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The cups and balls is a classic of magic with many adaptations. The effect known as acetabula et calculi was performed by Roman conjurers as far back as two thousand years ago. One popularly circulated painting of a man holding two inverted cups over two small round objects has been taken as evidence to suggest that the effect dates back as far as Ancient Egypt, though experts now doubt that is what the picture shows.

The most widely performed version uses three cups and three small balls. The magician makes the balls pass through the solid bottoms of the cups, jump from cup to cup, disappear from the cup and appear in other places, or vanish from various places and reappear under the cups (sometimes under the same cup), often ending with larger objects, like fruit, or even chicks or mice, appearing under the cups.

A typical cups and balls routine includes many of the fundamental effects, such as vanishes, appearances, and transpositions. A convincing performance also requires many of the basic skills, such as misdirection, manual dexterity, and audience management. Because of this, learning the cups and balls is often considered an almost complete education in modern magic entertainment.

Instead of cups, other types of covers can be used, such as bowls or hats. The classic shell game con is taken by some to be a variant of the cups and balls.

Performance and variations

Cups and Balls uses many of the basic techniques of magic, including sleight of hand and misdirection. The performance of the effect and construction of a routine is a complete study in the art of magic.

A basic routine is the triple penetration of the balls through the inverted cup and onto the table surface. One at a time, the balls are placed on top of an inverted cup, covered with a second cup, and caused to penetrate the cup and land on the table. This is repeated twice more with the two remaining balls until all three balls have penetrated the cup and gathered on the table.

Christian Farla performs Cups and Balls on stage.


A routine involving sleight of hand opens up more possibilities for the performer. The balls can appear, vanish, change color, travel between cups, grow in size or change into completely different objects.

For the climax of the routine, the cups are lifted to reveal the magical appearance of totally different, and usually larger, objects. This surprise ending acts as an applause cue for the audience and punctuates the end of the routine. Often, multiple objects are produced from under the cups, such as four pieces of fruit, which cannot even physically fit back inside the cups after the routine.

Dai Vernon's handling of the Cups and Balls is widely considered to be among the most entertaining and influential.

Gazzo Macee, (aka Gary Osborne), has also influenced the theory and thinking of the traditional cups and balls routine by performing an extended routine, sometimes over thirty minutes in length, and producing several large fruit and a melon from under a hat. While other performers executed their routines in silence, focusing all the attention on the magic, Gazzo performs the cups and balls as an interactive lengthy comedy routine in his street magic routine. His routine is still based on that of Dai Vernon, however, no matter the variations created.

Other modern performers have altered the number of cups used in the effect. John Ramsay, David Williamson and Tommy Wonder, for example, have performed routines with only two cups. Some performers have also performed a variation on the Traditional Cups and Balls routine with only one cup (though this is different from the Chop Cup routine).

Chop Cup

A fairly modern development is the newer 'Chop Cup'. The cup can be lifted to be shown empty and replaced on the table. The ball then appears when the cup is lifted again. This trick was invented around 1954 by Al Wheatley who performed with his wife in a Chinese-costumed act called "Chop Chop and Charlene." The Chop Cup is a variation with one cup and seemingly one ball which requires a smaller flat surface area to perform, as opposed to the table space needed for the classic three-cup routine. The Chicago close-up magician Don Alan performed his streamlined 'Chop Cup' routine on television which was then immediately imitated by magicians, who had not devised their own routines, all over the world. One of the best known performers of the Chop Cup today is Paul Daniels, who performs a fast-paced and original routine of his own.

Penn & Teller

The magic duo Penn & Teller performs a unique version of the cups and balls trick in their act. Initially, they perform the trick with small aluminum foil balls and plastic cups. The trick ends with the appearance of larger foil balls under the cups, and the surprise appearance of an extra unrelated object, such as a potato or a lime, under one or more cups. They then repeat the trick using transparent plastic cups, claiming that they will reveal how to perform the trick. However, as part of the joke, they do the trick so fast as to make it difficult to follow. They claim that this version of the cups and balls breaks all four rules of magic - Not to tell the audience how a trick is done, not to repeat the same trick twice, not to show the audience the secret preparation, and the 'unwritten rule' never to perform the cups and balls with clear plastic cups. They claim this version of the trick got them kicked out of The Magic Castlemarker, which comprises an appealing premise to the lay audience.

Noted Performers

Paul Daniels brought the trick into public light with his numerous performances and editions of the effect. Perhaps most famous is his one handed, one cupped routine which, at its peak, he was able to perform in less than 30 seconds.

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