How to win a Magic Competition


With the FISM World Championships coming up again next year, this is a question I get asked a lot.


Many magicians enjoy the prospect of creating or improving an act in order to compete against other magicians. It’s generally not for the glory of winning, but the experience and development you can get by going through the whole competition process.

I’d like to give you some ideas and things to consider when you are creating that act in order to help you to get the most from competition at any level.

First, I’d like to give you one important thing to remember, YOUR FELLOW MAGICIANS ARE NOT YOUR COMPETITION.

This is essential knowledge, not only in a magic competition, but in your life as a magician full stop. They are your colleagues, not your adversaries. We see so many magicians bemoaning that someone else “stole” their idea, or their trick, or their gig. In most cases, unfortunately, their complaints are fully justified. You do NOT steal from your colleagues; you work together for mutual benefit. The same applies in competitions. I know this sounds bizarre to some, but it is the only way that magic will grow. Even at FISM level I have seen acts that are competing against each other assisting backstage in each other’s acts. When one wins the other, though disappointed, shares in the winner’s success because he was a part of that success by helping backstage. When we are able to share in each other’s successes, and help to pick each other up after disappointments, we will see magic as an art form progress.

Speaking of FISM, by looking at the acts in such a high level competition as the ‘World Championship’, we can learn so much about how to put together a winning act. Your homework is to read about these acts. You can read reviews of all of the contestants at FISM on the FISM Report website at

See if you can figure out what element the winning acts had, that the others didn’t.


As I was honoured to be on the Jury at FISM 2003, 2006 and 2009, I’ll use the FISM 2009 competition as a guide. At FISM the judges will look at six specific aspects of your act and give you points for each category:

  • Technical Skill/Handling.
  • Showmanship/Presentation
  • Entertainment value
  • Artistic Impression/Routining
  • Originality
  • Magic Atmosphere


Go to the FISM website to see the complete FISM competition rules.


Let’s take a moment to look at each category.


TECHNICAL SKILL/HANDLING: This is one category where you have no excuse not to get maximum points. No matter what type of routine you are attempting, it is almost unforgivable if you are not technically proficient at it. If you fumble for a dove loop, or a palmed card is exposed, or a billiard ball flashes, you need to be back in the rehearsal studio and not on the stage. Some might think I’m being a little harsh here, we all fumble when we’re nervous, I certainly understand that, but there is a difference between a performer who is suffering from nerves and one who simply is under-rehearsed. Even so, one mistake because of nerves can be overlooked, but two and you will start to lose points. But if you walk out on stage and when you fan your cards they have more gaps in them than a bad set of dentures then you are going to score very low in this category.


SHOWMANSHIP/PRESENTATION: This is the category where you must overcome your nerves. You need to be confident, in control, but not arrogant or full of yourself. You need to look good, speak or act with assurance, and grab our attention instantly and never let us go. If you want to perform a classic dove act, go ahead, but you need to project something about yourself and the way you perform that is like a magnet. Videotape your audiences as well as yourself; are they glued to your every move or are they looking around, distracted by each other and looking at their watches? What’s the difference between say ‘Catwoman’ and ‘Batman Begins’? Both movies featured interesting looking characters, action-packed plots, and lots of pretty scenery… but there is something about the Batman movie’s story, acting and direction that just makes it far more interesting and exciting to watch. That is what we need in your act: An interesting character, lots of surprises, and tight well edited magic.


ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: Many people argue that this is the most important of all categories. It is if you enter a regular talent contest. But then… how many magic acts win regular talent contests when pitted against singers and comedians? Many magic acts are entertaining to magicians, and you might coast by if you pitch your act at magicians – and to be honest, if you are doing a corporate show for lawyers, you throw in some lawyer material, golfers in the audience, use your golf material, so for a crowd of magicians, you can throw in some magic references. This does add to the entertainment value, but beware, some judges are inexperienced and will penalise you because they will think “That’s good for a magic comp, but it wouldn’t play well in the “real” world.” So you can acknowledge the magicians with a wink and a nod, but steer clear of “in jokes” and references to technique. Having said that, we all know when we see a magic act devoid of entertainment value, we see them all the time. Entertainment value is tied in with presentation and showmanship, however it is as equally connected with the selection of the material as it is the performance of it. You can’t be standing on stage, withdrawn and focused on your technique, nor can your material be uninteresting. Unless you really want to set yourself up with a challenge, try to avoid long, drawn out effects with a long card selection process or the adding up of numbers. Confusing plots and set ups should be replaced with multiple effects. It’s extremely difficult to keep the audience engaged and entertained if you give the spectator the deck and wait for him to complete shuffling it. It may be better to avoid such potentially dull moments when you’re designing your act.


