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Why do some sleights survive while others are forgotten?

Why do some sleights survive while others are forgotten?

      Magicians use various tools in order to perform the tricks you all know and love. One of these is sleight of hand - the ability to manipulate an object such as a deck of cards or a coin in order to help you achieve a certain magical effect. These skills that magicians learn and practice are called “sleight of hand techniques” or, shortly, “sleights”.

      For example, one of the most popular sleights which you might know of as well is called palming. Palming is the act of secretly holding out a card in your hand while the audience perceives your hand to be empty.

      A magic trick is often the combination of multiple different sleights. In magic, just as in any other industry, there are performers and creators. Creators come up with new sleights or tricks, which they then publish in various magazines or, more recently, websites and performers pick them up and then use them in their shows.

      Ever since “The Discoverie of Witchcraft”, the first ever ‘manual’ of magic published in 1584, thousands of sleight of hand techniques have appeared in publication. Some of these have survived and evolved throughout time, while others have been forgotten between the brown pages of old books.

      I’ve always wondered why some sleight of hand techniques get left behind while others prosper and are never forgotten. So, after quite a few years of merely asking myself this, I’ve recently taken the time to hide myself inside books and find out the answer! In order to answer the question, I took a ride through 145 years of card magic and observed how and why one single move has managed to survive the test of time. I decided that focusing on just one special move would be more fruitful and quick. 

      I’ve chosen The Top Change as my subject as it piqued my interest from the fact that, even though it’s such an easy move to execute, many avoid it or perform it badly, making you wonder, “What is this move and why are magicians so afraid of using it?” This move is also perfect for my question as the move is still being used today by magicians (courageous ones).

      You see, in order to achieve certain magical effects, magicians use various sleight of hand techniques. Sleights, as they are referred to, like palming and switching you might have seen in Hollywood movies such as Now You See Me 2 or Ant Man.

      Magicpedia, a sort of wikipedia for magic, defines color changes as a generic term for any card sleight in which one card is apparently (and often visually) changed into another ''. In order to achieve one such transformation magicians often use other techniques such as palming, switching or shifting to help them accomplish this visual feat.

      Andrew Galloway, a Scottish magician, put it quite poetically in his 1980 book “Diverting Card Magic” when talking about color changes:

“There are few sleights in card magic more effective (or difficult) than the change, and the very thought of openly switching one card for another in full view of the audience is enough to daunt all but the most confident of conjurors. It is one of those moves which is best learnt ' under fire ' as it were, with the performer waiting for the correct psychological moment (when the spectators' attention has relaxed) before making the change. However, this is not always possible and sometimes the sleight has to be executed without delay. “ (Andrew Galloway - Diverting Card Magic, 1980 p.11)

      If you change a card’s identity from a 3 to a Jack, that’s called a ‘color change’. If you change a card into a coin though, that’s called a ‘transformation’. “Color change” is a term referring to an object changing its color - be it a card, a coin, a silk or anything else.

So, what exactly is The Top Change?

      The term Top Change is usually understood to mean the exchange of a card with the top card of the deck. In essence, it is an easy sleight to learn, as the method behind it is quite straightforward. “When doing the basic sleight, you show the audience a card held in one hand while you hold the deck in your other hand. You then exchange the displayed card with the top card of the deck. The switch is done secretly, without anyone perceiving it.” Magic Christian, an Austrian magician, historian and master of the top change, writes in his renowned book on the very subject of the top change.

      Sounds quite easy, doesn’t it? Still, it is one of those sleights that is easy to pick up, but hard to master. Similar to Kendama or card throwing. This has been proved throughout history as in many of the books that I have read magicians have complained about seeing the sleight done badly on many occasions (similar to Kendama and card throwing…). 

