Gaff cards: Sign of sloth or skill?

September 6th, 2012 | Joe Hadsall | Filed Under General

One of the more interesting debates we hear in card magic is about the use of gaff cards. And usually that debate ends up in the display of an interesting contradiction: Some say the use of gaff cards makes card magic too easy, yet people find them too difficult or complicated to use.

This debate needs some definitions. Brian Parker, one of our Facebook users, pointed out a handy breakdown of two types of gaffs:

  • Unseen: In general, these are cards that aid in misdirection and/or enable easier sleight of hand. This group includes double backers, double facers, cards with differently colored backs, cards with multiple faces, etc., and usually should stay out of spectators’ hands or away from close inspection. (Trick decks would also fall into this category, but that’s a whole other blog post we’ll tackle another day.
  • Seen: In general, these cards are meant to be seen. The revelation of their existence is usually the climax of a trick — they are meant to be handed out. The fact that there is a card with a joker holding a chosen card, or a card printed with an iPhone’s home screen with an “app” that says “Your Card,” packs a surprise that magicians use to compound a routine (Personal aside: My first favorite was the three and a half of clubs. I got so much mileage out of that one.)

(Obviously, those classifications depend on how the card is being used in the context of a routine. A double backer could be intended to be seen or unseen, for instance.)

Jerry Andrus, a genius card mechanic, viewed the use of gaff cards as a way to reduce the amount of skill needed. In 1958’s “Andrus Deals You In,” he writes:

“Card magic to me is one of those satisfying things that ask to be conquered, a challenge to one’s skill and ingenuity. Basically, trick cards offer me no challenge; therefor I will pay no homage to their double faces, nor take any credit for their miracles.”

Aaron Fisher, in talking about the development of his Illusion Control (published in “The Paper Engine”), said that when he was first starting card magic, there was a great trick called Monkey in the Middle. At that time in his development, it was important to him to be able to do a version of it without using gaff cards.

Fisher’s thoughts lead to what makes impromptu magic so attractive to magicians: There is a lot of value in mastering tricks and effects that can be done with anything at any time. It’s a good feeling to know that you’re ready to perform a whole set with just a few coins, one deck and a Sharpie. But in magic, the ends always justifies the means. If getting a reaction takes carrying around a stacked deck in a differently colored box, it’s worth it.

But think about using gaff cards, either seen or unseen ones: In either case, a routine depends on a magician’s ability to hide the gaff card until either the right moment or the whole time. That calls for some sleight of hand and good ol’ misdirection. It calls for pre-performance preparation and a lot of practice rehearsing deck switches and ringing in cards.

In other words: It takes a lot of skill to use gaff cards.

Think about that next time you wonder if it’s easy to use them. Or, leave it to Andrus to sum it up:

“A man who demonstrates extreme skill with sleight of hand card magic is surely recognized as an artist in his field, and strangely enough is in many cases the only one who can get away with a judicious use of trick cards.”


  1. you said it all. i have two modes when im performing. magician me and regular me. magician me is in a 3 piece suit with some form of gimmick or gaff up both sleeves, in most pockets and down my right leg. regular me has a deck of cards… maybe a few rubber bands around my wrist. gaffed cards are only really useful if you are walking into a situation where you know you will be performing magic. in regular me mode, i pride myself in being able to perform great tricks with a borrowed deck, when i have the suit on, anything goes…. or maybe im a dissociative schizophrenic. you tell me, because regular me and magician me dont really talk.

  2. I like the thoughts on gaffed cards, especially the follow-up comment by Jerry Andrus. Just a thought . . . the card is a gaff, but cards are gaffed . . . a grammatical comment . . .

  3. I would say it takes skill to use gaff cards. Most the time you are using sleight of hand that you would be using with a regular deck but using it in such a way you get an unthinkable effect in the spectators eyes. That being said it is also worth being in mind as soon as the spectator sees the card they can jump to one of two conclusions scenario one: DUUUUUDE!!!!!! Thats awsome how the hell did you do that. etc. Or scenario two: Its a specially printed card. Which has happened to me before. However I then stumpled up on Daniel Madisons book “burn” , and he taught me the difference between acceptable and unacceptable gaff cards. This book take away the point of the card being printed making the effect completely logical but at the same time impossible

  4. Gwen Dupré on:

    I like to use gaff cards when the audience is quite difficult, they already seen everything. With a bit of luck they won’t know the printed card and tadaaaa.
    I guess gaff cards need more practice to decide if you use them or not.It depends of the audience, will they be shock or not.

  5. I think that the use of a gafed deck can be really powerful, just look at the invisible deck I mean the reactions you get r crazy however I think that it takes more skill to use a regular pack of cards to perform but it is good to use gafed cards here and there.

  6. I think this relation is similar to that of regular coins and shells. Many gaffed cards enable us to make miracles which is by no means possible only with regular cards, but the most difficult problem is “how to clean it up”. For example, when you move four hearts on the face to the corner one by one like matrix and hand the 4-gathered card to your spectator (you must know this gaff, perhaps), you must have at least 3 cards which is illogical to be in the deck: 2-gathered, 3-gathered, and the regular 4 of hearts. And if you perform this in the middle of the whole routine, how to hide/add the gaffs until/at the moment? The color change or sleight is not much prerequisite (they tend to be not that difficult), but the existence of gaffs itself is mixed blessing.

  7. Personally I think being able to Hide a Gaffed Card is just as hard as Misdirecting a good slight!! Not only that but I think using both gives the magician more Mystique! The reason I say this is because of the fact that if you only use sleights, then the spectator catches on if you are around them enough! The same goes for Gaffed cards, if you only use gaffs the spectator will wonder why you never let them see your props and why you cant do that same trick with his deck! I think to get the most of both is to mix it up and keep everyone, even the people who might see you do magic on a daily basis! I think it also lends it self to your longevity in what you can do, where and when!!

    That said …I think there is great skill in using gaffs/props and using sleight of hand that any magician would do well mastering and practicing!! =)

  8. What I was saying by mix it up was that if you do, it will keep you spectators guessing and keep them from catching on to even the simplest gaffs and sleights. I truely think gaffs should complement sleights and vise versa!!!

  9. yea my grammar sux

  10. It seems to me that a well rounded card man should be able to use them both.

    And use them both well!