An Interview with Jonathan Bayme

Magician. Card Flourisher. Founder of theory11.com.

An Interview with Jonathan Bayme

The original mastermind behind theory11 is Jonathan Bayme, a 25-year-old already at the helm of a small empire of magic, Cardistry, and playing cards. Bayme’s interest in magic kicked off when he was around 6 years old, and as a child he was frustrated at the lack of resources available for young people to learn magic. With that in mind, Bayme started theory11 to be the resource he never had. The site is full of magic tricks and card instruction videos from some of the world’s top magicians, flourishers, and enthusiasts. The Bicycle® Brand Team was thrilled to sit down with Bayme and talk about getting his start in the world of card magic.

Jonathan Bayme: If you hear ruffling sounds, that’s me shuffling because I have cards in my hands at all times, but I’ll try to keep that to a minimum.

The Bicycle® Brand Team: Which deck do you have in your hands right now?

J: On my desk I have one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, niiine… ten decks. I’ve got ten different decks of cards on my desk as we speak right now. Actually, sorry, eleven, right under my phone. That’s relatively typical. We’re always working on new decks of cards, or I’m fidgeting or playing with a deck of cards. For us it’s like an extension of self. It’s a fashion accessory that’s personified in a ubiquitous object that is a deck of cards.

B: Then of course you have eleven, at least, on your desk at all times.

J: Of course!

B: How many do you keep on you, on your person, at all times?

J: Just one. I’ll have one deck of cards on me, usually just stick one in my pocket. But it’s at the point where if I am leaving the house and I forget my deck of cards and I’m in the car, I have to go back inside to get the deck of cards. It’s like the feeling when someone leaves home without their phone. And you have to go back home, no questions asked, because “Oh, I forgot my phone.” That’s the same feeling I get with cards, and that’s shared by a lot of these people who are fanatics not of playing cards but of magic or Cardistry, flourishing, etc.

B: Have you ever lost a deck of cards, out and about?

J: Yeah, I mean, I lose cards all the time. Usually cards last me like two days or something like that. Sometimes they’ll last me a full week or so. But if I’m actually using a deck of cards—it’s not that my hands are kryptonite for cards, but during just playing and using cards, cards get bent, cards get warped, cards get ripped on purpose, all that sort of thing. Typically the life of a deck of cards is relatively short. In my hands at least.

B: So we know that after you saw David Copperfield perform when you were six, you read books on magic. Could you recommend any titles to kids getting started the way you did?

J: For the longest time, there was really only one way to learn magic, and that was through meeting other magicians. And if you gained their respect and their admiration about learning, they would teach you as a mentor-student relationship. The other way is through books. When I was growing up I saw David Copperfield performing in my hometown when I was five or six years old, and I was entranced. I didn’t want to be like him, I wanted to be him, if it was literally possible to literally teleport myself into his persona. And that wasn’t possible due to physics, but I wanted to learn magic. I had no magicians around me in my area to learn. And even when I went to the library, there were no specific books that were the type of magic I wanted to learn. The library books I found had a very limited selection, and were really beginner tricks that your uncle teaches you when you’re five and are impressive until you’re six. Or they were really difficult books that I wasn’t ready to jump into yet, when I was really young. That’s when I started wanting to learn magic through other means, and that’s what started theory11 and what we do now, allowing people to learn magic as a social skill, as a secret knowledge you can learn through the internet. The Internet is definitely the most efficient, effective way for people to learn magic or learn card handling skills or even card cheating moves. And it really revolutionizes the way you can learn. It’s kind of the resource I wish I had when I was younger, but when I was starting out I had only a few magicians who were my mentors and few books that were the basis of my knowledge.

B: You said mentors, there. So you saw David Copperfield and wanted to be him, but couldn’t. What magicians did you meet and gain their trust?

J: One of the first magicians I ever met was at a Copperfield show. I was really young and I was performing magic, doing birthday parties and performing for my friends in school and such. And I’d videotaped myself performing and really wanted to get this video to David Copperfield. He was my idol. I wanted him to see what I was doing and be hopefully impressed by it. In reality, I was absolutely horrible, but in my mind I was God’s gift to humanity with a deck of cards.

