Sleight of hand

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This article is about the technique. For the album by Joan Armatrading, see Sleight of Hand (album). For the song by The Sinceros, see Pet Rock (album). For the song by Pearl Jam, see Binaural (album).
A cardsharp using sleight of hand to win a game of cards.

Sleight of hand (also known as prestidigitation or legerdemain) is methods and techniques used by performing artists in many art forms to entertain or manipulate. It is closely associated and often mistaken for close-up magic, card cheating and card flourishing.

Because of its heavy use and practice by magicians, sleight of hand is often confused as a branch of magic, but is in reality a separate genre of entertainment, as many artists practice sleight of hand without the slightest interest in magic.

Worldwide praised sleight of hand pioneers include Dan and Dave Buck (better known as "The Buck Twins"), Ricky Jay, David Blaine, David Copperfield and Dai Vernon.

Etymology and history[edit]

The word sleight, meaning "the use of dexterity or cunning, especially so as to deceive", comes from the Old Norse.[1] Common synonyms include prestidigitation and legerdemain.[1] Seneca the Younger, philosopher of the Silver Age of Latin literature, famously compared rhetoric techniques and illusionist techniques.[2]

Association with close-up magic[edit]

David Blaine impressing Bill Gates with card tricks involving sleight of hand.

Sleight of hand is often used in close-up magic, performed with the audience close to the magician, usually within three to four meters or in physical contact.[3] It makes use of everyday items as props, such as cards, coins, rubber bands, paper, phones and even saltshakers.[3] A well-performed sleight looks like an ordinary, natural and completely innocent gesture, change in hand-position or body posture.[4] In addition to manual dexterity, sleight of hand depends on the use of psychology, timing, misdirection, and natural choreography in accomplishing a magical effect.[4][5]

Association with stage magic[edit]

Sleight of hand during stage magic performances is rare, as most magic stunts are performed with objects visible to a larger audience, but is nevertheless done by many stage performers.[6] The most common magic tricks performed with sleight of hand on stage are rope and card manipulations, with the first typically being done with a member of the audience and the latter primarily being done on a table while a camera is recording, allowing the rest of audience to see the performance on a big screen.[7] Legend of stage magic David Copperfield often include illusions featuring sleight of hand in his stage shows.[8]

Association with card cheating[edit]

While being mostly used for entertainment purposes, sleight of hand is also notoriously used to cheat at casinos and gambling facilities.[3] Common ways to professionally cheat at card games using sleight of hand include palming, switching, ditching, and stealing cards from the table.[3] For these reasons, the term "sleight of hand" frequently carries negative associations of dishonesty and deceit at many gambling halls,[3] and many world famous magicians are publicly banned from casinos, such as British pioneer of mentalism and magic Derren Brown who is banned from every casino in Britain.[9]

Association with card flourishing[edit]

Card flourishing is arguably the most advanced form of sleight of hand.

Unlike card tricks and card cheating, card flourishing is solely about impressing without illusions, deceit, misdirection and other elements used in card tricks.[10] Card flourishes, also called "Cardistry", are intended to be visually impressive and to appear extremely difficult to perform.[10][3] Many sleight of hand artists perform flourishing without considering themselves magicians or having any real interest in card tricks.[10]

Association with card throwing[edit]

The art of card throwing generally consist of throwing standard playing cards with excessively high speed and accuracy.[3] Card throwing pioneer Ricky Jay popularized throwing cards within the magic industry with the release of his 1977 book Cards as Weapons, which was met with large sales and critical acclaim.[11] Some magic tricks, both close-up and stage, are heavily connected to throwing cards.[12]

See also[edit]




  • Henry, Hay (1975). Cyclopedia of Magic. Dover Publications. ISBN 978-0-486-21808-3. 
  • Hugard, Jean; Braué, Frederick, eds. (2012). The Royal Road to Card Magic. Courier Corporation. ISBN 978-0486156682. 
  • Limentani, Uberto (2011). Studi Secenteschi: Rivista Annuale, Volume 50. Virginia University. ISBN 978-8822258342. 
  • Ostovich, Helen; Hopkins, Lisa, eds. (2014). Magical Transformations on the Early Modern English Stage. Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 978-1472432865. 
  • Scarne, John (2003). Scarne's Magic Tricks. Courier Corporation. ISBN 978-0486427799. 
  • Tarr, William (1976). Now You See It, Now You Don't! Lessons in Sleight of Hand. Vintage Books. ISBN 0-394-72202-7.