UT Austin Magic Club shares delight of sleight of hand

Katie Walsh

Every time biochemistry senior Fin Gao leaves his room, he makes sure he has one thing — a deck of cards.

Gao is the director of the UT Magic Club, a group of student magicians of all skill levels working to spread magic culture around campus. Gao took over the club in 2013, enacting weekly meetings, a “magic degree plan” and performances on and off campus. The club focuses primarily on card tricks because of their versatility and accessibility. 

“I think people often like magic but don’t think they can take it to the next step and actually learn it,” Gao said. “Taking that first step really opened me up to the world of magic and gave me a whole new appreciation of the art. It helped me develop my passion for making people excited and making people’s days through magic.”

The club has two main focuses — teaching and performing. The weekly meetings are an opportunity for beginners to learn new skills, test them out in front of the group and get critiqued. Everyone tracks their progress according to a “magic degree plan” the club created that outlines all of the techniques needed to earn a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate in sleight of hand. 

Every year, the club performs a 90-minute original nine-act show. Last year’s show attracted over 300 people to the Union Theatre. Members also perform card tricks on the streets around campus as a method of recruiting.

“I think the real practice comes in when you’re on the street and you just have to kind of learn on-the-go,” Gao said.

Once a month, the club performs for an intimate group of teenage patients and nurses at the Dell Children’s Hospital. Gao said they try and engage as much as possible with the kids during the laid-back hour-long performances. 

“I know that when I was a kid, I never liked hospitals,” Gao said. “And seeing how much excitement [magic] can generate in friends or people on the street, I thought it would be a great idea to give the kids that same enjoyment in the hospital.” 

Petroleum engineering senior Andy Lau, the club’s advertising and marketing chair, said his interest in magic began after seeing a magic show as a kid. He taught himself the basics, pausing Youtube videos frame-by-frame to memorize the details of each trick, before coming to UT. He said performing magic has helped him build confidence and become more active.

“[Magic] is one of only arts that elicits an immediate emotional response,” Lau said. “Once the reveal happens, you get a direct reaction — either surprise, shock or [anger from] the people who deny everything and just leave saying, ‘you’re the devil, go away.’ It’s an emotional response that happens instantaneously and that is just amazing to me.”

Giovanni Ontiveros, club member and government junior, started practicing magic in elementary school as a hobby and later began securing performances in restaurants and schools. He joined the club in 2014 to be with people who share a common interest with him and can help him improve his craft.

“It’s a really cool dynamic between magician and spectator that I just really enjoy,” Ontiveros said. “[Having] a platform where you can show people [your] art, and get reactions out of people, it’s just so much more intimate.”