Formats Unpacked: The Ambitious Card

How breaking the cardinal rule of magic leads to an astonishing finale

Hi All,

We’re big fans of magic at Storythings so we were delighted when Micheal Newberry got in touch and asked if he could unpack a magic trick for us. We’ve worked on many projects that include magic, and borrowed principles from magic to tell a story previously. Adding magic tricks to the broad range of formats we’ve already unpacked feels like a no-brainer.

Let me introduce you to our guest format unpacker.

Michael is a marketing strategist with a background in theater and electrical engineering. He’s the Senior Director of Strategic Services at Frech and Wang. You can find him on LinkedIn and issuing the occasional Tweet.

Over to Michael…


What’s it called?

The Ambitious Card (magic trick)

What’s the format?

A spectator freely chooses and signs their name on a playing card, which is then returned to the middle of the deck. With a bit of flourish, the magician turns over the top card to reveal the spectator’s selection. The trick is repeated again and again for the same audience, and each time the magician attempts to make it more improbable the card will rise to the top.  

What’s the magic that makes it special?

I’m not a magician by any means. I’m more of a magic fan, someone who owns several books and videos on a variety of magical subjects, yet lacks the discipline to practice and prepare a routine for an audience. But even I know that one of the first rules of magic is you don’t perform the same trick twice. Doing so risks revealing your method, as your skeptical spectators are watching more closely the second time around.

That’s why I love the Ambitious Card routine. It’s the same effect repeated several times over, but instead of catching on, the audience grows more confounded. The magician loses the card into the center of the deck and reveals it as the top card, 10 to 15 times even, with slight variations that let the audience think they are about to discover the secret. Each time they hit a dead end and the magician escapes undetected.

The format of the trick remains constant and the bare bones plot – the ambitious card always works its way to the top – is straightforward compared to more elaborate magical stunts like catching a bullet in your teeth or vanishing the Statue of Liberty. The simplicity of format puts the magician’s sleight-of-hand in focus. They must execute a different manipulation every time they transpose the card to the top of the deck, so that the audience remains a step behind. 

The repetition makes possible a spectacular finale. Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film about rival Victorian-era magicians, The Prestige, describes a magic trick’s format in three acts. The late, great magician Ricky Jay, an advisor on the movie, explained it as such:

“Magic is all about structure,” Jay said. “You’ve got to take the observer from the ordinary, to the extraordinary, to the astounding.”

With the Ambitious Card, an ordinary card teleported repeatedly to the top of the deck establishes a baseline of extraordinary. The audience thinks they almost have the trick figured out, if they could see it performed just one more time. For the final act to be astounding, the audience must lose any hope that they can outwit the magician. So instead of jumping to the top of the deck, the Ambitious Card may escape the deck entirely to an impossible location. Harry Lorayne steals the card into his pocket. David Blaine’s card reappears in his mouth. Tommy Wonder conjures the card into a ringbox that has been in plain view of the audience the entire time.  Jason Ladanye’s Ambitious Card doesn’t leave the deck, but he summons to the top the three matching cards from the other suits.

Favourite Version

The mononym magician Daryl won a Gold Medal at FISM, the world championship of magic, for his set that included this Ambitious Card routine. In the final effect he wraps the deck in rope, making it (seemingly) impossible to manipulate the chosen card to the top of the deck. Daryl has several audience members sign the card, front and back, and one even tears off a corner, to ensure that the exact card placed into the bound deck is the one set free at the mini-miracle’s climax. 

Similar Formats

The Miser’s Dream is another rinse-and-repeat routine where the magician plucks endless coins from thin air. Teller’s version uses a fish tank and builds to a great finish.

Any Card Any Number is a centuries-old, simple plot, but 94-year-old David Berglas has perfected it beyond the understanding of any other magician

Looking for more legerdemain? Check out Harapan Ong and Dan & Dave Buck, who were kind enough to point me in the right direction for outstanding Ambitious Card routines. 

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Thanks Michael.

Magicians were developing repeatable entertainment formats centuries before TV and radio even existed. They’re great storytellers and understand human attention better than any other variety of entertainer - which accounts for our obsession. We’ve previously written about magic and attention in a five-part series that Medium commissioned us to write, and magic featured heavily in the chapter I wrote for the book Creative Superpowers. You could do a lot worse than studying the craft of magic to develop your own formats.

Finally, Nick Parker got in touch and asked if he could unpack a live event format. Of course he can. I can’t believe we’ve been doing this for over a year without unpacking a live event format - there are some great ones out there. Is there an event format you would like to see unpacked? Get in touch.

Thanks for reading,

Hugh