A classic for learning the fundamentals of card magic
by BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame
The Royal Road to Card Magic by Jean Hugard and Frederick Braue is one of the most recognizable and well known books in card magic. For decades already it has been recommended by many as the place to begin a serious journey into card magic, and as an ideal course for learning all the fundamentals. First published around 1948, this classic work has been reprinted many times, and inexpensive copies are readily available from Dover Publications. My understanding is that the content is now in the public domain. Certainly you won’t have to look hard to find a digital copy for free online (see the end of this article for some links).
I figured it was worth putting the spotlight on this classic work with the help of a review, for several reasons. First of all, there’s a generation of new magicians who are just starting out, and aren’t familiar with classic works like this. Many youngsters rely on inferior youtube videos to get started with their journey into card magic, developing poor techniques in the process, and thus making many false steps while trying to learn how to walk. We need to point beginners to reliable materials.
But a book like this is also of real value to those who consider themselves old hands at card magic. I decided to spend a few months brushing up on my card handling techniques, by systematically working through the entire Royal Road to Card Magic yet again. But unlike when I first attempted it on my own a couple of decades ago, this time I had some friends to guide me along the way: R. Paul Wilson and Rudy Hunter, with their video courses based on the book, and Mark Lewis and Andrew Musgrave, with their annotations. I carefully worked through the book in entirety, reading all these annotations, and watching all these videos. And I learned a lot.
Is Royal Road to Card Magic really that good, and does it still hold up today? Absolutely. Just read the following quotes from successful magicians, including some big names in the business, and consider what they had to say about the Royal Road to Card Magic:
● Simon Lovell: “The Royal Road to Card Magic remains as one of the great books on card magic for both the beginner and well seasoned card magician. It is an absolute must read for anybody who is serious about card magic.“
● Bill Malone: “Over the years I have taught magic to a lot of beginners and the first thing I ask them do is go out and get a copy of Royal Road to Card Magic … Later on in your own Journey, through the Highways and expressways of all card magic, the information you studied here will be a solid foundation for future growth in the art.“
● Steve Draun: “Some books bury themselves in your soul and stay there forever, “Royal Road” is such a book. I am relieved that I am not the only one who is influenced so deeply by a “beginners” book. The writing and selection of material are first class. My magic still reflects its teaching.“
● Martin Lewis: “Royal Road to Card Magic was my first magic book and the only book I ever learned from cover to cover. I guess that says it all. I still use many of the techniques I learned from it.“
● Paul Cummins: “The Royal Road to card Magic holds a special place in my heart, as it is the very first book on magic that I picked up … It is this book that opened the entire world of sleight-of-hand magic to me and thus, changed the course of my life!“
● Paul Gertner: “When ever someone asks about learning card magic Royal Road to Card Magic is one of my first suggestions. It is one of the first books I had when learning magic and I spent many hours as a teenager with that book in front of me and a deck of cards in my hands.“
● Andrew Wimhurst: “The name of this great book sums up the enjoyable, thoroughly engrossing and never-ending quest that is the study of card magic. Whenever I crack open the cover of my copy, I’m reminded of the many hours of pleasure I’ve had in poring over this, one of my first card books.“
● Walt Lees: “There is enough in the book which is timeless to make it worthy of being compulsory reading for anybody who aspires to handle a pack of cards in public.“
● Wesley James: “Royal Road was, and remains, a useful primer for the near-novice but aspiring card worker.“
With this article I’m hoping I can provide a useful service to others by providing some detailed thoughts about this classic. If you’re already familiar with card magic, maybe this will inspire you to revisit the fundamentals of card magic, encourage you to refine your techniques, to rediscover some hidden chestnuts, and to recapture the joy you felt when you first learned card magic. If you’re brand new to card magic, maybe this will help point you in the right direction towards exactly the resources you need. Whatever the case, I know that I’ve been enjoying working through all the basics again, and returning to some wonderful card tricks you can find in this classic.
So for those new to the book, what can you expect to find inside? Royal Road to Card Magic consists of around 300 pages, including a table of contents, introduction, preface, and index. But the bulk of the book consists of 20 chapters divided according to different techniques. And in each chapter, there’s first a detailed description of the technique and its importance, typically accompanied by a few black-and-white illustrations that illustrate the moves. And in most cases this is followed by a number of tricks that utilize that technique. It’s a progressive course, so you’re constantly learning more, and along the way you are applying the various techniques you learn.
Here’s a list of the different chapter topics:
● Part 1: 1. Overhand Shuffle, 2. Riffle Shuffle, 3. Flourishes, 4. The Glide, 5. The Glimpse, 6. The Key Card, 7. The Palm, 8. The Backslip, 9. The Overhand Shuffle II, 10. False Shuffles and Cuts, 11. The Double Lift and Turnover, 12. The Pass, 13. Miscellaneous Flourishes.
