Who is Roberto Giobbi?
If you’ve spent any time doing serious study of card magic, you will almost certainly have come across the respected name of Roberto Giobbi. Born in Switzerland on 1st May 1959, Giobbi brings a wealth of experience and expertise to the world of magic. Among his accomplishments is the fact that twice he was named Vice World Champion in Card Magic at the World Championship of Magic.
But Mr Giobbi is especially regarded highly as a result of his ground-breaking Card College series of books, which teaches the fundamentals of card magic. Most experts will agree that these influential volumes are among the very best tools available to develop sound technique and to master the essentials of card magic, and you’ll often see them among the very first and best books recommended on the subject. These are considered to be the most widely translated magic books in history. But besides these, he’s also written numerous other popular books about magic, with over 50 books to his credit, as well as many articles and essays, many of which have been published in influential magazines.
But besides being appreciated for his written work, Mr Giobbi is also well regarded for his ability in teaching magic. He’s created several videos, notably several companions to his Card College books, and recordings of lectures designed to provide magic instruction. To confirm that he’s a real scholar, you only need to consider his academic credentials: he has a background that includes skills in mathematics, science, literature, and linguistics, and he’s fluent in several different languages. With these remarkable resume, it is no surprise that Roberto Giobbi’s teaching materials are popular with magicians around the globe, and he is much demanded and appreciated for his fantastic lectures. He coaches and consults many professionals, and his expertise in variety of disciplines gives him a very valuable and insightful perspective that few can match.
I’ve corresponded with Mr Giobbi about card magic on numerous occasions, and he’s always been a true gentleman in every way. When I asked if he’d be willing to conduct an interview about playing cards and magic, he kindly agreed. Given his extensive experience in card magic, and his expertise with pasteboards, he’s well-placed to share some interesting observations and important insights about playing cards. So I’m happy to hand you over to Mr Giobbi, and let’s learn what he has to share with us! Some of these answers come from one of his e-books, which we’ll mention later, while others he has provided directly and appear here for the very first time.
For those who don’t know anything about you, what can you tell us about yourself and your background?
I was born in Basle, Switzerland, on the 1st of May 1959, from Italian parents who emigrated from Piedmont. Although I started in High School with mathematics and natural sciences, I soon found out that my talents were in languages, so I went to the University of Basel to study literature and linguistics.
This was an unintentional smart move, because it ultimately made me fluent in six languages. This turned out to be a great asset when in 1988, after winning FISM for the first time (1991 would be the second time), I turned professional. I had finished my studies in 1984 at the Translator & Interpreter School of Basel. From 1984 to 1988 I managed the translator’s department of Autodesk, the inventor of AutoCAD, the first computer-aided design software. In 1988, when I left my safe and lucrative job, there were only two or three people in Switzerland doing magic professionally. Now, almost 30 years later, there are dozens, and several tell me that I inspired them to take that step. In 1990 the MRS (Magischer Ring der Schweiz) held their first national competition, and as the winner of all categories I was the very first to receive their Grand Prix. This reminds me of a comment my friend Pit Hartling made after one of my lectures: “You speak like an old man, without being one.”
In the announcement to his Genii Bash Convention in 2012 Richard Kaufman wrote: “Roberto has become one of the most sought-out voices on magic and his lectures have grown near legendary.” This certainly pleased me, because studying the underpinnings of magic, treating it as an academic discipline besides as an art, has always captured my fancy.
I’ve started giving lectures at an early age, with much innocence and naiveté, but always with lots of passion and enthusiasm. A recent count revealed that I’ve given fifty-six completely different lectures in the past forty years, mostly on specific topics. This won’t even include the many presentations I’ve given on the occasion of the “Jornadas Cartomagicas de El Escorial”, the yearly get-together of the Escuela Magica de Madrid, a school of thought in magic. The latter was founded by Juan Tamariz, together with Ascanio, in Madrid in 1971, inspired by André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto and to this day remains magic’s only Think Tank. I’ve been one of only forty members since ca. 1980 and am glad I could contribute over decades to their superb magazine La Circular. In the meantime I’ve written essays and columns for over fifty magic magazines, including fourteen consecutive years for Genii – The International Conjuror’s Magazine.
Most readers will probably know me for my five volumes of Card College, which have quite unintentionally become the most widely translated magic books in history. However, my heart is also attached to the several other books, which carry in them a part of myself. Meanwhile I face the reality of having over 80 publications to my credit, including their translation into eight languages; this comprises a few electronic works, such as E-books and DVDs, with quite a few more in preparation.
Although as of today I wish I could make a living from writing, lecturing and coaching, alas, it is hardly possible, in spite of being one of the few best-selling authors in magic. I still enjoy performing very much, mostly for an international clientele due to my linguistic talents, and as such I have visited over 50 countries around the globe. I’m glad I’ve always made it a point that my clients pay one or two extra nights, so I could see the place, visit with local magicians and enjoy a good meal in town, gastronomy being one of my interests.
Part of my life was captured in “Il giardino dei giochi segreti”, a 50-minute documentary by Swiss TV, and you can find it on the Internet [link]. As part of my work for laypeople I also give interdisciplinary talks and workshops for industry managers on creativity, communication, and presentation. However, I feel particularly honored that magicians from China, the New World and all over Europe are now coming to seek out my advice and taking coaching lessons.
What do you currently do for a day job and/or what are your other interests?
I’ve been a full-time professional performer, author and lecturer of things magical ever since 1988. I’m not the first to state that in order to be good at something, you have to devote your life to it.
But this is far from being a restriction. Quite on the contrary, I’ve come to appreciate that magic is like a multifaceted diamond: every facet connects to a discipline of life. Regardless of whether you look at other arts, psychology, philosophy, the crafts, gastronomy, gardening, architecture, teaching, or what have you, it is reflected in magic, similar to a fractal that reflects the pattern of the whole in every detail. Therefore, if you study magic in its width and in its depth, you connect to what governs life, people and the universe.
