Magic Hot List: The Hot Card Trick

In this first magic hot l,ist, I share my top ten variations of "The Hot Card Trick", better known as Chicago Opener or Red Hot Mama.

This is the first, in hopefully many, magic hot lists. Each list will feature ten items of personal interest to me as an amateur magician. Some lists will focus on a particular magic trick, such as the Ambitious Card. Others will concentrate on a single sleight-of-hand technique, like the Pass. There will also be lists of magic books, such as the ten best books for beginners wanting to learn coin magic. I may also create lists dedicated to magic props and famous magical performers. Well, that's the plan, at least. If this post proves popular, I will make this a regular column on the blog.

Why am I Doing This?

I'm compiling these lists for my own benefit. Creating them forces me to explore aspects of the art of magic that I might otherwise neglect. I'm also hoping that other people (that means you) will find these lists interesting and valuable when studying and researching magic.

The idea for this new column was inspired by "The Hot Card Trick" by Al Leech1. A few years ago, I created a comprehensive list of variations of this famous card trick. I eventually converted the list into an interactive timeline to help fellow magicians explore the plot (see Card Plot Chronologies: The Hot Card Trick). The timeline now includes thirty-five notable variations of "The Hot Card Trick" (far more than this exists). While this level of detail is beneficial, I worry that such long lists can be a barrier and prevent people from exploring the timeline's subject—the exact opposite of my intention.

Furthermore, because there are so many options, you need to figure out where to start. This difficulty causes some people to give up entirely, a phenomenon known as analysis paralysis caused by choice overload (also known as overchoice2). Magicians are particularly vulnerable to overchoice because of the sheer quantity of new magic products released each week alongside all the existing books, tricks, DVDs and video downloads. As a result, you can spend so long searching for the "best version" of a magic trick that you learn, practice and subsequently perform none at all.  

To avoid this problem, I thought it would be more helpful to provide a "top ten" list of the best card tricks3 inspired by "The Hot Card Trick". The idea is that this more limited choice makes it easier for a person to select one of the tricks on the list and start practising it. However, you still have a decent amount of choice.

A Hot Card Trick Hot List!

Because it was the inspiration for the column, I thought it was only fitting that "The Hot Card Trick" by Al Leech was the subject of the inaugural hot list. This classic card trick, more commonly known as Chicago Opener or Red Hot Mama, is still very popular, even though it is over seventy years old! 

While the accepted and most popular name for this plot in magic is "Chicago Opener", I've decided to rename it "The Hot Card Trick" so that Al Leech, the originator of the trick, receives due credit for his invention. If you're interested in the complex crediting related to this trick, please read Obscure Origins: Chicago Opener or Red Hot Mama? for more information on this topic.

Many magicians have developed worthwhile variations of Leech's trick, myself included (I'll be sharing my handling at some point next year). So here's my top ten list of the best interpretations of "The Hot Card Trick".

10: "X Marks the Spot" by Matthew Dowden

You don't always have to mess with the method to improve a trick. While Al Leech's original presentation is serviceable, there are more engaging ways to frame the double transformation. One is "X Marks the Spot" by UK close-up magician Matthew Dowden. Matthew has developed a fun, comedy presentation for "The Hot Card Trick" based on an idea from fellow professional magician Michael J. Fitch. Rather than the back of the chosen card changing colour, a large black "X" appears on it because you're using "marked cards". The trick, which can be found on Volume 1 of his Party Animal DVD, uses the same handling as Leech's original.

Party Animal DVD by Matthew Dowden. Image Credit: Murphy's Magic Supplies.

Matthew talks about being a member of The Magic Circle and mentions that they'll kick him out of the organisation if they find out he's been sharing secrets. He then uses the false explanation of "marked cards" to explain how magicians locate chosen cards. I like using a big "X" on the back of the card, but I prefer to present this differently. Rather than talking about marked cards, I refer to it as "The Pirate Card Trick". Doing this enables me to talk about the myth of buried treasure and locate the card "like a pirate" by making a big black "X" appear on the back of the chosen card. This presentation also gives me an excuse to tell a lot of bad pirate jokes, e.g., "What is a pirate's favourite letter? You'd think it would be R, but 'tis the C they really love!" As a dad of three daughters, I take a lot of pleasure in telling "dad jokes", much to the embarrassment of my children! And, of course, this pirate theme makes "X Marks the Spot" the perfect card trick to perform on Talk Like A Pirate Day (the 19th of September).

