Magic as a Martial Art

He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight
Sun Tzu – The Art of War (ca. 400 B.C.)

A few years ago, while reading a book on Aikido, The Magic of Conflict by Thomas F. Crum, it struck me how many similarities there are between martial arts and magic. When I was reading about how to direct the opponent's energy, it felt almost like reading a manual on misdirection! Shortly after this I met Stanley A. Skrabut, a long-time teacher and practitioner of martial arts, in Fort Collins, Colorado. After my Pocket Power lecture we had a very interesting conversation over dinner about magic and martial arts, and the things they have in common. Many of the ideas in this chapter were born during that dinner. Further ideas came from Morten Josephson, a Norwegian magician and martial arts practitioner, without whose help this chapter could never have been written.

In the process of writing, I had some amusing flashbacks to David Williamson's hilarious lecture at the 1997 FISM convention in Dresden, where he referred to the spectators as "the enemy," and described his methods for "totally destroying" them. But I digress…

The attack

Aikido is a form of Martial Art. The word "Aikido" is made up of three Japanese characters: AI - harmony, KI - spirit, mind, or universal energy, DO - the Way. Thus Aikido is the Way of Harmony with Universal Energy. One of the key points of Aikido is to redirect your opponent's energy instead of trying to stop him. If you stop him, you will have to absorb his energy. But, if you yield to his energy, he will continue around your body and cannot do any damage to you. If your enemy throws a punch at you, you should not try to block his attack – that will hurt you! Instead, you should try to lead his energy past your body, and his attack will lose its power. Mr. Skrabut gave me a very good lesson on this: "Push me," he said - so I pushed him with quite a bit of force. He just went limp and rotated; the result being that I continued forward, became unstable and almost fell because I didn't meet the resistance I anticipated. He directed my energy away from and around himself. It’s almost impossible to hurt a person that doesn’t meet your attack with force! Also, if your opponent doesn’t use any force, it’s almost impossible to defeat him, and the more energy there is in his attack, the harder he will fall. Aikido, in order to be an effective method of self-defense, is totally dependent on a strong attack.

Could the same be true for Magic? If the spectator is not thoroughly engaged in the magic effect, he might not fall for the magician’s persuasion techniques. But if he is involved, or even provoked, there is a better chance that he will be fooled. Slydini and Ramsey (Jarle, check the spelling on this. II think it's Ramsay) used effects that provoked the spectator to "catch" the magician. Slydini challenged the spectators and made them try very hard to discover the secret, and redirected their energy towards a conclusion, which he would later disprove.

Many performers will agree with Darwin Ortiz’ Law No.2 from Strong Magic: "There is no place for challenge in professional magic." But there are some who use it with great success. Doc Eason’s "Card Under Drink", Al Goshman’s "Coin Under Glass" and David Williamson’s "Challenge Ambitious Card" are just a few examples. These magicians provoke an attack from the audience that is of a positive nature. They redirect the energy from the attack and make the attacker "fall" as a result of his own force. All with Nate Leipzig’s motto in mind: "No one minds being fooled by a gentleman." But please keep in mind that you don’t have to do challenge magic to use the Aikido principles. It just makes it easier to understand the principle. As long as you can get the spectators interested in your magic, you will be able to redirect their energy where you want it.


The key to good Aikido is redirecting energy and throwing the opponent off balance. When Mr. Skrabut yielded to my pushing attack in Fort Collins, I lost my balance and almost fell forward before regaining my balance. In a real fight, an Aikido master will never let you regain your balance. He will throw off your balance and let you fall. An example: The Aikido master pushes you lightly in your back, and to avoid falling, you lean backward. He quickly pushes your chest and you fall on your back. The reason you fall is that you put all your energy into avoiding falling forward. The Aikido master uses your own energy against you!

Here’s a similar situation in magic: You vanish a coin, using a fake transfer from the right hand to the left. Then you open the left hand and show that the coin has vanished. Your spectator is now mentally off balance, and tries to regain his balance by looking at your right hand, expecting to find the coin there. Now one out of two things happen:

  • You have the coin palmed in your right hand; the spectator finds out and regains his balance. No magic…

  • You have disposed of the coin in your Topit or somewhere else, and you show the other hand empty too. He’s totally off balance – and has "fallen" for your deceptive techniques. Magic!

All warfare is based on deception
Sun Tzu (The Art of War)

You must never let the spectator regain his balance. This is also one of the principles behind Choreographic Misdirection (see my book Pocket Power, or my article in Magic Magazine, July 1997). You always have a new place for the spectator to focus, and you force his energy there by using your choreographed movements to lead his eyes. It’s the spectator’s own determination to closely follow what you do that makes him look in the wrong place!

Juan Tamariz uses his "Theory of False Solutions" to direct the spectator’s mind from one solution to another. When the spectator thinks he has the solution, Mr. Tamariz proves it to be wrong. By proving all the different solutions that the audience comes up with to be wrong, he has left them with no logical answers. The spectator continually tries to regain his balance by reconstructing the routine, but because of Tamariz’ many balance throwing techniques, it’s impossible.

The defense

I find it to be a general rule that if you simply vanish something, it becomes a kind of challenge. Let’s look at the difference between a vanish and a change. Let's say you do a coin vanish. The audience will try to figure it out where the coin went. This is a natural thing for them to do, but in effect it’s also an attack on you. If they say "It's up your sleeve" and you say, "No, it isn't," you have begun a verbal battle that you are sure to lose, no matter how wrong their conclusions are. To avoid this kind of challenge, you must have something else to direct their attention to.