Furthermore I agree with Confucius who said, “If in life you do something you like, you will never have to work.” That’s my day (and night) job.
As part of a successful career in magic, what would be some highlights in your personal curriculum vitae?
I define “success” as finding one’s vocation, and then having the privilege of pursuing it every day, improving as you go along, and then, from time to time, sharing one’s insights with others. That’s the most important “success”, in my opinion, and I’m very grateful to say that this is my greatest achievement.
To document this, there have been some less important milestones, which, however, showed me that I’m on the right path: In my younger years I won prizes at several magic competitions, the most important being the FISM World Championship awards in 1988 (The Hague) and 1991 (Lausanne). In 1986 I published my first book CardPerfect, and it was the beginning of yet another career within magic that lasts to this day. Over the years, being featured on the cover of many of the most important magic magazines has been a great recognition. In 2012, I received the coveted Literary Fellowship from the Academy of Magical Arts, along with a lifetime membership of their uniquely wonderful Magic Castle, and in 2014 the John Nevil Maskelyne Award for Literature from the prestigious Magic Circle of London. In 2015 at the FISM World Congress of Magic in Rimini they gave me their lifetime achievement award for “Theory & Philosophy”. I’m an honorary member of several international magic associations. And of course I had several performances around the globe for VIPs and large companies that were personal highlights.
I cannot end the answer to this question without mentioning a “highlight & success” on another level, as important as my professional career, and that’s to have been able to make a dignified and prosperous life for my wife Barbara, and our two sons Rafael and Miro, and myself, in Switzerland.
How and when did you first get interested in card magic?
I was age 14 and took a magic book from the shelf of a public library, Grosse Zauberschule by Werner Waldmann. It was love at first sight, and opened the door to my future, but I did not know that at the time. The second book was Die Kunst, mit Karten zu zaubern – The Art of Magic With Cards by Hanns Friedrichs, all about cards, and that was it.
Anecdotally, it should be mentioned that Waldman was expelled from the “Magischer Zirkel von Deutschland” for having exposed magic tricks in that book; later they changed the rules, and now almost anybody can write almost anything, and might even get an award from them…
What gives magic its magnetic quality that makes it so enjoyable for people to watch?
My definition of magic is: Magic is the performing art of wonder.
Every art is about something that reflects life and the universe in a unique way. Architecture gives spaces a new meaning; literature, theatre and film represent man and his conflicts, etc. Magic makes the impossible possible by fulfilling the deepest human desires in an aesthetically interesting manner. This is done with a complex system of methodologies, based on scientific and artistic principles, and it is done in real-time (as opposed to the visual arts or film), as well as on different platforms (street, theatres, living rooms, restaurants, TV etc.), in various genres (close-up, large-scale illusions, mentalist etc.), and with different instruments (cards, coins, ropes, cups & balls etc.).
If a talented individual does this in a sincere, inspired and original way, the result will appeal to the intelligence as well as to the heart of any human being, regardless of gender, age or social status. That’s the ethos, logos and pathos Aristotle defined in his rhetoric. That’s all it takes to make anything “enjoyable and entertaining” in an extended sense of these terms.
What is it about magic that you still love today?
The simple answer is: it is my life, and I wouldn’t know anything else to do. There is also a more complex answer, but we’ll keep that for another time.
How important is one’s own personality in performing magic, and how did this play a role in your own career?
Like any other discipline, in order to be artistic, magic has to express ideas and create emotions through the characteristics of the person who does it.
Obviously the effect, the method and the presentation have to be “original” in the sense of personal interpretation. Therefore, who you are, what you believe and know, as well as your skill, will always flow into what you do. In music you can hide behind a piano, in painting in a studio, but magic, unlike any other artistic discipline, is based on an immediate and one-to-one communicative model, and cannot be detached from the person who does it. In this sense the person (not persona!) is as important as the performance piece and its presentation, these being the three pillars upon which artistic magic is based. To do this in a successful way determines an artist’s career.
What differences are there in how an amateur and a professional approach magic?
I wrote a lengthy essay on the subject, but will try to be concise: The professional concentrates on the effect and communication, while most amateurs tend to be fascinated by novelty and methods. Albert Goshman, a famous magician, once said to me: “Professionals perform the same tricks before new audiences, while amateurs do new tricks for the same audiences.”
Obviously, in both categories, there are very different levels, and it would be hypocritical not to say so. The amateur, not having the necessity to make a living from magic, can spend his time with apparently purposeless activities in magic, which has led many an “inspired amateur” (my term) to come up with brilliant ideas. However, it is usually the professional who takes these ideas, and through his experience and unique vision makes them “performance pieces”. It is professionals who, as performers, usually bring the magic to the people, but it is more often than not the amateurs, as historians, collectors, inventors, authors, technicians, who take care of magic’s patrimony.
Although professionals and performing amateurs sometimes collide in the world of “show business” – with the Internet more than ever before – there is hardly a discipline were the two camps live in more peaceful and harmonious coexistence. Whereas you would have 100% professionals if you went to a doctor’s or architect’s convention, at a magic convention you will have 90% amateurs and not more than 10% professionals. That makes the magic community and its market very special indeed.
How has technology impacted the magic industry over the last couple of decades?
Magicians have always been at the forefront of science and technology: whenever something was invented, magicians were among the first to know and use it in their performances, either as a secret device, or as part of their shows. Isaac Fawkes (1675?–1732) who used automata and mechanical inventions in his booths in British fairgrounds, Georges Méliès (1861–1938) who changed a mechanical invention into the art of film making, or Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805–1871) who used the electro-magnet in the context of the French conflict in Algeria, and even invented numerous optical devices, among them apparatus still used today by ophthalmologists, are some of the most prominent examples.
