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Magic at home: The best gift ideas for a strange holiday

Magic is my hobby, and there's no better time to start learning.

Some of the many magic things I have around my home.
Scott Stein/CNET

A long time ago, a David Copperfield- and Penn & Teller-inspired kid version of me became excited to make ordinary objects disappear and float in the air. Trips to my local magic shop and a lot of book-reading led me to learning magic, a skill that's still baked into my brain decades later.

Theaters are still closed in lots of places, and I don't go out and see people much. But magic has become something I still do at home. Others are too: In Zoom live performances and with new magic lessons tailored for remote learning, it's a great time to get onboard.

I used to perform effects for my CNET colleagues, at CES or at holiday parties. It was fun to be challenged to come up with new ideas and test my skills. Now that I'm staying at home, I can't do those same magic tricks I used to do. But I learned, by performing a quick trick for an online talent-show fundraiser for my kid's school, that there's a whole world of magic that can be tapped into now more than ever. It takes practice, and patience, and time. But time is one thing that's readily available. Now you just need the rest.

Here are some great places to start. Some are books, some are tricks, and some are shows you can attend virtually. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it's some of my favorite stuff in my house, and hopefully it's a start. (For a deeper list of magic book recommendations from one of the most respected magic writers out there, read this list from Jamy Ian Swiss.)

CNET's Scott Stein performs magic on a stage

Me, performing for CNET colleagues at CES in January this year -- what feels like 100 years ago. I'm using a technique from one of the books mentioned below.

Dan Ackerman/CNET

Show Ideas

Justin Willman: Magic For Humans @ Home

Justin Willman's Magic For Humans show on Netflix has my kids hypnotized: it's a ridiculous blend of jokes, tricks, gags and impressive effects. Willman's now performing via Zoom in live shows that are well worth a ticket. You may even be a lucky one who gets picked to participate.

The Future, Geffen Playhouse

LA-based Geffen Playhouse produced a virtual magic show earlier this year, called The Present, that became a sold-out phenomenon. I missed out on that show, but the magician, Helder Guimarães, has a new show called The Future set for December-January. I don't know how it is (and it's likely geared more for adults), but it also involves a mysterious package being delivered to your door that coincides with the performance, making it weirdly interactive.

Magic After Hours (virtual)

Back when I went to live shows, a magic show performed at night in the famed Tannen's Magic Shop in New York City by Noah Levine was one of the best experiences I'd ever had. There's a virtual online version of Levine's show running now, in case you want an experience that you could attend in your own home.

Beginner Classes

Social Distancing Magician Starter Kit by Justin Willman

I loved Willman's show so much, I also bought one of his 10-trick kits that includes online video instructions. These kits may not always be that different from the starter magic kits you can buy online, but Willman's extra level of instruction and performance make these a lot better for my kids than other ones I've bought. The $50 kit includes some effects that can cost over $5, making the value proposition not as great as some set kits you can get online. But his presentation won my kids over, and made them actually learn. A few effects are on the beginner level, but it's a solid package. (There's also a second kit I haven't tried yet).

Mark Wilson's Complete Course in Magic by Mark Wilson

This book goes back to my childhood, but it's probably one of the best encyclopedias of magic of all types. You'll learn endless effects here if you sit down and read the instructions and follow the illustrations. This could be the one magic book you'd ever need to buy (of course, I actually own dozens).

Penn & Teller's MasterClass

If you happen to subscribe to MasterClass, the app/site that's a repository of celebrity-driven and surprisingly good video-based classes and talks, Penn & Teller have one on magic that's a series of short videos, plus a helpful PDF. It's a fantastic way to start thinking about the process of magic, and learn a few very good tricks. The style of this MasterClass isn't as ideal for kids, but maybe you could learn the effects and pass them on to your little ones. I've been lucky enough to meet Penn several times, and he's as amazing in person as he is on stage.

Now You See It, Now You Don't (Lessons in Sleight of Hand) by Bill Tarr

This is a really old book, and I grew up using it. It feels dated (there are some cigarette tricks). But the illustrations and the effects are fantastic. I have loved it for decades.

