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.”