The good news for people interested in simple card magic is that there are some fantastic card tricks that rely on methods that are basically self-working. Self-working card tricks are often and unfairly considered somewhat condescendingly. But because strong magic is all about being entertaining, a clever self-worker that relies on a good method and is combined with a good presentation, can be among the most baffling card trick that there is.
In this article I'm going to introduce you to some of the world's very best self-working card tricks. Self-workers like these really have the potential to knock the socks off your spectators, and when well presented, you can really amaze with this material. These tricks are wonderful examples, and if you're not familiar with them, you really owe it to yourself to spend some time with them, even if it's just to watch some good performances of them! Whether you are relatively new to card magic, or a seasoned veteran, you're almost certain to find something you'd like in this list, because these tricks can produce a strong effect that makes them appealing even to old-timers.
Here are my choices for 10 of the very best self-working card tricks in the world, ever. None of these tricks require gaffed or gimmicked cards, but can be performed with a regular deck of playing cards.
● Out of This World (Paul Curry)The effect: You start dealing cards from the deck one at a time, and your spectator has to indicate whether he thinks each card is either red or black. After proceeding through the entire deck in this way, the cards are turned over, and it is revealed that your spectator has identified every single one correctly, and that the entire deck has been perfectly separated into red and black!
What's good about it: This is a powerful, powerful trick! After all, it seems completely impossible, and impossibility is what makes magic so strong. It would be amazing to just sort even a few red and black cards correctly, but to sort through the entire deck in this way is truly a miracle. Another key to the beauty of this trick is that the spectator is the one doing all the decision making, and virtually all the handling. Not only does it make the spectator appear like a hero, but the hero himself will be completely baffled about how he even accomplished it.
Background: Paul Curry invented "Out of This World" in 1942, and many people don't just consider it the best self-working card trick, but the very best card trick in the world, period! A story involving Winston Churchill has led to it being dubbed "The Trick That Fooled Churchill". Apparently a magician performed it at a dinner party, and Churchill requested it be performed up to a dozen times, while remaining completely perplexed about how it was possible. There are many versions of this popular classic, and two of the best are both by Harry Lorayne: Impromptu "Out Of This World" (which can begin with a borrowed, shuffled deck), and "Out of This Universe".
Watch Harry Lorayne perform "Out of This Universe": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FfA4IyHiz8
● Gemini Twins (Karl Fulves)The effect: From a deck first shuffled by the spectator, you remove two cards as your prediction. The spectator then starts dealing and stops whenever he wants, with the spot marked with one of the face-up prediction cards. This process is repeated with the second face-up prediction card. The deck is spread, and when the two cards besides the face-up prediction card are revealed, they are "twins" (the same color and value) that match the prediction cards exactly!
What's good about it: Despite the simplicity of the method, this effect is incredibly impressive. What makes it strong is that the spectator genuinely shuffles the deck, and can genuinely stop at any point that they want. And to prove that it's not a fluke, it happens twice, and yet you end up with not just one but two matches. The plot has great opportunities for presenting it well, and will generate good reactions.
Background: This little gem was popularized after it appeared in one of the Self-Working Card Magic books by Karl Fulves, which also contain some other terrific card tricks. Some great variations of the basic routine exist, including John Bannon's "Collusion" and "Four Sided Gemini", and Lennart Green's "Stolen Cards" (which requires a special deck). The basic routine is extremely simple to perform, and ideal for beginners.
Watch Darren Wray perform "Four Sided Gemini": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_Tc90iTYiM
Also see Lennart Green perform his great "Stolen Cards" routine with a custom deck here.
● Con Cam Coincidencia (R. Paul Wilson)The effect: A spectator shuffles the deck and remembers a card which is shuffled into the deck. Then you divide the deck into four approximately equal piles, with three spectators taking one each. Each of you then deals and shuffles your pile of cards thoroughly, and discards a random number of cards from it. Amazingly, the originally selected card ends up at the top of the initial spectator's pile! And as a kicker, its mates are revealed to be at the top of the other piles!
What's good about it: You can start with a borrowed shuffled deck, which takes all the heat off the cards from the outset. The fact that you can involve three different participants makes it all the more engaging, and also helps make the spectacular ending seem more impossible. Given all the steps it involved, there's also no way that any of the spectators can de-construct or reverse-engineer the method, especially given the apparently free handling. A good presentation which emphasizes the odds really helps highlight the impossibility. There's no doubt that this trick really packs a punch, and is a real reputation maker.
Background: This trick is also called "C3", and it is highly regarded. Some magicians consider it right up there with "Out Of This World". It was good enough for Shin Lim to perform in the season finale where he was announced as the winner of America's Got Talent, and he subsequently performed it on the Ellen show as well.