And so I went to David’s show when he toured back through my home town when I was thirteen years old, and I had a DVD I had made of my own show, and I wanted to get this to David… So I remember after the show I went to the lobby of the theater and the first guy I bumped into I said hey do you work with the show and he said “Ahh, kind of. Why?” And I said, “Oh, I’m a magician and I really wanna get this deck to David Copperfield, and here’s what I do.” And that guy was David’s executive producer, a guy named Chris Kenner, who’s also an unbelievably talented magician. He’s not just [David’s] producer; he helps create the illusions and runs the largest touring show that ever existed for magic. So he became my mentor from the time I was 13 years old and on… If you have the ability to find a mentor in person, it’s the most amazing resource, particularly if the person knows what they’re talking about.

B: So you started performing in theaters locally when you were thirteen years old. How did you score those gigs?

J: I think what happened was I wanted to be like David Copperfield; he was my idol, the legend I wanted to aspire to be at the time, and for me it was like okay, that’s what I wanna be. I have to do theater shows and sell out arenas really quickly now. It was naivety mixed with a stubbornness mixed with complete unwavering ignorance at reality, but in my head it worked because I was fearless. So the first theater show I ever did was at the Garden Theater, which is now known as Urban Outfitters; the condemned it and it was shut down. I called the theater one day when I was thirteen years old, didn’t have a my own show or anything set up, and I said I want to rent your theater because I want to do a show… And they said it’s $1250 or something for the night. And I’m like, I’m thirteen years old, I don’t have $1250 dollars! How is this going to work? So I did a lot of birthday parties and did restaurants and performed anywhere I possibly could, as much as I could… So I saved up about $1500, which was enough to not only rent this theater for one night, but to pay my thirteen/fourteen-year-old friends to be my crew. They were the ones who operated the lights and the sound and moving stuff around onstage and helping to put together this show. We rented out this theater; we threw together a show that was mostly a montage of tricks. It wasn’t really a smooth narrative of a show, just decently good tricks that I thought were cool at the time that I slapped together. I said we were going to sell tickets for $8 a piece, and I called every local TV station, the local ABC, CBS affiliates; I called the radio station. I called not only the newspaper, but also every individual department of the newspaper—the local section, the arts section to try to get them to feature me. And because I was a thirteen-year-old kid they were like wow, this is a cool story! So I got a bunch of local press from doing that. Long story short, this show sold out. We sold 500, 600 seats times $8 a ticket. We made back all the money that I’d spent, and that was the starting point. It started with naivety, it started with stubborn like, “Oh, I can do it! David Copperfield did it. Of course I can do it.”

B: If he did it, why can’t I?

J: Of course, of course. Let’s vanish the Statue of Liberty next. So that started it all. Because it was successful it gave me the confidence to do it again and again and again and again. It started this train, and the whole thing started with—no one told me—I was fortunate enough that my parents supported what I was doing. They said go do it, go do it. The worst thing that was going to happen was that I’d fail and lose the $1500 I’d saved up. So I had the support and morale-moral support—of my parents and family, and no one told me “You can’t do this,” or “This is stupid.” And honestly, if they had, I would have said, “Yeah, I can! watch.” I was so stubborn and still am… So that’s where it all started.

“No one told me ‘You can’t do this,’ or ‘This is stupid.’ And honestly, if they had, I would have said, ‘Yeah, I can! Watch!’”

B: That’s an awesome story. Your first show, out of curiosity—did you do mostly card tricks?

J: Yeah, normally I think it was staged magic tricks. You could go to a David Copperfield show in Last Vegas, and it’s all large illusions. He vanishes thirteen random audience members; he would teleport in from across the world. He does all these huge illusions, and I didn’t have any of that.  I had $1500 and I spent $1200 of it renting the theater, so I have about $300 leftover to pay my friends something and put together a show. So everything I did was mostly small, close-up magic tricks. And I was a computer geek from the time I was very young, so I worked up a video camera that projected onto a big screen, so even though I was doing—half the show was card tricks at this big theater. There’s no way you could’ve seen that in the back of the audience, but because I had this camera system and a projector rigged up, everyone could see it, even in the back row of the theater, so that’s how I made it through that show. I’m not saying it was in any way good… but I made it work, and people paid for it, and I used it as a learning experience to figure out what to do and what not to do next. And you can imagine, the night of the show, I’m thirteen years old and I’ve never done this before. I’m just totally winging this. I was shaking backstage, but I had to fake confidence because all my friends were my crew. I was like “Guys, don’t worry about it; there’s only 600 paying people outside and we’ve never done this before. What could go wrong?” I remember one of my friends who was helping backstage, and maybe three minutes before the show, he threw up all over the stage. He wasn’t even on stage, but he was so nervous and that we had no idea what were doing and we were under so much pressure. But great things often come when you put yourself out there, when you put yourself in an uncomfortable position. Where you’re setting yourself up to either succeed or fail and learn from it. So I did both things at the same time and learned a lot in the process.