However, I assume you’re alluding to what extent the technological advances influences the appeal of theatrical magic. History has shown that the more technologically advanced a society is, the more it has a need to compensate spiritually. This is done by religion and the arts. In 2019 there are 4,200 religions, and innumerable persons who make a living as “artists”. To respectfully misuse a Churchill dictum: never before in the entire history of mankind have there been as many professional magicians, let alone amateurs and hobbyists, practicing magic, in so many different branches and genres, for so many people, who are paying so much to see them. That should prove beyond any discussion that magic today is more popular than ever before, in spite – or better – thanks to the technological advances of our age. In the legal system that would count as a precedent, and no more explanation is necessary.
If someone unearthed the ruins of an old building 500 years from now, which of your books or videos do you hope that they find, and why?
I very much doubt that any of the electronic supports could be replayed, which is one of the reasons we should keep books. In my library with over 3,500 titles in 17 languages (plus over 30 shelve-meters of magic magazines) I have also many from the 17th, 18th and 19th century. I can still read each of them. In this sense my choice would be the five volumes of Card College, because they would give a comprehensive overview of what in the 21st century, and before, were the effects, methods, presentations, theories and influential people in the world of magic in general, and that of card magic in particular.
What is some advice you would give to a young person just starting to learn card magic for the first time today?
Understand that magic is a craft and an art. Learn the basics first, and then start to build your skyscraper, which will now have a solid foundation. To start card magic (or any other discipline for that matter) with YouTube tutorials, is like starting to build a house on the fourth floor, or as Goshman used to wickedly say about magic clubs, the pre-Internet institutions “teaching” magic: “The blinds lead the blinds.” Unfortunately in today’s world of Internet this is more true than ever (as if a truth could be less true…).
Finally three pieces of advice:
1. Use books, visual media and personal exchange in wise proportions.
2. Invest your money, don’t spend it – learn the difference.
3. If you are going to buy something anyway, get the better quality, even though it is more expensive. What counts is not its price, but the difference in price to that which you would buy anyway, and that difference more often than not, is not so much. Apply this also when buying a bottle of wine!
Do you use playing cards for anything besides card magic? (e.g. card flourishing, card games, or anything else?)
My father was an excellent card player with a photographic memory. We used to play many of the standard Italian family card games, such as Tresette, Scopa, Briscola, etc. When we came to the last hand he was able to tell me the cards I was holding! That might have been the first card trick I have been exposed to… Nowadays, when our sons come to visit every Sunday, after dinner, we play cards, mainly Swiss Jass (36 cards).
Finally: Although I do not consider myself a collector, I do have a few hundred different decks, and a well-sorted library on the subject, with some of the “classics” (d’Allemagne etc.).
Why do your refer to playing cards as your “instrument”?
Rather than calling playing cards a prop, as it is often done in the technical literature, I would like to consider them to be an instrument of the card conjurer, like the piano or the violin is an instrument to a musician, and I would even dare saying that cards are the most important and most widely used instrument in all of conjuring.
The more you know about your instrument, the more sensitively you will handle it and the more expressively you will master it, making it an extension of who you are. It is therefore imperative that you learn some facts (and speculations) regarding the origins and symbolism of playing cards, because this can form the basis for both intelligent conversations with your spectators as well as presentations for card routines.
What kind of playing cards did you first use when you started magic?
That’s a long time ago (1973)! However, I remember as if it was yesterday, that at age 14 I was given a flight from Basel to Geneva for my birthday, and that I went there with my godfather. When I got a chance I sneaked away and went to “Le Trucstore” in rue des rois in Geneva, a magic shop run by Jean Garance, who was quite a character and one of Switzerland’s few real professional magicians with an international reputation. He was most gracious, taught me a one-handed fan, and I bought the first deck of Bicycle Rider Back cards from him at the price of 12 Swiss Francs. I then used those as well as Tally-Ho Circle Back and Fan Back for years, because they appeared in the photos of the Ganson books on the card magic of Dai Vernon.
In 1978 I met Juan Tamariz, started to visit him once or twice a year in Madrid, and under his influence started to use Fournier’s Peacock 505. The printing qualities at that time were and still are superior to any USPCC card I know (the colors on the court cards, the tolerances on the white border etc.). Also they were almost flat being a bit stiffer without being fatter, you could table a face up pair with a face down card in-between, and they still appeared like two cards. With USPCC cards this was impossible, as they had a pronounced bend. The surface of the 505, however, was plastic coated, and so I had to relearn many of the sleights, especially the palms, as the cards behaved differently.
What kind of playing cards do you mostly use today, and what are the reasons for this choice?
After USPCC bought up Fournier, the quality of the cards started to change, for my taste to the worse, so I again switched back to Bicycle Rider Back and Tally-Ho Circle Back when performing for magicians, and Bee or Steamboat for gambling demos. For my professional work in front of lay audiences I still use Fournier 505, for practical reasons, since many of my special cards and decks are by them.
I still have to find the “perfect” deck – I don’t think it exists. But maybe the upcoming “Card College Playing Cards” by TCC is the one! (planned for release very soon)
How do modern decks compare with the ones you used at the start of your magic career, and how have playing cards changed over this time?
I can of course only state this from the point of view of a performing magician, which is different than that of a card player or a collector, I suppose.
For magical purposes it matters whether the cards are cut from top down or bottom up, because it influences in which direction you do a Faro Shuffle or a Perfect Table Shuffle. In recent years there has been a tendency to cut them bottom up, which favors table techniques, and shows the influence and number of amateurs in thumb field. Also, it is clear that companies do what they have to do: save as much as they can by economizing in materials in order to maximize their earnings. I cannot judge whether this is good or bad for the economy, but it certainly isn’t for the cards.