ARTISTIC IMPRESSION/ROUTINING: This category, again, is as much about the tricks and effects as it is the performer. If you were to present three completely unrelated effects: A dove production, a book test and a sliding die box, you most likely would score very badly here – unless, of course, you created some amazing presentation that linked the three effects and made them flow. Again, relating this to movies, a good movie well tell a story, throwing out various elements that go together and maybe waiting until the very end to bring them all together into a satisfying climax. It is possible to create an act of three entirely different routines (something like the ‘Trilogy of Terror’ movies that featured three separate tales) but even those movie stories, though unrelated, had Terror as a common theme. Many people have pointed to my routine ‘Runaround Sue’ as a good example of routining. The individual effects all share a common theme, common elements, and flow together to build the story to a satisfying climax. (I’d recommend getting the DVD to study, but it would probably look like a blatant plug! *g*) There are many ways to make routine an act artistically, but try to avoid the somewhat clichéd ‘theme’ act where you simply do a standard manipulation act but replace all of the elements with your theme item of choice. If you would like to do a linking ring routine with donuts, then build the rest of your act around that so that it will support the use of donuts logically. Do not simply add a multiplying donut routine and a jumbo donut climax and expect to be considered artistic.


ORIGINALITY: The most challenging and yet the simplest category of all. First, watch as many magic acts as you can. Look at what they do, and then eliminate those from your list of potential tricks and presentations. It’s much easier to start off with limitations than a completely blank page. You might be saying:“Right, I won’t do a zombie, an origami, a linking ring routine, a newspaper tear…. what WILL I do?!” For the answer, you need to look in the mirror, and if you – like most performers – have a mirror that lies to you, ask an honest friend. You may be shocked to discover that you are actually NOT Lance Burton, David Blaine or Criss Angel. You may discover that you have quite a unique view of magic and the way it should be performed – but you simply assumed it must be wrong and went with the safe flow of the magic crowd. You may discover you love a particular style of music, or movies, or dress – and that may form the impetus of creating your unique and original character. It is from that CHARACTER that your original magic will flow, once you know who you are, you will know what magic suits you, and what doesn’t. This is an area we’ll explore in more depth later, but in a nutshell the judges want originality not only in effects, but in presentation and personality as well.


MAGIC ATMOSPHERE: This is what separates an entertaining act from a magical one. Naturally, you need to strive to be as entertaining as possible, but it can’t be just a comedy act, nor can it just be a romantic vignette, it needs to be a MAGIC ACT. We return to the movie analogies: If you see an action film, you want to feel your pulse racing and your adrenalin pumping as you watch it. If you see a romance, you want to be moved, maybe even to shed a tear in sympathy with the characters on screen. If you see a magic act, you want to feel the tingles of anticipation through your body, you want to feel excited as you see the impossible happen on stage right in front of you. Any style of magic act, properly constructed, can give you that feeling: Manipulation, the excitement of Lee Eun-Gyeol as objects dissolved into smoke at his fingertips. Comedy, the moment in Scott & Muriel’s act where we realise Muriel wasn’t in the stairs after all. Mentalism, any number of effects performed by Derren Brown as all logical explanation flies out the window and you conclude that it must be magic! Think about how “real magic” would look, then try to create that live on stage.


The exciting thing about creating an act for a competition is that you are also creating an original piece of magic that people will have to hire you to see. You are developing your ‘USP’ (Unique Selling Proposition). Spend the time creating your act. Use the competition as a short-term goal. Whether you win or lose the real payoff will come later in the ‘real world’.


At FISM a competition act is judged in the following categories:

  • Technical Skill/Handling.
  • Showmanship/Presentation
  • Entertainment value
  • Artistic Impression/Routining
  • Originality
  • Magic Atmosphere


But the question is which one of these categories is most important?


When I first competed in FISM back in 1991 in Lausanne, Switzerland, I created what I thought would be a contest winning act. It had two parts to it; the first part was comprised of an interesting coin routine with lots of technically challenging sleights, the second part was a crazy card trick where I interacted with a small video version of myself on a tiny black and white television.

