The first trick I ever saw in a magic shop was Color Monte. If you don’t know that trick… seriously? You don’t know that trick? Go look for it on youtube. It was a magic shop standard at the time (1990-ish) and probably for a good time before and after. The guy who showed it to me was the owner of the shop: an obese, pasty-white, hairy, loser. (If you want to get an idea for what he looked like physically, first imagine a Somali pirate. Now picture the exact opposite of that.)
He fumbled through the trick with his fat, Cheeto-stained fingers, repeating the patter word-for-word from Emerson and West in his gross nasal drone. I didn’t know exactly what he was doing—I had no knowledge of any card sleights—although I could tell he was doing something abnormal. But I still remember the surprise of seeing that $14 card show up at the end. I was tuned in enough to understand his handling of the cards wasn’t really natural, but the idea that he was hiding a whole card from me during the effect didn’t occur to me at all.
So you best believe I walked out of there with Color Monte (and a Hot Rod) in my pocket. And another “hot rod” in my pants, thinking of all the chicks that were going to lose their shit when I blew them away with the story of the time the guy hustled me for $14.
A couple years after that, packet tricks seemed to go out of fashion. Or perhaps it just took me a couple years to realize they were never in fashion.
Around this time, my friend Pat went to an IBM meeting in Columbus, Ohio. As he was the new guy there, some of the regulars asked him to show them a trick to feel him out a little. He was an “Easy to Master Card Miracles”-level amateur, so he pulled out four cards to show them Brother John Hamman’s, Gemini Twins.
But before he could start, one of the hot-shot regulars said sarcastically…, “Oh great… packet tricks.”
I’ve asked Pat to give a line-reading from his memory of this incident, 25 years ago.
This became a running joke for us in the years to come, with the other person saying it whenever one of us would start a trick with anything less than a full deck of cards. And, of course, we would ramp it up over time, acting more dismissive and disgusted with “packet tricks” as the years passed. Soon we were shoe-horning other words into the phrase. Like, if my zipper got stuck I might say, “Oh, great…. jacket tricks.”
And while we were just pretending to be sickened by packet tricks, the truth is they never were the sort of thing I gravitated towards much in the ensuing years.
But I recently had a Color Monte revival in my repertoire, due to a new way of performing it that I stumbled on.
It started because I had a stack of blank cards on my coffee table that I was using for non-magic related purposes. But I would find myself practicing sleights and counts with them frequently, so they just stayed on my coffee table for a few weeks.
Then one day I was sitting around watching tv with a friend and I was thinking about Color Monte and I drew an X on a card, an O on a card, and a penis on a card. And I started telling my friend about this “weird game” I got caught up in on a marching band trip to NYC when I was a teenager.
I was just screwing around, but when I got to the finale, and the penis card appeared, the reaction was stronger than I’d ever received for Color Monte and I realized there was something here worth considering.
I refined my handling a bit more and showed it to a few more people (changing the final image and my patter pretty much each time) and it continued to surprise me with how big the reactions were.
Before I continue, let me give you my theory in regards to why it got such a good reaction, because you might be thinking, “Color Monte with hand-drawn cards? Big deal.” That would have been my thought before actually trying it. But consider these reasons for why it might have a big impact…
Color Monte has a fairly strong structure for a trick. It’s a lot of little, mediocre moments that sort of lull people into an understanding of what the trick is. And just when they think they may have some idea what you’re doing, it has a big surprise ending.
The premise of the patter isn’t actually that bad. “I went to the city and got caught in this grift,” is something you might actually tell someone.
When you pull out a packet of specially printed cards, you’re tossing out that potentially interesting storyline. You are essentially admitting, “This story I’m about to tell isn’t really true, it came with the special cards.” And when you bring out those cards you’re tacitly stating, “There’s nothing personal or special about this performance.” And, you’re even undermining the impact of the ending because it’s clearly a “magic trick” from moment one.
