In London, Cardistry-Con’s 2023 edition saw the craft contending with its relationship with magic and deliberating new methods of recruitment

A study published by the National Institute of Health found that for men, the consumption of pornography is directly linked to the erosion of sexual self-confidence and partner satisfaction. It’s a horribly wasted learning opportunity—a shame that the psychological power of porn is not more often harnessed to embolden a generation of sexual confidence and competence. Its apparent educational failings then make the encouragement of a hobby that bolsters such wellness via carnal content seem entirely unrealistic.

Cardistry porn—to the extent of my knowledge—does not yet exist. But a periodic tide of comments on any of its videos that reach mainstream virality read like: “His gf must be REALLY happy.” They are more so observations than appeals, but illustrate how the agility that the craft requires might be applied elsewhere. The erotic narrative writes itself: Amateur fumbles with a deck. Expert comes from behind, guiding Amateur’s hands à la Ghost before the cards splatter across the sheets…

It’d be mutually beneficial: Man is finally offered a practical answer to illicit how to Google searches and cardistry earns a crop of new recruits. Given the community’s discernible desperation to further enlist new members, the prospect of sexual know-how seems an opportune selling point. Despite a temporary boom, recent years have seen cardistry’s numbers dwindle, struggling to build new interest and retain existing.

Known by the less-than-theatrical stage names Dan and Dave, Daniel and David Buck—a set of blond, mild-mannered twins—are celebrities of the scene, and really responsible for much of its recruitment. They are to cadistry what Adam Smith was to economics, what Bowie was to glam rock: Their instructional DVD tapes, The System and The Trilogy (of which they sold tens of thousands of copies) were essential pieces to the coming-of-age of most every cardist, and differentiated the form from card magic. Their names carry weight outside of the community itself, having performed for the likes of celebrities like Michael Jackson and serving as hand doubles in films like Now You See Me and Smokin’ Aces.

Though primarily populated online, its beacon of hope lies in its in-person gatherings, steadily growing in size even as its virtual denizens desert. Each year, an increasing number of cardists conglomerate for Dan and Dave’s Cardistry-Con, the largest gathering of its kind, attracting a global group made up mostly of young men with unusually nimble fingers. The vaulted ceilings and parquet flooring of Clerkenwell Close’s Crypt on the Green played host to this year’s event. The actual crypt itself—a not-so-dingy basement lined with exposed brick and filled with games tables—served as the “jam” site for the 300-or-so cardists who flocked to London for the occasion. Above the crypt is a church, where they filed into pews, the backs of which propped up not religious texts or hymns, but decks of cards—or, more likely, their empty boxes, as each set of 52 were manipulated by a cardist in practice. With each respective presentation and demonstration, the mass of shoulders peaking over bench backs twitched as they habitually shuffled and cut.

Cardistry—a portmanteau of card and artistry—was essentially born from card magic. But the first and most apparently fundamental thing you need to know is that the craft is not rooted in card tricks, its basis is in card flourishing. For many at the convention, and in the community at large, magic is actually a dirty word. Cardistry seems to be on the cusp of completing its adolescent rebellion against magic. It is natural—instinctual even—to reject that which made you. Bob Dylan was disillusioned by folk music while building fame from its form; the American colonies revolted against British rule before they built a Harry Potter theme park; you bad-mouthed your mom as she packed your lunches. Cardistry needed to become something of its own before it could embrace its lineage. The community is only now starting to deconstruct its taboos against trickery, but it remains a political point, still a looming threat to its reputational integrity. To bring up magic at Cardistry-Con is a conversational gamble: Responses vary in perspective, but are equal in vehemence.

“Magic plays with the gaps in our perception, and magicians have to close those gaps for themselves so they can violate them for their audiences. Cardistry, conversely, isn’t a question of what is possible, but a demonstration of how something can be done.”

Its 2023 edition is the first Cardistry-Con to explicitly feature magic and magicians, a bold and experimental move on the part of its programmers. When one magician is introduced as a speaker, a clique of boys in the pews in front of me snicker and pointedly refuse to clap when he finishes. Their reaction reads like cafeteria-table theatrics, but it’s emblematic of the fear of generalization that still runs rampant. There are a few converts in attendance—people who once considered themselves magicians and now near-exclusively practice cardistry. Its appeal to magicians looking for something more is plain: To learn the art of illusion is to sacrifice the pleasures of ever again experiencing its effects. A study from Front Psychol measured the brain activity of 25 professional magicians and 25 “normal” volunteers as they watched clips of magic tricks. They found that the magicians didn’t experience the same “expectation violations”—surprise, excitement—as the nonmagicians. Magic plays with the gaps in our perception, and magicians have to close those gaps for themselves so they can violate them for their audiences. Cardistry, conversely, isn’t a question of what is possible, but a demonstration of how something can be done. The pleasure is in the quality and ingenuity of the execution.