Another (untested) idea is to write the name of the second selected card on the inside of an eye patch, e.g., KS for the King of Spades. Then, once you have completed the card trick, you can take off the eye patch to reveal that you knew what card would be chosen all along—apparently, you're a "precognitive pirate" that can see into the future! (In truth, I'm not sure if adding a prediction to the end of the trick is a good idea; it may well tip the method to an astute spectator. I do like the idea of presenting a prediction on an eye patch, though. It would be a good thing to do if you ever got invited to a fancy dress party.)

9: "Momma in My Wallet" by Dan Fleshman

This variation combines "The Hot Card Trick" with Signed Card to Wallet. While this is a good idea, Signed Card to Wallet has such a strong effect that it may overshadow "The Hot Card Trick", which is also a strong trick in its own right. For this reason, it is best to go against accepted wisdom and perform "Momma in My Wallet" as a closing effect rather than an opener (or independently as a stand-alone item).

By performing these two tricks together, Dan has added a more surprising ending to the routine. However, you need a reason to introduce your wallet into the proceedings. Dan talks about marked cards and gambling in Reno, which feels a little tenuous. The gambling theme of the trick could be strengthened by drawing a big, black "X" on the back of the card, as Matthew Dowden does in "X Marks the Spot" (see above).

The Restaurant Magic of Dan Fleshman: Volume One: Appetizers. Photo Credit: Murphy's Magic Supplies.

In the explanation video, Dan mentions that he showed this variation to Jim Ryan, who liked it a lot (Jim developed the "Red Hot Mama" presentation for "The Hot Card Trick"). Dan's routine uses a Balducci/Kaps/Mullica-style wallet. It can be found on The Restaurant Magic of Dan Fleshman: Volume One: Appetizers DVD. It is also included in the World's Greatest Magic: Chicago Opener compilation DVD (both are also available as video downloads).

8: "The Joker Works Overtime" by David Regal

In this variation by Californian magician and writer David Regal, an odd-backed Joker locates the first selection and then transforms to match it. The first selection then transposes with a second selected card. The Joker instantly transforms to match the second chosen card. That's a lot of magic for a relatively small amount of sleight of hand.

Californian magician and writer David Regal. Photo Credit: David Regal (via Twitter).

David's trick includes a very clever way of having both cards chosen at the same time. Using Jokers in the routine works well because they're used as "wild cards" in many card games. The trade-off is that the trick requires two packs of playing cards, so it takes up more pocket space (which might be an issue if you are performing strolling magic). It is also best to perform this handling when seated at or standing behind a table. For this reason, "The Joker Works Overtime" is an excellent option when performing in a more formal environment, such as a parlour show.

"The Joker Works Overtime" can be found in David's book Close-Up and Personal (Hermetic Press, 1999).

7: "The Dumbest Casino in the World" by Michael Close

Michael Close has published several variations of "The Hot Card Trick"; I think "The Dumbest Casino in the World" is his best. He provides an alternative method for the trick and supplies a more compelling and engaging presentation. The performer introduces an odd-backed card from a failed casino. He explains that the business went bankrupt within twenty-four hours of opening because the inanimate objects in the casino took on the company's motto: that the customer is always right.

During the trick, a card is selected and lost in the pack. The odd-backed card is slid into the pack in an attempt to locate it. The card above it is not the chosen card, nor is the card below it. The odd-backed card is turned face up to reveal that it matches the selected card! The magician offers to repeat the trick with a second chosen card. The odd-backed card changes to match the second selection!

Devious Volume One DVD by Michael Close. Image Credit: Murphy's Magic Supplies.

Michael's approach is highly recommended if you're looking for an alternative method for the trick. The only addition I would make is to show that the odd-backed card is a Joker at the beginning of the routine. This can be done by removing the "Joker" from another pack, as David Regal does in "The Joker Works Overtime". This changes the first phase from a prediction to a transformation, which fits the premise of the trick better.

"The Dumbest Casino in the World" can be found on his Devious Volume One DVD and on the World's Greatest Magic: Chicago Opener compilation DVD (both are also available as video downloads).

6: "Chicago Closer" by Michael O'Brien

This is an absolute beast of a routine! It combines "The Hot Card Trick" with the Colour Changing Deck and finishes with a very impressive blank deck kicker. As the name suggests, Michael uses this three-phase blockbuster as a closing effect rather than an opener. In addition, "Chicago Closer" uses a special holdout invented by Michael called the Switcheroo Deck Holdout.