Watch Shin Lim perform "Con Cam Coincidencia" on Ellen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dz-W7z78RFY
● Shuffle-Bored (Simon Aronson)The effect: You and a spectator each take half of the deck, which you shuffle and randomize, by taking packets of cards off, flipping them over, and shuffling. This process which is repeated more than once after trading halves each time. The result is a well mixed deck of random face-up and face-down cards, which the spectator can again shuffle. Yet when you produce a prediction, it turns out that you have predicted the exact state of the deck, e.g. how many cards are face-down, how many of those are red cards, and how many will be of a certain suit! And as a final twist, your prediction includes the fact that you knew a particular card would be an exception from the above!
What's good about it: This is a mind-blowing trick that gets huge reactions. Even if your spectators are staring at your hands the whole way through, there simply are no secret moves for them to notice, because everything is open. The extended series of shuffles makes the outcome seem thoroughly impossible, especially because it involves the spectator doing the shuffling, and using both halves of the deck. Despite being simple in method, this trick has proven itself to be incredibly strong and baffling, and it's very hard to top.
Background: Simon Aronson created "Shuffle-Bored", but there are several other excellent variations of it with slightly different presentations that are also well-worth looking at, namely "Pre-Deck-Ability" (Aldo Columbini) and "Rain Main" (Lennart Green).
Watch Simon Aronson perform "Shuffled-Bored": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rL2QaTqU5BA
You can also watch a performance of "Shuffled-Bored" by Martin Eisele here. Also check out Aldo Colombini performing the related "Pre-Deck-Ability" here, and Lennart Green performing his incredible "Rain Man" here.
● Overkill (Paul Harris)The effect: Your spectator removes a small packet of cards and secretly counts how many cards they have. From a row of cards on the table, they remember the card in the position corresponding to their number. Not only can you identify the card, but it turns out to be the only card in the deck with a different coloured back, and was even predicted on the card box! As an extra twist, the card originally cut to turns out to match the selected one!
What's good about it: The beauty of this trick is how it has several phases of revelation. It's already an impressive feat to identify the thought of card, but it becomes all the more astonishing with the three demonstrations that follow: the different coloured card back, the prediction on the card back, and perhaps most amazing of all, the matching card. The trick builds to an impressive climax, with each of these progressive kickers becoming increasingly stronger.
Background: This trick was popularized by Paul Harris in Art of Astonishment, with credits to magicians like Ackerman, Emberg, and Marlo. Technically the method is similar to the classic self-working Clock Trick, which dates back a long way.
Watch Paul Harris perform "Overkill" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOTkimjyP8k
You can also see Michael Ammar perform this trick here.
● Devastation (Geoff Williams)The effect: After your spectator shuffles the deck, he makes several piles of cards, choosing one such packet, then remembers one card and the number of its position in that packet. The piles are placed together in any order by the spectator, and cut multiple times - all of which can be done without you even looking. Yet when dealing to the spectator's number, there is the very card they have been thinking of!
What's good about it: What makes this trick so strong is that under apparently impossible conditions, it reveals a card that was merely thought of. The deck is in the spectator's hands virtually the entire time, and they do all the shuffling and make all the choices. Yet it's super easy to do, and it's really the presentation that can fry people. It can also be done completely impromptu with a borrowed and shuffled deck, making it great for any situation.
Background: Geoff Williams popularized this impossible card location trick, but the principle and method was not new, and goes back to Tom Daugherty. You'll also find a simpler version under the name "Three Piles Trick" in the classic Royal Road to Card Magic. Sal Piacente also has a wonderful presentation of the routine called "4,5,6 Packet Trick".
Watch amateur Jord Raine perform "4,5,6 Packet Trick": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xmoa0zcz3PA
● Play It Straight Triumph (John Bannon)The effect: The spectator selects a random card, and then you divide the deck into four piles which you shuffle into each other face up and face down, to create an apparently random and jumbled mess. When the spectator names the suit of their card, you reveal that all the cards in the deck are face down except the cards of that suit! That is, all except a single card - their chosen card!
What's good about it: While this trick requires somewhat of a set-up, the result is something that feels genuinely magical and powerful, especially when you add some humour to the presentation. It's known as a real fooler with a big impact, and has a visual element and built-in presentational element that really helps. The impact far outweighs the relatively little effort required to learn and perform it, which allows you to put all your energy into the presentation.
Background: John Bannon is known for his clever sleight-free tricks, and this is one of his earlier and most popular ones. He has since re-branded it as "The Bannon Triumph". Many Triumph effects (where cards from an apparently mixed up deck turn over) exist in card magic, but many magicians consider this as their favourite one, especially given how easy it is to perform.
