Coin Magic — Theory, Practice & Repertoire:
Innovations, Influence, and Impact and of David Roth
When my students broach the subject of coin magic with me, I typically begin with a theoretical overview of the subject. As described in my Sleight Study System [Preserving Mystery, 2017], I suggest that the initial study and mastery of about a dozen sleights—vanishes, switches, secret loads and a handful of other utility items with broad application—can provide access to a substantial quantity of quality coin magic in the literature. Later, if the student chooses, one can progress to more exotic sleights and concealments like Edge Grip, Tenkai Pinch, and much more.
I also explain that there are really two different physical approaches to coin magic, and that one basically needs to study them separately. That is, palm-down handling, as exemplified by David Roth, in which half dollars are generally used; and palm-up handling, as exemplified by John Ramsay, generally relying on silver dollars. Although this latter style is quite popular now, thanks to routines like Three Fly and many variations on Troy Hooser’s Extroydinary (which in turn evolved from Geoff Latta’s Standing Hoard), students often are unclear as to the stylistic and technical differences. One of the significant reasons we should use half dollars for Rothian coin magic rather than dollar-sized coins is that Classic Palm has more angle problems than is often realized, with the edge of the coin readily flashing to someone viewing into the thumb side of the palm-down hand. While is quite manageable with halves as long as you are aware of the potential hazards, silver dollars are far more prone to such flashes, and one must completely avoid leaving spectators a view from that vantage.
In fact, in my mid-teens I was more interested in coin rather than card magic, and after learning the Buckley rolldown flourish with dollars (at a lecture by Cuban magician José de la Torre), I became focused on trying to do everything with dollar coins. I even had Johnson Products custom make for me a Sam Schwartz “Incredi-box” in dollar size—which I later heard David refer to as a “trash can and four lids” to a mutual friend (which I confess I am find far more amusing now than I did at the time). It turns out, of course, as I have just explained, that David was correct in his critique of why dollar coins were a bad idea in such applications, which eventually I came to understand on my own.
Because of these differences I believe it is better to first concentrate on palm-down style techniques with half dollars, and wait to work on palm-up dollar handlings later. It’s not so much that the palm-up style necessarily requires digital dexterity or advanced finger flicking sleights, but rather the ability to conceal large coins for extended period of time, while maintaining a soft, natural appearance and movement of the hands, is quite difficult to do well. Developing a thorough mastery of fundamentals before tackling these demands will help the student to eventually achieve this kind of soft, uncontrived naturalness.
This points to a larger truth of coin magic, which is that it is far more difficult than a great deal of card magic, especially for the beginner and intermediate practitioner. This is because coin magic relies on certain fundamental techniques of “object magic”—magic done not only with coins but also with balls and other small objects—including what Fitzkee dubbed “simulation” in Magic by Misdirection. This comes down to the essence of sleight of hand: we are constantly acting with the hands, and lying with the hands. We are conveying the perception of empty hands that are actually full, and full hands that are actually empty. These are extremely challenging skills.
Whereas much of card magic relies on what I call the “camouflage of depth” principle, in which the physical characteristics of playing cards contribute to or outright provide the means of deception. As you insert a card into the middle of the deck, its location is very clear and obvious to the eye, even as you slowly push it further and further into the pack. But at the instant the card goes square, then its location becomes invisible. This fact, and countless applications related to this fact, provide for much of the deception of card magic, including the notion of multiplicity, i.e., the multiple lifts, and any technique requiring the holding more than one card apparently as a single card, thus camouflaging thickness. Of course, the Vernon Depth Illusion is a direct and explicit application of the camouflouge of depth, but really any time a card is “lost” in the pack, we are utilizing the camouflage of depth to at least some degree.
Because coin magic is so much more difficult than card magic, the return on investment—the hard work of learning the techniques—is lower than with card magic. The basic curriculum for the study of card magic that I developed in the 1980s and have been teaching to private students ever since is based on the study of only six sleights which, when thoroughly mastered, open the door to hundreds if not thousands of high quality card tricks in the literature [see: https://jamyianswiss.com/sleights-and-scripts, a segment of “Lessons & Learning.”] This is not true of coin magic, where one must work harder and longer in order to add distinctive routines to one’s repertoire. The return, however, is of course great, when one considers the beauty and visual appeal of much of coin magic.