The advantage of all this is that new companies with new and creative approaches are emerging and producing cards nowadays. Still, even the good cards produced nowadays have specific characteristics, and none can satisfy the needs of all people and all purposes. Therefore the search for a good deck is made even more difficult than it used to be, because there are so many. It is similar to information: in my time it was hard to come by because there was so little, today it is hard to find, because there is so much.
What kinds of playing cards are best for card magic?
As already stated, the perfect playing card does not yet exist. And most likely it never will, for not only do numerous objective and often conflicting criteria enter into the equation, but also one’s personal tastes and sensibility. It may well take you years to find the cards you like best.
There are as many brands of cards as there are grains of sand on the proverbial seashore. A good card consists of three layers: a face layer, a center layer for stiffness, and a back layer. The quality of the card is determined by the quality and grain of the paper, the glue, which becomes the center layer, the treatment of the outer surfaces called “finish” as well as the precision of the printing and the all-around cut.
Among the many designations used to categorize the treatment of the outer layers of playing cards, the most commonly seen are plastic coated, linen finish, resilient linen finish, air-cushion finish, ivory finish and Nevada finish, but there are several more. Buy one of each of these decks and experiment with them. But be prepared to change your preference in the course of time. Criteria that seem important to you when you begin your study may seem less so as you become more expert. The advantage of plastic coated cards is that they last longer and generally stay flat. But they also cling less to one another, which can make them more difficult to fan evenly. Then again they are better for false deals and false shuffles, having less friction.
Use a standard fifty-two card deck plus the accompanying jokers, exchanging Jokers from two decks to have two identical Jokers in each; this is like having a duplicate, and it can facilitate certain maneuvers. If you can do magic with a fifty-two card deck, other decks will pose no problems, whereas the reverse is certainly not the case. Smaller decks, such as the French Piquet pack or the German Skat deck, each of which has only thirty-two cards, or the Swiss Jass deck with thirty-six cards or the Spanish and Italian decks with forty, are best reserved for special routines centering around games using those cards, or if you perform in one of those countries.
Should we use bridge-sized cards or poker-sized cards, and why?
The fundamental distinction is between poker-size and bridge-size cards, although there are also miniature decks and jumbo decks. Poker-size decks are somewhat wider than bridge-size decks. My advice is to use poker-size cards from the very beginning, for practical reasons. I shall outline the pros of poker-size cards:
● Poker-size cards have larger face, and their design is more generous, less crammed, and therefore more aesthetic, and their proportion is closer to the golden ratio.
● Poker-size cards have more surface area available to press against, and are better for many tricks and techniques because they provide more cover.
● Poker-size cards are more pliable thanks to their greater width, making techniques like the riffle shuffle easier and more attractive to execute.
● Poker-size cards are more widely used throughout the world, and it is mainly in Europe that laymen prefer bridge-size cards.
● Poker-size cards are generally manufactured by companies, who also supply casinos with decks, and thus must be trustworthy brands, or they would not be used by gambling establishments.
● Poker-size cards are in my experience generally better quality and have more attractive back designs – would you want to work with less than the best?
● Poker-size cards are used by experts, and have become a status factor in the magic profession.
Finally, if you practice with poker-size cards, you can always perform with bridge-size cards if offered a borrowed deck.
What kind of design is best for playing cards used for card magic?
The best back designs for the card conjurer have a white border. Prominent examples are Bicycle Rider Backs and Tally-Ho Circle Backs. Borders are more pleasing aesthetically. They also relax the eye and facilitate the execution of many techniques.
For gambling routines, though, cards with a borderless back design, particularly the Bee and Steamboat brands, are recommended, as such cards are generally used in professional gambling. This is because of the widely held belief that such cards are more difficult to mark on the back – which is a total myth.
Is it necessary to treat playing cards with fanning powder or in any other way?
Some magic books will tell you that the cards must be specially treated, but generally this is in reference to cards for the stage manipulator. Cards for close-up performances need not be treated. So forget about fanning powder, simply use a good quality new deck.
Decks with rough edges, or ones that do not spread evenly, must be broken in by handling them for several minutes, shuffling, cutting and dealing them. But stop before your perspiration penetrates the edges of the cards. Here is a simple, quick and cheap remedy for rough edges, told to me by card expert Dave Solomon of Chicago. Take a piece of relatively rough cardboard, larger than the deck. Grip the deck firmly and rub its ends and sides quickly back and forth a few times on the cardboard while pressing hard. You can also bevel the sides slightly and repeat the rubbing, doing so as you bevel the deck first one way and then the other. The cardboard acts like a very fine sandpaper and quickly smoothes the edges, making them amenable to faro shuffles and other expert handling.
What other advice do you have for selecting a deck to use for card magic?
Once you have found the cards that work best for you, stick with them until you have a compelling reason to switch. Work exclusively with these cards. You can put together most trick decks yourself or – for certain popular brands – order them from a magic store. You can also make trick cards to match most decks yourself or have them made for you.
Whether performing for a large or small audience, always use a new deck or one in new condition. New cards guarantee optimal execution of techniques and identify you as a polished artist, one who pays attention to detail; so don’t try to skimp on this. Never forget that the deck of cards is your instrument.
If you can afford it, give the deck away at the end of your performance. You can make this a signature feature of your show.
Tuck boxes & close-up pads
What is your advice about the tuck box / card case?
The card case is not only a natural protector of the deck, but can also serve as a prop for tricks. Prepare the case so that the deck can be removed from it without unnecessary fumbling. A well-prepared case looks better, and as an adjunct to the performance is one of many details that serve to support the performer‘s image, whether he or she cultivates an elegant or informal style.