When I presented the act at my local magic club here in Melbourne everyone liked it, except my mentor Lyndsay Rietschel. Lyndsay thought the second part was okay but as to the first section of coin moves he said “Chuck it.” Naturally, I objected. After all, the first section proved to my peers that I had skill. Most of the other guys in the club were talking about the clever coin moves I had. The act remained as it was.

6-card-rap-image-v2Meanwhile, I had just created The Six Card Rap as a bit of a joke and Peter Reveen happened to be in town the night of its debut. He insisted I enter the Rap in the competition. I was shocked… after all, it’s a self-working trick! However, I took his advice and entered it in General Magic.

In the end my coin & card routine in the close up competition went well, but I overheard several people saying that they loved the originality and entertainment value of the card/video sequence, but the coin stuff let the act down. The Rap, on the other hand, was received so well that even though I technically disqualified myself (because the rules stated you need to do more than one trick, and a minimum of three minutes) they actually created a ‘Special Prize of the Jury’ to acknowledge my performance.


Now I think you can see where I’m going with this. Just like in the “real world”, you are more likely to be noticed and rewarded for originality and entertainment value than technical skill. After all, most magicians are really just audience members with a little more magical knowledge than your standard layperson. They can appreciate a stunning display of skill, but they will remember and be entertained more by an original and entertaining idea.


In my opinion, you could create the best ‘Magic Atmosphere’ and still lose. You could get full marks for ‘Technical Skill/Handling’ and fail to place. The only two categories where you get full marks and really stand out are ‘Originality’ and ‘Entertainment Value’.

Of course, the best acts score well in all categories, but my advice is to FIRST focus on these two areas when creating your contest winning act. If your act requires great skill, you will be judged accordingly. (If the judges looked at my Six Card Rap and had to mark the ‘Technical Skill/Handling’ category, they’d have to score me according to what skill the trick required. For what I did, I displayed top skill – not that it was all that difficult. However, with my coin act, even though the degree of difficulty was high, and I may have got extra points for that, who knows, I didn’t execute the moves perfectly so I should have lost a few points there. Look at Henry Evans. He won the Card Magic category and everyone assumed he had great skill, but now we know a lot of it was self-working… the skill came in creating the methods, and presenting them well enough to fool us!

So when you start creating your act, concentrate on ‘Originality’ first. Look at what everyone else is doing, and DON’T do any of that. Think of your wildest dreams, those magic fantasies you had when you first got into magic and didn’t understand the work involved in learning how to do it. Don’t worry about methods or practicality, just imagine what type of magic would blow YOU away if you saw it. THAT is what you are about to create.

For some ideas and practical suggestions about how to unclog your ‘Creativity Valve’, try MagicSports. Play a few of these games with your friends, at a magic club, or try a few training games at home alone. You can even see some of the games in action at FISM on my DVD ‘Ellis In Wonderland’ .  That’s your homework for today – dream up your new act. I can’t give you any clearer guidelines as to how you can do this, but I can tell you what NOT to do:


  • DON’T – look at a successful act and copy it with slight changes.
  • DON’T – look at a successful act and copy it at all!
  • DON’T – do routines you’ve bought at a magic shop or a lecture.
  • DON’T – create a ‘theme’ act where it’s all based around (for example) Barbie Dolls, where they multiply, change colour, and then grow to life size as a climax.
  • DON’T – do an act that is purely a demonstration of skill.
  • DON’T – do any type of act which ends up with you looking great at the expense of any volunteers or assistants.
  • DON’T – do any act where any animals are being hurt or even look as though they’re being hurt.
  • DON’T – use any foul language. Even when used in context this can offend sensitive judges and lose you points.


Many people have different ways to bring their dream act to life.


In ‘MAGIC’ magazine John Carney said the first step he took to bringing his show to life was to design a poster. Then he looked at the poster and asked himself what ‘Carney’s Wonder Cabaret’ meant to him.


What sort of magic would “blow you away”.


It’s good to steer clear of marketed effects, routines or pieces created or associated with other magicians etc, but instead to let your imagination run free. Assuming you now have an act in your mind, how do you bring that into reality?


First, you need to set out what the restraints are:


  • Time Limit – do you have to perform your whole act within a certain time frame?
  • Staging – is there a maximum stage size you need to work within?
  • Surface – for close up, can you bring your own table or do you have to use theirs?
  • Set up – do you have limited time to set up?
  • Fire – does the venue allow fire, smoke or fog effects… or not?
  • Language – if you need to speak, what language/s should you use to be understood by the majority?
  • Topics – is the subject matter of your act taboo or even controversial to your audience?
  • Culture – are there any cultural gestures or phrases you need to take into account?
  • Video – if you are being filmed live to screen, do you need to work to the camera or the audience?
  • Angles – will the camera, or poorly positioned audience members, reveal any effects?
  • Lighting – is your act going to be affected by bad lighting or missed lighting cues?