“But great things often come when you put yourself out there, when you put yourself in an uncomfortable position. Where you’re setting yourself up to either succeed or fail and learn from it.”

B: This whole—not to focus on this show—but it seems more and more fascinating as you explain more about it. I can just imagine being in the audience going, “Let’s see this thirteen-year-old do magic.” And kids running the whole show. That’s really awesome. So let’s move along. What was the first trick you ever did for a live audience?

J: I used to perform for friends, in school, and all these sorts of things. I performed a lot because I knew if I was going to be successful… I needed experience; I knew I was really nervous and couldn’t talk well in front of people. I’d read… that to get over that, you have to perform as much as possible. And my mentor at the time, Chris Kenner—he would tell me the only way to fight that is to do hundreds and thousands of shows, and then you’ll get over it. And you’ll still be a little bit nervous, and you should be before of every show, or when speaking in front of people. If you’re not nervous, you’re on Valium or something. I knew that because I performed a lot. I don’t remember what the first trick was. I remember learning really basic card tricks from my uncle when I was super, super young and wasn’t really into magic at the time. I remember my first epic fail, if that helps.

B: Yes, definitely.

J: It was actually at that first show… It’s a trick where you break a 24-inch thread into three pieces. And at the end of it, you ball them up into a knot, then you place that knot onto one of the small pieces, and then you can see it, and you slowly extend our arms, and that knot turns into the fully restored single thread. I had scripted this out for my show. I was inspired by a magician named Alain Choquette. It was a beautiful production thing where it had great lighting and a music crescendo, and it worked great in rehearsals. And this was my closer. This was supposed to be my seal-the-deal moment of the entire show in front of 500-600 paying audience members. So when I got to this defining moment, the thread was knotted together, which meant that nothing happened. And there’s no recourse for that. I only had one thread set up and I just did 90 seconds of this trick and in the last five seconds it all went downhill and I had no way to recover from it. That’s the last—actually my only memory of that show was the giant epic fail at the end of it. But that inspired me because I was like wow that was a massive epic fail to end the show on. People were very kind and they appreciated the rest of the show. The last minute—I laughed it off and people still applauded and stuff… So that what inspired me to be so OCD, I think. Right now, the way we design playing cads, the way we do magic, is very precise.

B: Could you tell us more about how you came up with the idea of theory11 and what theory11 means?

“Our goal was to build the website I wish existed in 1994, when I just wanted to learn magic and had no one around me who could teach me.”

J: Yes, it started with a group of eleven of us, so that’s where the name came from. Our goal was to build the website I wish existed in 1994, when I just wanted to learn magic and had no one around me who could teach me, and I had very limited access to books, I didn’t have the money to buy books if I did find them. I remember the experience of going to magic shops. I used to go to Tannen’s, an amazing magic store that sells lots of playing cards in New York City. If you’re anywhere in that area go to Tannen’s; it’s incredible. But theory11 is to give people that resource I wish I had. To give them a place to not only learn beginner magic tricks with card moves and Cardistry flourishing, but also give them a runway where they can learn really difficult things too. So we take you from zero to 60 and allow you to learn things at the beginner all the way up to—you could be eight years old listening to this and start off learning some basic tricks on our website and go all the way to really advanced moves, like Jikh in England, who’s one of the foremost Card handler/slight-of-hand technicians in the world, and he’s teaching you. Our website creates this mentor-student relationship where you can learn from the best of the best in the magic industry. If you want a skill and want to learn a skill, you can go out and perform for your friends and your family. And for me at least when I was younger, that helps. I was never a jock like the other guys, but I could walk into that lunchroom and have them screaming in ten minutes because I had these secret skills, this rare ability to perform magic tricks. If we can give other people that ability, it allows this introverted kid in high school or a lawyer to perform tricks—it’s an amazing ability, a social skill/secret weapon that you can perform for people and it changes their life.

“I was never a jock like the other guys, but I could walk into that lunchroom and have them screaming in ten minutes because I had these secret skills, this rare ability to perform magic tricks.”

B: The sheer repository of card tricks you guys have is awesome. If you were a kid wanting to get into magic now, theory11 would be the resource. Plus you guys do really awesome playing cards.