● Part 2: 14. The Reverses, 15. The Hindu Shuffle and Other Controls, 16. The Classic Force, 17. Top and Bottom Changes, 18. Arrangements, 19 Routines
● Part 3: 20. Platform Tricks
Many new magicians make the mistake of wanting to progress too quickly and want to jump straight to performing difficult tricks or routines. Instead, it is important to lay the foundation by grasping the basic mechanics and fundamentals of card magic, which will hold you in good stead life long. The Royal Road to Card Magic really does cover all the basics, and each chapter has a good overview of the key concepts and applications. For example, the chapters on the overhand shuffle don’t just teach the shuffle itself, but teach you how to control a single card, retain top or bottom stock, perform false shuffles, perform an injog and hold a break, and other essential controls related to the overhand shuffle. As such it provides a more thorough education in the fundamentals of card magic than many of the `crash course’ style videos I’ve seen from companies like Ellusionist, which are more focused on street magic and learning a small selection of tricks.
The Royal Road to Card Magic is geared to complete beginners, and I especially appreciate its didactic approach. First it explains the techniques needed for mastering a sleight, and then it immediately goes on to include one or more routines that employ that sleight. So it is deliberately set up to focus on teaching the techniques and skills that card magicians need, while at the same time providing direct practical application with tricks you can perform straight away using the newly mastered sleight. As such, not only new magicians can benefit from this course, but intermediate magicians will find a lot of good material and routines that they can use.
Overall the tricks in the Royal Road to Card Magic hold up quite well, despite the passage of time. By my count there are over 80 tricks in total, with around 3-5 in each chapter. Some of them are a little dated, because nowadays you can’t count on your spectator wearing a hat or a vest, nor is it acceptable to start reaching into a spectator’s pocket (especially that of a woman). The patter also needs an injection of new life at times, but it is a strength of the book that it not only teaches the mechanics of a trick, but also how to present it.
While some of the tricks are so-so, the majority are really quite good. With some polish, a number of the tricks from the book (e.g. Three Cards Across) are easily good enough to be used in a professional repertoire. From the first half of the book I especially recommend the following:
● Top-tier: Topsy Turvy Cards, Poker Players Picnic, Design For Laughter, Gray’s Spelling Trick, Do As I Do, Gathering of the Clan, Circus Card Trick
● Second-tier: Thought Stealer, Observation Test, Non Poker Voice, Now You See It, Tantalizer, Poker Puzzle
The tricks in the second half of the book are perhaps not quite as strong, but there are still some gems here, the standouts for me being:
● Top-tier: Rapid Transit, Ambitious Card, A Tipsy Trick, Pulse Trick, Think Stop, Three Cards Across
● Second-tier: Dr Fu Lui Tu, Righting a Wrong, Double Reverse, Mentalivity, Mountebank Miracle, The Changing Card (“Top Change” chapter), Think Stop, Everywhere & Nowhere
Constantly interspersed among the description of the techniques and tricks taught in the book, you’ll find many valuable tips about how to present magic.
Mark Lewis has said about the Royal Road to Card Magic, “I love this book. Fully 50% of my repertoire with cards comes from here. To be a good card magician you really don’t need much else except this book. And it tells you how to PRESENT the tricks therein. In some ways that is more important than the actual material.” While I wouldn’t be quite as extravagant with my praise and suggest that you don’t need much else besides this book, I’m inclined to agree with his positive assessment of the many valuable tips about how to present magic that you’ll find inside.
The truth is that we should be spending just as much time working on our presentation as we do on our moves, and there are many hidden gems and great insights that the authors share about this. The Royal Road to Card Magic doesn’t just teach you the hows of technique, or the method of the tricks you are learning, but also gets you thinking about the larger elements of presenting magic in a thoughtful and entertaining manner. That’s an essential part of card magic that will hold you in good stead throughout your magic career. In the “Sample Content” section below I’ve shared some examples of the gems you can expect to find interspersed throughout the book.
One of the best parts of Royal Road to Card Magic is how the material has been organized and structured from a didactic perspective. The approach it takes to learning is by providing a very systematic study of material, which gets you learning and mastering techniques, while at the same time applying this to good tricks you can perform.