That said, many professionals I know, who have been through a thorough study of coin magic, often end up with no more than perhaps five or six coin routines, if that, in their regular working repertoire, while they might regularly maintain a working repertoire of dozens of card routines or more. And this is often due to the sense of repetition that can quickly arise with coin magic, thanks to the fact that the range of effects is largely limited to the fundamental effects of all conjuring, namely (as inventoried by Sam Sharpe in Neo-Magic): vanish, appearance, transposition, transformation, and natural laws defied.
Which brings me, at long last, to David Roth.
John Carney, in a recent personal tribute to David posted on social media, commented that in the evolution of coin magic, there was coin magic before David Roth, and then coin magic after David Roth. The demarcation is a powerful one and the claim is unarguable. This is true for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Roth transformed and refined much of the fundamental technique of coin magic. Perhaps more than any other single sleight, his Shuttle Pass revolutionized coin technique. The principle of the Utility Switch had been around for centuries if not millennia, and it appears repeatedly in New Modern Coin Magic by J.B. Bobo. The manner in which this sleight was executed however was broad and inelegant, typically displaying coins spread along an extended palm-up hand, then turning the hand over to throw the coins onto the similar upturned other hand. It works, but it tends to look awkward, heavy-handed, inelegant. And the move simply does not work convincingly for the display of apparently only a single coin, while actually switching one single coin for another.
Roth changed this. For the Utility Switch of multiple coins, he turned the hand over in place, allowing the coins to drop to the fingers, and only then transferred the coins to the other hand, dropping them from the grip at the fingertips. Vernon can be seen doing this in lectures prior to Roth, but it was never a standardized or commonplace handling until Roth.
More significantly, Roth created the Shuttle Pass, an admittedly contrived action that he managed to make convincing and seemingly natural. This single sleight opened up new vistas in coin magic. And every time one vanishes a coin, then picks up a second coin and executes a Shuttle Pass, you have now proved the first vanish. It’s a beautiful, elegant, endlessly useful idea, and you should say, or at least think, a brief thank-you to David every time you do it.
Of course there was much more to Roth’s list of early innovations, many of which he created while still in his teens. These include but are not limited to: moves and routines with the Okito coin box that eschew reliance on secret turnovers; pioneering application of the then obscure Edge Grip concealment and invention of the Hanging Coins routine; the use of Deep Center Back Clip and the creation of the Deep Back Clip Recovery; the creation of the “Flurry,” adapting the iconic Slydini One Coin Routine to standup conditions, accompanied by the barehand transformation to a 3” coin; the apparently touchless, coverless version of the coin assembly; the creation of the Wild Coin plot; and countless detailed refinements to technique, such as how to subtly control one of a group of coins into Classic Palm. These and countless other creations and refinements are now a standard part of coin magic fundamentals. And then of course there is the refinement and transformation of the Crawford/Vernon Retention of Vision Vanish, which remains—despite countless variations—a steel beam in the foundation of contemporary coin magic.
Truly, that is a breathtaking list of innovation and impact, while it is far from a complete or thorough examination.
What’s more, Roth dramatically expanded the repertoire of coin magic, with his staggeringly original catalog of entirely original formal routines, which can be found in the final section of his seminal Expert Coin Magic by Richard Kaufman, one of a handful of the most important books ever written about coin magic.
What is fundamental to understanding that remarkable group of 14 routines is that each is thematically based on the a specific effect—enlarging that effect into extended plots, typically involving repetitions of the effect, repetitions made meaningful by the presentational theme. Thus, The Table is about penetration. The Purse and Glass is about transformation. The Portable Hole is about vanishes (and also appearances, but really the focus is vanish), as is The Sleeve. The Micrometer is about transformation, as is The Rainbow. The Planet is about transposition. And Silly Putty is an effect of sympathetic magic. While the Tuning Fork, a masterpiece of visual and conceptual poetry, is about vanishes and reappearances, but also about the impossibly magical capture and vanish . . . of a sound.
