Marked Decks for Magicians, Part 1
by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame
FunctionAlmost everybody who knows something about playing cards will be familiar with the term marked deck, because a growing number of custom decks on today's playing cards market are advertised as being "marked". What this means is that a deck has secret marks on the card backs, and by looking at these marks you'll be able to determine the value and suit of any given card.
In marked decks with reader systems, the value and suit of the card is simply written on the card back somewhere in a well-disguised place. For example, a 7H would indicate the 7 of Hearts. In marked decks with coded systems, the marks use a code that you have to decipher in order to figure out the card. For example, a dot on the bottom of a clock-face shape might indicate a 6. In both cases, you can often identify that a deck is marked by "taking it to the movies". This involves riffling through the entire deck rapidly with your thumb, and observing closely to see if any of the images or patterns on the card backs change while doing so.
A more specialized type of marked deck that I won't cover further in this article is called a "juice deck". This relies on shade technology, and is the result of printing with lighter/darker ink. More commonly it is used by card cheats who mark certain cards of an existing deck by adding "juice" in certain places. These markings often require low lighting conditions to be read, can best be seen from a distance, and sometimes require special glasses to see them. There are even ways to make your own "juice", and create your own markings. But these kinds of marked decks tend to have more application for gamblers rather than magicians, so they are beyond the scope of this article, which is focused on the uses of marked decks for card magic.
So what is the purpose of a marked deck? They certainly shouldn't be used to take advantage of your family and friends in a card game. That's plain cheating, and it's immoral. Even if you get away with dishonesty in the short term, it will more than likely bite you in the long run. In many instances of modern custom decks, the markings are more of a novelty than anything else, and they are simply added as a secret feature to a customized deck that is mostly geared towards collectors. Such marked custom decks aren't intended to be used by magicians, because their marking systems typically aren't very practical.
But while a lot of marked decks have been produced simply with novelty in mind, there are also many that have serious applications for card magic. The real value of a good marked deck comes when it is in the hands of a skilled magician. So why would a magician want to use one? Let's learn something about why magicians use marked decks, and consider some of their strengths and limitations for card magic.
HistoryFor this section on history I'm largely indebted to the excellent information shared by Kevin Reylek in his excellent lecture "History of Marked Cards" which he presented to the 52 Plus Joker Convention in October 2020. He demonstrates that marked cards appear to be in usage as long as playing cards have existed. Besides their obvious use for card games, playing cards also have a long history of use for serious gambling and for card magic. Both of these uses provide a practical application for using marked cards, either being a card cheat involves a very different set of ethics than being an entertainer.
One of the biggest names in the world of marked cards is that of Theodore DeLand (1873-1931). The techniques he used in marked cards, particularly his Dollar Deck from 1913 are still used today. This ground-breaking deck is also known under the names Automatic Deck, Deland Deck, and 100 Dollar Deck. It employed a coded system using markings embodied in a clock face. It was also a stripper deck, and included extra firepower by incorporating a stack. With over 200 marks per card, it didn't just give you the ability to identify a particular card, but also to determine where a card was located in the pre-arranged stack, and the identity of other cards in the deck. DeLand's Wonder Deck is another deck of historical importance, and appears to have been the pioneer for the kind of edge marking systems that have been popularized in recent years by Ondrej Psenicka's Butterfly Playing Cards and others.
Kevin Reylek points out that the term "reader decks" was historically a term that referred to any marked deck, even though originally all such decks relied on coded systems. That's why he personally prefers the term "openly readable decks" to refer to modern decks which plainly state the value and suit on the card backs with numbers and letters instead of coded markings. While the first factory-produced cards with coded systems go back to the 1830s, modern reader systems appear to date back only to the early 20th century, with the work of men like Al Baker and T. Page Wright.