On the other hand…
If you decide to do it with normal cards—which is many magicians “improvement” on using the specially printed cards—you are turning something potentially unique into “just another card trick.” What the Color-Monte-with-normal-cards crowd doesn’t understand is that, yes, the specially printed cards are the greatest weakness of Color Monte, but they’re also the most interesting thing about it.
To get the best of both worlds, we will build the trick in front of them. This way it’s not “just another card trick” but also it’s not something you clearly picked up at the magic store. It feels spontaneous. It feels personal. (Because it is both of those things.)
They get to handle the cards (seemingly) before you start, which makes the final surprise ending much stronger. So it’s a classic of magic, made personal, made stronger, made completely un-Google-able, and with an awesome souvenir at the end (if you choose to go that way—as I’ll describe further on).
I won’t go into the standard Color Monte handling, just the specifics for this version.
Switching in the Cards
Here is how I do it. I perform this seated on a couch with someone. You could easily do the switch in your pockets as you went for the marker if you were standing, or in your lap if you were seated at a table. The way I do it, it happens before they know a trick is coming.
I have this set up in the end-table drawer on my side of the couch.
The final image is pre-drawn on the underside of the top card in a stack of three which is clipped under the pen cap.
On the coffee table in front of us is a large stack of blank cards. Sometimes the person will ask about them, sometimes they don’t. I don’t over-justify them. While a stack of blank playing cards isn’t normal, they’re also not particularly suspicious. My friends know me as someone with an interest in magic, so I just tell the truth, “Oh, I use them for magic tricks. Or practicing sleight-of-hand. Or building card castles if I’m bored. Or whatever. If you’re not using cards for a game, it’s cheaper to get them unprinted.” That sounds logical, but it’s surprisingly not true.
“Those are the same type of cards that guy in NYC scammed me with. Did I tell you that story? No? Oh… uhm… here…hand me three of those cards.”
They give me three blank cards. I look around for the marker I know is somewhere nearby. I open up the end-table on my side of the couch (blocked from their view), drop in the cards that the spectator just gave me, and pull out my set-up of the three cards and the marker.
This isn’t a switch that would fly in the middle of a routine. But before a trick has started, it’s fine. It’s a non-moment at this point. Especially since they’re going to see a bunch of displays where the cards are as they expect them to be.
A Quick Display
This is probably unnecessary, but I like to do it at this point. It happens while I’m making some mundane point about the blank cards. “They make some that have blank fronts, but normal playing card backs, and those are actually more expensive than a normal deck for some reason. But because these are blank on both sides they’re cheaper.”
During this I spread the three cards, showing three blank faces. Then I do a double turnover of the top two cards as one at about the time where I say, “because these are blank on both sides.” Then I turn the entire packet over and spread all three again. This isn’t intended to be 100% proof of three completely blank cards. It’s just meant to look like I’m handling the cards casually and you’re seeing nothing but blank cards.
Creating the Cards
I start by talking about this time I was in NYC (or wherever). I can’t tell you exactly what I say. I just make it up in the moment. Maybe I’m talking about a guy I met at a party or the bus station or whatever. At this point, they genuinely don’t know if this is a true story or a trick or both.
I’m about to create the cards as I talk about them. I have to displace one of the cards so the cards in my hand are blank card; blank card; drawing card—drawing side up, in my left hand.
I bring my left hand up so I can draw on the cards with my right hand.
“He had three cards. The first had an X on it.”
I draw an X on the top card, show them the X on that card, then put it to the back of the packet with the X facing me. (Here is my perspective, with their view in the mirror.)
“The second card had an O on it.”
I draw an O on the top card, show them the O, then put it to the back of the packet with the O facing me. And I keep a pinky break between that card and the other two.
“And the third card had another X on it.”
I mime drawing an X on this card as well. Then I pull the second card out, turn it towards them and place it at the back of the pack. This all seems pretty straightforward from their perspective.
“That’s all he had. Three cards. I’m positive of that.” I take the cards writing-side down and drop them onto the table (well, couch) one at a time. The $14 card is now face-down on top of the three cards.
“He told me he wanted to play a simple game with three cards. An X, an O—the ‘money’ card—and an X.”
