Puneet Varma (Editor)

Cups and balls

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Cups and balls

The cups and balls is a classic performance of magic with innumerable adaptations. The effect known as acetabula et calculi was performed by Roman conjurers as far back as two thousand years ago. One popularly circulated picture, thought to date from 2500 B.C. from the walls of a burial chamber in Beni Hasan, Egypt, shows two men kneeling over four inverted bowls. It was taken by early Egyptologists Wilkinson and Newberry as evidence that the cups and balls effect, or its related deceptive gambling game, thimblerig, possibly dates back to Ancient Egypt. Because of its context, modern Egyptologists regard the image as a game using pots or cups but details of the game are unknown. The illustration is unique in ancient Egyptian art, so whether or not the game utilizes sleight of hand trickery may never be known unless a future discovery produces a similar image in a more explanatory context.


The most widely performed version of the effect uses three cups and three small balls. The magician makes the balls pass through the solid bottoms of the cups, jump from cup to cup, disappear from the cup and appear in other places, or vanish from various places and reappear under the cups (sometimes under the same cup), often ending with larger objects, such as fruit, larger balls, small animals such as baby chicks, and even a combination of the different final loads. Most magicians tend to prefer fruit, as each one is different in shape and size, thus increasing the element of surprise.

A typical cups and balls routine includes many of the most fundamental effects of magic: the balls can vanish, appear, transpose, reappear and transform. Basic skills, such as misdirection, manual dexterity, and audience management are also essential to most cups and balls routines. As a result, mastery of the cups and balls is considered by many as the litmus test of a good magician. Indeed the late magic authority, John Mulholland, wrote that no less a person than Harry Houdini had expressed the opinion that no one could be considered an accomplished magician until he had mastered the Cups and Balls. Professor Hoffman called the cups and balls "the groundwork of all legerdemain".

Instead of cups, other types of covers can be used, such as bowls or hats. The classic shell game con is a rogue-variant of the cups and balls.

Performance and variations

A basic routine is to start with a ball secretly concealed, the cups being nested in a stack. The three cups are set down in a line with the concealed ball being now under the center one. One of three visible balls is put on top of the center cup and the other two cups nested above. With a tap of the wand, the three cups are lifted, revealing that the ball has "penetrated" the cup. (There is now a new ball secretly concealed in the center cup). Again the cups are set in a line, the middle cup covering the ball which has already penetrated making two balls there, while the audience thinks there is only one ball. Another of the visible three balls is placed on top of the centre cup and covered with the other two cups, the cups being tapped and lifted to show the second ball has penetrated. This is repeated with the third ball at which time there is a ball still secretly concealed in the cups, and the performer is ready to go into the next phase.

For a sleight of hand routine, a typical move is to transfer a ball from the right to the left hand, really retaining it hidden in the right. A cup is then lifted to show there is nothing underneath and when it is put down, the hidden ball is released under the cup. The ball is now shown to have "vanished" from the left hand, and the cup lifted to show the ball has "traveled" there. In skilled hands, the illusion is perfect.

Many other secret moves are possible. These include the loaded lift where a ball is pressed against the side of the cup with the little finger as it is lifted, effectively showing the cup empty, and an extraction steal where the cup is set down over a ball but the little finger removes it at the last moment before the cup comes down. In this way, the performer is always ahead of his audience; the appearance and vanish of balls being quite miraculous. It must be stressed however, that the actual performance of these moves convincingly takes months and years of study and practice.

In the basic effect, often three balls are on view, but as noted above there may be a secret fourth or fifth ball which the audience doesn't know about. The balls are made of soft material so you can't hear if a secret ball is in the metal cups. At the end of the effect, the performer will often "load" large balls or fruit inside the cups for the climax. A load is a secret move which puts the object inside the cup, usually when the audience is misdirected.

The cups and balls is the epitome of all magic tricks, because it incorporates a plethora of magical sleights integrating the gamut of sleight of hand techniques used in the art of prestidigitation. Many magicians have used this effect in magic competitions and won, due to their skill in performing this trick, as well as the fact that it depicts such a wide range of magical skill.

Medieval Cups and Balls

In 1584 Reginald Scot wrote "The Discoverie of Witchcraft", within which he describes tricks with balls. He recommends using candlesticks with a hollow underneath, or bowls, or salt cellars covers to cover the balls. He describes the routine with 3 or 4 balls, and as many covers. He describes placing a ball under each cover, lifting the covers to show the balls vanished, and then having the balls all re-appear under one cover. Although Scot describes a method, as a non-magician himself it cannot be trusted to be accurate, and is considered by magicians to be unlikely as some of the moves described would be impossible to perform invisibly.

Indian Cups and Balls

In India, the Cups and Balls were performed seated on the ground, with an audience stood, or in chairs around the performer. This unique line of sight for the audience gave rise to some unique sleight of hand moves. The cups that are used are shaped like a shallow bell, a shallow bowl with a small knob handle on the top. They are often held between the first two fingers by this handle. The shallow nature of the cups means that a large item cannot be produced at the end of the routine, so the routine is often ended with the production of many of the same sized balls, although Shankar Junior would end with the production of black powder from one of the bowls. The number of cups and balls used varies, with between 1 and 5 balls in play during the routine, and between 2 and 4 cups.