Ted Lesley's influential book The Working Performer's Marked Deck (1983) led to the using transfer letters on the backs of Rider Back decks and sparked further innovation in this area. The Boris Wild Deck (2005) really represents the first factory-produced marked Bicycle deck of this type. Since then numerous decks have been printed with markings actually printed on the card backs, and today we are blessed to have several factory-produced decks that use reader systems somewhat similar to what Ted Lesley popularized with his transfers.
StrengthsMarked decks originate in the world of gambling, and so purists might be reluctant to use them, and almost consider them a form of cheating. But that would be missing the opportunity to use a powerful tool. All card magic already involves deception. A marked deck is really just another useful tool, much like any gaff or gimmick. And while it's certainly good to master skills with a regular deck, sometimes using a gaff can make a method much easier and the effect more impossible. The same is true of a marked deck.
The advantage of using a marked deck seems self-evident: you can discern the exact identity of any face-down card, even though you can only see the back of the card. This is very powerful information that you can use to your advantage, especially because your spectator typically will have no idea that you're able to do this. But how?
1. It lets you use the markings as a part of the method. A marked deck enables you to do card tricks that simply aren't possible with a regular deck. Ted Lesley's "The Spectator as Mindreader" trick (here's a video clip of a performance) is a fine example of what you can do with this information, and when performed well it can be mind-blowing. Many of the factory printed marked Bicycle decks that I'll be recommending in a future article come with companion booklets or with tutorial videos that will teach brilliant routines that you can perform with a marked deck. And if you combined a marked deck with extra information like a stack, you are now armed with a genuine super weapon, and you're really set for miracles.
2. It makes other methods more deceptive. Marked decks are often best used in tandem with other magic techniques. For example, combining a marked deck with the one-ahead principle serves to disguise that method all the more. Or you might use the markings in combination with the key card principle. Reading a face-down card on top of a shuffled deck lets you use it as your key card without you ever needing to see its face. In that way a marked deck will do a great job of covering up other aspects of your method, and will make your card magic much more deceptive and baffling. On their own, both the key card method and a marked deck, can be figured out by an alert spectator. You can ramp up the amazement level in some tricks by letting the spectator shuffle the deck immediately after making their selection, because you already know the card. Or you can use the markings to deliberately miscall a card while actually learning its identity. There are so many ways you can use a marked deck to cover other methods, thus making your actual method truly impossible to reverse engineer.
3. It gives you a safety net if something goes wrong. Having a marked deck in play also gives you a greater "out" if ever something goes wrong with your routine. If you do mess up or forget something for whatever reason, the marked deck gives you a safety net so that you can adjust on the fly, because you'll know you're in trouble before the spectator does, and you can make adjustments before you even turn a "wrong" card face up. You can also take more chances with forces and other risky moves that you might normally avoid, because you have the safety net of your marked deck built in.
4. It opens the door to opportunities you otherwise wouldn't have. Finally, a marked deck gives you opportunities that you wouldn't normally have, by giving you more flexibility and potential. Suppose that after a spectator shuffles his selection into the deck, after the deck is on the table you could recognize that his card is the top card in the deck? Or what if you have your spectator cut a shuffled deck several times, and he happens to hit his selection? With a marked deck you can immediately go into a trick that takes advantage of that, producing an effect that will be truly impossible. This opens up possibilities that simply aren't aren't available to you with a regular deck, and you can take your chances so that happy coincidences will happen.
For these reasons, some magicians even prefer to do all their card magic with a good marked deck. Magician Boris Wild says that only about 20% of the material he performs requires a marked deck, but he uses a marked deck all the time anyway. For one thing, this helps you get familiar with reading the markings on a regular basis, so that you're well prepared for the times where you are relying on them.
But more importantly, you can use a marked deck to your advantage by making existing tricks even stronger. For example, once a card has been selected and returned to the pack, you no longer need to control it in the usual manner, because you have the information you need to find it anywhere, and can reveal it in your preferred manner. Assuming the marks avoid the extremes of being too obvious or being too hard to read, you can simply perform all your regular card magic using a marked deck, because it gives you that extra insurance, and also opens up additional and strong possibilities that otherwise wouldn't be available to you.
