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One guy, three cups.
October 19, 2011 6:30 AM   Subscribe

Cups and Balls. Andrew Musgrave at Ye Olde Magick Blogge gathers videos of, and comments on, 28 versions of the oldest trick in the book.

The incomparable Ricky Jay.
One hand, one cup.
The shell game, for fun and profit.
Tommy Wonder, extremely close-up (previously).
The master, Dai Vernon.
One guy, one jigger.
Jason Latimer does it with glass cups.
So do Penn & Teller, in order to spoil all the fun (or do they?).

If you want a bit of history to back up that "oldest trick" claim, check out the cups and balls museum (password protected - email the curator for password).
posted by googly (31 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's really a good trick. You can buy a cheap-ass version in any magic store, anywhere. The plastic cup has a fake inside cup with a fake half-ball. Oh, I should have said "spoiler alert". But I didn't, because the cheap-ass trick you can buy for a couple bucks in any magic store (in blue plastic) doesn't come anywhere close to the possibilities of this classic trick.
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:46 AM on October 19, 2011


Very cool. Some of my friends (David Roth, John Carney) are listed there. :) Hooray.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:52 AM on October 19, 2011


The plastic cup has a fake inside cup with a fake half-ball.

That's not cups and balls.
posted by DU at 7:04 AM on October 19, 2011


Oh and Dai Vernon completely owns that trick.
posted by DU at 7:05 AM on October 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


That's not cups and balls.

Agreed. The original/classic version is played with regular cups (with no hidden pockets). That's the beauty of it. There's no gimmick. It's all misdirection.
posted by grumblebee at 7:06 AM on October 19, 2011


No, I don't mean it isn't cups and balls because it isn't pure. I mean he is describing a different effect, regardless of how it is done.
posted by DU at 7:10 AM on October 19, 2011


the oldest trick in the book.

It's an interesting question, what is "the oldest trick in the book"? If you look at John Baptist Porta's Natural Magick, which dates from the 1600's, you might be tempted to assume that magic emanates from an understanding of physical principles. But you would be wrong. Certainly, Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft dates to the 1500's, and has little to do with physical principles, but more with the psychological creation of "miracles". Anyway, the "in the book" part of "the oldest trick" dates before the invention of printing.

The idea of trickery, of pulling off a sleight (such as the "cup and balls") is vastly older than print media. I refer you to Lee Siegel's marvelous book Net of Magic. Some of the earliest tricks involved such wonders as turning water into wine (usually accomplished through a simple substitution), multiplying one loaf of bread into many (again, simple substitution), and reincarnating the dead (usually performed by means of an accomplice, perhaps with a breathing tube while buried).

Siegel's book contains numerous anecdotes from Indian magicians - people who have have learned trickery through many millenia - who regularly ridicule the gullibility of Western minds. "You accepted someone as your savior because he did the old water into wine trick??"
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:17 AM on October 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


So let's say that you were playing the shell game and instead of flipping a shell, you pinned it down and flipped the other two, do you get the money or do you get stabbed?
posted by plinth at 7:22 AM on October 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some of the earliest tricks involved such wonders as turning water into wine (usually accomplished through a simple substitution), multiplying one loaf of bread into many (again, simple substitution), and reincarnating the dead (usually performed by means of an accomplice, perhaps with a breathing tube while buried).

"And for my next trick," said Jesus, "I will saw the reanimated Lazarus in half."
posted by three blind mice at 7:23 AM on October 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


That's not cups and balls.

Well, actually it is. You think the cup and balls involves several balls and several cups, but the older version is exactly the half-ball in a cup. I'm not going to argue that here, because I'm probably wrong.
posted by twoleftfeet at 7:23 AM on October 19, 2011


MetaFilter: You're wrong, but I'm not going to argue that here, because I'm probably wrong.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:35 AM on October 19, 2011 [10 favorites]


There's a magician down on Santa Monica Pier who does a great classic cups and balls. After watching him a few times, I went and looked him up -- turns out he's Bill Okal, who was instrumental in the legendary (in the world of close up magic) Forks hotel days, and who has written one of the eminent books on card magic. Needless to say, I ordered it and got it autographed. In a world of video edits, there's still something incredible about raw performance skill.
posted by felix at 7:37 AM on October 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here's Teller talking (!) about an inversion of this trick that amazed the heck out of him.
posted by CaseyB at 7:41 AM on October 19, 2011 [8 favorites]


Oh and Dai Vernon completely owns that trick.