Opening the case and removing the deck can even be treated as a tiny ritual, a theatrical vignette for the audience. One might think that removing the cards from the card case is such a trivial handling that no explanation is necessary. Nothing could be further from the truth, as even in this phase of the performance, when apparently nothing is happening, signals are being transmitted to the observant spectator that reflect on the performer‘s competence and virtuosity.
I also recommend using a card clip for each performance deck and when you travel. There are many wonderful products on the market nowadays, and you will be spoilt for choice.
How do you recommend opening and preparing a new deck for use?
Most cases are shrink wrapped in cellophane. My preference is to remove the cellophane completely and throw it away. But you can also leave the cellophane on the case, removing only the upper portion, which can be separated from the lower portion by a not always user-friendly tear ribbon. This allows you to insert one or more cards between the case and the cellophane, either in front or in back of the case.
Remove the remnants of the seal that project above the semicircular cut in the front of the case. The seal remnants can be stuck to the discarded cellophane and both may then be disposed of, magically or otherwise. If these remnants are not removed, then the top card of the deck may stick to them once the flap of the card case is opened. The card expert will know how to use this to his advantage…
The flap of a card case consists of several parts, defined by three creases. Reinforce these creases by running your thumbnail along them several times. The third crease is particularly important. Many experts now favor the removal of the side tabs, either by tearing them off cleanly or cutting them off with scissors; they serve no useful purpose and can hinder and delay the replacement of the deck in the card case.
Is there any advantage to using a close-up pad of some kind?
When you perform card magic, you should be able to do certain tricks on any surface. Whether you have a special pad or mat, a padded or unpadded table cloth, or the bare table, as a magician you should not be dependent on the surface. Nevertheless, in practice sessions and in most performances – certainly in formal performances – you should arrange for every possible advantage. In addition to warm, well-cared-for hands and a new deck, a proper pad to perform on belongs in your arsenal.
Use as large a pad as possible, since this permits larger motions. The smallest pad you should consider is sixteen inches by twenty. A pad smaller than this will produce cramped handlings and prevent clear and attractive displays when cards are set out. Small pads are only practical to carry on trains and airplanes, or to practice on small tables, but don’t even think of using them to perform.
The underside of the pad should be made of slip-proof rubber, the topside of velvet or velvet-like material. Avoid felt, which becomes fuzzy, gets under your fingernails and soon leaves the top looking used. Between the top and bottom layers of the pad there can be an interface of sponge rubber to provide necessary softness, in technical parlance called “give”. Some experts swear by very soft pads, though I personally prefer a somewhat firmer surface.
As for color: green is considered a calming and neutral color, which is why many surfaces made for card playing are green. I prefer a pure, dark blue, since I generally work with red cards. Black is also good when using red cards, and can look striking with silver coins, cups and other pretty props as well. A deep, dark red or elegant mustard yellow is also viable. The color is surely a question of taste, but you should avoid bright colors, which irritate the spectators‘ eyes.
What should we consider in terms of our hands when handling playing cards?
German philosopher Karl Jaspers once remarked, “The hand is the extension of the mind”, and Andreas Tenzer maintained, “The hand is the extended arm of the heart.” To this I would add that the instrument, in our case a deck of cards, is the extension of the hand. To stay with this analogy: mind, heart and hand are the “artistic trinity”, which through the use of an instrument can create amazing experiences for a small or large group of people, if led by a skilled and inspired individual.
Together with the cards as your instrument, your hands are the most important tools that actually determine the success of the magic you are going to perform. And any work of art is generally only as good as the tools employed to create it. In any case, you can only expect the best results if you care for them properly. The coordination between your thoughts and the movement of your hands is also extremely important.
How important is size of your hands and your skin type?
People with all types of skin can, of course, perform magic. But there are certain techniques that are easier for those having somewhat drier skin, whereas others are facilitated by a somewhat moister skin. The specific anatomy of your hands will make some techniques easier for you, while others will test your patience. Obviously, huge hands and long fingers better cover most sleight-of-hand. But such an attribute can also have its disadvantages.
Once you know your hand and skin type, you will take note of this relationship and patiently spend more time on some techniques than on others; and you will naturally be happy when some techniques prove easy for you. From my own experience and the result of polling many experts throughout the world, I can assure you that you can learn every technique, independent of the kind of hand and skin you have, providing you motivate yourself to devote sufficient practice to it, which – as stated earlier – can vary from hand to hand. In the worst case you can console yourself with the knowledge that every technique may be replaced by another technique, or a principle, or a subtlety or ruse.
The anatomy of your hand will change very little during your lifetime – unless you are reading this as a child. However, several factors, such as age, environment, climate and stress, are responsible for a change in skin types. From birth to my mid-twenties, I had very moist hands. Around age twenty-six, my skin got drier. This can also be measured in terms of one’s use of decks: I used to need three to four decks each week. Now I need only that many a month.
Do you have any advice about hand care?
Your hands will be on constant display during performance. Can you risk having them not look their best? Pay attention to your hands, for they represent your greatest investment in the art of performing magic with cards. Well-groomed hands will give you the same feeling of well being as wearing a freshly laundered and pressed shirt.
Your hands will quickly become soiled as you practice. The dust all around us will stick to the sweat and oils of your hand to make them dirty. Soiled hands in turn shorten the lifetime of your deck, even with plastic coated cards, which otherwise last a long time. Before practicing and, of course, before every performance, wash your hands with a mild soap. I personally use an alkali-free pH7 liquid soap. Such neutral soap removes dirt without harming the natural oils of the hands. This keeps the hands from drying out after washing, and leaves you with practically the same feeling in your fingers after washing as before, so that your practice session can continue unimpeded. Try different soaps and, when you find the one that is best for you, stick with it. If you have very moist hands, you can find dehydrating creams in drug-stores that will keep your hands dry. This can be a great help during practice and performance. I used them for years when I was young and had naturally moist hands.