LimitationsSo in light of the above, why don't all magicians use marked decks all the time? Well obviously the vast majority of playing cards aren't marked, and an unmarked deck is the tool that most people will learn card magic with. What's more, it's important to be aware that marked decks do have some limitations. These aren't reasons not to use them, but it's good to be aware of their limitations, and consider some of the counter-points to each.
1. A marked deck won't produce miracles on its own. You can have the best marked deck in the world, but to wow people, you still need a well constructed trick, good technique, and a good presentation. All magic requires smooth handling and technique, and a good card trick has to be constructed in a way that makes it seem impossible. Most important of all, it has to be presented in a way that makes it seem entertaining. Tricks with a marked deck are no different. Simply telling your spectator what the name of his chosen card is by openly studying the card back will rarely fool someone. And even if it does, it won't be very interesting or entertaining. The best magic will combine a marked deck with other techniques, and incorporate it as part of a larger whole to create something truly baffling and entertaining, and where it won't even cross the spectator's mind that a marked deck has been used. So it would be a mistake to think that having a marked deck automatically turns you into a superman magician.
2. A marked deck isn't needed for most card tricks. In reality the vast majority of card tricks don't use a marked deck, or for that matter any kind of trick deck or gimmicked cards. Most card magic can be done with practically any deck of playing cards, and will be the result of technical skill and sleight of hand, combined with good presentation and showmanship. There are certainly times when a marked deck will be exactly the right tool for the job, and will enable you to produce a miracle that you simply couldn't perform with an ordinary deck of playing cards. And a good marked deck certainly does give you a welcome super-power that you can put to good use. But you do need the right setting and the right trick to take advantage of this.
3. A marked deck can be hard to read. To do strong card magic with a good marked deck, you also need the right deck and the right setting. It's not hard to imagine situations where the lighting is low, and where it's hard to make out the markings. Your distance from the cards will also be a factor, and not every setting will be ideal for performing with a marked deck. What's more, some marked decks are simply hard to read, because the printing is too small and hard to make out, or the marking system used requires too much mental brainpower to decode while you're multi-tasking and performing. And of course there are many decks that might be beloved by magicians that simply aren't available in a marked version.
4. A marked deck comes with the risk of getting caught. This can seem to be a bigger problem than it really is, and often has to do with how you're using your marked deck. The worst thing you can do with a marked deck is stare obviously at the card back to figure out the markings, or name the card immediately after reading the marking. You want to be able to sneak a quick glimpse and read the markings very quickly. Ideally you want to do this under the cover of another action that has an obvious motivation entirely disconnected from reading the card back. And you want to separate the moment that you read the marking from the moment that you use that information.
AdviceThe limitations mentioned above aren't discussion-ending arguments against all marked decks. But it's good to be aware of them, and compensate accordingly:
1. Use a marked deck wisely.
These limitations do mean that you have to choose the right methods and moments for reading the markings. For example, you might catch your glimpse of the marks while doing a natural move like giving a card from one spectator to another, or by pointing to the top of the deck while making a point, or by moving the card or deck to a different position on the table. All of these actions give you a legitimate and natural reason to look at the card. And that's what you want, because then you're ensuring that your spectator has no reason to ever suspect the deck. Another good technique is to get your spectator to touch a card in a spread, and you can immediately read it and then turn your head away, implying that you've never even seen the card.
Subtle convincers can also help. By actually turning over a card after a spectator names it, you implicitly convey that you didn't actually know its identity until that point. Miscalling a card slightly can also serve as a convincer that you don't really know its suit and value.
2. Use the right marked deck.
These limitations do mean that you need a good marked deck that will help you do the job properly, and find the right situations to use them. Not every tool will be right for the job, and if you're serious about card magic, you need to know what the best tools in the business are. In my next article, I'll consider some essential characteristics of the ideal marked deck for card magic, and go on to cover some top recommendations.
