Sleight-of-hand or Self-working Magic?

Steve Faulkner Performing Magic

Written by Steve Faulkner

January 19, 2021

In two previous posts, I’ve introduced and briefly outlined the main differences between sleight-of-hand magic and self-working tricks. There were two reasons for this:

a) for those completely new to learning magic, you now have a definition, with a little clarity, around the common misconceptions of each


b) I get many people asking about the pros and cons of each approach, and which they should choose as a speciality.

For this post, I’ll concentrate on the latter.

First, I’ll very briefly summarise the main difference.

Sleight of hand magic: Magic requiring more physical dexterity and the learning of moves and ‘sleights’. The learning emphasis is on physical practice.

Self-working magic: Magic requiring a piece of apparatus, or methodology/process to achieve the effect. The learning emphasis is on memorising the routine and building a presentation around it.

So which is ‘better’ ?

In my professional opinion, based on the experience of performing and watching hundreds of people react to hundreds of magic tricks, is that there is no good, bad, right or wrong. But you still may have a preference and choose one over the other. I know this sounds like a cop-out, but let me explain.

An audience, presuming that they haven’t been scouring YouTube to find out how magic tricks are done (this happens far less than many magicians believe), should have no idea of the method. They want to be entertained. With either approach, they’re probably not going to know how the trick was done. If you’ve put the work into practice, they will be ‘fooled’. But what kind of ‘fooled’ will they be. They could see a long, drawn-out dealing process that results in their chosen card being revealed. They may not know how it was done, but hey may think it was something to do with the process. Or by the end of it, they may not even care and just be praying for it to be over.

So to remedy this, we can go one of two ways: Make the process so entertaining, they don’t care, or create a plausible reason for the procedure. No easy task, but sometimes just having someone take part in an unusual process can be novel enough to create entertainment. As long as you can engage the participants and perform the routine smoothly, again taking rehearsal and practice, you’ve got a good chance of still being perceived a wizard.

If you’ve read the previous two posts, you would be forgiven for thinking that the last paragraph describes a self-working trick. However, I’ve read, learned and seen many incredibly challenging sleight of hand tricks that have so much process you’ll need a photographic memory just to follow what’s going on. 

The point again is that the spectators shouldn’t see the sleight-of-hand anyway. So to them, there’s no difference. It’s either an entertaining magic trick with a magical finale, or it’s a puzzle. Either can be achieved with either a sleight-of-hand or self-working routine.

However, personally, I prefer sleight of hand. Here’s why:

  1. Preference. I enjoy the practice process. I’m a very kinaesthetic person, spending time juggling, playing the guitar and of course practising and teaching sleight-of-hand magic. I can work on a move for hours, but after twenty minutes of trying to remember a magic routine, I lose the will to live. So it makes sense that I’m going to go with what I like, rather than what someone says I should like. Any approach is going to take a lot of practice and rehearsal. If you go with what you enjoy, you’ll have a lot more chance of achieving a high competence level.
  2. Freedom. I enjoy the freedom that extensive knowledge of moves gives me. I can improvise in real-time. It’s like understanding scales on a guitar vs knowing some pre-written pieces. Both are valid approaches (and I do both), but I feel constrained when limited to the latter.
  3. Peace of mind. This is a biggie for me. The thought of getting half-way through a routine and getting lost, or something going wrong terrifies me if I’ve got nowhere to go. With a tool-kit of sleights, I can take the trick in a different direction if things go south. This can be done with some self-working concepts, but I find it way more complicated. Because my brain doesn’t work that way. 
  4. Variety. If you work on sleights, it opens up more avenues for learning and performing. It’s a lovely feeling to know that you can open up nearly any magic book and learn anything from it. The skills are transferable, so learning new sleights becomes quicker. Additionally, you can usually find a move to substitute if you don’t want to learn another force, control or count. It’s also worth remembering that many classic routines blend self-working ideas with sleight of hand. This often gives the spectator less chance of being able to get anywhere near the method.
  5. Performability. Though not always the case, many self-working tricks, especially with cards, require more time and focus. This can be an issue in a performance setting, where background noise, space and attention span can be an issue. Sometimes the sad truth is that you don’t have long to impress.
  6. Strength of effect. With gaffs, you can create miracles that are pretty much self-working. However, if you want to perform with regular coins, cards, elastic bands or even sponge balls, you’ll need the chops. Borrowing a deck of cards, getting someone to name one, and pulling it out of your pocket is stronger that anything I’ve been able to achieve with a self-worker. Direct and unforgettable magic may be harder to learn in this way, but it’s way easier to perform once you’ve done the work.

Please be aware that these are my preferences, but I have nothing at all against self-working magic. I perform it regularly in the right setting. I just like the feel of working this way. The ongoing learning is something that I’ll never tire of. But that’s just me. Go with what you love, and have fun. If you’re doing that, You’ve already succeeded.

Steve Faulkner is a professional magician and creator of Card Magic Course. An extensive and ever-expanding resource for those serious about learning magic in a very unserious way.

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