Owan To Tama

Owan To Tama, the "Turning of Bowls" is the Japanese version of the cups and balls. The magician uses 3 bowls, and traditionally 4 soft silk covered balls as 3, a fan and 3 final productions, either oranges or boxes, sometimes of cigarettes. The movements of the Japanese routine are based on Japanese classical dance. There is a pretty, and unusual display to show the bowls used called "Owan-Gaeshi" where the performer passes the bowls from hand to hand, showing them empty in a beautiful, dance like manner. The routine has a reverent, ceremonial air. The routine was also performed kneeling on the floor, for a kneeling audience. Unlike other cups and balls routines the Japanese magician would usually work inside, and to music.

Bean Sowing

The Chinese routine of the Cups and Balls is often called "The Immortal Sowing Beans", it originated in ancient agricultural society as early as the Longshan Culture Period, pre-Shang Dynasty (before 1600 B.C.). It takes its name from the saying "Plant melons and you get melons, sow beans and you get beans" The immortal was believed to grow from ordinary man who is capable of various magic power and longevity by either accumulation of mortal cultivation or eating elixir vitae. The beans in the routine represent beans of elixir vitae.

The props used consisted of a fan, mat, and between 2 and 6 bowls, with between 3 and 10 beans. The most common numbers being 2 bowls with 3 or 5 beans. The Chinese method is unusual in that an extra bean or ball is rarely used. They also have some unique methods of concealing the beans. Traditionally the routine was performed on the ground, but now it's more commonly performed on a table.

Another unique element of the Chinese routine is to make large productions at the start as well as the end of the routine. Common productions include changing a small peach into an egg, producing water, sometimes with fish, and sometimes Baijiu. For the finale, "Harvesting a Million Beans" involves placing two bowls mouth to mouth, when they are opened many tiny beans are seen to over flow from the lower bowl. However, like the Indian routine, the Chinese do not always use a large final production, such as the routine performed by 王鬼手 (Wang Gui Shou, or King of Ghost Hands).

Modern Cups and Balls: the Dai Vernon Routine

The cups and balls have a long history, and the routines performed by today's performers are naturally built upon the work of previous masters. In ancient Greece and Rome magicians would perform stood behind a table, as opposed to on the ground as seen in Egypt, India and Turkey, to allow a larger audience to see the show, this tradition has continued today. Tall conical shaped metal cups were the norm in Europe and Egypt until the routine by Dai Vernon became popular using shorter, more squat cups that were about as tall as the hand. Similar squat cups were popularised by the likes of Paul Fox, Charlie Miller and Ross Bertram.

Dai Vernon's routines influence can be seen in many modern routines. Jim Cellini, a student of Tony Slydini, and teacher of many great street performers, credits his routine to Vernon and Miller. Dai Vernon's student, Michael Ammar, of whom Louis Falanga, President of L&L Publishing, said: "Ammar has literally lead the industry in shaping the thinking and performing of this generation of magicians", created his own routine based upon what his teacher had taught him.

The Vernon routine consists of vanishing the three balls, to reappear under the cups, the penetration of the balls through the cups, the spectator choosing which cup to invisibly transport a ball to, the removal and return of the balls, and the revelation of the final large production items, usually fruit. Watching modern performances of the Cups and Balls you are likely to see a similar sequence followed.

Chop Cup

A fairly modern development is the 'Chop Cup'. This cup has a magnet inside and a magnetic ball is used. The ball will stick in the top until the cup is set down with a little bump which releases the ball. The ball then "appears" when the cup is lifted. This cup was invented around 1954 by Al Wheatley who performed a Chinese-costumed act with the name "Chop Chop". The Chop Cup is a variation with one cup and (apparently) one ball, hugely popular because it requires only a very small flat area to perform, unlike the considerable table space needed for the classic three-cup routine. The Chicago close-up magician Don Alan performed his streamlined Chop Cup routine on television and was immediately copied by magicians all over the world. Paul Daniels routine with the chop cup has also done a lot for the routine's popularity. The Chop Cup can be handled entirely by the top, creating a more impossible performance.

Three shell game

The three shell game is similar in some respects to the three cup routine. In this so-called game, the main move is a steal of the pea from the back of the shell. This achieved by using a flexible pea and performing the trick on a soft surface. The pea is squeezed out under the back of the shell into the fingers in the act of pushing the shell forward. In a similar way, the pea can be introduced under a shell by drawing it back. These moves are made casually in swapping the positions of the shells. The spectator is supposed to follow by eye which shell has the pea, but in reality, they have zero chance of success.

Penn & Teller

The magic duo Penn & Teller performs a unique version of the cups and balls trick in their act. Initially, they perform the trick with small aluminum foil balls and plastic cups. The trick ends with the appearance of larger foil balls under the cups, and the surprise appearance of an extra unrelated object, such as a potato or a lime, under one or more cups. They then repeat the trick using transparent plastic cups, claiming that they will reveal how to perform the trick. However, as part of the joke, they do the trick so fast as to make it difficult to follow. They claim that this version of the cups and balls breaks all four rules of magic: not to tell the audience how a trick is done, not to repeat the same trick twice, not to show the audience the secret preparation, and the 'unwritten rule' never to perform the cups and balls with clear plastic cups. They claim this version of the trick got them kicked out of The Magic Castle.

Latimer Clear Cups and Balls

The Latimer Clear Cups And Balls is an illusion, created and performed by American illusionist Jason Latimer. In this version of the “follow the ball” cups and balls game, the magician uses clear glass cups and the audience can watch as the balls visually vanish and jump to underneath another cup. The effect was debuted by Jason Latimer in 2003 at International Federation of Magic Societies (FISM), and on US television on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson in 2004.


Cups and balls Wikipedia