Is it any wonder that at his first appearance at the Magic Castle, at age 21, Roth took the Castle by storm—so much so that Dai Vernon reputedly stood and interrupted the final applause of the show he attended, in order to declare that having seen all of the greatest coin magicians in history, from T. Nelson Downs to Allen Shaw and more, that the audience had just witnessed the greatest coin magic of all time?
Understanding Roth’s most basic repertoire
Which brings me, at long last, to the subject I am most interested in discussing. Which is not that extended and most exotic repertoire of Roth’s, and its value and purpose, but rather, to provide context for understanding what Roth considered, and routinely utilized, as his most basic repertoire.
When David Roth was asked to perform in impromptu circumstances, he would typically perform the following sequence of routines:
Coins Through the Table
Coins Across (i.e. Winged Silver)
Chinese Coin Assembly
One Coin Routine (i.e. The Flurry)
In a longer set, David would begin by removing the coins from an Okito coin box. Then, following the Hanging Coins, he would reintroduce the box and perform Out In Out. And then, placing the box and three coins aside, he would close on the One Coin Routine.
David’s Legendary Four-Coin Trick, a delightfully eccentric routine that I have never seen anyone else perform, was an optional addition, and could actually be inserted almost anywhere in the set (after the first two routines) as a kind of interstitial aside.
A close examination of this selection of material can serve to reveal a number of significant lessons.
First of all, this repertoire runs through the foundational catalog of magical effects, previously listed. Coins Through the Table is a penetration effect, which falls under Sharpe’s category of Natural Laws Defied (along with all the other “tion” effects, i.e. destruction/restoration, levitation, animation, etc.). Coins Across and the Assembly feature transpositions. The Hanging Coins is all about vanishes—probably the single greatest impromptu multiple vanish routine in all of coin magic. And the One Coin Routine is about vanishes, appearances, and eventually a transformation (which is more interesting than a simple production with regard to the final jumbo coin).
Thus there is very little repetition here, and there is a lot of variety and texture even if you perform the entire set. And all of it can be done under impromptu conditions, with the use of little more than four or five half dollars (and an optional added gaff).
That is a lot of bang for your four half-bucks.
I came to understand the theory behind all this in the course of my study of magic in general, coin magic in particular, and David Roth’s magic as an exemplar. Roth’s choices can readily be seen as theory in action, and an answer to the question: Why study theory?
One detail that always pleases me to think about is Roth’s choice of beginning with Coins Through the Table, and following that effect with Coins Across. He explains this in his presentation upon concluding the first routine, and saying that the problem with it is that you can only see half of the action—you have no idea what is happening beneath the table. Hence he will now make the trick even more fair by keeping both hands about the table, and passing the coins through the air. This all makes perfect sense.
Yet I have always chosen to take the opposite approach. I begin with Coins Across. Then I say that while in that case the coins were merely traveling invisibly through the air, I will now make the feat even more difficult, by placing an impenetrable barrier between the hands: the table.
This also makes perfect sense. And I do not believe that one approach can be strongly argued as being clearly better or worse than the other. It simply demonstrates an important principle of presentation, to wit: They only know what you tell ‘em.
In my own application of the theory and structure of this sequence of routines, I do not strictly use the Roth handlings. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, I generally prefer to do all of this material standing and away from tables. My routine for Coins Through the Table is constructed so that it can be done standing at any convenient surface, such as a bare wooden bar stool. Over the years I re-handled several of David’s routines, in some cases sticking closely to his methods but re-choreographing them so that the magic would occur mostly in the spectator’s hands. For many years I used a version of Roth’s original Winged Silver (relying on the Shuttle Pass) that reflected this alteration; I also devised a version of David’s Out In Out routine with the Okito coin box, but that is performed entirely in the spectator’s hands. (Eventually I hope to release these handlings and several other routines of real-world coin magic, much of which is based on David Roth’s work, in a video project, for which David kindly gave me his blessing some years ago.) And the version of Hanging Coins that I use, original devised for performance behind the bar, appears in The Long Goodbye, Geoff Latta on Coins, (however in impromptu conditions I dispense with the final transformation to the jumbo Chinese coin).
