Inside the Elegant, Mesmerizing Subculture of Card Juggling
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Inside the Elegant, Mesmerizing Subculture of Card Juggling

May 31, 2024

Jason Tanz

On Friday morning, Dave Buck, Kevin Ho, and Zach Mueller were standing in a gallery space in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, listing their favorite cardistry videos. Cardistry is an arcane but growing pastime in which (primarily) young men shuffle, riffle, twist and toss decks of cards through acrobatic arrangements and sequences. Its practitioners, called cardists, share their feats by recording and posting EDM-backed compilations of their best moves. They already have built something of a canon.

“Spring Jam,” Ho says.

“Aviv’s Sequence,” Mueller chips in.

“And then there’s this guy Pred, who had a video called From the Mothership,” Ho adds.

“Oh my god, Pred!” Mueller says. “Yes!”

“It’s a whole bunch of stuff with fans that shouldn’t work but it does,” he says.

“It was really fresh, nobody had ever seen anything else like it,” Buck says.

“It’s such futuristic material,” Ho says. “And then I like a lot of the Scandinavian stuff that’s coming out, like Classic is one of my favorite videos.”

“Oh, and one video you have to see,” Mueller adds, “is LA 2014. A 10-minute-long, like, kinda street-style documentary. It’s awesome.”

Cardistry is like card magic without the tricks, prestidigitation without the abracadabra. (Buck describes it as “juggling with cards.”) Although magicians have employed elaborate card-flourishing techniques since the time of Houdini, it’s only within the last decade that cardistry has emerged as its own art form. With the advent of YouTube and---especially---Instagram, cardists began to coalesce into something like an artistic community, albeit a purely virtual one, with most of its members communicating solely via the web.

Cardistry has grown over the past couple of years, but its most dedicated practitioners can still fit in one not-particularly-large room. This room, actually. We are about an hour away from the launch of the first ever stand-alone cardistry convention, an event that will bring together every major figure in this subculture, as well as about three dozen registrants eager to meet their heroes. Most of the cardists have traveled a long distance to be here today---from as far away as Paris, Tel Aviv, and New Zealand. Although they have been watching one another’s videos for years, many of them have never met face-to-face. It is like a group first date, and, in the minutes before the doors open, you can feel the nervous energy. The organizers mill about, all the while shuffling, cutting, and riffling through their cards.

Most of the presenters arrived Thursday. They're staying together in an eight-bedroom Airbnb, which they have dubbed “House of Cardistry.” Buck, Ho, and Mueller are among the most accomplished and prominent practitioners in the group. Buck and his twin brother Dan helped inspire modern cardistry with a series of early videos and performances. Known as Dan and Dave, they organized this conference and are generally considered the community’s elder statesmen. (They are 30 years old.) Ho is a member of a Singapore cardistry crew called Virtuoso, the Virts for short, known for their ambition and versatility. At 19, Mueller is the rising young superstar. Over the course of the conference, it will be easy to spot his many acolytes; they’re all around 14, and they wear flat-brimmed baseball caps from Supreme, Mueller’s favorite brand. “They should pay me residuals,” he jokes. Dan and Dave, the Virts, and Mueller all sell their own branded cards, which have been designed to look particularly good while being tossed and spun through the air. Mueller raised $61,000 on Kickstarter to produce his last deck.

Angela Watercutter

Max G. Levy

Ngofeen Mputubwele

Cathy Alter

Finally, the doors are flung open, and dozens of cardists pour into the gallery space and settle into white plastic chairs facing a makeshift stage. Dave Buck steps before them. “What’s up, guuuuyyyyyyssssss?!” he shouts. “Welcome to the coolest fucking thing ever!!!” The audience hoots. “You guys are really lucky,” he continues. “There are only 52 registrants---this sold out right away.” Three hundred more are watching on a livestream.1

A burly, bearded Floridian named Chase Duncan speaks first. Before the conference, Ho had forwarded me a clip of Duncan bouncing a deck of cards off his foot and onto the back of his hand, like a hacky sack. When I mentioned this to Duncan he was a bit dismayed and told me he was trying to get away from such stunts and focus on his technique. Now he stands before the crowd to talk them through the finer points of performing a flourish called Bowtie. “That packet on the left,” he says, pointing to a stack of cards in a video playing behind him, “is just staying there in mechanic’s grip.” The audience members nod silently, tossing and flipping cards as if on autopilot while their eyes stay glued to the stage.

