Do you enjoy the illusions of being tricked into seeing something that isn’t there?
How about watching things disappear or reappear out of thin air?
In the realm of magic, there are many different types of tricks and illusions, and in so doing many different ways for magicians to have a specialty and make a living.
What are the different types of magic? Magic is divided into the following categories:
- Street magic
- Sleight of hand tricks
For this article, I am going to be focusing on a general overview of many of the different types of performance and/or illusion-style magic, specifically with an emphasis where possible on historical background and the originators of these types of tricks (or at least people who took the magic tricks and popularized and/or perfected them).
For each category, I will focus on some of the most popular tricks seen in performance magic, how they became popular, and other variations where possible.
So without further ado, a brief description of the history of performance magic tricks and some of the major categories they fall under.
Table of Contents
Street Magic, the “Cup and Ball” and Misdirection
Obviously, there is no official consensus/book written on when the first magic trick was performed. However, sources trace what is likely the earliest magic trick to around 5,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt.
Specifically, the trick in question was the famous “Cup and Ball” trick (also known as “Three shell game”), which was also found a few thousand years later in Ancient Rome and is still a major component of street magic today.
Tutorial #1: Three Shell Game
This particular trick was meant to serve several purposes, such as to convince the person witnessing the trick that the magician could make the ball disappear and reappear (to “amaze”) as well as to serve its more infamous purpose: to con people out of money via deception and trickery.
Since the magician was in control of the trick – and could fake out the mark (aka the person being tricked) in question in order to make them pick the wrong cup – it would be easy to convince the mark to bet on the wrong cup and to therefore win their money.
The “cup and ball” trick, of course, is still prevalent in modern times both in its original form and in its variations (i.e. the Three-Card Monty card trick); in fact, in recent times the “cup and ball” trick has come to be considered almost a “gatekeeper” trick for new magicians.
In other words, since the trick is relatively simple to perform and requires very little in the way of materials, and because it entails using several techniques needed for most magic tricks (misdirection, sleight of hand, ability to manipulate objects effectively and effortlessly with one’s hands), many magicians in recent times have not been considered to be eligible for acceptance into the larger society of magic until they master this trick.
The “cup and ball,” Three-Card Monty, and other variations are of course meant to win money on the part of the magician, but also to demonstrate a magician’s capabilities with regards to misdirecting a mark.
Tutorial #2: Three Card Monte
Indeed, throughout all of history, the most common way that any performance magic trick is pulled off is via misdirection and sleight of hand, whether it be tricking a mark into thinking that a ball is under one cup when it is really under another one, or by convincing an audience to look at Part A while the magician focuses on establishing Part B (i.e. when making someone “disappear”).
While magic played a role in quite a bit of human history, it wasn’t until Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) that magic transformed (no pun intended) from a lower-class, street-fair style of entertaining to one fit for all people, specifically aristocratic crowds who could afford to pay to see a magic performance; indeed, the Palais Royale theater in Paris was rebuilt by Robert-Houdin to house his magic performances.
While he was also known as the “Father of Conjuring” – a category of magic trick that encompasses most everything I will go over in this article – he became best known for two tricks: “Second Sight” and “The Ethereal Suspension.”
In the “Second Sight” trick that he would perform with his son (which was an improvement on an earlier, similar trick by John Henry Anderson) Robert-Houdin would go into the audience and silently pick an item for his son to identify. His son, who would be blindfolded, would still able to correctly identify the item and describe it in detail, to the astonishment of the audience.
This trick was an early form of mentalism – a type of magic in which the magician displays intense and acute intuitive mental abilities, often extending into the realm of mind reading (i.e. Robert-Houdin’s son being able to describe what his father was pointing at without seeing it), clairvoyance, or even mind control.
Obviously, mentalists were not actually able to read minds telepathically or see the future; instead, mentalism relies more on a magician’s innate abilities to read a mark’s psychological tells, tics, and body language to either manipulate them into acting a certain way or to figure out what they are thinking (though some mentalists want people to believe that they are truly “magical”).
Mentalists are indeed one of the most popular category of magicians found today all over the world; two prominent types of mentalists are fortune tellers and psychic mediums.
If you want to learn more about Mentalism, we have also a separate article about it.
Another one of Robert-Houdin’s most famous tricks was the “Ethereal Suspension,” which falls under the category of levitation magic tricks.
In this trick, Robert-Houdin would claim that the properties of ether would cause his youngest son, who was the assistant for this trick, to be able to levitate in mid air. Robert-Houdin’s son would stand on a stool and would rest his arms on two canes propped up under his arms.