Magic Tricks: A Step-by-Step Guide by Richard Kaufman 

Richard Kaufman is one of my favorite magic book writers, and I discovered he had made this intro-level book with fantastic instructional photos by Elizabeth O'Keefe Kaufman. I bought it on Amazon and my son never really used it, but I love its mix of cards, coins, homemade gimmicks and even small-scale illusions. (I've never tried the Kindle version, but I'd recommend the physical book for its illustrations.)

Virtual Magic Lessons for Grownups

Magic in Mind

Vanishing Inc., an online magic shop founded by magician Joshua Jay that I spend way too much money at (there's a Black Friday sale right now) has a number of free downloads if you sniff around. One of the best is a big free ebook called Magic in Mind. It's a compilation of magic theory, not tricks, but it's fantastic food for thought on performance, learning, why magic works and how you may want to approach doing it. I'm a magic theory nerd, and this sampler made me want to buy a lot of the books excerpted here.

Verbal Magic by Juan Tamariz

I never liked self-working magic, but in the Zoom Age it's become a doorway to fantastic experiments you can try with friends and family. Legendary Spanish magician Juan Tamariz has routines here, that if followed, just work. They're originally written for radio, but they also work on Zoom. They're baffling and fun and are a good reminder that presentation matters.

Virtual Impuzzibilities by Jim Steinmeyer

A lot like Verbal Magic, these booklets of self-working effects are a lot of fun to try out. They could also be doorways to other creative or performance ideas you could dream up yourself.

Mnemonica, by Juan Tamariz

OK, sorry, I love Juan Tamariz. This isn't an easy book, or a beginner's book. But I started learning memorized card magic a year ago, and the effort I put in has been well worth it. Tamariz has a system and a lot of ideas using his system. Again, this is a challenging book, but I love it. Alternately, you can download a free intro guide to a different system by Simon Aronson if you want to understand what this is all about.

The Code, by Andy Nyman (from Theory 11)

Theory 11 is a great place to find tricks, video instruction downloads, and even some free stuff. I discovered the site years ago, and Theory 11 also makes a lot of really fantastic custom card decks you might have seen in stores. But the trick I use all the time is The Code, which I'd seriously recommend. The video instructions by actor/magician Andy Nyman are very good. It's also related to the book listed above, in a way, but less intimidating.

Modern Coin Magic by J.B. Bobo

I grew up with this book, available in a pretty affordable ebook format or print. It's packed with coin tricks. It's the coin bible. You'll never stop using it.

A few props to pick up

OK, I don't want to give anything away here, so I'll just name the props and let you get them. Try some magic suppliers (Vanishing Inc., Penguin Magic, Tannen's), or also Amazon. I'm not into gimmick tricks much, and prefer sleight of hand, but these are some must-haves. Also, have a few good decks of cards (bicycles are my favorite) and lots of coins (quarters and maybe half dollars, if you have any).

Thumb tip

One of the oldest tricks out there, and with practice, it's absolutely astonishing. And perfect for Zoom (or kids). This might be the most-used tool I own in several drawers full of magic props. Normally I'd try one on in a magic store for size. I prefer rubber ones to plastic.

Sponge balls

Super-squishy foam balls are great for practicing sleight of hand, and also look great on often-fuzzy Zooms. Buy a pack of four to start with, use smaller ones for smaller hands. One-inch softer sponge balls are my favorite. Shop around for prices, especially at sites like Tannen's, Penguin Magic or Vanishing Inc.

A random gift idea

A Tannen's Mystery Box

New York's famous Tannen's Magic Shop has been selling its Mystery Boxes for years: they're a mystery, with a big question mark on them, stuffed with random tricks. Often, they're older or discounted items, or discontinued things. Or maybe not. Tannen's promises $50 worth of magic for $25. I've found my luck seriously varies. But still, for a fan of magic who may have everything, maybe the Mystery Box you send to them will have something they won't.