I teach all of this coin magic in much the same order as it occurs in the set list. This provides a toolkit of technique that is progressively built along the way: Classic Palm and the Shuttle Pass for Coins Across; Click Pass and Han Ping Chien, among other elements, for Coins Through the Table; vanishes and loads for the One Coin Routine.
However, for the record, the first trick I always teach is the classic Copper/Silver in the Spectator’s Hand. There are two main reasons for this choice. One, it only requires one utility sleight, a switch (either Bobo Switch or Presto’s Palm Change). And while it is arguably the single greatest close-up trick in all existence, it is most certainly the single greatest coin trick, much less one that can be performed impromptu (with just an extra coin).
Following the mastery of Copper/Silver—along with its critically important and invaluable lessons in spectator management and misdirection—we then proceed to the material comprising the coin canon, as it were.
I offer this essay as tribute to the legacy of my friend, David Roth, a genius of creative innovation, and a maestro technician. He was a serious student of the history of magic, poring over ancient tomes, finding and reviving virtually unknown methods and steeping them in technical inventions and creative applications. While many younger magicians today are aware of at least some of the work of John Ramsay, particularly thanks to a revival of interest in the Cylinder and Coins, it was at a time when Ramsay was barely known to most magicians that David immersed himself in the study of Ramsay’s work, learning from Ramsay’s deeply sophisticated approach to construction, as well as taking inspiration from presentational ideas of Ramsay’s, like framing a vanish with the notion of hanging coins in the air. From Ramsay, and Vernon, and the long history of our literature, Roth engaged in a deep study of theory, grasping a command of principles and insights that deeply informed his work and creative powers. I believe there are countless lessons to be found in his work that can enhance and enlighten anyone’s study of sleight-of-hand conjuring. David Roth was an example of the true spirit of how to become, and be, a conjuror.
A personal recollection
I will conclude this piece with a personal recollection. Not only is it a treasured memory, but it also includes a bit of information about David’s real-world climax to the Flurry routine, which I don’t believe he ever put into print. (Whether he ever discussed this in lectures, workshops, or on video, I am not absolutely certain, but it’s not in print, and I am at present unaware of his ever having described this publicly.)
In the early and mid-1990s, after my return to New York City from having spent six years in the Washington D.C. area, much of my work came from appearing weekly at Imam (Hossain)’s Mostly Magic nightclub, and at events booked by various event planners and agents but significantly by The Magic Agency, owned and operated by Derek Dingle and his wife, Shelley Carroll. Another of the core group of magicians that Shelley booked in those years was David Roth.
David and I were both booked for a strolling close-up gig at a corporate holiday event one year. When we arrived, we briefly compared repertoires in order to avoid conflicts and duplications. When working in the real world, David did not rely solely on coin magic; he was an accomplished card worker with a commercial repertoire.
One item we quickly came to however was the One Coin Routine. When it came up in conversation, I mentioned the big coin finish. David said to me, in a confident and knowing tone, “Well, you don’t do the same thing I do.”
I said, “Well, actually, I think I do.”
He looked at me, undaunted. “Well, you don’t use the same large coin as I do.”
“I think I do,” I said.
David continued, more insistent now. “I don’t just produce one large coin. I use two.”
What happened next is entirely true. I encourage you to imagine the sound of the flute, from Ennio Morricone’s iconic theme music from “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” playing in the background.
At this point in the exchange, David and I intuited the same idea. We both stood up, and faced one another. Then we assumed the pose of the classic western shootout, our hands suspended in the air, just outside of our hips.
The air crackled with tension. A sagebrush blew across the dirt road.
(Okay, I made that part up. Back to the real scenario.)
We smiled at one another. And then—we drew our weapons!
And suddenly, we were standing facing one another, each with a perfect match of coins in our hands.
In one hand we each held a jumbo coin that was not a 3” aluminum coin, but rather, a coin measuring 3½” in diameter, and weighing almost a pound, made of solid .999 silver.
In the other hand, we each held a 5” jumbo coin.
And then we just stood there and laughed.