An Easy Self-Working Magic Trick


Let’s try something different today.

I like magic tricks but I’m awful at them — I’m not dexterous enough to work most that require sleight of hand, and many tricks require that. But a few years ago, I found an amazing card trick that doesn’t require any sleight of hand at all — it’s really just an odd quirk of math. It’s fun, simple, and usually gets a “wow” (albeit not a huge one), and I figured I should share it. As long as you follow the instructions below — assuming I wrote them up well — it will work every time. (I can’t quite tell you why this works, though. I only kind of understand the math behind it and not well enough to explain it. If anyone has a good explanation, send it to me and I’ll share it in a future Weekender.)

I’m sure the trick has a name but I never learned it, so let’s call it “The Magic Spell.” It’s a pun, as you’ll see in a moment. All you’ll need is a standard deck of playing cards and a friend. You can do the card movements yourself but if you want to make it stronger, ask the person you’re doing the trick with to handle the cards throughout.

The Setup

Step 1:

Take nine random cards out of the deck and place those cards, face down, into three piles of three cards. Let’s call those piles A, B, and C. Set the other 43 cards aside; you won’t need them. 

Step 2:

Have your friend choose one of the three piles. I’m going to assume

e they chose pile A to make this easier to explain, as the names are fungible. Without looking at it — although it really doesn’t matter if you do — show your friend the bottom card of pile A. 

Step 3:

Put pile A on top of pile B, and then that combined pile on top of pile C. If you did this right, your friend’s card should now be in the third position on this combined pile of nine cards. 

The “Spell”

Step 1:

You’re going to do something weird here — you’re going to ask your friend what their card is. (That’s not something you usually do in a magic trick and if you want another way to do the trick, you can instead flip over a random card in the unused 43 remainders, but I don’t recommend it.) You actually don’t need to know the full name yet, so if you just want to ask the rank of the card (e.g. “Ace” or “Seven” or “Queen”), that’s fine for now. We’re going to pretend they chose the Jack of Spades, but this will work for all 52 cards.

Step 2:

You’re going to spell out the first word — the rank — of the card. For every letter, say the letter aloud, and then take a card from the top of your 9-card pile and put it face down on the table in a new pile. (Oh, to do the trick, you also need a table or equivalent.) So for the Jack of Spades, you’d say “J,” take the top card of the pile and put it face down on the table, then say “A,” and take the next card on the pile and put it face down on top of that first card, etc. You’ll end up with a pile of four cards, face down on the table (in reverse order of where they were previously) and five cards in your hand. It sounds complicated but it’s really not.

Step 3:

Take the remaining five cards (in this case; if the card were a “Seven,” you’d only have four cards remaining) and place them on top of the pile sitting on the table. This is where the trick usually goes wrong — if you pick up the cards on the table before putting the remainders on top, you’re going to mess it up.

Step 4:

Repeat Steps 2 and 3 for the next word of the card: “Of.” This is true for every card, and it often confuses people because you don’t think of “of” as part of the card’s name, but it’s there. Repeating Steps 2 and 3 means that you’re going to say “O,” take the top card of the pile and put it face down on the table, say “F,” take the next card of the pile and put it face down on top of the “O” card, and then take the remaining seven cards and put it on top of that. Easy.

Step 5:

Repeat Steps 2 and 3 for the final word of the card, the suit. It’s going to be one of Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, or Spades. If it’s “Diamonds,” it’s going to feel a little weird — “Diamonds” has eight letters, so you’ll end up with only one card left when you finish the repeated Step 2. Don’t worry about it.

Step 6:

Place the 9-card pile on the table and tell your friend that we’ve done the “spell” but we need to make sure that we add the “magic.” Maybe pretend to sprinkle some fairy dust or pretend to meditate on the question, whatever. Then tell your friend that you’re going to spell out “Magic.” Pick up the pile of cards, say “M,” and take the top card of the pile and put it face down on the table. Repeat for “A,” “G,” and “I” — but not “C.” For the C, you’re going to take the top card of the pile and place it face up on the table. 

Ta-da! If you did the trick right, that will be your friend’s card.

The Now I Know Week In Review

Monday: The Great Red Delicious Bailout of 2000: “Big Apple” doesn’t mean New York, at least not in this case.

Tuesday: Why We Eat Popcorn at the Movies: The snack is now a deeply-rooted part of the movie theater experience… but why?

Wednesday: The Jail With a Built-in Breakout Plan: I still can’t believe this happened.

Thursday: How the Cold War Brought Us Closer to a Galaxy Far, Far Away: R2-D2, it is you, it is you!

And some other things you should check out:

Some long reads for the weekend:

1) “Fishing for Scallops When the Scallops Are Nearly All Dead“ (New York Times, 9 minutes, January 2024). The subhead: “Bay scallops brought prosperity and community to the people of Shelter Island. Today, most of the scallops are gone, but some fishermen haven’t given up hope.” This story is what Billy Joel’s “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” would be if it were turned into a long form piece of reporting.

2) “They Hacked McDonald’s Ice Cream Machines—and Started a Cold War” (Wired, 26 minutes, April 2021). McDonald’s soft serve icre cream machines tend to break often, and one fan of the frozen dessert, a guy named Jeremy O’Sullivan, decided to investigate why. he claims to have discovered a way to access the machines’ diagnostic menu, and in doing so, can monitor the machines whenever he goes to get a Big Mac. And he thinks that there’s something fishy going on with the broken machines:

The secret menu reveals a business model that goes beyond a right-to-repair issue, O’Sullivan argues. It represents, as he describes it, nothing short of a milkshake shakedown: Sell franchisees a complicated and fragile machine. Prevent them from figuring out why it constantly breaks. Take a cut of the distributors’ profit from the repairs. “It’s a huge money maker to have a customer that’s purposefully, intentionally blind and unable to make very fundamental changes to their own equipment.”

That’s only the start of this adventure. Read the whole thing.

3) “Why Every Kid in America Learns to Play the Recorder” (Atlas Obscura, 7 minutes, December 2015.) Frankly, I’ve always preferred the kazoo.

Have a great weekend!