      What’s interesting is that it isn’t quite the move per se which is executed the wrong way, but rather how the move is covered so that the spectator doesn’t catch it. Magic Christian writes about this in his book: “For centuries, many performers covered the actions of Top and Bottom Changes with body turns and broad sweeps of the arms. The underlying theory was that these large actions concealed the smaller ones of the exchange. However, such motions were often out of character with the performer's usual style of movement and therefore appeared hectic or artificial. This only drew attention to them and created confusion or suspicion.” (The Top Change, 2017)

      As you can imagine, cover means everything in magic. Hiding the secret is the key behind every magical effect out there. As such, many times magicians will spend an equal amount of time deciding how to mask a move as on how to perform it. Roberto Giobbi, a Swiss magician of great renown, explains why this is important in his book “Card College” Vol. 1 p. 236: “The top change, like palming and the pass [...] is a technique with no "external reality" (to borrow a phrase from the great Spanish master Arturo de Ascanio )-in other words, your audience should not be aware that any action has taken place.”

      This is why even if you perform a move perfectly, if you fail at providing proper cover for it, the spectator will see everything and you will have failed your card trick. This is why cover plays an important factor in determining a move’s quality and longevity.

Reason 1 - The Cover

      It’s the 1870s. France declares war on Prussia and invades Germany. The United States orders all Native Americans to move into reservations. And in 1876 Professor Louis Hoffman publishes “Modern Magic” , the first attempt at recording magic in an encyclopaedic fashion. In this book we will find the first English description of The Top Change. Here, Prof. Hoffman also writes about how one should cover the sleight through a half turn of the body to the left or right”, making this the official go-to cover for the move. 

      As a performer, once you’ve trained a sleight enough, you want to put it into application. The Top Change is one of those sleights that needs misdirection in order to fly by. Other sleights, such as the pass, can work with or without misdirection depending on how much you’ve practised the move. With the Top Change, one must either direct the spectator’s gaze to something else or cover the move entirely with the use of their body. But, even when all the requirements for good cover are met, magicians don’t always do a good job at misdirecting their audience.

      Ken Brooke, an English magician, consultant and magic dealer, talks about this phenomena in his book “The Unique Years” from 1980: Over the years I've seen many magicians attempt to top (or bottom) change a card. In the great majority of cases they signal that something is about to take place by either waiting too long before making the change, or ruin the entire effect by making a series of twist turns and erratic movements of both body and hands. I wish to assure my reader neither of these common faults are necessary for the correct execution of the move. It can and must be brought about in a calm manner and you can do that under cover of misdirection - natural misdirection brought about by natural movement.”

      Even if we know the wisdom and even if we’re told to find our own misdirection, sometimes it just doesn’t come to us. It would take almost 100 years since the Top Change’s first publication in English for very detailed cover actions to start appearing in specialty books, offering students of magic specific instructions of what exactly to do in order to make the move invisible. I believe this delay in explanations was due to the philosophy carried over the years regarding this topic and which I have found recursively through my studies. Jean Hugard’s tips in “Royal Road to Card Magic” (1948) sums this up perfectly:

“First master the switch while holding the hands relatively motionless. Once you have learned the feel and light pressures necessary to switch the cards smoothly, unhesitatingly and with minimal finger motion, begin to add a cover action that suits your style and the surrounding circumstances of the trick (a gesture with the left hand, using it to obtain or move some object, a stroke, snap or tap of the right hand's card, etc.). First comes the fluidity, then the covering context.“

      A snap, a tap or a wave don’t always fit seamlessly with the performer’s character or with the card trick he is presenting. And even if students are asked to come up with their own ideas, not everyone is so creative. As such, in a reply to the demand of more ideas for covering the sleight, almost 100 years later these start appearing in publication. 

      It’s the 1960s. France tests its first atomic bomb. Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human in space. And Dai Vernon publishes his “Further Inner Secrets of Card Magic” where we will encounter the most famous cover for the top change even to this day. In this work, Mr. Vernon teaches how to use a matchbox in order to distract from the execution of the top change. I believe this, along with the new wave of magic Dai Vernon and others started, inspired magicians to share their own ‘personal’ misdirection techniques.

