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.
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 a 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.
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 wore 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 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 (eg 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.
The impact of other playing card developments
There were also artistic and other trends that led to innovations in playing cards besides innovations in machinery. Corner indices were practically unknown before the end of the 19th century, and could you imagine doing card magic today without them? To that we could also add things like two-way courts, and the addition of Jokers to the deck.
Another significant development that Lee highlights is an economic one. At the end of the 1800s, card manufacturer Russell Morgan bought out all their competition and eventually became USPCC. In 1899 they built their Norwood factory in Cincinnati Ohio, which they would then use for over a century. As an industry giant at the time, USPCC could afford to equip their new factory with all the latest technology, and playing cards were mass produced in a quality and volume like never before.
This in turn helped produce a renaissance in card magic, because these new and improved playing cards placed into the hands of magicians the very tools they needed for to innovate and be creative. Lee points out that the 20th century produced most of the top card handlers who have collectively influenced and made card magic what it is today. Big names such as Erdnase, Thurston, Vernon, Marlo, Scarne, Annemann, and many others all benefited from improved playing cards.
A couple of other separate developments are also worth observing, both of which were responsible not so much for improved techniques in card magic, but rather for increasing the number of people doing card magic. DeLand's marked deck had been marketed towards laypeople already at the turn of the 20th century. But with the arrival of television came increased opportunities for advertisers to bring products to the mass market, and this was especially responsible for the sales of millions of Svengali decks, which were advertised as "TV Magic Cards". As Lee rightly points out, the arrival of these decks into countless homes must have inspired many to begin their journey into card magic.
The second example Lee mentions is the rise of the custom playing card industry. He traces this back to the popular Black Tiger deck that first appeared in 2004, and was used by Ellusionist's Brad Christian to help make card magic appealing to a whole new generation. This was also a big catalyst that helped grow the custom playing card market, and by putting a wide range of novel playing cards into the hands of people around the world, has attracted even more newcomers to card magic. In my view, the rise of the internet videos and of social media has helped accelerate this trend. As playing cards flourish, so does card magic, and the internet has unquestionably helped breed a whole new generation of card magicians, many who began their journey into magic with a deck of high quality playing cards already in their hand.
What does the future hold?
Some of the final items on Lee's timeline are worth sharing, as we consider what the future of playing cards holds, and speculate what this might mean for card magic. In 2019 Cartamundi bought out USPCC, giving Cartamundi global dominance of the playing card industry as a manufacturer. To be fair, improved technology has also seen the rise of growing competition in the form of smaller players that are also able to produce high quality playing cards, such as LPCC and EPCC, but Cartamundi / USPCC is the undisputed giant in this sector.
Cartamundi has openly stated that one of the driving forces for their acquisition of USPCC was because they see a huge growth potential in the playing card market, particularly as a result of the increased popularity of card magic today, and the rise of cardistry as a relatively new discipline. In the past the innovation in playing cards was largely dictated by trying to improve the playing experience for card gamers, and card magic was mostly a beneficiary of whatever changes this produced. But today it seems that the direction is being reversed, as innovations in cardistry and card magic, along with their unique needs and demands, are what is helping drive the direction of playing cards and their development.
The final entry on Lee's timeline notes how USPCC has ventured into the digital world, by producing Bicycle NFTs in 2021. Despite the reservations some may have about this, the truth is that most of us have been comfortable using digital cards by playing Solitaire on our PCs for decades already. But it remains an open question how card magic will make use of digital developments in the future. As playing cards continue to evolve, they will inevitably continue to have an impact on card magic, and how magicians will make use of these possibilities in innovative and creative ways is unknown. But what is certain is this: card magic owes a significant debt to advancements in playing cards, and there is good reason to expect that to continue.
The video lecture
Want to learn more? You really need to hear what Lee Asher himself has to say about this topic, and listen to his FISM lecture for yourself. And you don't have to be one of those people that likes to dabble in both playing cards and in card magic in order to enjoy and benefit from his presentation. Even if your interest is just in one of those disciplines, it is fascinating to learn how they developed alongside each other, and how improvements in one helped the other evolve.
The good news is that digital access to a video of the lecture is included when you buy the timeline book. Right now it's priced around $30 over on Lee Asher's website, and for that amount you get both the book, entitled Lee Asher's Card Magic & Playing Card History Timeline, as well as the video.
The video runs for about 45 minutes, and is filmed in high quality, with good editing and clear sound. Most of it features Lee Asher himself presenting, but along the way he shows us slides of various historical cards and other details that illustrate the points he makes. If you've ever heard Lee speak before, you'll know that you can expect something that is articulate, passionate, carefully researched, well presented, and interesting, and this is no exception. I loved every minute of his talk, and for me this is the real value here.
The accompanying book
The book was somewhat smaller in size than I expected, with dimensions of 8.25 inches high and 5.25 inches wide. It's a relatively slim volume, and consists of 104 pages. But it is packed with information, and the high quality glossy presentation includes numerous colour photographs of playing cards and decks featured in the timeline.
The timeline begins with mention of the roots of Tarot in connection with the Egyptian deity Thoth, and the origin of playing cards in China. Items are arranged in order by date, with the year listed in large bold printed, followed by a statement about a notable development in either the world of playing cards or in card magic. These are presented in a very objective and factual way, with a brief summary of what the development was, often presented either as a direct quote from an appropriate source. In each case the source is referenced directly beneath the overview of the item, and is typically a book or periodical article along with the relevant page number or chapter, or a link to a website.
As good as the video lecture and book are, I have two minor criticisms about the book. Firstly, most of the quotations and information are presented without comment or analysis. But it seems to me that not all of them are equally reliable, a prime example being the first item on the timeline, which quotes a book from 1912 that seems to make too positive a connection (in my view, anyway) between the origin of the Tarot and ancient Egypt. Secondly, the book only has a brief introduction to set the stage for the timeline, and one really needs to first watch the video lecture in order to appreciate the content. I would love to see a future edition of this book where Lee expands on this introductory content, by providing more of his own commentary and analysis on the items included on the timeline, as well as an introductory or concluding essay that summarizes the key points of his lecture.
The above mentioned nitpicks aside, this book is a terrific contribution to the history of playing cards and of magic, precisely because it documents so many key points, along with references to source material where more can be learned. Lots of people love playing cards, and lots of people love card magic. But we also need dedicated researchers to take the time to document their history, and that's exactly what Lee has achieved with his book.
It should be obvious by now that Lee Asher has produced a wonderful contribution that can be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in playing cards or in card magic. Best enjoyed together, the video lecture and the book will help you be more informed about playing cards, and help you appreciate how big an impact they have had on card magic.
Hopefully this article has whet your appetite to learn more. And at the very least, it should make you love playing cards all the more, and realize how important their evolution has been for the history of card magic.
Where to learn more?
● Lee Asher's "Card Magic & Playing Card History Timeline" book and lecture video
● Lee Asher's articles on magic and playing cards
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.
Last update date: 12/15/22