J: And it’s Bicycle® cards, so how that came about is an interesting story… Way back when, in like 2003 or 2004, I was president of a company called Illusionist, which started making black decks that were rider back cards that were inverted. When I started theory11 in 2007, I wanted to expand on that concept, which is inverting playing card art. No offense to Bicycle® Rider Backs, but we were going in a different direction and started our own decks from scratch. We started with the Bicycle® Guardians deck, which was this dark and mysterious deck of cards we released in 2007. And that got some amazing response and sold in stores all around the world. And we just kept going. Every deck of cards we’ve done, I think we’re more prolific than anybody. Every deck has a different aesthetic—some are elegant and simple and minimalistic, and others are dark and mysterious, and edgy and industrial. So we try to have this spectrum of different styles because everyone has their own style. We tried to work alongside the best of the best artists and illustrators and design studios from Hatch in San Francisco to Shepard Fairey, Studio Number One—so we’ve really tried to elevate the platform. Playing cards are functional art, a lifestyle object, a fashion accessory. Just like girls obsess over their purses, I obsess over what deck of cards I have in my hands when I go out to dinner because it’s a form of expression and I happen to use it. It’s a balance of form and function. If we violate that balance by making it look cool, or it’s too simple, but it’s a balance for us. We’ve gotten better over the course of the last five or six years. Bicycle® has this long history of innovation, and we’re just lucky enough to be part of it. The Bicycle® card quality of printing and the fact that every casino uses them speaks for itself.

“The Bicycle® Brand Team has this long history of innovation, and we’re just lucky enough to be part of it.”

B: Can you take us through the development of a deck? Where you come up with your ideas, process, flow?

J: Every process on every deck of cards is different from one another. Some come together in three months of work; others take a year and a half. For example, the one we just released is called Artisans… It took over a year to design, and we looked at hundreds of drawings and sketches. The result is what you see, but the minute details, the fact that the sticker has gold foil on it—all the tiny details are what we agonized over for months. We draw from movies, fashion, looking at magazines, and we try to really be eclectic, so it’s impossible to make one deck of cards that appeals to everybody. It’s our goal to make not one deck of cards that everyone loves, but lots of decks of cards; you may love one of them; you might really love Monarchs; you might really like Guardians. Because they are so many styles in the world, it’s a virtually unlimited canvas for us. It’s a real privilege to rely on Bicycle® to print these cards. Us doing the creative and the Bicycle® Brand Team doing the manufacturing is like this beautiful marriage where they come together because we can handle our part, and our part ends where we submit all the art to the Bicycle® Brand Team and we tell them the specifications we want. We can trust that the Bicycle® Brand Team is the best playing card manufacturer in the world, bar none. We’ve never been disappointed. Never happened once.

B: You said a deck of cards will last for about two days, just between shuffling and card tricks. How many decks would you say you go through a year?

J: I don’t think I’ve ever counted. I would say roughly about a gross, which is 144 decks for people who don’t know the playing card lingo. Sometimes I’m holding a Bicycle® Standard card; right now I’ve got these special cards called Players by Daniel Madison, and then I’ve got a deck of Rebels to my left, so I bounce around a lot. Certain magicians or Cardistry guys, like Andre Jikhs—he goes through a deck of cards like every several weeks, but he doesn’t want the cards—it’s not ideal for him if the cards are in pristine condition. If they’re too slippery, which I define as great, it causes problems for him because that means you can’t fan them necessarily as easily because they’re too slippery. The finish is too good. He likes them to be worn in and broken in a bit whereas I’m performing mostly magic, where we’ll have spectators sign cards, I’ll rip up a deck of cards, so in that process a deck of 52 cards quickly becomes a deck of 32 cards. When I perform ten times in the course of two days, then I have a deck of cards sitting in front of me, which looks like about half a deck—so do I keep playing, or do I throw it away? Whereas Andre doesn’t ruin cards as much, but he likes them to be worn in, so they’ll last a week, two weeks, three weeks. We’ve even seen flourishers who use decks for months.

B: Are there any decks you’ve held onto over the years that have sentimental value?

J: I don’t have too many decks that are specifically sentimental. I have decks that are signed by many of my idols in magic from Chris Kenner to Michael Weber, Jason England to David Blaine. I’ve got decks that are signed, but any specific deck that’s not signed—not really. There was one deck I had when I was maybe thirteen or fourteen and I bought it in my magic store. This is a standard deck of cards but they’re marked. They were expensive because they were hand-marked, but then I got them home and I didn’t have any instructions. A few months ago I found that deck and it was in a perfect condition, so I sat with it and sat with it, played with it, did a riffle test, which is a way to find out if anything’s marked. Then I called Dan White, an amazing magic creator who did magic for David Blaine and David Copperfield. He said, “hold it up to the light,” and if you held it at just the right angle—it’s called the Glimmer Deck—there’s a tiny glimmer in a certain spot and you could tell what the identity of the cards was. All this time I was trying to find out what was different but it was just a small smudge in one space. There are a million types of marked decks. Some are cut, some of them have special markings in the back design.