      I’ve found a funny one, still from Mr. Vernon, where the performer accidentally drops a card on the floor and performs the top change as the spectator picks the card up (“Magic with Faucett Ross” 1975). One can imagine such misdirection gives the performer plenty of time to execute the move.

      From this point on we start encountering more and more specific covers that are tailored to fit together with the card trick being taught. In Roberto Giobbi’s “Card College” Vol.1 from 1995 there is even an entire chapter dedicated to different covers one can utilise. 

      It wasn’t that the old philosophy was forgotten, but rather, I would say, it was being put into application independently by each creator who would find a suitable top-change-cover for the trick he was teaching and then offer it to everyone else to learn. This sort of situation is more common nowadays when it comes to teaching sleight of hand techniques. As long as the move is not intended to be visual, but rather hidden, the majority of the time sleights are covered by specific actions - a square up of the deck, a shuffle or cut, a spread, a tap or even a fan. 

      We can understand now a little why the top change can be such a hot topic for practitioners of card magic. Seeing how the move is done under the spectator’s noses, magicians can always debate about the right way to cover the move. Ultimately, since the cover is so undefined, leaving it to the performer’s character and act to choose a proper method to mask the sleight, new ideas to cover the move will always pop up as time goes on and new magicians with unique personalities pick the move up and perform it ‘under fire’. These things guarantee that “The Top Change” will not be forgotten in the sands of time.

Reason 2 - Method and Potential

      While everyone was busy finding the right cover for their routine, one magician in particular devised a method that nullified the need for any misdirection. Professor Hofzinser, an Austrian-Hungarian magician coined “the father of card magic”, devised in 1910 a top change that one could perform underneath the wrathful gaze of the spectator. The action would happen swiftly as the left thumb would stroke the card held by the right hand. The sleight would happen so fast, that even when done gently, the spectator’s eyes couldn’t follow it. In doing so, Prof. Hofzinser changed the method behind the sleight creating what is now known as “The Hofzinser Top Change”. This is a fine example of how a cover (or, in this case, the absence of one) can inspire the creation of a move. 

      So many of us learn something, use it for a while, then begin altering it to shape our own personality and style. Just as we like doing things our way, magicians too like experimenting with what they learn. If a magician finds that a certain sleight of trick feels better or is more invisible when they perform it differently, they will do it that way, then share what they’ve discovered with their peers. Joshua Jay, a worldwide renown American magician, put it best in his book “How Magicians Think”, “Generosity is the norm in the magic community. It’s ironic that among the most secretive, closed communities, magicians are also very generous with each other.”

      As such, one of the first aspects that magicians start modifying after learning something is the method itself. When it came down to the correct way of performing The Top Change, many magicians ended up having split opinions. I find it fascinating how every single part of the move, by the end of this sleight’s journey, was altered and discussed; from which fingers should hold the card, to which hand should move and which should stay, which fingers should do the exchange and how should the deck be held. What’s interesting is that the first English description from 1876 differs very slightly from the modern way of performing the sleight. Still, when it comes to executing a sleight of hand technique, small changes mean a lot and it’s because of this that magicians continue tweaking moves even after they appear to be complete.

      The Top Change has inspired many new techniques and card tricks due to this. A quick search of “The Top Change” on The Conjuring Archive, an index for magic publications, gives you 354 mentions of the sleight being used or credited in various books. Some well worth-mentioning variations that have branched from the classic method of performing the top change are: a one handed version (by Fred Braue/Bert Allerton), a deckless version (by Guy Hollingworth) and changing the card with the 2nd, 3rd or further cards from the deck (by Magic Christian). 

      There’s only a few techniques in history that have gone through such treatment and most of the time these are moves that present the user with a certain challenge. Either the move is difficult to master, hard to cover and/or requires a certain finesse to execute naturally. Because of this, magicians take pride in having conquered one such sleight and are eager to showcase their progress to their peers. The Top Change also fits in this category by presenting the performer with the challenge of properly covering the sleight.