Here’s what some master magicians and big names in the magic industry have had to say about the advantages of this approach to learning card magic, and why it really serve as a “royal road” to card magic:
● Max Maven: “I have always loved the title. The image of a road succinctly conveys the valuable idea that the study of card magic is a journey, not a quick fix. And by defining that journey as being royal, the issue of worthy respect is immediately established.“
● David Regal: “There is perhaps no better method of training than that used in Royal Road. By offering up effects one can do with each newly-acquired skill it becomes a system of rewards, and the book becomes, literally, a pleasure. There are tricks in this book I’ve performed for over twenty years … This book continues to be a profoundly positive force in card magic.“
● R. Paul Wilson: “It is important to follow this course from beginning to end, without moving forward until you have mastered each sleight and explored the routines in that chapter. This was the most valuable piece of advice I received when I first bought this book.“
● Roger Klause: “I found that the structure of the chapters which lead the student step by step through the fundamentals to the final chapters on routines allowed rapid progress on my part.“
● Bill Malone: “It is very important to read every page, not to skip through the book but read it the way it was intended as if you are going down a road from beginning to end. Do not take shortcuts! Even if the chapter heading doesn’t excite you, study it.“
● Wesley James: “Its primary value derives from its tone, perspective and aspiration, rather than its scope. Few books in magic’s broad literature were as pedagogic in approach but importantly, few view teaching technique as a requisite tool, giving direct means for the effective performance of tried and true plots.“
● Walt Lees: “When it first appeared, it was a highly innovative concept – a step-by-step guide to enable an absolute novice to progressively build up a working repertoire of sleights and effects by following a structured learning path. The endurance of the book is testimony to its success in doing just that.“
These eminent and experienced magicians are correct: this is something that Royal Road to Card Magic does very well. Other didactic resources follow a similar approach, notably the highly respected Card College by Roberto Giobbi. The material to be learned is divided up into topics, and for each topic there are a number of tricks that enable you to put what you’ve learned into practice. To start learning card magic with tricks alone is to put the cart before the horse. But to wait with performing your first tricks until you’ve mastered all the fundamental techniques comes at the cost of the opportunity to develop presentation and gain experience, and sucks the joy out of the learning exercise. The Royal Road to Card Magic does a great job of striking the right balance, while remaining very organized along the way.
To give you an idea of the strength of the material in Royal Road to Card Magic, and particularly some of the wisdom and tips you’ll learn about presenting magic, below are a few of the quotations that I especially found helpful when re-reading the book. Plenty more could be given, but I’m confident you’ll already benefit from reading these excerpts. And hopefully that will whet your appetite to read the book and discover more for yourself.
● On the difference between knowing the secret of a trick and knowing how to perform a trick:
“We cannot emphasize too strongly that knowing the secret of a trick is not the same as knowing how to perform that trick; and that knowing the secret of hundreds of tricks is of little value unless each can be performed smoothly and entertainingly. It is far better to know only a few tricks which can be performed with grace, skill and effect.” (p.xv)
● On the difference between doing and performing card tricks:
“We reiterate that there is a vast difference between doing and performing card tricks. Since your primary purpose in performing sleight-of-hand with cards is to entertain those who watch, it is not enough that you should achieve technical perfection alone.” (p.xvi-xvii)
● On the importance of good patter:
“You must also make your tricks amusing and interesting by weaving about a trick’s basal plot a pleasant discourse which will divert the spectators. We have tried to show you how this is done by outlining talk – or “patter” – for most of the tricks.
“Naturally, your patter should be in keeping with your own personality, gay and amusing if you have an ebullient personality, more factual if you are a more serious person. For this reason you should use the patter we have suggested only as an illustration of how the bare bones of a trick may be clothed in talk and action to make the presentation a striking one.” (p.xvii)
“Your talk, or patter, is an integral part of the routine and should be given as much thought as the mechanics of the trick.” (p.238)
● On the importance of good presentation:
“The most important thing for the beginner at card magic to bear in mind is this: A conjuring trick is just what the performer makes of it. It may be composed of the simplest elements, yet, given a plausible plot and dressed with appropriate patter, it can be transformed into an imposing illusion. In other words, it is not so much what you do as what you make the onlookers think you do.