While saying this, I pick up the packet, turn it over and give it whatever kind of count you would call this: The cards start in my right hand. Take the X-card off into my left. Take both remaining cards, while stealing back the X card. Take the X card again.
Very simple and clean. Everything seems as it should.
I then just go into the standard Color Monte handling. The only deviation I make is as follows… You know that part where you’re doing a double turnover of the top and bottom card and you have to do that unnatural alignment move first? Even as a kid that stood out to me when I was seeing the trick the first time. The way to make it not stand out as much is to spread the cards back like that before each display. Not just the ones where you’re doing the alignment. In other words, do this…
as if you’re displaying the options of Top, Middle, and Bottom before each “bet” where you show a card in a particular location, even when you don’t need to, like when showing the bottom card in that gif. I’m sure this is an adjustment others have made too.
So we get to the climax and obviously what I say will depend on what my final reveal image is. I have some hand-drawn $14 cards (as in the gifs above) if I want to do the traditional climax. But the final image can be anything, of course, and here is my general patter, picking up right before the climax…
“So the guy was like, ‘Look, I’ll make it easy on you,’ and he turned over two of the cards. ‘Double or nothing. Just tell me what’s not on this final card. If you can tell me what’s not on the final card, we’re even.’ And honestly, I didn’t really have any idea. I didn’t know if there was an X on there or an O. I was completely confused. But I figured I had trapped him a little. So I said, ‘I just have to tell you what’s not on that card and I get my money back.’ He told me that was the deal. ‘Ok… what’s not on that card is a picture of my dog’s dick.’”
I pause. “I really thought I’d got one over on him. But this guy was good.” I turn over the card on the table. It’s a picture of a fuzzy penis with “$14” underneath.
“‘That will be $14,’ he said.”
It doesn’t have to be something dirty. It can be anything at all. “You definitely don’t have a picture of an octopus in a yarmulke under there .” Or whatever.
This is my favorite way to do it. “So I said to the guy, ‘I just have to tell you what’s not on the card? Okay, well there’s definitely not a picture of my friend Jessica who I won’t meet for another 15 years under there!’” And you turn it over and there’s a picture of the person you’re performing for.
Or it can be a picture of your friend’s baby, or their cat, or something else meaningful to them. Just substitute that in the patter.
I just find a local artist who can bang out something like this relatively quickly and have them do maybe 20 simple pictures of friends and family I might end up showing the trick to. For a few dollars a piece, you have a totally personalized piece of magic with a memento they’ll keep forever. All from fucking Color Monte!
1. I’ve flirted with the idea of having them draw 2 Xs on two cards, and 1 O on another. Then just switch in the $14 card for one of the Xs. I haven’t done it yet, but I may try it in the future. If you do that, you should probably use a much thicker marker. You don’t want their Xs to look very different from each other or else they might notice that they’re only seeing one of their Xs throughout the trick.
2. This is a small thing, but I’ve taken to telling the story with $10 bets at each level, and a $140 card at the end. I prefer it to seem like it’s potentially a real story about getting scammed, at least up until the punchline. And betting $1 at a time is a bit too low-stakes of a story to tell. But that might just be my hang-up.
3. I’ve also considered just having the final reveal card as the third card down in the stack of blank cards on the table. That way you wouldn’t have to switch any cards at all. You would just use the person’s natural assumption that in a stack of blank cards, all the sides are blank. But this too is something I haven’t tried yet, just because I don’t want to run the risk of them exposing that final reveal card in the process of handing me the cards. But you may feel it’s worth it.
4. The first few times I did this, I didn’t have the “$14” (or $140) on the final card. I just had whatever the final picture was. I’ve decided I prefer to have it on there. I feel it makes the story more “whole.” This isn’t just a random picture that showed up at the end of this trick. It’s a picture that specifically completes—and only makes sense—in the context of this story I just told.
5. I mentioned in a previous post that I’m trying to think of other packet tricks that could be done in this manner, because I think there’s something extra fooling about constructing the cards in their presence. I haven’t really found anything yet, but I’ll let you know if i do.