Cups & Balls – Does it Have A Place in Today’s Modern Magic Repertoire?

Like many serious students of the art, I have studied the text and routines of the classic “Cups & Balls”.

I have developed 3 routines over the years. The first one was a 9min competition routine that won me my first magic award in 1994. A 9-minute routine sounds long but this was not any ordinary routine. It had the usual Vernon-style sequences as well as crazy sequences with salt shakers, floating balls, appearing 4th silver cup and volcano finale. But, I agree by today’s standards, a streamlined 5min version would play much better.

During my years of professional close-up work, I developed a two-cup routine inspired by David Williamson and Tommy Wonder. It is fairly standard but with a unique finish with a saltshaker. That was developed during my time working restaurants and did not want to have heavy loaded pockets.

I currently have a newly developed routine that is completely different from any of my previous routines and with unique “moments” (to borrow the emphasis highlighted by Eugene Burger and more recently given by Joshua Jay to describe Troy Hooser’s magic) that is different from any other routine in the world. But more on this later.

Like many magicians and enthusiasts, I am attracted to the nature and historical significance of the cups & balls. The various beautifully crafted copper, brass and silver cups available from $100 – $1000 also tickle my fancy and appeal to my magic geek side. The plot, moves and structure of the traditional routine also seem to bode well with the “DNA” of a typical magician.

However, if we were to step away from the magician’s mindset for a moment, think – just how relevant is this routine to the modern mainstream audience? Do they see it as a cliché magic routine like the Linking Rings? Does it suffer from a sense of “sameness”?

Playing devil’s advocate, especially, from the point of view of a Commercial Creative Artist (CCA), does the “Cups & Balls” have a place in a modern magician’s repertoire?

When performed well, it is undoubtedly a solid piece of magic content. But, can it make you stand out as a CCA or propel your magic career forward into mainstream relevance?

Because of the strong tradition structure and look of the routine and props, many routines look and feel the same, regardless of the performer; no matter how flawless the routine is. As such, it is hard to look different to an audience and client if you perform the routine as everyone does. It is not just about changing the colour of the cups, types of balls or adding new moves, it is the inherent nature of the plot and structure of the routine.

From a magic educational standpoint, I think the “Cups & Balls” are a great study for a magician as it is one of the few routines that require a mastery of a range of skills from physical dexterity, psychology, misdirection and timing. A serious study and practice of the routine can help hone a magician’s skill set that are transferableto many other routines. So, like music scales and classic scores to a musician, the “Cups & Balls” are fundamental but may not necessary to be used in live performance.

It was the above line of thought that lead to the development of my current routine. While I personally love all the things that other magicians like about the classic routine, that is the intrinsic problem. Everyone likes the same things and thus performs the same thing. Little idiosyncratic nuances and handling do not count as being different. So, with a heavy but knowing heart, I made the conscious decision to be different.

The first thing I did was to re-examine the basic plot structure of the routine and deviate from the traditional phases of the routine as well as standard line of methodology. That is one thing to consider when trying to develop a “new” routine. Rearrange the phases. Remove some phases. Start off with a load at the start and do a call-back later when you produce more loads.

Another “problem” I identified is the structure of the final phase of the “Cups & Balls” routine. Virtually all routines that build to the finale have to go through the balls-to-pocket back-to-cup phase. This is a necessity due to the method. But, I feel this phase telegraphs towards the finish for an educated audience.

For a complete lay audience to the routine, even if they are unaware of the usual final, this lead up to the finale is always the weakest point of the routine and least entertaining part of the routine. Primarily, because the magician is going through those moves as a necessary process to set up for the finish.

In the current information age, I have long considered the “complete” layman a thing of the past for CCAs. Especially for serious show bookers and entertainment agents who are educated and can access Youtube videos of similar performances with a few keystrokes. So, while the lead-up to finale phase seems like a mute technical handling point, I feel it is significant enough for the commercial magician looking to bring the “Cups & Balls” to a “new” level so that the performance is not just seen as a run of the mill routine, albeit a well performed one.

Some who have deviated from the traditional structure of the finale build-up are Tommy Wonder and more recently Charlie Caper who was featured in Sweden’s Got Talent. Dominque Duvivier has a surprising kicker finish to his routine but generally I do not like how he gets to that point.

Besides my adjustment to the basic plot and method, my overall presentation leads the audience down a path differently which does not telegraph the finish. And my ending is quite different from anything else ever done in the world. It is hard to describe without you seeing the routine but audiences who have watched my “Urban Underground” close-up magic show will likely understand what I mean. I applied the same line of thinking to my “Inverted Aces”, “International Passage” and “Dice Explosion” routines.

Many realize that my approach to many routines have made the routines feel different with unexpected twists and surprises. Even magicians have commented enjoying the show because they never knew what to expect due to the non-linear thinking and approach to the structuring of the routines.

The last small but significant difference I adopted is to ensure my cups look different and fit my image. While I LOVE the tarnished vintage copper cups, it does not gel with my overall image of “urban illusions” so have traded them in favour of sleek looking un-chromed stainless steel cups; fairly understated but familiar in material for the audience. The cups look innocent yet modern enough and not too commonplace so is a great fit for my show style & image.

Another thing I think magicians can change is the opening patter for the routine. Maybe it is time to break away from “Let me show you a classic in magic” or “Let me show you the oldest magic trick in the world”.

Below are a couple of videos that I think are the best “Cups & Balls” routine around. I start off with classic-style routines and move onto more modern routines that I think have evolved with time and current entertainment trends.

