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Cups and Balls

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Cups and Balls is the generic name for an old (possibly ancient) and widely varied plot in magic in which small balls placed on a table vanish from and/or appear beneath overturned, opaque cups. The balls can also travel invisibly from under one cup to another, and can apparently pass through the bottom of the cups as well, all over the course of a single "cups-and-balls" routine that usually ends with the production (or appearance) of much larger balls beneath the cups, or other large loads.

The cups and balls is a classic of magic with many variations. The related effect known as acetabula et calculi was performed by Roman conjurers as far back as two thousand years ago. One famous (and much older) painting of two men holding two inverted cups or bowls over two similar bowls has been taken as evidence to suggest that the effect dates back as far as Ancient Egypt, though experts now doubt that is what the picture shows.

The most widely performed approach to the plot uses three cups (often metal) and three small balls. The magician makes the balls pass through the solid bottoms of the cups, jump from cup to cup, disappear from each 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, like fruit, or even chicks or mice, appearing under the cups.

Some magicians also integrate the use of a chop cup in their cups-and-balls routines, employing two regular cups and a matching "chop cup" to increase their options in terms of both method and effect.

Penn and Teller, Shawn Farquhar and Jason Latimer have also performed versions of the routine using transparent cups.

A typical cups-and-balls routine includes many of magic's most fundamental effects, such as vanishes, appearances, and transpositions. A convincing performance also requires many of the art's core skills, such as misdirection, dexterity, and audience management. Because of this, learning the cups and balls is often considered an almost complete education in modern magic entertainment.

Instead of cups, other types of covers can be used, such as bowls or hats. Roy Benson made the Benson Bowl a common trick among magicians. And the classic shell game con is taken by some to be a variant of the cups and balls.

Houdini has been quoted as saying, "I consider no man to be a magician unless he can perform the cups and balls."

See also all pages in the Category:Cups and Balls.

"up" to Close-up Ball Magic

Notable Routines

Published Resources

  • (1937) CUPS AND BALLS MAGIC by Tom Osborne (book). Paperback, 60 pages. From the adcopy: Sleights, moves, and subtleties, every art & artifice both old and new. Palming, passes, steals, switches, moves, routines, novelty effects, production of baby chicks, original ideas, selecting your cups, etc. Special articles by John Mulholland and Henry Ridgely Evans. 63 illustrations.
  • (1942) LAST WORD ON THE CUPS AND BALLS by Eddie Joseph. Spiralbound, 68 pages.
  • (1949) MY FAVORITE ROUTINE WITH THE CUPS AND BALLS by Eddie Joseph. Stapled, 19 pages.
  • (1955) THE CUPS AND BALLS by Senor Mardo, paperback, 34 pages. From the adcopy: Tips on Patter, Wardrobe, Music, Lights and Routines. Four Complete routines to make you look like a master. You will learn: • The Pass • The Pinch • The Finger Palm Proper • The Finger Palm • The Finger Pinch • Back Finger Palm • The French Pinch • The Thumb Palm • The Finger Palm • The Finger Pinch • The Palm Proper • The Tilt • The Back Clip • The Advance • The Change • Transportation • Steals • Penetrations • Loading • Liquid Loads and more!
  • (1972) THE CUPS: A MANUAL OF CUPS AND BALLS MAGIC by Roy Fromer, stapled, 48 pages.
  • (1985) DENNIS LOOMIS CUPS AND BALLS ROUTINE by Dennis Loomis, paperback, 20 pages. A classical routine with traditional props and effects. Designed to be done seated, working from a set of saddle bags ala Don Alan.
  • (1998) COMPLETE CUPS AND BALLS by Michael Ammar. From the adcopy: Over 15 years in the planning and 3 years in the making. Ammar has separated all the fundamental information into a series of layers and as each branch is introduced, a routine is taught to put that knowledge to use. Types of cups, balls, wands, acting, timing, misdirection, routining, opening positions and sequences, secret loading sequences, etc. All of this is capped off with a full detailed explanation of the Dai Vernon Cups And Balls. Over 750 photographs and 18 essays written by some of the world's greatest cups and balls workers.
  • (2001) GAZZO ON THE CUPS AND BALLS by Gazzo, spiral bound, 12 pages.
  • (2003) CUPS AND BALLS by Gabe Fajuri, paperback, 32 pages.
  • (2003) DEFIANCE II CUPS AND BALLS ROUTINE by Reed McClintock (book). Three cups are shown, along with a wand. Suddenly, a ball appears at the fingertips. The balls vanishes as quickly as it appeared, only to end up under an untouched cup. These actions are repeated twice more, with a ball appearing under each of the three cups. The balls vanish once again, appearing under the cups once more. The performer offers to do it with two balls and one cup, which covers the third ball. The two balls vanish from the hand. The spectator lifts their cup to show three balls. The balls are vanished once again. All three cups are lifted, revealing the final loads.
  • (2006) STREET CUPS AND BALLS by Gazzo, paperback. From the adcopy: 67 pages packed full of everything any street performer needs to know about performing the Cups & Balls. Included are the lines, the props to use, the moves, the routine, plus so much more.
  • (2007) CUPS AND BALLS: A PRACTICAL APPROACH by Bob White (DVD, 1hr 33 min). From the adcopy: The difference between a good performer and an expert performer is the manner in which the expert handles the props, makes fake transfers of the balls, and deceptively executes the final large loads. This DVD will help you learn how to correctly do these critical techniques. It also includes a complete routine that can be done with any cups. Or, portions may be incorporated into your present routine. Includes The Practical Routine, Vernon's Ball Vanish, Three Opening Sequences, The Inertia Tip-Off Move, Galloping Post Sequences, Sequences with Charlie Miller's Move, plus Dai Vernon's Single Cup and Ball Routine from his 1968 Lecture, performed and explained by Bob White.

Notable Final loads


Cup Suppliers - Cup Resources - Cup Lists

(see also Thimble Rigging, Three Shell Game)