Rather than a transformation, the first phase of the trick is framed as a prediction (or a coincidence). I really like the mental magic presentation that Michael uses with the trick. He's a very confident and engaging performer. Rather than explain in detail what happens during the routine, I recommend watching the two performance videos below.

"Chicago Closer" by Michael O'Brien. Video Credit: O'Brien Magic.

Another performance of "Chicago Closer" by Michael O'Brien. Video Credit: O'Brien Magic.

The second performance has a slightly different ending and emphasises the mental magic elements of the trick. If you're only going to perform one card trick for an audience, then "Chicago Closer" would be a good choice. Like "Momma in My Wallet", the routine is probably best reserved as a closing effect. However, if you decide to perform it as an opener, I'd recommend following it with a non-card effect because the trick is so strong. Interestingly, a precursor to Al Leech's "A Hot Card Trick" called "Color Line" also combines the first phase of Chicago Opener with a colour-changing deck effect (rather than making a second selection). "Color Line" was published in The Sphinx in August of 1941.

"Chicago Closer" is available as an instant download from theory11. It is also available from Penguin Magic (or your favourite magic dealer).

5: "Forced Thought" by Gary Kurtz

This is an excellent reworking of the plot by magician-turned-mentalist Gary Kurtz. Like "Chicago Closer", it has a more mental magic feel than the Al Leech original. Like Matthew Dowden, Gary draws a big, black "X" on the back of the card.

I particularly like the way Gary uses the card box in the effect to deliver a two-card transformation.

"Forced Thought" by Gary Kurtz. Video Credit: Wizard Headquarters.

The trick can be found on Gary's excellent instructional video, Let's Get Flurious DVD (also available as a video download).

4: "Bluefield Debut" and "Bluefield Debut 2" by Michael Ammar

This is Michael Ammar's audience-tested variation of Al Leech's trick. Michael uses a blue-backed stranger card rather than a red one. He named the trick after his hometown of Bluefield, West Virginia. Michael felt the original didn't make full use of the stranger card, so he developed this multiple-phase routine to maximise the amount of magic taking place.

"Bluefield Debut" is very similar in construction and effect to "Forced Thought" by Gary Kurtz (it also makes good use of the card box). However, the first phase is presented as a demonstration of skill, closely followed by several magical moments that continue to emphasise the sleight-of-hand prowess of the performer (Gary's routine downplays this element). The trick finishes with the transformation of the odd-backed card in the usual manner.

"Bluefield Debut 2" is an alternative presentation that begins with a colour change production of the named card, as well as a quick two-card transposition phase (before finishing in a similar fashion to the original "Bluefield Debut").

"Bluefield Debut can be found in The Magic of Michael Ammar. Image Credit: Murphy's Magic Supplies.

There's a lot to like about this routine. First, Michael designed it as an opener; in this regard, it is a very successful piece of magic because it quickly establishes you as a consummate card conjurer.

Bluefield Debut was first published in The Command Performance: Encore I (Issue Two) in 1980. The trick was later republished in The Magic of Michael Ammar (L&L Publishing, 1990). In addition, you can learn both versions of the trick on the World's Greatest Magic: Chicago Opener compilation DVD (also available as a download). 

For those new to the world of magic, Michael Ammar is a world-renowned magician and one of the early pioneers of magic instruction utilising video technology. "Red Hot Mama" by Jim Ryan is taught on the first volume of Michael's Easy to Master Card Miracles series of VHS tapes, which were first put out by L&L Publishing in 1996. They're now available on DVD and as video downloads.

3: "The Hypnotist" by David Williamson

In "The Hypnotist", zany comedy magician David Williamson has added a full-pack, colour-change kicker to the trick. He has also developed an amusing presentation that involves the performer pretending to hypnotise a member of his audience. Much like other magicians on this list, David introduces the odd-backed card into the pack (he does this with two cards, in fact). However, this makes the initial effect of the routine a repeat prediction rather than a transformation.

You may have noticed that this is the third trick in the list to combine "A Hot Card Trick" with the Colour Changing Deck. I've placed this variation at number three because it has a stronger premise that provides plenty of entertainment value. You can also perform it using two regular packs of playing cards (although minor preparation is required). Unfortunately, to perform "Chicago Closer", you need to purchase specially printed cards, which makes it a little less practical than "The Hypnotist".

Williamson's Wonders by Richard Kaufman. Photo Credit: Quicker Than the Eye.

Some purists might argue that this isn't "The Hot Card Trick" but rather a clever Colour Changing Deck routine. This is a valid argument. However, I believe the effect is close enough to the "The Hot Card Trick" plot to be included in the list. I've put it at the number three spot because it is relatively easy to perform and has bags of entertainment value, much like everything David Williamson has published.

