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Are Playing Cards in Mentalism as Controversial as the seem?

The following article is going to be packed with various thoughts from myself and some of the most respected mentalists in our field. All the information provided is simply an opinion, which I hope helps to guide you towards answering any questions you may have about playing cards in mentalism. This is my first time writing an article like this, so I am aware that it may have some rough edges which I do apologise for. Nonetheless, I urge you to read through the entire article as I am sure there will be something here to interest you. Enjoy!

So why do playing cards appear to be so controversial?

Are playing cards really all that controversial like they appear to be? My answer, based on my recent research is no. Over the past few weeks I have had many chats with a variety of different mentalists and even conducted research polls in Facebook forums.

Poll posted on the 'Mentalism Discussion' Facebook Group

My research though the polls showed that only 4.3% of people actually disagreed with the use of cards, and 75.5% of people agreed with their use. So if majority agree then where does all this controversy come from? 

The controversy appears to be split under a third decision, “It depends”.

For many people the use of playing cards seems to be highly dependant on how they are used. Various people in the comments were saying things like “I feel the premise has to justify the cards and there has to be less process when using cards especially”. There also appeared to be a few people favouring the idea of never touching the cards, stating things like, “Personally, when I use playing cards in mentalism I either won’t touch them at all or I do some card calling demonstration, explaining that this is the difference between what magicians do and what mentalists do”. 

I myself am only in partial agreement with the comments made. I do agree that justification is a huge key towards making cards work, however, I disagree with the notion of never touching them. I feel as long as you perform well enough, touching the cards does not make much of an affect on what you do. If you (as mentioned above) “explain the differences between magicians and mentalists”, then you are just putting way too much emphasis on this idea and you could end up accomplishing the completely opposite goal to your intentions in my opinion. The justification I do agree with. Further on in this article I will be briefly discussing my thoughts on how cards can be used and include a justification of my own, whilst going a little more in depth.

The research that I have conducted has opened my eyes more towards playing cards and their uses, not just the poll results but also the personal chats I have had with people over these past few weeks. One chat I had with Michael Weber recently I asked the question of why he thinks cards are so controversial and he responded with the following:

“Audiences want to understand what they are watching, even when they are watching a movie or play. If they see a character loading a gun, the average audience member may speculate, “Someone is going to get shot” because that is a reflection of their past experiences with loaded guns in movies and plays. When those same audience members are watching an artist perform mysteries with a deck of cards in a show setting, similar past experiences were probably related to conjuring and magic tricks.  In my performances, I do not have an overall ban on the use of cards, but I make sure that I only use them once during a show (if at all) and I frame their use in a way where the past experiences in the audience’s mind are related to things other than card tricks.”

As you can see by Michael’s response he is referring to the fact that most people have this preconceived notion about what playing cards are often used for in a performance, which is often magic. I myself have found that this tends to be a big problem for mentalists, since a lot of mentalists don’t like the idea of what they do being viewed as magic or trickery. 

Combine what Michael said above with the results I collected and you get a possible answer as to why playing cards are so controversial. Playing cards often create a magic connotation when you bring them out, which a lot of mentalists dislike, this is where the majority of people saying “NO” tends to come from. However, the people who appear to be in agreement (which is the majority found in my research) say that they are in agreement with them being used in a specific way. A lot of people who just flat out say “NO” often do so without providing additional details on why they believe that, this causes a lot of speculation with people trying to figure out why, which, in turn, causes controversy. This is of course is just what my interpretation of these results is.

Can we use cards?

I may not always use cards, but I can, and when I do it never takes away from whether or not I am a mentalist. Playing cards are like any other prop. You have to decide if the prop fits your audience, your style, and your message.  – Kenton Knepper

Can we use cards and should we use cards are 2 completely different questions which I aim to answer in this article. Without a doubt it is 100% possible to use cards but my personal opinion is that it comes down to a few key points. 

Firstly, does your planned use of cards suit your character? It is very easy to see something that works well and gets a great reaction, but if it does not suit you personally then it is not going to play quite as well as you may have seen it do so before. 

Secondly, do you enjoy using cards? I feel this is especially important. If you do not enjoy what you are performing then how can you expect your audience to? Just because something plays well that does not necessarily mean you have to do it. If you are not enjoying what you do then your audience is likely to sense that and they will not enjoy it either. 

Finally, do you handle them appropriately? I had a recent chat with Banachek in where I asked him about his thoughts on playing cards in mentalism, he said to me:

“It’s all about how you handle the cards. you don’t want to be seen doing a perfect fan. You don’t want to look like an expert with card moves. The cards are simply a common household tool to allow you to demonstrate your mental abilities, not your manipulation skills that they should not be aware of.”

This is something I have always been in agreement with, even before our chat. If you handle cards perfectly and display any intermediate/advanced level of skill with them, then your audience is likely to grow suspicious and think that you may be using sleight of hand. However, if you display a somewhat moderate level of skill, then your audiences are not likely to assume that you are using any sleights because you do not appear as though you can.

In the above quote from Kenton Knepper Kenton mentions 2 things that I feel are important, the first thing I will point out was about a message. If you carry a certain message you wish to convey in your performances then you need to ask yourself can playing cards communicate what that message is in any way? If not, then you may need to find another option. 

I myself use them to convey a message of growth. Feel free to use the following example if you feel it will suit you: “In life, everything we do has a starting point, right? Think of it like swimming. When you go swimming you are not likely to just jump straight into the deep end and swim. You are likely to start off shallow and build up. For me, the way I learnt my skills is very similar. I started off small and gradually built to being able to do the things I can do now. Let me take you back to my roots and show you what I started doing my mental experiments with.” At that point a deck of cards will be produced and I can proceed with virtually any mentalism card effect.

The other really important thing Kenton alluded to was style. I know I have mentioned this already but it is very important. Playing cards should fit you, not you fit them. You should not have to change anything about your performing style just to make something work.

Should we use cards?

“I think the only restrictions we really have in performance are those we impose on ourselves. The selection of material—and use of playing cards—is a matter of persona and taste. So whether you think you should be using cards, or you think you really shouldn’t, you’re absolutely right either way. There’s absolutely a right and wrong, but it’s for the individual to decide, not the community.” – Stephen Long (aka Hector Chadwick)

Stephen provided me with this quote and I couldn’t agree more with it. This quote perfectly answers the question above about whether you SHOULD use cards. Just because there may be many people in the community that do not use playing cards, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to. Anything you do in performance is YOUR CHOICE! It is not down to the community to decide what is right and what is wrong, they can help guide you but they cannot decide for you. 

Final Thoughts

To conclude, if you are undecided on whether you should be using cards then I hope that the information shared within this article has helped you find your answer. It is a question only you can answer but we can at least help you to try and find what the answer is. I hope that you have enjoyed reading this article. I have tried to make it as insightful, yet as enjoyable as possible, which is a tough line to walk for a first time article. Nonetheless, I hope you got something out of this. To finish off completely I would like to leave you with one final quote.

“The performers that go outside the standard as magicians, they break the rules that are put in place for magicians by magicians, these are usually the performers that end up being superstars.” – Banachek

Thank you for reading!

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