Is Self-Working Magic Working For You?

In the tenth epiode of Theory & Thoughts for Magicians, Ryan digs in to one of the biggest lies magicians tell... themselves. A critical look at the prominence of self-working tricks in the magic industry, and whether it might be a short-term gain for a long-term loss. Don't be a stout Uncle George!

Episode Transcript

With this complete Outfit of Magical Accessories anyone without any practice or experience can perform a number of the latest magical tricks or give a complete entertainment. All the tricks are mechanical and self-working and so simple that a child can work them after reading the instructions—but to the audience they appear wonderful feats of skill.

This advertisement includes language which is very familiar to anyone who has ever been browsing through a magic shop catalogue. You probably see it in your email inbox every few weeks.

But this text, verbatim, is from 1913. That’s over a century of promising a complete lack of effort required to pull off a demonstration of magical delights. Indeed, the lifetime pursuit of the world’s greatest conjurors, boxed up and shipped to you for 85 cents.

This alluring offer seems fine to entice a young child or curious comic book reader to pick up a wand, but why are experienced magicians, with decades worth of tricks under their thumb-tip, still being drawn into the dealer’s booth with this same pitch?

I’m Ryan Pilling, and this is Theory & Thoughts for Magicians.

Today I’m looking at the dominance of self-working magic and asking the question; “how’s that working for you?”

What is a self-working magic trick?

No, really, I’m asking because I don’t know for certain. It’s a fuzzy line, open to interpretation, not at all helped by it being such a magic shop buzz word. So-called “self-working” tricks seem to attract buyers, so they are not stingy when it comes to slapping on this label.

Where do YOU draw the line?

Is the Ball & Vase, found in every plastic magic kit, a self-working trick?

Is Jim Steinmeyer’s Nine Card Problem, the popular spelling effect, a self-working trick?

Oh, what about the Jastrow Illusion, with the two curved boomerang shapes. Is that self-working?

You may have had quick answers for those, so what is it about these tricks that make you say yes or no?

If you want the full Theory & Thoughts For Magicians home game experience, you may want to hit pause and take a moment to really ponder on this before I share my… well… theory and thoughts.


For the Ball & Vase, Nine Card Problem, and Jastrow Illusion, I say no, yes, and no. And thus concludes another episode of Theory and…

Okay, fine, you twist my arm, I’ll explain. But just know you missed your chance to get my shortest podcast of all time.

My definition of self-working magic was developed in my time teaching magic classes to young children. I noticed a pattern of the youngest students being unable to convincingly perform a magic trick. Not for lack of technical skill (which, don’t get me wrong, was indeed lacking) but rather a lack of deception.

I won’t get deep into the brain development theory here, but basically because young children can’t see themselves from an outside perspective, they are unable to imagine how the audience perceives their actions. Thus, they struggle to do something as simple as hide a ball in their hand.

So, to me, a self-working trick is one where the deception is self-contained in the prop or actions. Where the performer does not need to provide any missing ingredients, verbally, physically, or otherwise to make the trick work.

Getting back to magic dealer lingo; it’s a trick so easy even a child could do it.

So, while the rudimentary ball & vase is extremely easy, with no sleight of hand required (that is when the ball is “vanished” by placing it into your pocket) it still demands a smooth handling of the gimmick for the ball’s return to be deceptive.

Meanwhile, the Nine Card Problem, even though it’s a more complex handling, asks nothing of the performer beyond following the sequence. There is no sneaky move to do. No deception required. The math just works out. Thus, self-working.

Now, I mentioned the Jastrow Illusion, which I feel is not a self-working trick, but it is as close to the line as possible. There are no gimmicks, no moving parts, and no sleight of hand. The illusion of size exists in the curved objects themselves, however, the way the pieces are moved and placed can make-or-break any magical effect. Thus, it requires skill. Just a little.

As usual, I’ve thought more about this stuff than one reasonably ought to and narrowed it down to minutia. That, to me, is the razor edge of a truly self-working magic trick. And now I’m going to toss that all out the window.

This discussion is not about self-working tricks in a technical sense, but rather the culture of the self-working mindset in the magic community.

So deal yourself three piles of seven cards and let’s get started.