If you have normal or somewhat dry hands, I recommend that you apply a cream after each washing. Use a formula that is quickly absorbed and non-greasy – your cards will thank you. You can skip the cream after the practice-session washings. Office supply stores sell so-called fingertip moisteners used for instance by bank tellers to count paper money. “Sortkwik” is one such product, which is common in the USA, but you can find similar products in every country. Dai Vernon and other experts used a hand lotion called “Chamberlain’s Golden Touch Lotion”; it is still available and you can find it over the internet. Both these products are applied just before performing, and with a little ingenuity you can make their use even part of your presentation.
The appropriate length of your fingernails is partly a matter of taste, but short nails facilitate the execution of most techniques and generally look better. Nail biting is absolutely taboo; break the habit, even if it means visiting a therapist. Pay just as much attention to your cuticles. My advice: Go at least once to a professional manicurist, paying close attention to the procedure and getting professional advice on the proper care of your nails. Then buy a good pair of nail shears, a cuticle remover and a good cream, compatible with your skin type.
Card handling techniques
Does it really matter how you do basic things like dealing or spreading cards?
Dealing cards would seem to be so elementary a topic, you may wonder why it is necessary to discuss it at all. But once again there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. Initially, either would serve the purpose equally well, but for advanced techniques precise positions of the fingers are critical.
The same is true with spreading cards. This technique will be used often with the cards either face up or face down. Once again we are analyzing a procedure with which you may feel you are already completely familiar, for who has not spread the deck between the hands when picking out cards? But pay attention to the positions of the fingers and the manner in which cards are pushed from hand to hand. This technique is the foundation on which sleight of hand will also be built.
I already know how to shuffle a deck. Do I really need to re-learn how to do this?
There are different ways to shuffle a deck of cards, including in the hands, or on the table, and in the air. Even though you may think you already know how to do these moves, and indeed have probably been shuffling cards for a long time, you should learn methods to professionally do it. These methods are elegant because they are efficient and economical. However, they also use precise fingering, which will become important when you want to learn more advanced sleights based on these grips, such as jog- and break-shuffles.
It is important that you learn to do these moves properly, even if this means unlearning some handling habits. At the beginning some of the new “ways” will feel strange, but within a few days you will feel at ease with them and recognize how well they allow you to control the cards; control is what shuffling is about. Piano virtuoso Arthur Rubinstein in his autobiography states: “Virtuosity is when the artist controls his instrument, and not vice-versa.”
How important is the overhand shuffle, and its technique?
Overhand shuffling is a basic tool of card conjuring. More likely than not, most of you will already have mastered a version of the overhand shuffle. But even if you have been performing the overhand shuffle since you first learned to play cards, you will soon recognize that the proper method employs a technique that feels somewhat different. The grip will probably seem a bit unconventional, and you may wonder why this retraining is necessary, since your present overhand shuffle technique is more than adequate to mix the cards.
However, as soon as we get to the first actual techniques using the overhand shuffle, such as control of top and bottom stocks or the control of selected cards, you will realize that the “family style shuffle” is totally inadequate for a precise and secure execution of such sleights. The basic method I teach is a prerequisite for successful execution of all subsequent overhand shuffle techniques. Of particular importance are the positions of the forefinger and the little finger of the left hand, as well as the way the cards are shuffled off. With a little patience and perseverance the proper technique will open a door to a big room you probably didn’t know even existed; it is the room to artistic and expert card handling. Please believe me if I say that it is worth mastering.
How important is the riffle shuffle, and its technique?
The riffle shuffle is the shuffle preferred at gambling tables. This is primarily because it was once thought that the riffle shuffle made cheating more difficult. Today there is more literature devoted to various riffle shuffle techniques than to any other shuffle. Anything you can do with an overhand shuffle can be done with a riffle shuffle, and much more besides.
Although most card players know and use the riffle shuffle today, many people still find it fascinating when it is neatly performed, perhaps partly because of its association with gambling and its lore. You should therefore include in your performances tricks using the riffle shuffle, and become familiar with the basic riffle shuffle techniques. Don’t neglect to master these basics from the outset, as they will be the foundation for more advanced techniques you will encounter later.
Also learn how to square after shuffling. The method first recommended in print in 1902 by the mysterious card sharp S. W. Erdnase is a particularly efficient and elegant method of doing so. The Waterfall Riffle Shuffle is also a technique to learn, and is not only impressive to spectators, but is also very useful when no table is available.
Should magicians perform card flourishes?
Flourishes are essentially overt techniques in the service of showmanship. The “card tricks” of stage manipulators often consist largely of flourishes, such as one- and two-handed fans, springing and cascading the cards, tossing a ribbon of cards into the air and catching it again, throwing and catching individual cards like boomerangs. There are also flourish effects, such as the bare-handed production of single cards or even fans of cards, the diminishing and expanding of cards, etc. Flourishes showcase the performer’s skill, whether at the table or on the stage. The goal is not to mystify by performing something inexplicable, but to handle the cards in an unusual, yet aesthetically pleasing manner. They also create psychological and dramatic accents in the course of a routine.
Many competent performers have expressed their opinions on the use of flourishes, resulting in three basic schools of thought on the subject:
1. At one extreme are those who maintain that the performer should handle the cards clumsily, so that the subsequent trick appears as miraculous as possible. With no apparent skill involved, it can only have been accomplished by magic.
2. At the other extreme are those who believe this is nonsense and that the performer should appear as skillful as possible, dazzling the spectators with displays of manipulative bravura.
3. Between these two extremes lies a third school, which follows the philosophy of naturalness championed by Dai Vernon, universally and respectfully known as the “Professor”. This school teaches that the cards should be handled so as not to arouse suspicion. Above all, they should be handled neatly and nonchalantly, with the ease and casualness that defines the true master. Doesn’t one expect a violin virtuoso to hold the violin securely and guide the bow precisely, with complete ease and confidence?
