The Cups and Balls is one of the oldest tricks in the world. If you’ve ever seen a magic street performer doing a set, you’ve most likely seen it and it’s definitely up there with one of the classics of magic effects.
The premise of this trick is very simple, a ball or multiple balls are placed under a cup and can vanish from the cup, reappear back under the cup, swap between cups and turn into different objects. It has an endless amount of different variations with every magician that performs it putting a slightly different spin on it. I’ll share some of my favourite performances at the end of this post.
History of the Cups and Balls
As I said earlier, the cups and balls is literally one of the earliest magic tricks ever. It was performed by Roman magicians over two thousand years ago. Often as a deceptive gambling game using cups and dice. It’s also possible that it’s even older. When excavating an Egyptian burial chamber in Beni Hasan they found on the walls pictures depicting two men leaning over four bowls. That picture dates back to 2500 BC so it could even older!
The idea of covering balls with different objects was also written about in the oldest book about magic called the Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot. He talks about a trick using three or four balls and covering them with bowls, salt cellars or even candlesticks.
Anyway enough chat let’s take a look at some of my favourite performers doing their take on the cups and balls.
Ricky Jay’s Cups and Balls
I think a good place to start is with the late, great Ricky Jay’s version of the cups and balls. He talks you through some of the history of the trick and throws in some great kickers at the end. One of the slickest performances you’ll see.
Paul Daniels Cup and Ball
The cups and balls trick doesn’t have to be plural. It’s often played with just one ball as demonstrated by Paul Daniels above. The speed at which he moves the ball around is incredible.
Johnny Ace Palmer
By now you’re probably starting to get the idea of the trick. One of the reasons I love the cups and balls is even when you’ve seen it a hundred times the misdirection is so good that you still miss the kicker where they put an orange or a fruit underneath. Johnny Ace Palmer though has one of the most surprising endings that I’ve seen (and I’ve seen A LOT).
Three Shell Game
As I mentioned earlier this trick started out as a gambling game and you’ll often see hustlers scamming people on Westminster Bridge in London. The video above uses three nutshells and a pea and you have to bet on where the pea is. But, as you’ll see you really can never win so don’t ever bet for money with these guys.
Penn and Teller’s Cups and Balls
No look at a magic trick would be complete without Penn and Teller’s version. Spoiler alert they do reveal how some of the tricks work as they use see-through cups! But even though you can see what’s underneath I still miss them putting it there. So good!