“Of course there’s cheating in magic,” I hear you say. “Magic and cheating both have their roots in deception.” Not so fast – it all depends on what your purpose in magic is. 

Karl Germain was an American magician who performed under the name Germain the Wizard. One of my favorite quotes about magic is attributed to this man.

“Magic is the only honest profession. A magician promises to deceive you and he does.”

And given that Karl Germain was a magician and a lawyer, I feel he had more qualifications than anyone else to assess the relative honesty of professions. But it’s not his defense of deceit merely that justifies the title of my essay. Follow me, and I’ll show you not only is there no cheating in magic – but that it is impossible to do so!

Now why am I addressing this? Because I hear the word “cheating” used negatively – and often by my own compeers. Some members of our own industry are uncomfortable using gimmicks and tricks over pure sleight-of-hand methods to create magic. They feel they are cheating their audiences by using a prop, an assistant/stooge, or even a marked deck – that is to say they feel that their magic is coming from the prop and not the performer – that by relying on props, they’re not displaying sufficient skill to their audience. And given how I’ve seen many magicians allow their props to upstage their own performance, their concern is not without some merit. 

So what is cheating, then?

But first, we need a working definition of the word “cheating”. If we turn to various dictionaries and encyclopedias, many of those sources define cheating as “deceiving or depriving through trickery”. We don’t need to turn to dictionaries for you to know what I specifically mean by “cheating”. All definitions I have ever read shares one underlying concept: cheating is to defeat the purpose of. So in this article, this is what I mean by cheating – to defeat the purpose of.

This definition might sound too broad at first, but let’s look at some examples. The game of baseball is a great way to see who has the fastest runners, the fastest and most powerful throwers, the best strategists, and the best overall teamwork. But one who is actively cheating defeats the purpose of the match by gaining advantages not offered by their own skills and physical abilities.

How is it a test of your strength if your strength has been enhanced through the use of steroids? The same can be said of a math test. A math test is a way to demonstrate your recall and your ability to use mathematical concepts to solve problems. And a cheater will defeat the purpose of that test by using outside information that is not allowed in order to write down the correct answers. We can even extend this concept to relationships like marriage. If the purpose of a marriage is for two people to be intimate with each other exclusively, then a partner can cheat the purpose of that marriage by seeking an outside companion.

Admittedly, this is a broad framework. But it’s surprisingly useful. Let’s see how it applies to magic. First, let’s decide what our purpose is for performing magic. Now, I’m not here to define your purpose for you. This is something that only you can do (read the challenge at the end). But let’s use mine as an example.

But a purpose requires a goal.

When a person sees a magic trick that I have performed, they have just seen something that they most likely have never seen before and will never see again. Now later, they may see magic from other magicians. But I promise you, they’ll never see magic done exactly the same way and in exactly the same style as what I do. And I wish to give them a magical moment that they can keep in their memories for as long as possible. So given that, let’s say my purpose in magic is to give people a strong sense of the impossible or an intense feeling of wonder that they can keep with them for the rest of their lives. You could also refer to this as my mission statement. It’s the underlying ideal that informs all my decisions in magic, from what effects I select to perform, to the wording of my script, etc. Now I admit that it sounds rather bold; but I’ve met some of the same people years after my performance for them who remember a specific moment that I had created for them. Some still kept a signed playing card in their wallets that reminded them of that moment. How powerful is that?

Now, what in a magician’s repertoire could possibly defeat that purpose? As long as my magic does the thing that I’ve stated in my purpose (my mission statement above), then there is literally nothing in the magician’s arsenal that can defeat that purpose. I can use sleights, gimmicks, assistants, stooges, shills, fakes, duplicates, etc. I can use premises that were devised ten minutes ago or ideas that are as old as the hills. I’ve even performed coin magic using no coins at all! All of magic is within my reach and no tools are off limit. How liberating is that?! What could possibly qualify as cheating in magic?

For the novice, this is great news. When I first began magic, I felt…uncomfortable lying to my audiences. I really did! I’m an honest person at heart and even showing my hand empty after a simple coin vanish felt duplicitous. I mean c’mon, what if they actually believed me?!
But now I have a very defined purpose for my magic and the deceits and deceptions that I employ are for the greater purpose of creating those wonderful moments that people love to experience. So those of you who are currently in the same boat that I abandoned years ago, feel free to jump overboard with both feet. Use whatever means in your employ!

There is one interesting consequence to using my definition of cheating – there actually is one way to cheat at magic. If your purpose in performing magic is to create a wonderful magic moment that your audience can hold on to for as long as possible, then you can defeat that moment by revealing to the audience how the effect is managed. Revealing your secrets is the only cheating – it truly defeats the purpose of magic!

Now, I challenge all my readers – what is your purpose for performing magic? What is your mission statement? Let me know below!

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