All of these questions and more can form a framework to give you guidelines when bringing your act into reality. You can ignore these from the start, but inevitably you will have to answer these questions and, if you’ve spent six months on a method that won’t work because of the stage size, then that time is wasted. Also, having a framework makes it much easier to eliminate impractical ideas and methods.

So, let’s imagine that your ideal act is a stage presentation that sees you causing randomly chosen volunteers to float around the stage: First – will this single concept be engaging enough to sustain 8-10 minutes, or do you need to add other elements to it? Is it best to simply walk out and randomly choose your volunteers or should you begin with an attention grabbing effect and then choose your volunteers? Entrance is very important. So by beginning with an eye-catching effect is a great idea. Should you theme the act and start by floating yourself?


This is where theme acts can be their own worst enemies.


imxrunaroundsueIf you float, then it takes the surprise out of having the audience members floating later in the act. However somehow, you need to set the idea in the subconscious of the audience that the floating, though a surprise at the end, is the natural and fulfilling climax to the act. Take my ‘Runaround Sue’ act for example. I do the Cups & Balls with milkshake cups. The cups are normally used for milkshakes, but I’m using them for a magic trick instead. However, when the milkshake finally appears in the cup it’s a surprise because the milkshake is not expected in the context of the trick, but it is the logical conclusion to a trick using milkshake cups.


The process is similar to a well crafted murder mystery where the murderer is revealed and you are surprised as to whom it was but you still say “Of course! I should have guessed it was him. It all makes sense now.”


So how do we apply that to our floating of audience volunteers? One simple way would be to present the act as an ‘Infomercial’ on weight reduction pills. You could begin with a television set on stage and maybe a large person viewing it. There’s some static and he gets up to try to fix the TV and, in the process takes it apart and reassembles it. The programme comes on and it’s the infomercial. Instantly the TV collapses and out steps you, as the presenter, addressing the viewer live and in person. You could present a few small effects with the diet pills, then maybe a larger illusion where the person (perhaps utilising an instant costume change) transforms into a slim version of himself. Now you magically produce some giant lightweight diet pills which you toss into the audience to randomly choose four volunteers. They come up onto the stage and, as they clutch their giant pills and “think light” they start to float. You then take their pills from them and they continue to float until the effect wears off and they return to earth. The floating is unexpected, but makes sense.

Obviously, that presentation is not to everyone’s performing style. So let’s think again: Maybe the floating is restricted to one volunteer, but is the climax of a mentalism routine. Imagine that four giant playing cards are on stage spinning. A voice asks the audience members to think of one card. The four cards stop spinning and the voice says “I knew you weren’t thinking of the Ace of Spades.” It falls to the stage, “Or the Three of Diamonds”, it falls, “Or the Six of Clubs”, it falls. “That only leaves the Jack of Hearts” It falls, revealing the mentalist. He chooses six volunteers and has them stand in a row. He opens a can of soft drink and asks, as he is blindfolded, for the can to be passed along the row and for only one person to take a drink. After his blindfold is removed he studies the volunteers and, as one starts to float, he reveals that that indeed was the person who drank the soft drink.


As you can see, there are many ways of presenting an effect and many different styles as well, some more effective than others.


trickIn order to determine the style that suits you, you need to understand exactly what style of a performer you are. In order to bring your act into reality from a technical side, take a look at the great, but underutilised, book by Dariel Fitzkee ‘The Trick Brain’. This has a wealth of advice about how to come up with a method for any trick you can imagine.

Creativity is like any other muscle in your body.

In order for it to grow you need to exercise it daily.

Make it a habit to try to dream up a new trick or idea, the more impossible the better, and write it down in a notebook.


–          Tim Ellis





Tim Ellis served on the FISM Jury in 2003, 2006, and 2009 with legendary magicians including Tommy Wonder, Ali Bongo, Roberto Giobbi, and Boris Wild.

Tim was awarded ‘Special Prize of the Jury’ in 1991, and Second Place in Micro Magic in 1994.

For more articles like this, checkout Tim’s book TIMELESS MAGIC by clicking here.


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