      And while magicians try taking the move to perfection, as a by-product of this, they also continue trying to come up with new ways of executing it or putting it into application. This quality shows the sleight’s potential to inspire new ideas and contribute greatly to it’s lifespan. Techniques such as the double lift, the push through shuffle or the top change have so many variations that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to know all of them. And these variations have helped make the move more well known, similar to how song remixes reach new audiences.


Reason 3 - Its Usefulness

      But it’s not just how challenging or how playful a move is that guarantees it’s longevity. One much more important aspect is its usefulness. Professional magicians must earn a living and when choosing a sleight to incorporate in their performance they weigh its value based on what they can achieve with it. Does it make controlling a card easier? More invisible? Does it look natural in the eyes of the audience?  Techniques such as the classic palm, the push off double lift or The Zarrow Shuffle have earned their spot in the Sleight Of Hand Hall of Fame based on such criteria. And in order for a move to earn it’s spot on that list, it must pass through the hands of many performers that test the move in different scenarios.

      As we’ve learned, The Top Change allows one to switch a playing card held in the right hand with the top card of the deck. Once a magician has grasped the technique it will start experimenting in order to discover what other things he could do with the sleight. Can the card be switched with the second one? How about the third and forth? Can it be switched with a card from the bottom or middle of the deck? Can the same technique be applied to switching multiple cards?

      Magicians always ask themselves such questions and by answering them they’ve created new ideas which then they’ve shared with the community. Here’s an example of how a small change can lead to a new idea. The “Talazac Switch”, named after a 19th century French magician by the name of Jean-Jacques-Maurice Talazac is a move used to switch four cards which are held in the right hand with 4 cards from the top of the deck. On first view you’d say it’s got nothing to do with the top change, but the move evolved from changing the finger positioning on the cards (from pinching them between your right 1st and 2nd finger to holding the cards by the short ends). If a change to the original sleight is made that is considered substantial enough to acknowledge, magicians begin the whole process again, start playing around with the new move, experiment to see what other possibilities it opens and, once again, try to find a suitable cover for the sleight.

      If a sleight is ‘cool’, but not very useful, it will be tossed away like an old toy in favour of a new one. What is much more important to a magician is just how much he or she can achieve with that sleight or with one of it’s variations. If the sleight continuously proves itself to be useful, either by resisting the test of time or through one of it’s variations, then the move will not be shelved and magicians will keep using it.

Final Reason - Habit and History

      When someone wants to start learning card magic you’ll always be able to find a couple of moves that are present in each beginner’s list. Some of these are (in no particular order) “The Erdnase Change”, “The Riffle Force '' , “The Diagonal Palm Steal” and “The Top Change”. Some of these moves have been around for so long that they’ve sedimented their place and have become ‘classic sleights’

      Magicians are very generous with one another, but they’re also quite unmerciful when it comes to revealing secrets to the general public. Still, when it comes to classic moves I have noticed that teaching them to lay audiences is not frowned upon. Nobody will be upset if you teach a palm change, a cross-cut force or a false overhand shuffle. 

      These two things make sure that whoever picks up magic will end up knowing about these sleights. In a way, these classic moves are now part of sleight of hand’s history, so it’s hard imagining a day when magicians will not be talking about them or using some sort of variation of the original move. 


      That was quite the trip, wasn’t it? We can see just how many factors play into a sleight’s longevity. If we want our sleight to still be used and talked about hundreds of years from now, we should make it easy enough to teach in under a minute, challenging to execute ‘under fire’ and make sure it has the potential to be remixed and played around with. Besides all the reasons that we’ve talked about, there’s surely a great deal of invisible factors that play their part (such as luck, name, etc.) when it comes to making a move appealing to magicians in the present and those to come. 

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John - October 6, 2022

Great article more of this would be extremely valuable to seasoned performers and beginners so bring it on chaps.

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