Watch John Bannon perform "The Bannon Triumph": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mo1TymKCAJM
You can also see a performance of "The Bannon Triumph" by magician Michael Ammar here.
● Untouched (Daryl)The effect: You won't even touch the cards in this trick! After the spectator shuffles the deck, you name a card, and get the spectator to to remove that card from the deck - you can't touch the cards, remember! Now the spectator deals cards into a pile, taking cards from wherever in the deck they want, and stopping whenever they want. They then deal this into two piles. Incredibly, the top cards of these piles correspond to the card removed from the deck at the start, one revealing the value and the other revealing the suit!
What's good about it: The procedure here is very deceptive, and really helps disguise the method. When well-presented, every aspect of the routine is justified. The fact that the spectator shuffles the deck at the outset, and that all the magic happens in his hands without you ever touching it, makes it very baffling. And of course you can do this completely impromptu, with any borrowed deck.
Background: There are also fun ways to present this as being about a card that you dreamed of, and that you dreamed that the spectator would tell you the value and suit of your dream card, which of course comes true. This "Dream a Card, Any Card" presentation can be found in David Pogue's Magic for Dummies.
Watch Michael Ammar perform "Untouched": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yBckbi2_gJs&t=2m38s (starts at 2:38)
● Emotional Reaction (Dai Vernon)The effect: Your spectator shuffles the deck, and secretly takes out a card that he freely choose, and then hold it to his heart. The chosen card is buried into the middle of the deck, and from then on he merely think of his selected card. With the cards spread face up, your spectator then holds your wrist, and based on their emotional responses, you can identify which is their chosen card.
What's good about it: This method used here is simple, but because it is presented in such a fresh and novel way, not only does the method go undetected, but it also makes for a very entertaining trick. It really is all about the presentation, which both sells the trick and entertains at the same time. As the name suggests, it can create a strong emotional reaction that will be remembered even months later.
Background: Despite its simplicity, this routine has even fooled an entire room of magicians. This trick goes back to famous Canadian magician Dai Vernon, and if presented well, can be very powerful. Roberto Giobbi does a good job of teaching it as part of his "Favorites" collection.
Watch amateur TheMagic15 perform "Emotional Reaction": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuWiRKTO9kI&t=15s
● Lazy Man's Card Trick (Koran/Lorayne)The effect: This trick has its name because the spectator does all the work. They freely select any card from the deck, which they remember, and return to the deck, and cut the deck multiple times. Then you tell them exactly how deep in the deck their chosen card is! You count down to that number, and sure enough, there it is.
What's good about it: This trick produces reactions of amazement, since you don't touch the deck at all after giving it to the spectator. This makes it all the more baffling to the audience, because they have been making all the decisions and doing all the handling. They freely select a card of their choice, they cut it numerous times. And yet despite it being completely out of your control, you can tell exactly how far into the deck their card is. When presented well, it can be a real killer, despite how easy it actually is.
Background: This trick is variously attributed, with both Al Koran and Harry Lorayne being credited at different times and in different sources, although Jack Miller's "The Travelling Card" is likely the original source. This trick has even been performed on TV by magicians.
Watch Michael Ammar perform "Lazy Man's Card Trick": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OEzD0ypWuok
Final ThoughtsSelf-working card magic isn't the ugly step-child of card magic that some think it to be. In the right circumstances it can be as beautiful and amazing as Cinderella at a ball, and the tricks above are superb examples of the excellence that a good self-working card trick can achieve. These are good enough to be used by professional magicians, and many of them are indeed performed by working pros.
If you're expecting to read all the secrets to these magic tricks in this article, I'm sorry to disappoint you. That would be considered "exposure", and is frowned upon in magic. But I don't want to discourage anyone who genuinely wants to learn them either. If you're serious enough about putting some effort into learning these tricks, then you won't mind putting in some effort to track them down.
Fortunately self-working card tricks like these are classics of magic, so the dedicated beginner won't have to look that hard to find books that will teach them. Roberto Giobbi's Card College Light trilogy is a great place to start. If you prefer video instruction, then start by checking out the Ultimate Self-Working Card Tricks series of DVDs from Big Blind Media. Their videos include many of the above routines, along with other strong material, and have very high production values.
So do yourself a favour, and check out some of these time-tested gems of card magic, and amaze your family and friends!
Where to get started? Here are my top recommendations for the best instructional materials to teach you the best self-working card tricks:
● Books: Roberto Giobbi's Card College Light series
● Videos: Big Blind Media's Ultimate Self-Working Card Tricks series
About the writer: 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.