They didn't call him the Professor without reason.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:16 AM on October 19, 2011


Penn and Teller do it with clear plastic cups, and it's still difficult to follow.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:20 AM on October 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


(Sorry, googly. I see that was your last link.)
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:22 AM on October 19, 2011


RICKY JAY.

That is all.
posted by HumanComplex at 8:28 AM on October 19, 2011


Doug Henning also did a great version of the cups and balls with a single cup, a small juice glass, a handkerchief, and a velvet bag. The final load is top-notch too.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 9:19 AM on October 19, 2011


Cups and Balls is most definitely, most certainly not the oldest trick in the book.

For the real thing, watch Daniel Radcliffe on Q! when they talked about the oldest trick in the book.
posted by splice at 9:22 AM on October 19, 2011


For the real thing, watch Daniel Radcliffe on Q! when they talked about the oldest trick in the book.

Figures friggin' Harry Potter would know a thing or two about ancient magic.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 9:32 AM on October 19, 2011


Fantastic find! I have a nice set of cups and balls here - though I never do the trick (I do a lot of others, though).

It's certainly not the oldest trick in the book, by far.

When I saw the David Blaine DVD, he did this trick - as he started the setup I thought, "No, he can't be doing that trick!" Because I'd read about that trick in grade school and it dates back to the pharaohs, about 2800 years ago...

However, you can see several 500-year-old pictures of the cups and balls here.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:20 AM on October 19, 2011


The chicken head trick previously. (The Q! thing is linked in the comments.)
posted by stebulus at 12:19 PM on October 19, 2011


Er, the QI thing, I mean.
posted by stebulus at 12:20 PM on October 19, 2011


Great list of videos. But why no women? It's not like there is no example of a woman doing the cup and balls trick.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 1:43 PM on October 19, 2011


Funny, I thought up the "one guy, three cups" title but then discarded it because of its gender specificity. Then I realized that, unfortunately, it is accurate in this case since all the videos linked to men.
posted by googly at 2:14 PM on October 19, 2011


It's such a lovely trick, particularly when run as a con for the shell game. Straight up close magic, simple, all about the patter and the subtlety of the sleight of hand. Really doesn't get any better.
posted by Nelson at 3:16 PM on October 19, 2011


Great post, thank you. That Jason Latimer version with the clear cups is off the hook - better than the Penn and Teller version, imho. Crazy good.
posted by smoke at 5:12 PM on October 19, 2011


That Jason Latimer version with the clear cups is off the hook - better than the Penn and Teller version, imho. Crazy good.

Yeah, that one blew me away. It seems to be largely mechanically different from the regular cups and balls routine that Penn & Teller, Ricky Jay, and the rest are doing in these clips. I'm pretty familiar with cups & balls, enough to generally be able to spot the moves, but I have no earthly idea how Jason Latimer was doing what he did there.
posted by rifflesby at 6:37 PM on October 19, 2011


It's a shame we have video, because you can start to tell what Latimer was doing when you play the video in slow motion, or rewind it to watch how it happens. But the guy has insane skills.
posted by felix at 7:32 PM on October 19, 2011


So let's say that you were playing the shell game and instead of flipping a shell, you pinned it down and flipped the other two, do you get the money or do you get stabbed?

Heh. I was fascinated by the shell game guys in Midtown Manhattan and would watch them on my lunch breaks -- focusing less on the legerdemain than on the structure of the operation, the shills and lookouts. I got a little less fascinated after I became a little too interested in one game in particular and got muscled down the block.

Pretty sure that was in full view of New York's finest, too.
posted by dhartung at 12:21 AM on October 20, 2011


I had to move pretty quick once after taking this shell game photo in Paris. They were not too pleased to be my tourist photo. They're popular, though, there's several photos of these same guys working the flea market crowd.
posted by Nelson at 6:53 AM on October 20, 2011


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