B: Apart from magic tricks, do you ever get together with people and play card games?

J: Very rarely. When I was younger I’d get together with my grandma and she’d teach me to play gin.

B: Explain the difference between Cardistry and magic?

J: They have an interlaced history. A lot of people who perform magic also do Cardistry moves. Magicians have done charlier cuts dating back several years, but taking it to the extreme is more of a recent phenomenon. More so recently, they’ve branched off of magic to this separate art form called Cardistry, the non-magical manipulation of playing cards. It’s more for style and art purposes, like choreography, like dance. Cardistry is to magic as the X-Games is to a 10 year old riding a bike down the street. It’s not to say anything bag about magic at all, but it’s that magic uses cards for magical means, like you can ride your bike down the street to get the mail or in a marathon, but then people who ride bikes in the X Games who do crazy moves aren’t going anywhere—they’re going off crazy ramps—but they’re doing it in this beautiful artistic manner. So they’re separate. A lot of magicians like to learn Cardistry, and a lot of cardists like to learn magic as well. But they don’t do magic. They know a few magic tricks, but they aren’t passionate about magic as much as they are passionate about Cardistry. And that’s totally fine. And so there’s a lot of people who come on our website and they can buy videos like Genesis, which is probably the best video to start learning Cardistry from, and you can learn, I think its like 30 card moves? Some of them are sassy, some of them are fast, some of them are slow. There’s no magic tricks in it, just these crazy card moves, and a lot of magicians can learn those moves and apply those to their magic. There’s a lot of debate. Does performing Cardistry when you’re a magician diminish the effect of your magic? Because if you’re performing these crazy moves, you’re basically telepathing to your audience that I’m unbelievable with a deck of cards; I’m going to fool your pants off, so you’re basically telling them you’ve got a lot of talent. Whereas there are magicians who feel that the less talent you show with a deck of cards the better for the magician. Leonard Green, who doesn’t do all these crazy moves—he handles the cards like my uncle handles them, in a basic and bare manner. And if he started doing these crazy moves in a the middle of his routines it would detract, it would take away something from them because, “Oh, this guy’s gonna do some secret move. Look how good he is.” There’s an argument to be made there, there’s some valid points.  There’s an argument in the middle but these are two separate art forms have some crossover in and amongst themselves.

“Cardistry is to magic as the X-Games is to a 10 year old riding a bike down the street.”

B: Anyone you think we should check out?

J: Widely respected as the best of the best is Andre Jikh in terms of technical ability with a deck of cards. I don’t think anyone touches him, but there are so many flourishers and magicians who are unbelievably talented with decks of cards. I mentioned Steve Forte, the best of the best in terms of card cheats; Jason England with card moves, as a card mechanic; Bill Kalush with some of the best technical ability, bar none, in magic. There’s so much undiscovered talent, and every week I see young people and older magicians who post things online on YouTube or on our website that blows me away that I’ve never seen before. And that’s inspiring about the way we have this website. We speak to members all over the world, so we’ve seen magicians who are fifteen years old in Paris who create this amazing effect and we watch it and it fools us. There’s so much talent. As younger people are exposed to playing cards and as younger people have access to the amazing educational resources and instruction that theory11 provides, it’s incredible to see what happens. We’re giving eight and nine-year-old kids, in some cases, instruction on how to properly do these moves and tricks from the best of the best.

B: If I could ask one more question, have you met David Copperfield in person yet?

J: Absolutely, David and I are close friends now so we work on a lot of things together and it’s the culmination of my childhood dream. I grew up with a deck of cards in my hands and a lot of respect for Copperfield and now, to be able to work directly alongside the Bicycle® Brand Team, the United States Playing Card Company, and to work and collaborate with Copperfield on a lot of projects—this is literally the culmination of a lot of my childhood dreams.

B: Thanks again so much, JB. We appreciate it.

J: Thank you. It’s a great privilege, and it’s awesome for us to continue to work alongside Bicycle®, because like I said, and I mean it, the Bicycle® Brand Team is the best at manufacturing playing cards to the best possible specifications and what that allows us to do as magicians is focus on our craft and focus on our art, knowing that we’re using the best possible tools that have ever existed.

B: That’s a good one to end on. Thanks again!

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