On the Use of Playing Cards
in Mentalism

This is an opinion piece on a perennially controversial topic. I’m not one who feels compelled to convert others to my way of thinking, thus am merely offering my opinions for your consideration. In fact, I’ll be perfectly happy if you disagree with my thesis, as it reduces my competition!

I am writing here from the perspective of a mentalist, not a magician doing what is commonly called “mental magic”. Without wishing to become embroiled in that other common controversy, I’ll define a mentalist here as an entertainer who neither describes him/herself as a magician, nor explicitly disclaims his/her performances as “trickery”.

Also, bear in mind that this essay refers specifically to traditional playing cards, not Zener (“ESP”) cards, tarot cards, etc.

Although playing cards were once ubiquitous in family homes, fewer and fewer less-than-middle-aged people have had much experience with them, except in a gambling context. It’s not that uncommon to find audience members who don’t know how to name them (the three of puppy feet?). It has certainly become wise, when selecting volunteers (particularly those for whom English is not their first language) to assist in a card effect, to ask specifically for people who play cards, or are at least familiar with their names; doing otherwise can easily result in unexpected problems.

In Playing Cards & Card Games in America, Laura Munley (Dept. of American Studies, University of Maryland) reports:

Cards today are not nearly as popular as they once were. Although people who lived in the “Era of Great Card-Playing” still play cards today, card playing has truly lost its thrill. When one walks past a school during recess and recreation time, one doesn’t see children playing cards with one another. From time to time, children can be found playing with a deck of Old Maid or Uno cards, but nowadays, cards don’t appeal to children. Adults have somewhat lost the love of cards … I asked my family members and friends the same question. “Do you know anyone who plays cards regularly?” I received some “grandparents”, but for the most part, every answer was “no”.

A 1998 Harris poll showed that only 1% of the population listed playing cards as one of their “three favorite leisure time activities”. This was down from 3% in 1995 (a more than 60% decline in this three-year period alone). And it includes the total population, not just those under 40. A 1999 study by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam showed that the use of playing cards in America was declining by 10% annually (Professor Putnam only half-jokingly remarked that “the last card will be played in America in 2010”; he was not, of course, referring to the use of cards for gambling purposes).

A growth of interest in poker as a spectator sport occurred in 2003, a consequence of the development of “lipstick cameras” and the subsequent cable television airings of poker tournaments; this raised public consciousness in this regard, though only in the gambling context mentioned above (a relationship it has only reinforced). Playing card usage in a non-gambling context, however, continues to decrease dramatically. Hand in hand with this decline goes, I argue, their suitability for contemporary mentalism.

Contemporary audiences relate to video games, not pasteboards.

It’s common for those doing mental magic with playing cards to promote them as “52 common, easily-recognized symbols”. A “regular” person, though, wonders why they don’t use symbols (like a house, a tree, a cat, etc.) that truly are common and easily recognizable. Suppliers catering to mentalists sell card packs like these, so it’s possible to use this option if desired. Picture postcards are another possibility, even more appropriate due to their familiar nature as objects in their own right. And most people find it more credible that someone could “sense” a clearly-defined picture or simple image than something as abstract as the nine of spades.

Audiences, when viewing magicians (even if mental effects are being performed), do so in an associated context: it is their expectation that they will be fooled (and possibly entertained) by clever tricks/illusions. Some may well believe “mind reading”, as some credit dematerialization when they view “cards across” (and some cry “Satanism!” when they see any magical effect). Most, however, assume trickery.

Contemporary magical fashion places a huge emphasis on the use of playing cards (there are likely more published items on this topic than all other conjuring subjects combined). Consequently, for better or worse, there exists a strong association between magicians and card tricks. One of my performance goals (as a mentalist) is to disassociate myself from magicians and their trappings, which is why I choose to make minimal use of playing cards.

Entertainers who work for corporate audiences in particular know that if you introduce a pack of playing cards in such a venue, especially in a context that does not readily suggest their use, the association with magicians occurs to a significant number of the viewers. This is detrimental to my ends.

Those audience members who are comfortably familiar with playing cards generally associate them with one or more of the following:

  1. gambling (e.g., Poker, Blackjack)
  2. magicians (“Take a card, any card!”)
  3. game playing (e.g., Bridge, Rummy)
  4. fortune telling (in some cultures, though in North America
    it’s mostly tarot cards that are viewed in this fashion)

So, as an entertainer, I must decide which of these contexts is appropriate to the effect I wish to perform, and determine how I will ensure that the audience views the performance solely in that context. This is not simple, and is compounded by the fact that, in any context, playing cards are generally viewed as rather frivolous objects. It was not for nothing that U.K. mentalist Derren Brown observed (in his book, Absolute Magic) that, “The sight of cards is not conducive to magic that claims to transcend the ordinary.”

As for impromptu and walk-around work, for what purpose would a mind reader be carrying around a pack of playing cards (as opposed to, say, a pocket chess set)?

In the early years of the Psychic Entertainers Association, we ran a couple of workshops where, following a series of performances by several accomplished mentalists, audience members were interviewed. Almost without exception, they referred to demonstrations involving playing cards as “card tricks”. Audiences are not nearly as naïve as some choose to believe.

Heck, the phrase “card trick” is even found in dictionaries!

In order to entertain an audience, one must strive to entertain each and every member thereof, with all their diverse backgrounds and life experiences. You may argue that only a small portion of your audience has limited familiarity with playing cards, is inclined to associate them with magicians, or considers them superficial. But is there an acceptable percentage of audience members that one should abandon in a desire to use one particular prop? Remember that nobody else truly cares about your personal investment in learning how to do card tricks.

None of the above should be construed as an admonition never to use playing cards in mentalism. But presentations in which one does so should be informed by the considerations discussed here. It is not at all unreasonable for a mentalist to display skill at gambling, or “card memory”, for example, and playing cards would not be incongruous in such a demonstration.

That said, it is wise to remember this: when you stand in front of audiences doing amazing things with playing cards, they’re quite apt to remember previous entertainers who have done amazing things with playing cards … and odds are that your predecessors were magicians!

… Doug Dyment