A discretely introduced flourish, such as the dribbling of the cards after the return of a selection to the deck, helps to underscore the fairness of the procedure. An unusual way of turning a face-down card face up to reveal the chosen card can strengthen the effect. Using an elegantly made fan to display the cards as all different imbues the handling with an aesthetic quality. Even relatively easy flourishes such as a ribbon spread and turnover on the table give the impression of above-average dexterity and – properly applied – can make an effect considerably more memorable and impressive for an audience. Introduce them into your performances with care and intelligence, and they will contribute disproportionately to your success.
What simple card flourishes should beginners learn?
● Dribbling cards is a technique that has numerous uses. Among them are: as a flourish, as a method for having a card chosen and replaced, as a demonstration of the performer’s lack of control over the cards, as a way to prepare for a palm, by affording a reason to briefly hold the deck with two hands, and much more.
● The Ribbon Spread is a flourish, but also a utility move that serves many purposes, such as having cards selected and replaced, showing that all cards are different and mixed, glimpsing a card at a certain position, and a large etcetera. You will be astonished at the incredibly strong impact this gesture with the cards has on laymen. Somehow the technique appears much more difficult than it is. Knowing it has such an impact, use it sparingly, acknowledging that you are accomplishing something extraordinary.
● The Riffle is a little flourish that should be used sparingly and deliberately. I emphasize this here because the riffle can become a nervous tic, subconsciously repeated without realizing that it annoys the spectators. In such circumstances it communicates an impression of clumsiness. Yet, if introduced judiciously, it can underscore dramatic moments, providing an artistic highlight.
●The Swivel Cut is the creation of the American vaudeville legend, Nate Leipzig. It is a two-handed flourish that has many possible applications to trick techniques.
● The Charlier Cut can be used as a one-handed pass – that is, a secret cut not intended to be seen by the spectators – but can also be used as a visible flourish, and even as a gag. It is the invention of the nineteenth century enigma, Charlier.
● Different methods of turning over the top card are suited for turning over a previously selected card at the climax of a trick, or simply to show the spectators a card that will be used subsequently.
In closing, how would you describe the importance of playing cards for card magic?
Without doubt, playing cards are the most fascinating instrument employed in the art of magic. No less a performer than Hofzinser designated card conjuring the “poetry” of magic. Cards have produced a palette of sciences, from their symbolism of humanity to their numerical properties and all the mathematical possibilities embodied therein. They serve at play and strategy, for fortune-telling and occult practices, and as a vehicle for social communication. They permit an expression of skill and intelligence.
Everything is brought together in card conjuring, for there is no effect, no emotion, that can’t be expressed with a deck of cards. They are a microcosm reflecting the “human condition”, to use Rousseau’s expression, mirroring the fate and reality of mankind. Card tricks unite the principles of nature (natural material), of art (creativity, interpretations, self expression, talent), of science (psychological and mathematical principles) and of spirituality (symbolism, personal growth, therapy).
Is there anything else you’d like to share about magic, or about playing cards?
I’m amused when I read or hear that, “Card tricks are boring,” or, “Women don’t like card tricks.” This is like saying a piano concert is boring, or women don’t like piano music. Playing cards are merely an instrument, and yes, preforming with them can be boring, if used by an uninspired, boring performer. I cannot count the times where I did not do card tricks in a performance, and spectators begged, “Can you also do a card trick, please?”
Clearly, most card tricks are connectional, rather than purely visual. It is therefore of utmost importance to choose good pieces (there are many bad magic tricks, not just card tricks), understand them thoroughly, practice them assiduously, and then perform them capably by appealing to the spectator’s logos (intelligence) and pathos (emotion), and do it with ethos (sincerity and competence); otherwise no success can be expected. That requires a bit of talent, much passion, and a lot of work. As the saying goes, “You can’t have something for nothing, and there is always a price to pay, even death costs your life.”
Are there any questions that you’d love to answer and that you wish I had asked?
Yes, this one. Thank you, EndersGame, and all of you who have read this far!
Essential Roberto Giobbi Resources
Free/inexpensive resources teaching basic card handling
If you are interested in learning more about card magic, you can’t go wrong by choosing Mr Giobbi as your teacher, and checking out some of his books or videos. I wish that when I began my journey into card magic many years ago, instead of focusing on learning some tricks, I’d started by learning the fundamentals of card magic, and proper card handling. The best advice a budding magician can receive is to start with the fundamental techniques. You’ll get far more enjoyment out of your card magic, and progress far more quickly by first learning the proper and basic techniques of card handling, including shuffling a deck, and controlling cards. Once you acquire skills like these, a large world will open up for you.
And these aren’t just skills that are important for magicians, but for anyone who enjoys playing cards. Practically all of us are doing overhand shuffles, riffle shuffles, or cutting a deck. But are you doing it elegantly, efficiently, and artistically? Among other things, Roberto Giobbi will teach you how to do this properly. I had to unlearn a few bad habits and poor techniques in the process, but I’m ever so glad that I’ve now mastered these things properly with the help of his books and videos. And believe me, learning from him is much better than heading to youtube, where teachers are many, but artists are few. Unfortunately there are many tutorial videos that rely on a mediocre ability in card handling. And if these are your go-to teachers you’ll learn bad habits, inferior techniques, and in the long run it won’t hold you in good stead.