One solution is to make the coin appear somewhere else shortly after the vanish. Find the coin in your shoe or under a cup of coffee, or under a salt shaker like Goshman, and your "enemy's" attention will be effectively redirected. A good example is Eivind Lowig's Pentium Move from his book Stand-Up Coin Power. The move is almost too good to be true, and it fools most magicians badly. You can do it wearing a T-shirt, and you can show both hands empty. But if you do this, it leaves your spectators with very few options as to where the coin goes. So few that their guess is quite likely to be right! So even though the move is very good, doing a plain vanish in your T-shirt could get you into trouble. They will automatically think, "where did that coin go?" and with a little bit of thinking, they will be able to figure it out.

This happened to me a couple of times before I understood what was going on. Eivind had the same experience. Then we both started to use the Pentium Move for a coin change, instead of a vanish, and it worked wonders! No one has ever guessed, or even tried to find out, where the coin goes after that. Their energy, or their attention, is focused on the new coin that wasn't there before. If a silver coin changes in to a copper coin, their attention will be on the new copper coin, and they will forget about the silver coin. We have directed their attention by leading their "energy" away from our weak spot. Magic the Aikido way! 

Aikido is non-resistance
As it is non-resistant, it is always victorious
Morihei Ueshiba (founder of Aikido)


Redirecting thought

Ascanio has done some thinking about redirecting thoughts, an equivalent to balance throwing techniques in Aikido. He says that you cannot make people not think about something. You can only make them think about something. Ascanio’s name for this technique is "Thematic Misdirection."

Example: If I don’t want you to think about money, and I say, "Don’t think about money," you will think about money, so I have to find another way to redirect your thinking. If I say, "Think about elephants," you will get a mental picture of elephants, and you will certainly not think about money! I have effectively redirected your train of thought!

Michael Ammar uses this principle in the presentation of his "Let’s Hit the Bottle" routine from his video "Live at the Magic Castle." It’s a coin in bottle routine where the spectator is given two coins (copper and silver) and is asked which one he thinks will not get into the bottle. Mike puts the silver coin inside and hands the bottle out for inspection, with the folding coin inside! Naturally, he is concerned that the spectator might try to get the coin out of the bottle, and thereby discover the secret gimmick. Here, Mr. Ammar shows that he is a high-class Martial Arts practitioner (magically speaking) and throws the spectator’s thoughts off balance. As he gives the bottle to the spectator, he says, "Take the copper coin and try to get it inside the bottle with the silver coin." He masterfully redirects the spectator’s thoughts from trying to get something out of the bottle to trying to get something inside it!

A common problem occurs when a spectator is burning your hands as you’re about to do a move. Classic magic theory tells you to ask him a question so he looks up at your face. When he is misdirected (or directed, as Tommy Wonder would say) you do your move. The problem is that the spectator will know that he has been misdirected. Wonder has a weapon that he calls Ricochet (Books of Wonder, Vol.1). The idea is to ask a question not to the spectator who is closely watching your hands (A), but to another spectator (B), preferably the least suspicious of the group. Then spectator A is likely to look up at spectator B to anticipate his answer, and you can do your move. Highly elegant use of Aikido principles!

Aikido is the way that teaches how one can deal with several enemies. Students must train themselves to be alert not just to the front, but to all sides and the back
Morihei Ueshiba


The feint of death

As a Martial Arts expert, in order to control the situation in a fight, you lie. You pretend to attack with a knife you're holding in your left hand. Your opponent will focus on the knife, and that's when you knock him out with your right hand. Well, that's exactly what we're doing when we're fooling people! When we pretend that something is important, when it's actually not, we are basically lying to them. When we ask them questions about the innocent object in the left hand, while the right hand is doing the dirty work, it's the same thing. They focus on the wrong spot and we "knock ’em dead" unexpectedly. Bruce Lee, the famous Martial Arts king, started a Kung-Fu style called Jeet Kune-Do, based heavily on feints because he experienced that hitting the opponent with a direct blow or kick would often be very difficult. Lee would feint a hit on the enemy’s legs, and the opponent would get ready for the kick to his legs. Then Lee would deliver a crushing punch to his head. Pure misdirection!

Another way of "lying" is to fake our attitude. In some of my routines I hand the cards to the spectator to shuffle, even if I use a crimp to control the card. It is of vital importance that he does not examine the cards closely, so I just give him the cards and immediately move on to something else, like introducing a new prop, pretending that the shuffling is not important, and that I don't care about the cards. The spectator’s interest shifts towards the new prop, and he does not examine the cards, even though he had that option.

John Ramsay was a master at this. He did a lot of feints that were designed to make people believe that he had coins palmed, etc. When the audience thought that he was palming a coin in the right hand, they focused on that hand. Ramsay would then do a sleight with his left hand; later he would show the right hand empty. Just like Bruce Lee!

The happy ending

Good magicians use Aikido principles and good martial arts performers use misdirection! Great magicians like Ascanio, Ortiz, Slydini, Ramsay, Wonder and Ammar are all very adept at martial arts techniques, but they’ve chosen to fight their battle in the close-up arena. Aikido philosophy tells you to "radiate happiness and well-being to everybody in the room." What great advice. Don't argue – yield if you can! If you plan your routines to avoid confrontations and carefully redirect the spectators' energy to where you want it, you will all play on the same team. You will be teammates – not enemies – and you can have great fun together. In the end it’s all about people skills, and Aikido techniques will greatly improve your people skills.

I hope you will be able to gain as much from this knowledge as I have. It will make your magic performances a much better experience both for you and for your spectators!

Aikido is nothing but an expression of the spirit of Love for all living things
Morihei Ueshiba

If you liked this article, make sure you check out the book More Pocket Power, from which this article was snipped.

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©2009 Jarle Leirpoll

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