[Repost] How Playing Card Improvements Have Helped Card Magic 1

This article is excerpted from the article originally published on PlayingCardDecks by EndersGame.

The Relationship Between Playing Cards And Card Magic

Playing cards and card magic have always enjoyed a close relationship. The original spread of playing cards was largely due to the popularity of card games. And the rise of card games was closely accompanied by the two ugly step-sisters of gambling and cheating. But there was also a Cinderella to be found close nearby: card magic.

Magicians employed similar techniques as card cheats, but instead of using them to swindle others, put these methods in the service of entertainment. As a result, the history of playing cards is closely linked to the history of card magic.

But how exactly have improvements in playing cards helped card magic? It seems obvious that as playing cards evolved, the tools that magicians had at their service became increasingly refined. And that made some techniques in sleight of hand easier, while opening the door for other techniques that were previously impossible.

Wouldn’t it be an interesting exercise to track the history of playing cards alongside the history of card magic, and see how significant developments in one have impacted the other?

Exactly this question has occupied the attention and interest of playing card expert and magician Lee Asher. And in July 2022 he delivered a lecture on the subject to FISM, which is basically the Olympics of magic, and attracts some of the best minds in magic to perform and learn.

In connection with his lecture, he also published a useful resource on the subject, a book entitled “Lee Asher’s Card Magic & Playing Card History Timeline”, which further explores this topic by identifying key points of development in each area on a single timeline.

The Relationship Between Playing Cards And Card Magic

Lee Asher is the perfect person to take on an important and fascinating subject like this. Because his credentials make it obvious that he has a foot in both disciplines, with expertise in both playing cards and in card magic.

His roots lie in card magic, and as a second generation sleight of hand artist, he began performing magic professionally already in his teens. He’s travelled the world, performing and lecturing on his brand of sleight of hand magic. Even today, he continues to serve as a magic consultant.

But Lee is unlike any other magician, because he is also the President of 52 Plus Joker, the world’s largest club for playing card collectors. He’s served in that capacity since 2016, and is well qualified for this role, as one of the world’s leading experts on the subject of playing cards.

In fact, at 52 Plus Joker’s most recent annual Convention, Lee was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Dawson Award, which is only awarded occasionally, and given in recognition of monumental contributions to the club. The fact that he was already deemed worthy of this prestigious award, says volumes about the size and scope of what he has contributed to playing card creators, consumers, and collectors.

Lee’s expertise on playing cards is frequently sought, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone else on the planet more passionate about playing cards, where this passion is matched by a careful scholarly approach and deep knowledge on the subject, all within the body of a person who is a warm and friendly human being.

Lee’s lecture focuses on the topic of how playing card advancements over the last few centuries have influenced the development of card magic, and I’m indebted to his insights for most of the material that follows.

If magic has benefited from improvements in playing cards, by refining the tools of its trade, in what ways exactly was this the case? Join me in benefiting from Lee Asher’s research and insights, as I share some of the key takeaways I learned from Lee on this topic.

Lee Asher

The Impact Of Playing Card Quality Innovations

To begin with, playing cards today have many different physical qualities than those of yesteryear, because they have evolved over time. Lee observes how playing cards have come a long way, pointing out how early playing cards were made of rough paper, had square corners that war quickly, and were of uneven sizes.

It’s not hard to imagine that these qualities made it more difficult to perform sleight of hand smoothly. Playing cards were typically handmade, either entirely or in part, making them very expensive, and so as a magician you couldn’t afford to quickly replace them, but had to use them even when well-worn.

Along the way, Lee shows us examples of old cards that have stood the test of time, and asks us to imagine: How would magicians of the past have used these? There is documented evidence that many popular techniques of sleight of hand were used already centuries ago, such as the Double Lift and the Glide.

Suppose you were using the playing cards from that time, with their lack of durability and inconsistent handling, to perform sleight of hand card magic today. Imagine how much more difficult it would be to do the card magic that you do presently!

The Impact Of Playing Card Quality Innovations

The Industrial Revolution was a major catalyst for change in the quality of playing cards, and as printing technology progressed, playing cards became more affordable and more consistent. Especially in the late 1800s and 1900s, there were landmark developments that contributed to this development.

Examples that Lee points out include the invention of machines that automated the paper making process, punched cards instead of cutting them, and techniques that enabled production of playing cards with rounded corners, textured embossing patterns (finishes like Cambric and Linoid, both named after the types of cloth patterns they sought to emulate), and glazed coatings.

Lee’s thesis is that over time there is a basic trend where playing cards become more consistent, making them easier to perform with, and this leads to innovations in card magic. He makes a convincing case, giving numerous examples that support it. For example, mid-19th century magician Hofzinser placed great importance on the quality of playing cards, and their improved quality facilitated the development of sleights that he popularized, such as the cull.

The late 1800s saw a real increase of card manipulation and flourishing as part of magic performances (e.g. card-throwing, springs, and fans), and this simply wouldn’t have happened without the higher quality playing cards that these feats of skill require. The ability to more easily produce gaff cards was also game-changing, because it opened up the door to many popular packet tricks and other aspects of card magic that many of us love today.

Let’s continue in the next article.


Info Box

 EndersGame is a well-known and respected reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, cardistry, and card collecting, and has reviewed several hundred boardgames and hundreds of different decks of playing cards. You can see a complete list of his game reviews here, and his playing card reviews here. He is considered an authority on playing cards and has written extensively about their design, history, and function, and has many contacts within the playing card and board game industries. You can view his previous articles about playing cards here. In his spare time, he also volunteers with local youth to teach them the art of cardistry and card magic.