In reality most spectators won't typically even consider the possibility that a deck is marked, so they won't be looking for markings, unless you give them reason to suspect that it is a marked deck. Magicians are used to knowing what card backs look like, especially of a standard Bicycle deck. But for the average person who isn't into card magic, with a marked Bicycle deck everything will look just like another card deck, and the marks will truly be invisible to them. So don't be afraid to use a good marked deck, and even when the marks look obvious to you, they will genuinely fly under the radar of your spectator if you have the right deck, and if you use it wisely.
Now that you know a thing or two about the value of marked decks for magic, where can you go to get ideas for using them? I don't want to give away all the secrets of magic to those who have no intention of ever performing any card tricks, and who just want to know how things work. So I'll just point you in the general direction, and from there you're on your own. But I know that anybody who is serious about card magic will dig deeper to find the information they need, and will likely already know where to look.
If you're already quite experienced with card magic, the chances are good that you already know the kinds of things that you can do with a marked deck, and are just looking for a good tool to put into your hands. But if you are new to this idea and its potential, you can start with a helpful tutorial by prolific magic creator Jay Sankey. He not only teaches you how to mark any deck, but also offers a good idea for a very simple routine that takes advantage of the markings. A very good trick with a marked deck that is super easy to perform is Ted Lesley's "Spectator as Mind Reader".
If you're after a good book on the subject, and are looking for good tricks that can be performed with marked decks, the best of the breed is arguably Hidden in Plain Sight (2005) by Kirk Charles and Boris Wild, although it's out of print, so you'll be relying on the secondary market. Ted Lesley's Working Performer's Marked Deck Manual (1983) is a classic that offers some good suggestions for routines, and teaches a DIY marking system too. Another older book, Magic With A Marked Deck (1972) by Sam Dalal, is also a classic on the subject of marked decks. A small title worth knowing about is Wayne Dobson's Marked 4 Life: Minor Miracles with Marked Cards (2013), which was later included in his larger compilation book Wayne Dobson 101.
Several marked decks had small companion booklets produced alongside them that contain a selection of routines, and are also available separately. One superb example is the Ultimate Marked Deck Companion Book, which is a 150 page book that was put together in 2010 for Magic Dream's Ultimate Marked Deck. Also recommended is Passport to Marked Cards by Phill Smith, which came out in 2018 at the same time as the DMC Elites V4, another highly regarded marked deck. The Gambler's Marked Deck also comes with a 60 page book, about half of which consists of different tricks, and while not all of which are for marked decks, you will find some good content there. I'll be covering the pros and cons of all of the above-mentioned factory printed marked decks in future articles.
VideosMany marked decks come with instructional videos, which not only teach you how to read the markings, but also teach you a good number of solid routines. In most cases these videos are presented using a specific marked deck, but the routines they teach can be performed with any marked deck. Penguin Magic's Marked Cards is an excellent factory printed reader deck with an innocent looking Bicycle Maiden Back design, and comes with two terrific video tutorial videos with great trick ideas from Jon Armstrong and Rick Lax. Both Andy Nyman's The Code and Luke Jermay's Marksman Deck both come with video tutorials for full routines, although these are more advanced marked decks that incorporate a stack, and provide even more firepower than your typical marked deck.
In some instances a video has been produced to support a particular marked deck, and is available for separate purchase. Examples include the GT Speedreader Instructional DVD, and the excellent Boris Wild Marked Deck Project DVDs, although in the case of the latter, some of the routines will only work for the Boris Wild Deck.
So what are you waiting for? If you enjoy card magic, get yourself a good factory printed marked deck, dive into the resources that comes with it, and start exploring the versatility and power of a marked deck, and go out and amaze!
Where to get them: Penguin Magic's Marked Cards is one of the best value marked decks for card magic given its features and price. See a larger range of marked decks over on PlayingCardDecks.com here.
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known and highly 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.