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Sleight of hand, also known as prestidigitation ("quick fingers") or legerdemain (from Middle French léger de main, literally "light of hand"), is the set of techniques used by a magician (or card sharp) to manipulate objects such as cards and coins secretly.
Sleight of hand is not a separate branch of magic, but rather one of the means used by a magician to produce an effect. It can be contrasted with the flourish, where the magician intentionally displays skills, such as the ability to cut cards one-handed, which is akin to juggling. Advanced sleight of hand requires months or years of practice before it can be performed proficiently in front of spectators. Sleight of hand is mostly employed in close-up magic, but it can also be used in stage magic. There are hundreds of different sleights at the performer's disposal, but they can generally be classified into groups such as switches, changes, and others.
There are several stories about magicians using sleight of hand in real life, such as when American illusionist David Copperfield said he used sleight of hand to fool a mugger into thinking he had nothing in his pockets while carrying a cellphone, passport and wallet.
Sleight, meaning dexterity or deceptiveness, comes from the Old Norse slœgð, meaning cleverness, cunning, slyness. Sleight of hand is often mistakenly written as slight of hand or slide of hand. Slight descends from slettr, meaning plain, flat, even, smooth, level.
Sleight of hand is often used in close-up magic, performed with the audience close to the magician, usually within three or four metres, possibly in physical contact. It often makes use of everyday items as props, such as cards and coins. The guiding principle of sleight-of-hand, articulated by legendary close-up magician Dai Vernon, is "be natural." A well-performed sleight looks like an ordinary, natural and completely innocent gesture, change in hand-position or body posture.
It is commonly suggested that sleight of hand works because "the hand is quicker than the eye" but this is usually not the case. In addition to manual dexterity, sleight of hand depends on the use of psychology, timing, misdirection, and natural choreography in accomplishing a magical effect. Misdirection is perhaps the most important component of the art of sleight of hand. The magician choreographs his actions so that all spectators are likely to look where he or she wants them to. More importantly, they do not look where the performer does not wish them to look. Two types of misdirection are timing and movement. Timing is simple: by allowing a small amount of time to pass after an action, events are skewed in the viewer's mind. Movement is a little more complicated. A phrase often used is "A larger action covers a smaller action." Care must be taken however to not make the larger action so big that it becomes suspect. Another common misconception is that close-up magic must utilize either sleight of hand or some kind of rigged apparatus. However, as Henry Hay's Cyclopedia of Magic says,
"Many small tricks, especially card tricks, require neither apparatus nor sleight of hand; much apparatus of the "gimmick" type does not require sleight of hand. Illusions, because they deal with objects too big to hold in the hand, are one class of magic that seldom require sleight of hand – though even here sleight of hand "forcing" may be called into play. There are successful illusionists and apparatus conjurers who can do no sleight of hand at all, but their difficulties and restrictions deserve our sympathy rather than our scorn."
The magicians Penn & Teller have been known, as part of their act, to explain sleight of hand while demonstrating it with a performance by Teller, appearing merely to dispose of an old cigarette and light a new cigarette. Teller is, in fact, simply hiding and replacing the same cigarette without ever putting it out. While Teller performs, Penn describes what he is doing, and explains the eight principles of sleight of hand.
The eight principles are:
This concept of eight principles of sleight of hand was created by Penn & Teller for their effect and routine.
In The Trick Brain (1944), Dariel Fitzkee identifies 19 fundamental effects in magic (p. 25).
Fitzkee groups the 19 types of effects into 3 main divisions:
1.-12. belong to the physical group
13.-14. carry a suggestion of mind dominance
15.-19. are entirely mental in character
Sleight-of-hand techniques can also be used to cheat in gambling games, in street con games such as the three-shell game, or three-card monte to steal, or, in some cases, to claim supernatural powers, as in the performances of some 19th- and early 20th-century spirit mediums. For this reason, the term "sleight of hand" frequently carries negative associations of dishonesty and deceit, and is also used metaphorically outside the above contexts. The techniques used by gamblers, however, are often very different from those employed by magicians; similarly, the techniques used by some psychics or spirit mediums are often different from those found in "straight" close-up magic and mentalism. The differences, however, are due to the different working conditions and the different degrees of proximity between spectators and performer; the same basic techniques and approaches are common in all the areas of deception mentioned.
Performers often encourage their audience to believe they have used sleight of hand when they are actually using another principle or gimmick as the means of misdirecting the audience. For example, if one is performing something as simple as the appearing/disappearing coins using a thumb tip, the trick lies in the gimmick, but the audience is led to believe that the performer has done something very complex to hide the coins. This directs them away from thinking of a method as simple as the thumb tip.
...subtilissima collectione persuaseris. Sic ista sine noxa decipiunt quomodo praestigiatorum acetabula et calculi, in quibus me fallacia ipsa delectat. Effice ut quomodo fiat intellegam: perdidi lusum. Idem de istis captionibus dico - quo enim nomine potius sophismata appellem? -: nec ignoranti nocent nec scientem iuvant.
...persuade him by means of subtle argumentation. Such quibbles are just as harmlessly deceptive as the juggler's cup and dice, in which it is the very trickery that pleases me. But show me how the trick is done, and I have lost my interest therein. And I hold the same opinion about these tricky word-plays; for by what other name can one call such sophistries? Not to know them does no harm, and mastering them does no good.