There is one category of self-working magic which may border on self-delusional. The sort of routines that ask you to think of a number from 3 to 9, double it, add 12, now deal four piles of cards corresponding to the digits in your mother’s birth year, and… you get the idea.

Just an absolute tangled maze of procedure masquerading as magic. Magic is supposed to defy the laws of physics, not apply the flaws of mathematics.

When you reveal the clock number upon which my finger rests (after telling me to specifically move it back and forth three times while removing options along the way) the best reaction I could hope for is “oh… neat how that worked out.”

Now, I have used some things like this myself. There are times when it is the right solution for the moment; particularly making an interactive experience for a large group or virtual audiences. Places where sleights cannot exist. But it comes with sacrifices.

If you are performing these sorts of process-heavy curiosities for a live in-person audience, you have far better alternatives. You can be performing tricks which are not dragged down with such a suspicious, arbitrary, limiting set of instructions for your audience member.

I’m curious if the performers who employ these mind-reading tricks with an obvious lack of free choice are the same ones who turn their nose up at brightly painted magic props saying “I wouldn’t want to use anything that is so obviously a magic trick!”

I don’t have empirical evidence to support this statement, but I feel as though these arbitrary processes are equally obvious to our audiences. They aren’t going to believe you’re a wonder worker for reading through a list of instructions.

Strong magic is made from deceptions that an audience “does not suspect, let alone detect.”

To me, this puts long and winding verbal instructions in the same boat as suspiciously sloppy sleight-of-hand. They diminish the impact you can make with your magic.

As you grow as a magician I encourage you to leave both of them behind.

Much self-working magic is created for the wrong reason; to be able to list it for sale with the catch phrase “easy to do!” In the history of the world, nothing has been made better in order to appeal to the mass market.

Instead magic stores are filled with the scent of roughing spray to cover up any whiff of a double lift or slip force. Any sign of a sleight would kill sales of the latest and greatest trick.

Most effects can be accomplished by any number of methods. The magical artist chooses the sleights, handling, and misdirection to best suit their intended performance. The magical seller chooses to sacrifice everything else in favour of a self-working method. It’s a one-size-fits-all solution, where the one-size is suited for the least skilled magician in the room.

Is that what you want to be doing? More often than not the quest for self-working ruins the trick.

Now I don’t mean to be cynical… well, no, I do… but I don’t like to be cynical. Earlier this week I found an old book entitled “New Conjuring Without Skill.” The title alone offended my years of investment in this art, and I was fully prepared to have my knickers notably knotted.

My attitude immediately changed when I read the foreword from author Norman Hunter, an alumni of Maskelyne’s Mysteries show at Egyptian Hall. He writes;

So this book contains newish tricks. They are, I hope and believe, tricks which have not previously been explained in a way that makes them easy to perform. One or two of them can be done by means of either severely costly apparatus or exceedingly twiddly fingers. But this book is for conjurors who do not want to spend six months learning a trick that is over in six seconds. At the same time do please let me impress on you that you jolly well can’t expect to do a trick, not even the simplest, easiest trick, without trying it over a few times. You can call that practice if you like. If you do then these tricks need a little practice. So does every trick if you are going to do it properly and not make a howling mess of it, like stout Uncle George who has a shot at a bit of conjuring you know at Christmas and makes everyone wish he hadn’t.

Perhaps I can most easily show you what I mean by making a comparison. You can play Handel’s “Largo” on an ordinary piano moderately well after several years of study and goodness knows how many hours of practice. You can also play it moderately well on an auto sort of player piano with about four minutes study and after trying it through about twice. In the first instance you are doing it by, shall we say, sleight of hand. In the second you are doing it by a simplified method.

The analogy is not perfect, but conjuring is something like that. There is also this similarity. If you can play the piano by the genuine, sleight of hand method, as I called it, then you can play pretty well anything. But if you can only play on an auto piano you cannot play anything unless you possess the music roll of it. With conjuring, if you have a good grounding of genuine sleight of hand you can do hundreds of tricks, but if you conjure by simplified method you can do only those tricks for which you happen to possess the apparatus or the particular secret.

And with this Mr. Hunter has indeed hit the bullseye on the real problem with self-working magic; if given priority in your magical pursuits, you end up stunting your own growth as a magician. You are denying yourself, and your audience, the richness of all magic has to offer.