To be sure, there are a few who practice magic cutting into the scene who have been eagerly received. They are, as cardistry’s community guru Elisav Bizau says, “making magic cool.” Infusing sleight of hand into classic cardistry form, people like Jack Paton and Samuel Pratt are shaping a space whereby the incorporation of magic is made not just acceptable but esteemed. Their video for Heath Cards, “GOSH!,” which premiered at the convention, elicited the type of collective gasps and “OH!”s more often associated with MTV breakdancing battles.

Magic is a mere subsect within cardistry, which is populated by many scenes and styles, most identifiable by dress and by B-roll (as the video form, in a similar way to skate scenes, is a primary point of expression). There are the romantics (Salvador Gonzalez infuses flamenco into his routines, appearing at the convention in a billowy blouse, acoustic guitar plastered to his side); the brooding artists (one cardist invented a move called The Lovers, which generated new meaning when he found love in his own life); the streetwear-adjacent (a deck drop from ANYONE in collaboration with Benjamin Edgar generated sidewalk lines); and the commercially-minded (Anna DeGuzman has carved out her own market, appearing on America’s Got Talent and repurposing her finger’s formidability for Microsoft tablet advertisements); to name just a few.

Across the cliques—the likes of which do intermingle—there is a sort of hierarchy that’s hard for an outside eye to parse. Dan and Dave are the most obviously high-ranking among them, and there are some who “need no introduction,” as opening shots of their hands in a video are enough to excite the convention’s crowd. As with any coterie, cardistry has its own social handbook that helps situate the cultural capital you carry within it. Tutorials, namely, are reputational landmines. Firstly, because delineating a move someone else invented is murky water; some cardists don’t mind their work being laid out for large-scale replication if properly credited, but others do—especially if they have a paid version of their own. It’s also just not considered cool to make tutorials, meaning that most that exist online are shoddily done, which concerns some about the community’s accessibility to new recruits. (Bizau’s print publication The Flourish outlines this drama in detail.)

“The biggest barrier to entry for beginners, it seems, isn’t the lack of tutorials available, but in the logarithm of the learning curve: Developing proficiency in the basics is the hardest part.”

To me, the biggest barrier to entry for beginners, it seems, isn’t the lack of tutorials available, but in the logarithm of the learning curve: Developing proficiency in the basics is the hardest part, and unlike some art forms, you can’t really subvert the fundamentals with creativity alone. Cardistry requires dexterity and discipline and really, above all, an enormous amount of time. The promise of proper execution lies so far in the future that the answer to the population problem is maybe in fulfilling the need for non-pride-based sources of reward for those of us who don’t have the stamina to stick it out for the natural development of skills.

Bizau has a few ideas about how to build and maintain engagement within the community. Tutorials from those deemed expert, for one, if they can just get over the awkward discomfort of doing it. Another, he likens to video game achievements, whereby cardists can acquire badges for skills they can execute. He also proposes something that’s more akin to real-life Risk (with lower stakes): By performing in a city or neighborhood, cardists can claim territory, encouraging more frequent in-person interactions.

Cardistry-Con welcomes beginners, but it mostly attracts the experienced—which isn’t to say it requires a deep understanding to enjoy it. There’s a lot about the convention that doesn’t seem at all related to the craft: A 5k run across the Thames and subsequent pizza party is planned for the weekend, where one of the prizes is a framed, oversized print of Brendan Conner (“the hottest guy in cardistry,” as one attendee discloses) performing an impossibly-spread spring; there’s an optional scavenger hunt between sessions; on day one, its emcee, Michael Stern, is dressed as Ali G (an apparent tribute to the host city); and a Q&A with Dan and Dave is inexplicably modeled after Hot Ones. (A chunk of the questions stray from their craft: Who is more likely to have eaten who in the womb? “We were supposed to be triplets…”) Its strange branches speak to its capacity as medium not just for art but for communication, for the almost familial familiarity that emerges from it, which is, in part, why those who remain are so desperate to keep the culture around it alive.

At its core, it’s a social sport. There’s a bit of irony there: a skill most easily built from slews of solitude translating to the promise of popularity (or prospective sexual finesse). But if you’ve got the grit to tough it out for a solid set of hands, admiration and acclaim await.