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Learn a minimalistic approach to Ambitious Card inspired by the celebrated Canadian conjurer Dai Vernon.
Greetings! This is the inaugural edition of Vernonesque, a recurring column I am authoring as a tribute to the renowned Canadian magician Dai Vernon. In each instalment, I aim to replicate Vernon’s unique style of magic by featuring a trick that either pays homage to one of his classic routines or embodies some of the essential elements that I associate with The Professor’s conjuring.
“Underambitious” is my minimalistic take on an Ambitious Card routine. Although the effect has been around since the late sixteenth century, and the French magician Gustav Alberti is credited with the “ambitious” presentation, it is most commonly associated with Dai Vernon, who played a significant role in popularising it. “Dai Vernon’s Ambitious Card” was published in the Stars of Magic series in 1949 (Series 5). Vernon expertly crafted the routine to engage the audience in a thrilling game of wits with the magician. His deliberate engineering of suspicious situations made onlookers question what they saw, only to be surprised when the “ambitious card” was found in an unexpected location.
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Most modern renditions of the plot involve multiple phases and are relatively complex in their construction but, sadly, lack the entertainment value of Vernon’s routine. “Underambitous” takes the opposite approach and only features a limited number of phases.
The routine was partly inspired by a card trick called “An Ambitious Card”, published by David Ben, a well-respected magic performer, historian and Dai Vernon biographer.Ben’s trick has a total of three phases and uses sleight of hand sparingly. David Ben, in turn, was inspired by an unpublished piece by Dai Vernon known as “The Trick That Fooled Houdini”. You can watch him perform his trick below:
My routine uses four cards, the Ace, Two, Three and Four of Diamonds. During the first phase, the Ace, Two and Three mysteriously ascend from the bottom to the top of the packet. This phase is a variation of a trick by Glaswegian magician Peter Duffie called “Ghost Buster”. Essentially, Peter’s trick is a version of “Ambitious Ghost” by Roy Walton with a colour change kicker ending.
The final phase of “Underambitious” involves the Four invisibly rising through the entire pack. The trick’s greatest strength is this last ascension, which happens with the deck sitting on the table, outside the direct influence of the magician. This hands-off approach increases the intensity of the magic, something that David Ben also advocates:
"Too much magic is performed, I believe, in the hands when there's a table present. Because anytime the deck can be out of your hands or in somebody else's hands, it increases the power of the magic.”
- David Ben
To learn “Underambitious” for FREE, click the button below:
I have a personal fondness for this streamlined version of the Ambitious Card and perform it often. Typically, I follow it up with my interpretation of Dai Vernon’s timeless packet trick, “Twisting the Aces.” However, instead of employing the four Aces, I use the Ace, Two, Three, and Four of Diamonds, which makes the magic easier to follow because it is clearer which card has already turned face up.
I highly recommend trying out "Underambitious." This piece shows that simplicity can often lead to success. I encourage you to perform it in front of a live audience and witness for yourself how a less complex approach can result in a more impactful performance, as Vernon himself understood.
P.S. If you’d like to learn David Ben’s “An Ambitious Card”, you can buy it as a video download from Vanishing Inc. Magic. I’d also urge you to learn Vernon’s longer Ambitious Card routine from Stars of Magic, which is available as an inexpensive paperback from Penguin Magic or your favourite magic dealer. You can also learn Peter Duffie’s “Ghost Buster” for FREE by downloading his ebook 4 Most from Lybrary.com.
David Ben is also the official representative of the Dai Vernon and is the definitive expert on the celebrated conjurer. He is also the sole protégé of fellow Canadian sleight-of-hand artist Ross Bertram.
David Ben, “An Ambitious Card,” Magicana, May 8, 2023, instructional video.