So long as you hop from self-working trick to trick you’re dependent on the magic makers to feed you your next miracle. You’re only learning the things self-contained in that routine, locked-in to those props, and not readily transferrable to new ideas and applications.

Instead, if you work on building fundamental skills your opportunities in magic grow exponentially. Being comfortable with a card control, false shuffle, and palming opens the door to creating an unlimited supply of miracles improvised in the moment.

With sleight-of-hand, the world is your oyster, and when you crack it open, their signed card is inside.

While “self-working” has been in the magical lingo for over a century, there’s a more recent addition that seems to have latched on like a parasite.

People defend, or justify, their preference for self-working tricks because, as the saying goes, “it allows me to focus on the presentation.”

Well now you’ve done it. I’m officially riled! You’ve irked a Canadian, that’s not easy!

If you do exclusively self-working tricks because it “allows you to focus on your presentation” then, buddy, your presentation better be pretty fantastically special!

Because you’re making it sound like those hours you could have spent learning a second deal were instead invested on finely crafting every word, every moment, of the theatrical experience that is your “Poker Chip Polka” routine.

Naw bro, I’ve been around the magical block long enough to have witnessed the same self-working tricks presented with the same self-working scripts on repeat. The performer is often an interchangeable organ-grinding operator.

Put another nickel in and turn the crank.

Alright, I’m getting a bit cranky myself, look, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with performing a trick as-is, out of the box, especially for new magicians. Keep it simple while you learn the ropes. My frustration is only with the “so I can focus on my presentation” poppycock. There are plenty of fine reasons to do self-working magic, but “to focus on presentation” ain’t one. You’re lying to me, and lying to yourself.

Is your ability to perform magic really so fragile that it would crumble under the weight of a finger-palmed quarter? I don’t think so.

I think you can break free of this limitation you’ve put on yourself. You can enroll yourself in Card College to start building confidence with basic sleight-of-hand, follow the royal road to building your skills one easy to master miracle at a time.

Stop pretending to focus on your presentation and start working on your education.

Despite the way it sounds thus far, I’m not anti-self-working tricks. I’m anti-selfish tricks. When you choose a self-working method out of laziness, or fear. When it’s detrimental for the effect, and for the audience. That’s selfish.

Self-working methods are a legitimate tool in construction of a mystery. Sometimes they may be the best choice. Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

In the middle of a book review in M-U-M magazine, July 2015, Michael Close, who is certainly no slouch with a deck of cards, wrote this;

It is not only the unskilled beginner who has an interest in self-working card tricks; there are many, very skilled professionals whose repertoire contains a few sleightless effects. I have a half-dozen or so that I perform all the time in casual situations. They are among the strongest tricks I do.

Michael emphasizes ‘casual situations’ and goes on to explain that a bullet-proof method is an ideal countermeasure when the performance environment is not in your favour. But you can’t always play it safe. No risk, no reward.

Also, side note, the term ‘sleightless’ is a far more functional term than ‘self-working’. I’ll hang on to that.

In Expert Card Technique, from 1945, Braue and Hugard explain it this way;

In considering the question of sleight of hand versus self-working tricks, it is well always to be guided not by your own personal prejudices, but by the effect any trick has upon those who see it. … If you do [a self-working trick] and those present think that the feat was the result of pure skill, you would be foolish to discard this method in favor of one depending upon sleight of hand.

One of America's finest sleight of hand artists is an adept at weaving self-working tricks into his routines; he performs a feat dependent upon remarkable sleight of hand and follows it with a self-working trick which could not conceivably be performed by sleight; yet his spectators gape in awe, mistakenly crediting him with incredible skill. To them, everything he does is made possible by the finest sleight of hand; he has an enormous reputation and this reputation is justified, for this expert is using not only his trained hands but he is using his brain as well. He is out-thinking and, in the vernacular, out-smarting those who watch him. This conjurer will use any expedient available to the magician if it will assure him an effective trick.

His experience, and that of many another of the great names of card magic, is that, paradoxically, even the simplest self-working trick is made more effective when the performer has mastered pure sleight of hand.

This fine sleight-of-hand artist Hugard and Braue are talking about, by the way, is Dai Vernon.

