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Sleight of hand is a name for a family of techniques which are used to manipulate objects to make them appear, disappear, grow, shrink, and multiply. This skill is an important part of many magic acts; magicians use it to conjure bunnies from hats, manipulate cards, and perform a range of other tricks. Many fraudsters also use it as part of their acts to trick potential marks; cardsharps are notoriously good at sleight of hand, and the technique is also used in shell games.
The practice is quite old; people have been amusing themselves with visual tricks for thousands of years. The phrase “sleight of hand” emerged in the English language in the 1700s; “sleight” is derived from the Norse, and it refers to deceptive dexterity. These techniques are also known as legerdemain, from the French léger de main, which means “lightness of hands,” or prestidigitation, for “quick fingers.”
Observers of these acts are supposed to believe that the hands of the performers are quicker than their eyes. In fact, sleight of hand requires more than just manual dexterity. The act includes a patter which is meant to distract viewers, and skilled prestidigitators use principles of psychology in their acts, along with carefully orchestrated choreography. A skillful act also may require an open mind on the part of viewers, as receptive minds are more subject to suggestion.
The primary techniques include switching, palming, ditching, loading, stealing, simulating, and misdirecting. These techniques are used to move objects around, to hide them where they are needed, and to mislead viewers. They also require years of skill to perfect. The practitioner needs to have very nimble fingers and an excellent muscle memory for the trick to ensure that it works properly, and few things are more tragic than a sleight of hand act gone wrong.
Practitioners of the skill may call themselves magicians, performers, or illusionists. The sleight of hand is usually incorporated into a larger act which utilizes a range of techniques to create desired effects. In the act, the performer manipulates his or her environment, causing flowers to appear in mid air, appearing to cut women in half, finding coins behind people's ears, and performing other tricks and techniques to marvel and astonish.
People who are interested in seeing the skill in action can probably find a magic show in their vicinity. If you want to learn sleight of hand techniques, you can start with books, although ultimately it can help to apprentice with a master of the craft to learn all of its subtle nuances.
@Terrificli -- want to really annoy a magician? Pick up on his or her techniques and advertise them. Drives them nuts.
Of course, that could also get you punched by an angry magician.
And why do so many magicians entertain at schools? Because kids are impressionable and a lot easier to fool with sleight of hand tricks than adults.
Now, the really good sleight of hand artists are the ones that can fool adults. Those folks are scary good.