To gaff, or not to gaff? That, is the question.

When I was a kid and picked up a Svengali deck for the first time, it was amazing. I was little, my hands were small, and above all I wanted to awe people with my magical abilities. Fast forward a few decades when I finally got back into magic, if it wasn't pure sleight of hand it was the work of the devil.

Wait, what? Yeah, you heard me. If there was a trick card, a trick deck, a thread or tack or anything - I wanted nothing to do with it and thought pretty low of any tricks that required them. I wasn't alone either. I've read a similar opinion in books, online forums, posts on Instagram, etc.

It's been a little while since I really put thought into it, so I figured it was time to revisit this sentiment and then, I ran into a mental block. What exactly is a gaff, and how is it different from a gimmick?

Gaffs vs Gimmicks

In books I see references to gaffs or gimmicks all the time. Videos talk about them and magazines review them. When combing through different tricks to buy in a shop or online store, I see gaffs, gimmicks, and fèkes and taking a step back, what's really the difference?

I went down a rabbit hole with this one for sure. There are several forums that describe the difference between gaffs and gimmicks as:

  • Gaff: A special or modified object that is seen by the spectator(s)
  • Gimmick: A special or modified object that is not seen by the spectator(s)

And then a fèke is "an object or device used by a conjuror to perform a particular trick (or tricks)." With this definition, we can just consider a fèke a prop and move on. A prop, for reference, can be everything from an object that's just there for visual appeal (and, hopefully, misdirection), or it's actually used in the trick itself and can be gimmicked or not.

Okay, so, let's circle back around to what a "special or modified" object really means.

In card magic, something as simple as a duplicate card falls under this categorization. Or balls and cups, an extra ball or a lemon would too (though, the lemon crosses over into fèke territory a bit). How about a coin shell? Yup - that's there!

But wait, a duplicate card is seen by the spectator but they don't know they've seen the duplicate. So is it a gaff or a gimmick? What about a double-backer?

To me, gaffs and gimmicks are the same thing. We as magicians share a common lingo, and maybe at one point these two words really did mean two different things but as I get further into the world of card magic, I don't see the difference. Perhaps the distinction exists in other forms of magic more explicitly?

Either way, I use the two terms interchangeably. Flipping back through some books that I've seen the terms used in, the books actually start by defining what said word means in the context of that specific book. And that's perfect!

My Swaying Opinion

As I mentioned above, when I got back into magic as an adult I loathed the idea of using gaffs. I'm a hobby-magician, not a professional. I don't perform for many folks and can go easily a month between showing a trick to anyone (other than social media), but I practice daily. Why practice daily with a flap card when I could do Clip Shift instead?

Even reading McDonald's $100 Routine in More Inner Secrets and The Four Kings in Hofzinser's Card Conjuring I scoffed at the ideas and wanted to find a way to do them using non-gaffed cards. But, would a non-gaffed version be the same?

I think I've matured a bit in the past few years, or maybe I've opened my mind more. In the beginning, needing to learn the sleights was the most important thing to me and I really, honestly, think that I wouldn't have stuck with magic if I didn't. Now that I have a few sleights in my repertoire, understanding the "why I do magic" really makes me question this resolve.

I don't study, practice, and perform magic because I want people to think that I'm an expert with cards. I don't do it so people think I'm trying to fool them or pull a fast one. I'm into magic because I am a kid at heart and I want to share that same level of joy and happiness with others. That "wow" factor when something unbelievable happens in front of your eyes. And thinking about it, a flap card could do that as well as - if not better than - something like Clip Shift.

This doesn't mean I am going to dive deep into gaffs and gimmicks now and hang up sleight of hand. Oh no, no way at all. However, using a double backer is something I'll definitely do. Blank face deck? Oh yeah! Flap card on social media - why not, let's give it a try!

As long as it fits into a routine and can spark that "wow" factor, I think it's magic.

What's next?

Where do we go from here? I haven't really done much with gaffs yet. I own a handful, and most decks nowadays come with one or two like a blank face card or a double backer. But I do have double faced cards and others too.

I want to explore the world of creating my own gaffs though. I've put a bit of thought into the idea of it and I keep coming back to the Halloween Fear decks and their special "blood" card (where there's blood smeared across the card). I would never use this gaff because, well, while I think it's an amazing idea my first thought if I was the spectator would be to want to see and touch the card. Once I did that, it would be immediately obvious that it's just printed on the card which cheapens the effect and now the magician is just a prankster using trick cards... and we're back to why I disliked gimmicks.

But that's not to say that they have to be this way. One time when performing the Voodoo routine from Drawing Room Deceptions, I commented that I would normally have them sign their card but I forgot my Sharpie at home and they brought out a lighter to mark it instead. Well shucks. While that went fine and dandy and actually added a lot to the routine (which I now incorporate every time!), I've been thinking about marking cards like this. Sure, you can get a card with "printed smoke marks" … or, you can just burn it yourself ahead of time. From a distance, both would look the same but when handed out for inspection it's very visible that one is just printed and the other is actually burned (bonus points if you can smell it!).

Flap cards are also something I want to try making. I don't see myself using them much in real life performances, but on social media they can be pretty strong. Especially if I do a "which one's sleight of hand, which one's a gimmick" montage!

I don't know about you, but I feel like a whole new world of card magic just opened up to me and I have a lot to explore!

Most Commonly Used Gaff Cards

Here's a running list of what I think to be the most commonly used gaff cards:

I thought about include the neat gaffs where the card's half-and-half, like half is a 2 of hearts and the other half is a Queen of Clubs or something, but I'm not really sure what the name of that specific gaff is (I'm sure a simple search would tell me though). That, and I don't see them used too much so I can't say they're all that popular.

Oh hey, there are also a few gaff decks that keep popping up in my feeds that turn out to be pretty popular:

I don't own any of these decks, but I might grab one of the Bicycle and Jerry's and see what I can do with them. I also kind of think that this Magic Makers Ultimate Gaff Deck Card Tricks set might be a good idea for someone just starting out since it has so many built in and fun looking routines.

And to leave a fun question on the table, do stripper decks count as gaff decks?

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