While I don’t enjoy the same “enormous reputation” I, too, have found that a hands-off card effect slipped in at the two-thirds mark of a performance does indeed have an elevated impact on the audience. It becomes greater than the sum of its parts, as the sleight-of-hand and self-working methodology cancel each other out in the calculating minds of the audience.

It’s the rarity of these effects which help them to shine so brightly. Self-working effects, by necessity, tend to have a very procedural, mechanical, numerical feel to them. Like any other method its quirks are at first invisible, but become conspicuously apparent upon repeated viewing.

I can only deal so many piles until I suspect something is up… or wish something was! Your sleightless routines should gain entry to your repertoire for the right reasons. To enhance your performance and for their impact on the audience. They should be subjected to the same carefully considered qualifications as a sleight-full effect.

Searching for new material in a book of “The Best Self-Working Card Tricks” makes about as much sense as picking one from “Top Ten Tricks Using a Half Pass.” It’s the tail wagging the dog, or perhaps the Zombie ball floating the stick.

As always, it all trickles back to the first episode of this series. It’s about the choices you make as an artist, and why you make those choices. If you peek behind your own curtain and discover the real reason you do something is because… “it’s easy” …well, you’ve found an opportunity to grow as a magician.

You can make the jump from self-working to working on yourself.

And as the Elephant reaches Denmark so too have we reached the end mark of this episode of Theory & Thoughts for Magicians.

Before I go I would like to clarify that “focusing on your presentation” is indeed a worthy goal when pursued with earnest. This podcast is exactly that. I choose every word carefully and toil over the ebb and flow of my speech to not waste a breath. We only have so much time together, and I’m working to make every moment matter.

Just don’t disregard that both the method and effect of a trick support those moments as well. So don’t skip pinky day.

If you’ve somehow managed to stumble into this particular episode because the phrase “self-working magic” drew you in like a moth to the flame; then I’ll take this opportunity to say hello, welcome, and you can learn more about me and my magical process at

I’m done talking now, so you can go spend the next thirty minutes practicing something.

Published: December 5, 2023

Access: Public



I agree with much, but ...

Consider a table showing key possibilities that relate the strength of effect (weak-strong) to the difficulty of method (self-working and low-risk, easier sleights, challenging ones).

Self-working (Low risk) --- Sleight-light (Core sleights) ---Sleight-heavy (Challenging)

Weak impact ---Strong impact (A-grade material)

All cells would be populated. E.g., Gilbreath effects can be ‘self-working’, as is much of mem-deck work. These effects can be very strong, especially when supported by specific sleights, such as a false shuffle and cut. The proportions may well differ up and down and across the table, and many self-workers do have low impact. However, it’s the absolute number in the high-impact cell that matters more. If there are 50 strong ‘self-working’ tricks, this is a more than ample lifetime repertoire, especially if for amateurs, if there is texture, and if there are alternative methods to achieve similar effects.

Some thought (more than we observe) should be given to combining self-workers to add layers of deception to the presentation. And self-workers strengthen the performer’s ability to give concise and precise instructions. And newbies need to build their confidence and cope with scripting.

Why not focus also on the potentially larger self-deception? There’s an important distinction between simple and versatile sleights and challenging and specialised ones. Do difficult sleights in fact increase audience impact, or are they primarily intended to fool other magicians and impress them?

I propose that the biggest increases in impact have resulted from such things as R&S decks, gaffed cards, gaffed coins, trick trunks, IT, and (somewhat to my distaste) phone apps. Things that are essentially self-working and labour-saving. These are ingenious technologies embodied in things. They displace some forms of skill and knowhow. This is how technological progress works: new technologies can all but wipe out old ones. Admittedly, artisanship can suffer. The consolation is that its market niche will remain.

What is the inherent virtue of drudge work? There may well be a risk-return trade-off, but there is also a cost-benefit criterion to consider. Is this extra, mind (and finger) numbing work worth it in terms of ‘deliverables’?

DLs widen the performance range, but they (like the pass) are notoriously difficult to get right. Sure, DLs with ECs supercharge the expansion in range. However, these tricks tend to be visual and high-impact. If some sleights do not raise visual or psychological impact, why invest in them? The validity of ‘Art and excellence for their own sake’ deserves closer scrutiny.

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