"The Hypnotist" was first published in the book Williamson's Wonders by Richard Kaufman (in 1989) but can also be found on a video download called Dave's Magical Mysteries Revealed, available from Vanishing Inc. Magic.

2: "Yours Truly" by Edward Oschmann

Ed has worked on many variations of "The Hot Card Trick" over the years. "Yours Truly" is his fun take on the plot, similar in tone to "The Hypnotist". However, it includes a deliberate transposition not found in most versions. This is the routine Ed uses to quickly establish his performance character while evoking a big reaction from his audience. Again, rather than use more words explaining the routine, I recommend watching the video performance below.

"Yours Truly" by Edward Oschmann. Video Credit: Edward Oschmann.

The trick was first published in Mike Power's Card Corner column in the Linking Ring Magazine (April 2016). You can see Ed's older performance of the trick in the video below. It is also available as part of his excellent Penguin Magic LIVE lecture.

An early performance of "Yours Truly" by Edward Oschmann. Video Credit: Mike Powers.

Ed's trick is in the number two spot because of the extra entertainment value his presentation brings to the plot. While it seems like a small addition, writing "Yours" on the back of the card offers lots of opportunities for humour and interaction with your audience. In addition, the trick provides an excellent example of how you can make a trick your own, something Ed learned by watching Bill Malone perform magic.

1: "The Chicago Surprise" by Whit "Pop" Haydn

The trick at the number one spot will come as no surprise to experienced magicians. It is "The Chicago Surprise" by Whit "Pop" Haydn. This is the very best re-imagining of Chicago Opener. Whit's manuscript provides a valuable lesson in card trick construction, misdirection and psychology to anyone prepared to study it. In addition, the trick has influenced many professional magicians. For example, "Yours Truly" by Edward Oschmann is based on "Chicago Surprise".

Pop Haydn performing at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, California. Photo Credit: Billy Baque.

The routine leaves no doubt in a person's mind that their selected card was freely chosen (the card is selected from a face-up spread). The trick is also carefully constructed to eliminate the possibility that the odd-backed card was switched. In other words, it gives your participant everything they need to agree that the card was not forced or switched. Then, if asked by another person, they have all the evidence they need to argue that the impossible happened.

The presentation used by Pop gently teases the audience into submission. He uses his "trained eye" to locate the first chosen card. No matter how the trick ends, there is always a big surprise that will generate gasps of disbelief from your audience (if performed correctly).

Pop's light-hearted presentation also works well with the "pirate" idea I mentioned in relation to "X Marks the Spot". In fact, wearing an eye patch enhances the "trained eye" aspect of "The Chicago Surprise". This is something I plan to use in future performances of the trick.

"Chicago Surprise" by Pop Haydn, performing at the WC Fields bar at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, California. Video Credit: Pop Haydn.

While I like all of the variations on the list, "The Chicago Surprise" enhances the main effect without adding any additional bells or whistles. It also fixes the original trick's main weakness: that the second phase accidentally teaches some people how the first phase was achieved. This is particularly true when performing for individuals with strong lateral thinking skills or those well-versed in retrograde analysis (such as scientists or engineers).

Finally, "The Chicago Surprise" is also possibly the best way to learn the Classic Force because it provides a foolproof safety net in the event that the force fails. A video tutorial (with a PDF of the original manuscript) is available directly from Pop Haydn's website. It is also available from Penguin Magic or your favourite magic dealer.

Honourable Mentions

"Chicago Quadropener" is another impressive variation that, like "Chicago Closer", combines "The Hot Card Trick" with the Colour Changing Deck. It finishes with a Rainbow-Deck kicker. I didn't include it in the list because it is too similar to "Chicago Closer". The routine begins with a very clean prediction: a red-backed card is removed from the magician's pocket; it is his "favourite card". Next, it is put into a blue-backed pack. A spectator is asked to name any playing card, such as the Queen of Hearts. Amazingly, the red-backed card is also the Queen of Hearts! Next, the backs of the cards change from blue to red, apart from one card: the Queen of Hearts! This second phase is the usual first phase of Chicago Opener. A second card (the Ace of Spades) is chosen, and the blue-backed Queen transforms to match it. Finally, a third card is selected (the Three of Clubs). The magician fails to change the blue-backed card into the Three of Clubs. However, the card's name appears in the fine print on the face of the Ace of Spades below the pip. To finish, the backs of the cards change into a rainbow of different colours.