Duncan’s presentation is followed by a short video, “Cardistry in Popular Culture,” filled with TV and movie clips---Smokin’ Aces, The Simpsons---that feature fancy card manipulations. The crowd bursts into cheers at the sight of Jesse Eisenberg in a scene from Now You See Me, rapturously performing the Werm---a cut that involves balancing five packets in seemingly gravity-defying fashion. Then Dave Buck, Mueller, and another cardist named Alejandro Portela demonstrate their various techniques for performing something called the Curley-Cue, which … oh, come on, please don’t make me continue describing these things.

Angela Watercutter

Max G. Levy

Ngofeen Mputubwele

Cathy Alter

It’s hard to criticize the enthusiasm on display even if, at least in the early hours, the distinction between “conference” and “Internet friends hanging out” is a subtle one. The Curley-Cue analysis is followed by a panel discussion of “poop decks”---a term for an extremely well-worn deck---that goes on for a full 12 minutes. Topics include the relative merits of poop decks (they clump together, and so are easier to grip and form packets with) as well as the drawbacks (not fannable; ill-suited for video), the emotional connections some cardists form with their poop decks, and the surprising origin of the term. It turns out that when the phrase was created, while shooting a video called Sexy Time, it referred to a deck that was kept in the bathroom. “At first, it didn’t mean a deck that looks like poop,” says Dimitri Arleri, a Paris-based cardist who brought the poop deck from his 2011 video, Silent Transition. “It meant a deck that you use while you poop.”

Some of the attendants talk excitedly about the “mainstreaming” of their passion. “It’s just awesome to see it grow. This was nothing when I started out, and now it’s a legitimate art form,” Dave Buck told me. “We want to see cardistry as popular as yo-yo.”

Perhaps the most optimistic predictions come from Tom Kestens, who is the "conversation manager" for a Belgian card manufacturer called Cartamundi, which sponsored this year’s conference. “Cardistry, I think it's going be huge," he says. "It's the same as with hip-hop. That started in the '80s, in the streets, in Brooklyn, where we are right now." (Technically, it was in the Bronx in the '70s, but whatever.) "As soon as we're able to develop cardistry decks that are available and affordable for teenagers, when a kid in the favelas of Brazil can buy a cardistry deck, when that day arrives we'll know it's becoming mainstream. I think it's gonna happen." Later today, the Cartamundi team will unveil a deck with special textures and corners, designed to be easily manipulable by cardists, with input from Arleri and some of the other headliners. "We're going to try to help them," he says, "not only in the production of cards but in getting their names out, helping them produce videos, and getting to an audience that they're not reaching today."

Most take a more measured view of cardistry’s potential. “If anyone wants to make a living out of it, I don’t think it’s possible,” Portela says. “It’s not magic, you don’t get emotionally moved, it’s just a cool thing that you see for 10 seconds or two minutes…I don’t see an explosion anywhere in the near future.”

As I’m leaving, I pass a middle-aged woman sitting on a bench, looking bemused and exhausted. It turns out that she has flown in from Portland, Oregon, so that her teenaged son can meet some of his heroes. “What am I gonna do? It’s his passion,” she says. About 10 feet away, her son is excitedly riffling his cards and comparing flourishes with his peers, boys who have traveled from Ohio and the Bay Area to be here, and whose adolescent energy occasionally travels through their fingertips and sends their cards scattering to the floor. The woman smiles. “I’m going to get out of here pretty soon,” she says. “He’s in good hands.”

1UPDATE: 1:46PM PT 04/20/15: This story was updated to correct the number of registrants and live-stream viewers.