Michael Ammar – This is a, by and large, Vernon-style routine that many classically trained/ influenced magicians perform. It is generally the starting point for most magicians in learning the basic moves and routine. Michael’s “Complete Cups & Balls” book & DVD are must-have resources and thus this performance is a fitting first in the line-up.

Ricky Jay – I find Ricky’s performance the most entertaining performance of the “Cups & Balls”. More significantly, I think it is the best approach to performing a traditional routine for a modern audience. By framing it as a passage through history, the classically performed routine is relevant, if not timeless.

Lance Burton – A classical approached routine with coffee mugs and a finale suggested by Paul Daniels that completely fits Lance’s style and is very memorable.

Multi-FISM winner, Fred Kapps’, routine might be from an older generation but it is one of the most baffling routines ever constructed. While a bit long in duration by today’s standards, his non-linear approach to the methods will guarantee to fool. I’m surprised not many performers take the cue from the masterful and difficult routine.

Now, I will move onto routines that, I feel, are pushing the routine forward for the modern audience through breaking from the traditional structure.

Tommy Wonder – His two-cup routine is legendary and features a different approach to the finish both in item, method and time in the routine. It’s development goes back decades so it shows how ahead of the time he was.

Paul Gertner – His FISM-winning routine is a great example of doing virtually the same classic routine but with a major difference. More importantly, he points out the difference to make it of value to the audience.

The brilliant, Penn & Teller, follow the basic structure of the routine but perform it with household items and then repeat the routine with see-through plastic cups. It transforms the routine to an entertaining masterpiece that goes beyond the traditional routine. They amazingly made the classic routine unimportant by making their presentation the focus and in-line with their performance characters and style.

Jason Latimer transformed the “Cups & Balls” with his crystal “Cups & Balls”. By reinventing the props, he has also reinvented all the traditional methods. While I feel the routine could be streamlined to be more effective, it is a huge innovation to the “oldest trick in the world”.

Charlie Caper’s routine is what I consider a true movement of the routine forward for a modern audience. With a busker street-style performance, he broke free from the traditional plot, structure and routining but retained the essence of the act. This resulted in an amazing, off beat and entertaining routine with killer finishes.

Remember, it is good to be great but there is a need to be different for the Commercial Creative Artist!

To end off, if you are wondering what cups to get for your routine, do a google search and spend time looking at all the different manufacturers. If you can’t decide, buy them all. That is what fellow Singaporean, Francis Ng did:

Now that you have picked your jaw off the ground… This cabinet displays part of hs 250 cups + 250 chop cup collection. Francis has only been collecting for less than a year. Check out the rest of his amazing collection here.

I assume you might meet Francis on the bus or MRT one day since I’m sure he must have sold his car and taken out a mortgage on his apartment to get the cups for his collection so far. I’m really proud that one of the greatest collection of cups in the world belongs right here in Singapore.


About J C Sum

International Headline Entertainer, Content Creator and Investor
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9 Responses to Cups & Balls – Does it Have A Place in Today’s Modern Magic Repertoire?

  1. Kent Gunn says:

    You mentioned so many routines that are all based on Vernon’s.

    You didn’t do enough research. There are many branches that extend past Tommy Wonder even. Although his routines are truly original. Don’t assume the cups and balls is some static entity, perhaps then you’ll see there’s plenty of relevance and mystery still hiding under those three cups. You just have to pick them up and look deeper, much deeper. Open up your magic books and your mind, you’ll find all the relevance you could find in the magic of tomorrows for all time.

    It’s rarely the trick’s fault. It’s almost always the magician who cannot find or express the magic.

    With respect and love,
    From the USA

    Kent Gunn

    • jcsum says:

      Thanks Kent for the comment. My position and choice of routines/ presentations was based on what I consider appeals to modern mainstream audiences for Commercial Creative Artists. I never discounted other routines based on their technical, artistic merit or originality but in this specific article, it is their relevance to modern day performance and are for, lack of a better term, considered commercial. At the very least, it is my subjective perspective of what I consider commercial for mainstream audiences based on my experience. If many of the relevant routines have a strong Vernon influence, it is because there is something there that makes it good and appeal to modern audiences. Sure, there are literally hundreds of other routines, but 1) may not be widely appreciated by mainstream audiences (which is the basis of my criteria) and 2) are not chosen by commercially successful performers as the basis of their own routines.

      I agree it is rarely the trick’s fault but how it is presented which was the crux of my article and why I chose to still perform the routine in my “modern day” show. The article was never a critique of the trick but how magicians tend to perform the routine with a high degree of “sameness” which results in it viewed as a static entity.

      And finally, if one were to read even finer between the lines, the article is not just about the “Cups & Balls” but the general approach of magic for commercial creative artists to differentiate their work even with a “standard” of magic.

      Thanks again!

  2. Kent Gunn says:

    This guy has none of the negatives you spoke of.

    He’s kind of boring and fat, but he seems nice enough.

    Kent Gunn

    • jcsum says:

      Kent, an awesome routine on many levels and a must-see study for all students of the Cups & Balls. I also enjoyed the “low-key” presentation in another video! Thank you so much for sharing!

  3. Jérôme Denis Andre says:

    Thogh it is quite traditional, I think one of the best C&B routines (thanks to it’s story-line) is that of suzanne:

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  6. Although I am an artist and therefore not a professional magician (but I have been ‘doing’ magic for many years!) I like your website and greatly enjoyed the article on Cups and Balls. It would be fantastic though if you could add the Youtube clip of Al Schneider’s Cups and Balls routine. Short, but my favourite:

    All the best
    Philip Bouchard

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