After exposing his son to the ether (though not really, this was part of the more elaborate ruse aided by his other son, but was indeed part of the misdirection), his son would go limp and Robert-Houdin would begin removing the canes and stools supporting him until he would raise his son up horizontally, appearing to levitate in mid-air.
Of course, his son wasn’t truly levitating, much like modern magicians who claim to levitate aren’t actually being suspended in mid-air; usually, someone who is “levitating” is often holding on to a cane or other item that is firmly rooted in the ground, oftentimes hidden behind a piece of clothing like a robe (so no one can see what the magician is holding onto).
Sometimes, in the case of modern celebrity magicians like Criss Angel, the magician rigs a special set of pants and shoes (and always keeps his back to the audience) to trick the mark into believing that he is indeed levitating.
But again, levitation is another type of magic where misdirection is key – often times, the magician rigs it so that the audience is too stunned by the floating man that they don’t notice the magician, say, stepping out of one pair of pants into another, or holding on to a pole that is painted to match the rest of the set.
Tutorial #3: Levitation tricks
Arguably the most famous magician in history, at least in popular culture, was Harry Houdini (1874-1926).
Houdini, born Erik Weisz – and taking his stage name from the aforementioned Robert-Houdin – became legendary in magic circles (and in popular culture and history) for his amazing feats of escapology.
In these tricks, Houdini would be shackled, buried, locked up, or otherwise restrained and – in front of a captive (and likely terrified) audience – escape from his predicament unharmed.
Houdini was one of the most prominent magicians who added an element of real danger and terror into the aspect of performance; indeed, the tricks he attempted were not only difficult and mystifying but also potentially deadly.
By doing this, Houdini was an early proponent of the “car crash” style of theater and entertainment that is still so evident today – where it’s more about the drama and the potential for disaster than it is about the content of the work itself – and also set the stage for modern extreme escapologists like Criss Angel and David Blaine.
Of course, there really wasn’t any true magic in what Houdini did; for instance, when he would be handcuffed and thrown into a river, only to miraculously escape his restraints and resurface soon after, it wasn’t because he had a magical ability to escape restraints or even because he was utilizing trick handcuffs with a release lever or sorts.
Instead, Houdini was able to easily escape the handcuffs because he was a lifelong aficionado of picking locks. This way, he could make the trick look completely legitimate – like you will sometimes see magicians asking random audience members to “test” a restraint or similar device to prove authenticity (although, sometimes, that person who is asked to test a restraint is in on the act) – but then be able to easily escape.
As with many other magic tricks, escapology relies on misdirection and deception, but also on misinformation, as in the case of Houdini being an expert lock-picker.
Tutorial #4: Escape Magic Tricks
Card Tricks: Misdirection & Sleight of Hand Once Again
The last major category I will go over today is one of the most common and popular forms of magic tricks: the card trick.
There are many variations and types of card tricks, but most of them rely on the common techniques of misdirection and sleight of hand,
A famous example: the magician who asks the audience member to sign a card that will then be ripped up, only to magically be restored like nothing happened.
It may seem like the card has been “magically” restored, but the secret is simply: with a little misdirection and slight of hand, the magicians takes an identical card out of his pocket/sleeve and quickly swaps it for the signed card.
Then, the replacement card is ripped up (and the signed on is folder to mirror the ripped one), so it can later appear that the signed card was “magically” put back together.
But it’s all about making sure the audience members’ attention is diverted elsewhere while the cards are swapped.
Of course, the most famous version of the card trick is the “pick a card, any card” trick, where the mark picks a card from the deck, puts it back it in, and the magician is able to guess the card. The easiest way to do this is to split the deck and – without drawing attention to yourself – memorize, say, the bottom card of the top half (in the link provided it gives the example of the two of hearts).
Then, have the mark put the card where you split the deck and “shuffle” the deck carefully (so you don’t lose your place with the two of hearts). That way, you can tell which card the person picked since it will be underneath the two of hearts!
There are of course other ways to do this trick – too many to name right here and right now – but the key to doing any kind of card trick is to do something that will help you know where your card is or, say, replace a card you need to rip up by misdirecting the mark’s attention to another area (another part of the trick, something else going on…in the case of some magicians, a scantily clad assistant will do just fine) while the magician does whatever it is necessary – i.e. sneaking a look at the two of hearts in the middle of the pile – to ensure the trick’s success.
Tutorial #5: 10 Best card tricks
TIP: If you’d like to learn magic tricks, don’t forget to check the following lists:
There are many different types of magic tricks, and while I can (and will!) go into depth on some of them at a later time, I wanted to go over this introductory article on the different types of magic tricks, as well as a brief foray into the history of magicians and the craft.
Look forward to seeing you next time! There’s so much more to see (or not see, perhaps?) and do in the world of magic!