Bill Malone has also developed a good presentation for "The Hot Card Trick" called "The Mind Reading Magician". He presents the first phase of the trick as a prediction rather than a transformation (this is the mind-reading bit). Bill then finishes on more familiar ground by transforming the odd-backed card into the second chosen card. Presenting the trick as mentalism mixed with magic works well.

Jonathan Kamm—an experienced restaurant magician from Chicago, Illinois—has also developed several unpublished variations that I like a lot. The first is called "Chicago Opener Meets WFT". It adds his "World's Fastest Transpo" trick to the end of the routine (you can see a performance of the trick below).

"Chicago Opener Meets WFT" by Jonathan Kamm. Video Credit: Jonathan Kamm.

Jonathan has also developed two more direct handlings called "Chicago Direct" and "Chicago Direct Transit (Version 2)". Both make good use of signed selections and would work well in conjunction with Dan Fleshman's "Momma in My Wallet".

"Chicago Direct (2 Versions)" by Jonathan Kamm. Video Credit: Jonathan Kamm.

Finally, Jonathan has another very efficient handling of the plot called "Chicago Flow". This one uses a similar selection process to "The Joker Works Overtime" by David Regal. I find this handling appealing because it doesn't require a table but still delivers the same effect as Al Leech's "The Hot Card Trick".

"Chicago Flow" by Jonathan Kamm. Video Credit: Jonathan Kamm.

If you're interested in these three handlings by Jonathan Kam, please contact him for more information.

Final Thoughts

My top three variations ("The Hypnotist", "Yours Truly" and "The Chicago Surprise") all have a clear premise and strong presentation that enhance the magical effect rather than detract from it. This is the main reason I find them more appealing than other treatments of the plot.

I'm currently playing with the idea of starting with the Colour Changing Deck, as Michael O'Brien does, then transitioning into a combination of "Yours Truly" and "The Chicago Surprise" using the pirate-themed presentation I mentioned earlier in the post.

Pick one trick from the hot list and practice it until you feel confident enough to perform it. If you need help picking from the list, I recommend that you start with the trick in the number one slot, "The Chicago Surprise" by Whit Haydn. Alternatively, choose a number between one and ten at random and just learn that trick instead. The most important thing is that you learn one of these tricks well enough to perform it. In my opinion, they're all great and worthy to be added to your performing repertoire.

Or you may prefer a variation that doesn't appear on my top ten. Please share your favourite variations of "The Hot Card Trick" in the comments section below.


  1. Al Leech, Hot Card Trick No. 1., (The Ireland Magic Company, circa 1950).

  2. Overchoice is a cognitive impairment that causes difficulty when making decisions involving many options. The term was coined by futurist Alvin Toffler in his seminal 1970 book, Future Shock. However, the validity of overchoice as a psychological phenomenon is debatable because scientists have yet to replicate some of the early studies into it. I have suffered from it, especially when picking a new magic trick to practice, rehearse and perform. SO I think that there is some truth in the theory.

  3. The concept of "the best" card trick, or anything for that matter, is purely subjective. So when I say that these are the best card tricks based on "The Hot Card Trick", I'm declaring that these are the ten variations I prefer. In other words, the ones that I find most appealing. Still, I think there is a benefit in constructing "best of" lists. Comparing the relative merits of one trick against another helps you appreciate their inherent strengths and weaknesses.

Bibliography (in alphabetical order)

  • Ammar, Michael. The Command Performance: Encore I (Issue Two). The Secret Service, 1980.
  • Close, Michael. Devious Volume One. L&L Publishing, 2010. DVD.
  • Dowden, Matthew. Party Animal. Alakazam Magic, 2007. DVD.
  • Fleshman, Dan. The Restaurant Magic of Dan Fleshman Volume One: Appetizers. L&L Publishing, 2004. DVD.
  • Haydn, Whit. The Chicago Surprise. Self Published, 1980.
  • James, Mark. Supercharged Classics. RSVP Magic, 2009. DVD.
  • Kaufman, Richard. Williamson's Wonders. Kaufman & Greenberg, 1980.
  • Kaufman, Richard. Unexplainable Acts. Kaufman & Greenberg, 1990.
  • Malone, Bill. Here I Go Again Volume 2. L&L Publishing, 2007. DVD.
  • O'Brien, Michael. Chicago Closer. theory11, 2016. Video.
  • Oschmann, Edward. Card Corner, Linking Ring Magazine (April 2016). IBM, 2016.
  • Regal, David. Close-Up & Personal. Hermetic Press, 1999.