presented with a second year’s worth of bedside brain fodder.
While these books are instructional in nature, they are very different than the pedagogically focused Card College volumes, in a number of ways. There are sleights and techniques described, and even a few tricks, and these are certainly clearly instructional. The the book is also intended as inspiration and creative fodder, and many of these items are the kinds of bits and pieces that one takes down in a notebook, trades in a session, discovers in one’s own exploration, that don’t really stack up as full-blown instructional pieces, but rather more often fit into that ephemeral category we often refer to as “finesse.”
In other words: just about my favorite kind of thing.
Also, since the book is not constrained by the need to be clearly instructional, these two Agenda volumes are also filled with a host of other material that, taken in sum, serves to provide a deeply personal and invaluably eccentric perspective, permitting the author to invest much of his particular tastes and point of view, even more so than within his more rigorously focused instructional works. Thus there are entries entitled:
- Excellence in Sushi
- Curious Marketing Gimmicks
- Mark Twain
- How To Lie With Statistics
- Top Twelve Quotes on Learning
- Some Known And Lesser-Known Einstein Quotes
- Quotes on Gastronomy
- Work Technique and Research Tools for Magicians
- Vernonisms: Some of Dai Vernon’s Favorite Quotes
- Top Quotes From Henning Nelms’ Magic & Showmanship
- Q&A With Francois Truffault
- Advice for the Young
- Charles Schulz
- Famous People Do Magic
- Top Ten Quotes on Perfection
- Top Quotes on Creativity and Originality
- The Six Major Speaking Faults
- Catchphrases of Famous Performers
- Seven Secrets of Life
- Lists of Books by Working Professionals
- Ten Quotes on Thinking
Getting the idea? If you think such topics have little do with your interest in magic, perhaps you might consider thinking again. Every one of them readily and easily has to do with magic, not only to stimulate your thinking, broaden your insights, and enlarge your interest, but quite simply, there’s not one of these entries that could not serve as the basis for the presentation of a magic trick. I often tell aspiring magicians that if you want to be an interesting magician, you need to be an interesting person. Dai Vernon was the essence of a cosmopolitan individual, who could readily converse with high society and lowlifes alike, and despite his famed obsessive focus on magic, he made fun of magicians who knew nothing about the world but magic. A year spent thoughtfully with Giobbi’s Hidden Agenda is a year that will both lead and push you on the path toward becoming a more interesting person, and thereby, potentially a more interesting artist.
But lest you dismiss that sample list above as reflecting a book of flotsam and jetsam that offers little interest or satisfaction for your need for to regularly mainline a magic fix in your life, here’s a different list of examples:
- Ten Underestimated Sleights & Principles
- Tilt Subtlety
- The Problem With the Riffle Stop
- Outjog And Turnover Double Lift Substitute
- Most Commercial Items from Card College
- Walkaround Opener
- Cold-deck Cut Force & Key Card Placement
- Favorite Sleights from Card College Volumes 1 & 2
- Favorite Sleights from Card College Volume 3
- Repeat Top Change
- Management for the Palm
- Expert Key Card Placement
- On the Classic Force [one of four entries]
- Favorite Sleights from Card College Volume 4
- The Casual Glimpse
- Favorite Sleights from Card College Volume 5
- Card to Wallet, Pardon me, to Wallet … in Spectator’s Pocket
- Ten Covers for the Pass
- Skinner on Marlo’s Poker Deal
- Running Cut Glimpse
- Card Palming Techniques in Stars of Magic
- Dribble Palm and Replacement Force
As ephemeral as the first list I provided may appear to some, this second list is comprised of relentlessly practical and useful ideas, techniques, and instruction. (I couldn’t decide which category “Trick for Thanksgiving: Torn and Restored Turkey” properly falls into.) A year of spending time contemplating and exercising such utility details and finesses could significantly transform your work and raise it to another level.
I haven’t provided the real details of these entries because I think these daily titles provide a sense of the great breadth of this work, and how stimulating and multi-faceted their impact can be on a thoughtful and curious reader. Suffice to say that I found many of these technical items substantial and distinctly useful, and many are certainly new to me. The “Imaginary … Deck Switch” is a delightful combination of a strategy for a “think of a card” procedure and an opportunity for a simplified but deceptive deck switch, an enormously useful and practical entry. Indeed, “More ‘Think of a Card’ Strategies” continues in this vein, providing fodder for variety in an area for which many magicians will doubtless find utility application.
There’s also the pleasure of reading through a book like this and finding ideas which you have created or discovered for yourself but then find that you were preceded by giants before you. “Simulated Magic” and the Kaps “Exhibitionist Move” are two items, one theoretical, and the other misdirective, which I have used for decades, never having known any prior reference to them.
And in similar vein, there will invariably appear the occasional element that others have thought of independent of the author, but without his knowledge; or with which students and past masters might well disagree. In the latter case, the author’s notes on approaches to a “Classic Palm Hold” differ somewhat with words rather explicitly spoken to me by Dai Vernon, who laughingly mocked himself when he explained to me how in his youth he thought he had improved on Erdnase by turning the deck sideways after executing the Erdnase Top Palm. Later he came to believe that it comprised an unnecessary, additional extraneous motion, and eliminated it. He laughed aloud as he told me this story. “Imagine that! I thought I’d improved Erdnase! Ha!” But, genius being genius, of course he eventually found a brilliant application for turning the deck in combination with a palm, namely in his Small Packet Spring Palm.
And in the case of missing or unknown precedents, many, many acolytes of another maestro, the great Billy McComb, learned from him (as I did) and still use (as I do) Billy’s system of packaging every working trick in a separate Ziploc bag, complete with every necessary element, including for example a deck of cards and a Sharpie marker. Thus, as you throw the chosen bags into your case for a show, you might end up with extra decks and markers, but you’ll never end up lacking the deck or marker you desperately require. (I wrote of this in my memorial to Billy that first appeared in Genii, and can be found in my book, Devious Standards.) Mr. Giobbi includes this in the book under the title “Prop List,” because he recommends writing the list of necessary items right on the bag in permanent marker. In my case, I follow Sir William’s method of writing the items clearly on an index card, and including that in every bag. Thanks, Billy.
If by now you don’t think that Hidden Agenda will enrich your life, both within magic and without, then nothing I say, and surely no detailed entry I describe, will persuade you. Buy your copy, set it on the nightstand (along with a pack of cards and a notebook), consider an entry nightly, and get back to me in a year and let me know how it turned out. I predict good outcomes, with results that will turn out to be far from hidden.
Hidden Agenda by Roberto Giobbi; 8” x 9½” hardbound with foil stamping and place-holder ribbon; 396 pages; lightly illustrated with photographs and other entries; 2016; Price: $55.00; Available from publisher: Vanishing Inc.