“It has been said that “the proper way to do tricks is to do tricks.” That is true, provided it is borne in mind that the tricks must not only be done but must also be presented or acted properly. Good presentation can only be acquired by actual performance before an audience, even if it is composed only of your home circle. Confidence in yourself is the main thing. If you know that you can do the trick without any possible hitch, then you can devote your whole attention to “putting across” the fairy tales which you are telling.” (pp.15-16)
● On the importance of personality:
“A routine of card tricks which may serve one person admirably may not be nearly so effective in the hands of another, for the personality of a performer has much to do with the entertainment value which is got from the routine.” (p.238)
● On the value of self-working card tricks:
“The art of interspersing these self-workers with tricks that call for skill is an important principle of card magic. The most eminent magicians use self-workers; but they use only the good ones, never those which call for endless dealing of cards or obvious mathematical principles. Some of the good self-workers are gems of subtlety and misdirection. Some of them depend on faults of observation on the part of the spectators; many depend on the inability of most people to understand properly what is being done.” (p.16)
● On the use of flourishes:
“Flourishes are certain movements with the cards which do not come under the heading of sleights, since they are done openly. In general they are used to show elegance in handling the cards; sometimes, however, they serve a more useful purpose, that of misleading the audience as to the moment when an effect is really brought about. Used in moderation they are a decided asset to the card conjurer, but when carried to extreme lengths they defeat the very object that the magician should always have in mind, namely, that the effects he produces are done by magic and not by skill. A series of brilliant flourishes leaves only the impression of juggling skill on the minds of the onlookers, and the performer’s feats are dismissed by them with the remark, `He’s clever with his hands’.” (p.37)
● On the use of the double lift:
“When used in moderation and properly done this sleight is one of the most useful and deceptive of modern card sleights. Unfortunately many card men do it badly and far too often. We would caution the student first to learn to execute the sleight perfectly and then to use it sparingly and discreetly.” (p.141)
● On performing routines:
“Roughly the plan should be to start with a good trick, one that arouses interest at the very beginning, continue with tricks the effects of which are on an ascending scale of interest, and finish with the strongest effect of the series.” (p.236)
● On the length of routines:
“Construct your routines so that they can be performed in from ten to fifteen minutes. You will build a number of them, using different types of tricks—those performed at the table, those for use when standing and surrounded by people, and so on—and by limiting them to fifteen minutes at the most you will be sure that you do not monopolize a gathering. If when you have finished a routine your audience clamours for more, you have only to perform one of the other routines.” (p.239)
● On performing to family and friends:
“It may be wise to tell you at this time that you cannot gauge the effect of a trick accurately when you perform for your family or intimate friends. They know you too well. They will either tell you that you are wonderful or that you are not very good, and neither may be the exact truth. To determine the value of a trick and its presentation, perform it for strangers.” (p.239)
Is the Royal Road to Card Magic the best place to begin learning card magic? I don’t think so. In my opinion, the complete novice would be well advised to begin their journey into card magic with the help of some good self-working card tricks first. These allow you to focus on developing presentation, will quickly get you into performing, and you’ll quickly discover whether or not card magic is for you. We’re not talking here about painful and boring tricks that just involve lengthy periods of dealing and counting, because there are truly some top self working card tricks out there just waiting for you to try.
But after you’ve tested the waters of card magic in this way, and are keen to begin a more serious study of sleight of card magic, that’s where something like The Royal Road to Card Magic comes in. On balance, here are some of its strengths and weaknesses:
If you are genuinely interested in learning some sleight of hand, then Royal Road to Card Magic remains one of the better options available. Despite its age, many still consider this book as a Bible for card magic, and an ideal place for beginners to start their journey into card magic. The training method of having beginners systematically acquire a growing set of skills in sleight of hand, and teaching them tricks along the way, is excellent.
The majority of the tricks taught are very good. And the techniques for card handling and manipulation that are covered are quite sound. The many tips about presentation and other aspects of the art of card magic that are taught along the way are excellent. Especially compared with other works from its time, it’s well written, and the illustrations are generally quite clear and functional. And it doesn’t leave any huge gaps by omitting significant amounts of essential material that one would expect to find in a book of this kind; at least, not gaps that you can’t plug up later with supplementary material. Overall, this classic work has stood the test of time, and even stands head and shoulders above most modern books that promise to provide a grounding in card magic.
But because the Royal Road to Card Magic has been around for a while, this classic book does also show some signs of age, and it has some real weaknesses too. To begin with, it is somewhat dated in parts. I personally learned my card magic fundamentals from Roberto Giobbi’s more contemporary Card College, and when working through the Royal Road to Card Magic it really struck me how many aspects of this older work have been superseded. In numerous instances the patter and presentational touches need updating to bring them into our modern age, and so does the terminology and phrasing. Some of the tricks are poorly constructed in terms of technique or presentation, and need real polishing and refinement to make the most of them. At times there are even straight out mistakes in the descriptions (e.g. the Double Lift Force).