So where can you start? I’d suggest two resources, both of which Mr Giobbi has made available for free or a nominal cost, as part of his love for the art of magic, and his genuine desire to help new magicians and new card handlers get off on the right foot:
● Video: Fundamental Techniques
NB: This is Lesson 1 from Giobbi’s video course “Card College 1 & 2 – Personal Instruction: The Complete Course”
Giobbi has an entire course that teaches the fundamentals of card magic, entitled Card College 1 & 2: The Complete Course (€4.95 for individual lessons, or a discounted €49.95 for all 23 lessons). But he’s made the first lesson free, and it covers the following topics: Basic Grips, Squaring, Various Cuts, Spreading & Outjogging Cards, Dribbling, Various Deals, Various Break Handlings, Step, Ribbon Spread, Preparing the Card Case. It’s more than half an hour long, and has excellent content that is just as relevant for anyone who owns a deck of playing cards, as it is for magicians.
● E-Book: Introduction to Card Magic
NB: This 150 page PDF includes some reworked material from Giobbi’s outstanding book Card College 1
Giobbi was once asked to make an introductory course for newcomers to card magic. As part of that he created this e-book in 2012, which features 150 pages of extensive instruction about the basics. Some of the answers above have been taken from this book (and appear here with his permission). Readers will welcome the fact that this e-book doesn’t just teach some basic magic sleights, but most of its material is dedicated to teaching general card handling techniques. That makes it just as useful for anyone who handles a deck of cards! Besides teaching 6 fun card tricks that are basically self-working, the book has chapters about the history of playing cards, instruction about basic shuffles and cuts, and some simple flourishes like the ribbon spread, swivel cut, and charlier cut. It also covers ways to elegantly turn over the top card, deal cards, square a deck, and much more. Besides being well-illustrated with accompanying photographs and examples, perhaps the best part about the e-book is that it contains links to youtube videos throughout. So as you’re reading, you can click on a link, and get directed straight to a short video clip that illustrates the move or shuffle that you’re learning. This is brilliant! Much of the material overlaps with the first lesson of the video course, and these work very well together.
An earlier version of this e-book sold for €9.95, but Giobbi has just revised it, and has made the updated and improved 2019 version available for just €6.95 via his website, in order to promote the art of card magic and to help budding magicians. So there is only a minimal cost to download it, although there is a “Donate” link on page 154 which you can use to give Giobbi a further donation of appreciation if you wish.
In my opinion, this video and this book are a must-watch and a must-read for anyone who owns a deck of playing cards. Certainly if you’re a collector of playing cards or if you enjoy playing card games, you will almost certainly find it very useful and interesting. And of course that will be all the more so if you have any interest whatsoever in card magic. But I can’t emphasize enough that the material in these resources is relevant to anyone who uses a deck of cards, and only part of it is magic-specific.
Other resources teaching card magic
If you have a real interest in card magic and want to learn more, here are my top recommendations for you.
● Video: Card College 1 & 2: The Complete Course
You can’t do much better than working your way through this course. It was originally created as a set of 4 DVDs, with a run time of almost 8 hours, and is now available from Roberto’s website as a digital download. The 23 lessons all cover different topics, and will teach you all the basics of card magic. In addition, it also teaches a large number of tricks, with almost every lesson including one or two tricks that put the techniques learned into practice. You can buy the lessons individually for €4.95, but there’s a real saving by just buying all 23 lessons as a single package for €49.95; most people will find this excellent value given the amount and the quality of the content included.
● Books: Card College Light Trilogy and Card College 1-5
Giobbi has authored a series of three books entitled Card College Light, Lighter, and Lightest. These books each contain around 20 card tricks that require no sleight of hand, and are effectively “self-working”. These are not the boring mathematical atrocities you may have learned from masteryour grandfather, but are strong tricks that are easy to learn, and have a powerful impact. In fact, they’re high calibre tricks that are among the best you’ll find anywhere. Giobbi also teaches you what to say, and how to present them, to help generate the best result.
If you are ready for more advanced material, and want to take a more serious course in intermediate and advanced card magic, then try the five volume Card College set, which is considered to be the gold standard textbook in card magic, as evidenced by the fact that it’s available in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, and even Japanese. Giobbi has also produced a new series of DVDs that can be used as a companion to the books or as an independent learning tool, and which covers much of the advanced material from the three last volumes in this series.
One of Roberto Giobbi’s real strengths is the scholarly approach that he brings to his magic. Besides providing explanations in a very well-organized, clear, and logical manner, it’s quickly obvious that he is not only articulate but also a real “thinker”, who has a real love for the art of magic. Many young magicians are drawn to the flashiness of the latest and greatest magic effects that can be purchased. But Roberto is interested in understanding what makes magic elegant, and what you need to do with a deck of cards so that everything you say and do produces a convincing presentation that entertains and amazes.
When reading or watching his work, much can be learned from his insightful explanations and perspectives, which cover giving attention to the smallest details of presentation, as well as important lessons about the construction of magic. Experienced magicians will realize that learning the right techniques is only a part of magic, and that for magic to be strong, it needs careful construction, presentation, and showmanship. These are the kinds of things that you will learn from Roberto Giobbi. He has a passion for the art of magic, a deep respect for his sources and for his students, and has a real gift for analyzing and explaining the small nuances that are essential for the performance of strong magic, and for preserving magic as an elegant and artistic art-form.
Mr Giobbi’s contribution to beautiful card magic can’t be underestimated, given the wonderful resources he has produced to help newcomers learn the fundamentals of card handling and card magic. And we are fortunate that he is making his instruction about our first steps into the world of card handling available to us for free or at a nominal cost. Most of us are blessed to be able to own playing cards of the highest quality. All that remains is for us to learn to use them elegantly and artistically. And with Mr Giobbi holding our hand, we are almost certainly going to improve our skills, and enjoy our playing cards even more than ever before!
Where to learn more? Check out Roberto Giobbi’s resources here:
– Official: Website and Webshop
– Starting resources: Lesson 1: Fundamental Techniques (free video), Introduction to Card Magic (€6.95 e-book)
– Books: Card College Light Trilogy, Card College 1-5
– Videos: Card College 1 & 2: The Complete Course, Card Magic Masterclass