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Card Tricks 101: Pick a Card

Card Tricks 101: Pick a Card

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There are hundreds of card tricks, and almost every one of them starts with some variation of the old “pick a card, any card, any card at all.” Before you learn how to make this cliché of a card trick exciting, you have to learn how to find the card they chose. And it’s easy! In this guide, you’ll learn how to do the pick a card trick.

Pick a Card

Hand your spectator a deck of cards, or let him use his own. Have him shuffle the deck so that he knows the cards are in a random order.

Spread the cards between your two hands. Ask the person to select one card, look at it, and remember it. Now, for those of you who’ve never really handled cards before, spreading the cards smoothly between your hands might be a big deal, so here’s a little tip. Start with the cards in your left hand, as if you were ready to deal the cards. (Magicians call this the “dealer’s position”). Hold your right hand palm up. With your left thumb, push cards from the top of the deck onto your right fingers. As you do, slowly separate your two hands a few inches until there’s an even fan of cards between your hands.

Spreading the cards from hand to hand to enable the spectator to pick a card.

Spreading the cards from hand to hand to enable the spectator to pick a card.

(Photo courtesy of Titus Photography.)

Establish Your Key Card

The simplest method of finding out your volunteer’s card is using what’s known as a key card. All you have to know is the location of one card in the deck, and that’s your key. If you know where the chosen card is in relation to the key card you already know, you can find the selected card.

So your volunteer picks a card. While the person is looking at it, you have to find out the identity of the bottom card, because this is going to be your key card. Here’s one way to do it: simply tilt the deck upward slightly as he hands you the deck after he shuffles and you’re squaring up the deck. Look down at the deck and take a quick peek. If you don’t think you can get away with something that obvious, say, “Don’t let me see your card,” and turn your back to the spectator. While you’re facing away from the audience, just turn the deck over and look at the bottom card. It’s bold, but it works!

Once you know the key card, you’re ready to have the chosen card returned to the deck:

  1. Hold the deck in your left hand in dealer’s position.
  2. With your right hand, remove the bottom half of the deck.
  3. Extend your left hand toward your spectator, and ask him to return the selected card to the top of the stack in your left hand.
  4. Drop the cards in your right hand on top of the cards in your left hand, and square the deck. Although the spectator doesn’t know it, this has placed your key card on top of the selected card, and both are now in the middle of the face-down deck.

Now a lot of people know about the bottom key-card method, and they’ll be looking for it. So here’s another way to obtain a key card without looking at the bottom of the deck. This is much subtler and will fool even those in the know.

  1. After your volunteer selects a card, hold the deck in your left hand.
  2. Lift up the top half of the deck with your right hand, with your thumb along the left long edge and your right middle, ring, and little fingers along the right long edge of the packet.
  3. Tilt the cards in your right upward as you use your right forefinger to point to the cards in your left hand.
  4. If you’re following along with a deck of cards in your hands, you’ll notice that in this position you can look down and quickly peek the bottom card of the packet (which is what magicians call a small bunch of playing cards) in your right hand. This will be your key card.
  5. Tell your volunteer to return the selected card to the “middle of the deck,” still gesturing to the cards in your left hand.
  6. As soon as the spectator puts the chosen card on the packet in your left hand, drop the cards in your right hand on top, and square the deck. Just like in the previous method, you now know the name of the card on top of the chosen card that’s buried in the middle of the deck.

You can now casually cut the cards a few times, if you wish. Your key card will still be on top of the selected card. (Just don’t shuffle the deck, which might separate the key card from the selection. And don’t make a big deal out of cutting the deck or say something like “now we’ll mix the cards,” or the spectator might want to shuffle.)

Peek the key card at the bottom of the right-hand packet while telling the spectator to return the selection to your left hand.

Peek the key card at the bottom of the right-hand packet while telling the spectator to return the selection to your left hand.

(Photo courtesy of Titus Photography.)

Find the Card

Now you know where the chosen card is. How do you find out what it is? Here’s a simple and direct method to find the card, and it never fails: you just turn the deck over and look. How can you get away with something like that? Easy! After the cards have been cut a few times, turn the deck face up and spread them between your hands or on the table as you say something like “Your card isn’t in my hands or up my sleeve, so it must still be somewhere here in the deck.”

As soon as you turn the cards face up, quickly scan through the cards with your eyes and locate your key card. The spectator’s chosen card is below the key card, so if you’ve spread the cards from left to right, the selected card will be the right of your key card. (If you happen to have cut between the cards—a 1 in 51 chance—your key card will be the bottom card of the deck, and the spectator’s card will be on the top.) Once you know the name of his card, close up the deck and turn it face down. Believe it or not, after the trick is over, no one will even remember that for a few seconds you had the cards face up.

Yes, this is audacious, but it is a 100 percent effective, surefire way to locate the chosen card without any fancy finger work. to the audience, it looks as if you’re just proving to them that the card is still in the deck, not that you’re looking for it.

Now comes the big finish. All you have to do is tell the person the name of his card. But wait! It’s not that simple. If you just blurt out the name of the card, there’s no drama and no suspense. You have to find a way to make the revelation exciting and memorable.

Here’s my favorite method: I ask the person to just think of the name of the chosen card, to draw a mental picture of it. I pretend to mentally receive the information slowly, a bit at a time. (Remember, mind-reading isn’t supposed to be easy. If it were, everyone would be doing it.) For example, I might say: Your card is a black card. Yes? A club. It’s a face, no, wait, a number card. Yes, a number card. A low number. It’s a three, the three of clubs. Is that correct?

Card tricks take a lot of practice, but once you get the hang of it you’ll be able to fool the most skeptical volunteer! For more sleight of hand, check out our Quick Guide, Cool Card Tricks: Hindu Shuffle and Karate Kard. Good luck, and have fun!

From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Street Magic by Tom Ogden