Some might argue that these are merely cosmetic weaknesses. But there are more substantial issues too. In a number of instances there are sleight of hand techniques that have been improved over time with better handlings. For example, some of the tricks later in the book rely too much on the classic pass, whereas nowadays there are safer and more deceptive means to accomplish the same result, such as through controlling a card. Other techniques that are very popular today, like the Elmsley Count, Erdnase Change, Cull, and Tilt, aren’t covered at all. Also missing for obvious reasons are the excellent innovations from recent decades in the area of false shuffles and cuts, and a lot of the recent work on stacks and memorized decks. More attention could also have been given to the psychological aspects of magic, and related art-forms that enhance card magic. And the absence of appropriate crediting and referencing would be considered completely unacceptable by today’s standards.
There is an additional challenge that isn’t unique to the Royal Road to Card Magic. Especially to a modern audience that often relies on learning from instructional videos, it can be hard work to make your way through written descriptions. In my first encounter with the book a couple of decades ago, without the benefit of any videos, I remember struggling my way through parts of the Royal Road to Card Magic, trying to visualize the moves that were being described and pictured, and not always getting things right.
Fortunately, good help is readily available today, and these weaknesses aren’t a reason not to pursue card magic with the help of this book. There are a couple of excellent video courses which systematically work through the book. They give you the opportunity to use the book while seeing the various moves and sleights demonstrated visually on screen. As such they serve as an excellent visual guide to the classic written work, help bring it alive for modern audiences, and even update aspects of it. There’s also a couple of very good written annotations to the book from contemporary magicians. These give valuable comments and tips on the material in the book, with the benefit of a modern perspective, and update it where necessary. I will cover these in further detail in a following article, but here are the resources that you should already know about if you are considering picking up the book:
● Royal Road to Card Magic video by Rudy Hunter. This was first produced by Magic Makers in 2005 as a set of four DVDs, and can now also be sourced as a digital download or watched via streaming video.
● Royal Road to Card Magic video by R. Paul Wilson. This originally appeared from L&L Publishing as a set of five DVDs, and covers the book more comprehensively, running for nearly twice as long (8 hours) as the Rudy Hunter video set.
● 10×10 video by R. Paul Wilson. This runs for only around 80 minutes, and covers 10 lessons featuring 10 principles of card magic (hence the name), mostly teaching tricks and content from RRTCM.
● The Annotated Royal Road to Card Magic by Mark Lewis. This is a copy of the original book with personal annotations from Mark Lewis, a very experienced performer who credits RRTCM with changing his life, and uses it for at least half of his performing material.
● The Annotated Royal Road to Card Magic by Andrew Musgrave. Andrew has written up detailed companion annotations for every technique and trick taught in the book, and includes many alternative handlings and references.
I especially recommend using one of the videos based on Royal Road to Card Magic in combination with the book itself. Sometimes it’s difficult to get an accurate idea of how to manipulate cards correctly based purely on a written description of a sleight. Seeing something demonstrated visually can be a wonderful way to really learn a technique properly, and these videos really help with that.
Many people who learned card magic using the Royal Road to Card Magic will have a nostalgic attachment to it, and be somewhat blind to its faults. So I’m not surprised this continues to be recommended as much as it is, especially given how inexpensive it is, and because there are very few modern alternatives that recommend themselves above it. For its time, it was an outstanding work, and even in the decades following it no other work on the same subject really came close to matching its excellence. More recent books like Roberto Giobbi’s Card College have surpassed it, but they are also more costly, and go into far more depth.
With the help of the extra resources like R. Paul Wilson’s companion video course and the annotated editions of the text, The Royal Road to Card Magic remains a solid introduction to the basics of card handling, even by today’s standards. Not only does it provide an excellent introduction to the key sleights and skills you need, but it also teaches some excellent and time-tested card tricks in the process. Even more than 70 years after they were published, tricks like Design For Laughter, Poker Player’s Picnic, and Three Cards Across are as good as they ever were, and will delight and entertain modern audiences.
When used in conjunction with expertise of the additional resources such as the ones mentioned, the Royal Road to Card Magic still remains an excellent choice for the beginner who is serious about card magic to start out with. If you work your way carefully through it, ideally with assistance of a contemporary companion to guide you (e.g. video or annotations), you are certain to build a solid foundation of skills and tricks, and will be well set for a lifetime of enjoying card magic.
Next time: In a follow-up to this article, I’ll take a closer look at the videos based on this book, provide a detailed review of the annotated versions, and point to the top alternative options that you should know about when beginning your journey along the road to card magic.
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known and highly respected reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, cardistry, and card collecting, and has reviewed several hundred boardgames and hundreds of different decks of playing cards. You can see a complete list of his game reviews here, and his playing card reviews here. He is considered an authority on playing cards and has written extensively about their design, history, and function, and has many contacts within the playing card and board game industries. You can view his previous articles about playing cards here. In his spare time he also volunteers with local youth to teach them the art of cardistry and card magic.