Magic tricks often involve playing cards, and it was those tricks that led Zhafran Azmi to pursue his hobby as a playing card collector.
The 24-year-old intern and former student at UiTM Shah Alam collects playing cards for two purposes – to perform magic tricks and to flourish.
“Before I started collecting playing cards, I was into magic tricks. I watched a lot of David Blaine on television.
“After finishing secondary school in 2016, I often went on YouTube and watched magic trick tutorials. One day, there was a suggestion for a video about ‘cardistry’. I was intrigued by it so I clicked on it,” says Zhafran, who studied instructional communication and training.
Cardistry, better known as card flourishing, is the art of manipulating playing cards. It is a stunning way to display a performer’s skills in front of the audience.
“The meaning of flourishing is to shuffle cards in many different and creative ways. Flourishing is the old term, now we call it cardistry,” explains Zhafran, who is from Ulu Tiram, Johor.
He slowly perfected his magic tricks and flourishing skills over time, but realised he needed a good quality deck of cards.
“There is a move called ‘the Faro Shuffle’ that I was interested in doing. It interlaces each card from the deck one by one perfectly.
“But to perform it, you need a good quality playing card. So I did my research and found out there are many good card decks made in the US like the Bicycle Playing Cards,” he says.
After practising with one deck, he soon realised he needed more since the one he was using eventually wore out and tore apart.
And that's how his collection eventually grew to its size of over 60 decks today, ranging from limited editions to those used by professional magicians.
Good way to destress
The history of playing cards dates back to ancient China and Egypt, where they were used for both entertainment and divination.
According to Britannica.com, the earliest references to playing cards can be found in 10th century Chinese literature.
The first known European playing cards were produced in Italy in the 14th century. These cards featured four suits – cups, swords, coins and batons.
By the 15th century, playing cards spread to France and became extremely popular. The French were the ones who invented the 52-card deck featuring four suits of hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades that we are familiar with today.
Along with 13 cards in each suit, they also established the concept of the "royal" cards, which featured the king, queen and jack, or best known as the "face cards".
Zhafran adds that many standard 52-card decks nowadays come in a variety of interesting designs.
Limited edition sets are also much sought after, often featuring unique designs from vintage style to pop culture themes such as Star Wars or Harry Potter.
“My most expensive deck of cards was from a company called Anyone Worldwide. The original price was about RM90 to RM250 but it was limited at that time and I didn’t get the chance to purchase it.
“Fortunately, one of my cardistry friends bought an extra pack so I bought it from him for RM250. Currently, it is the most expensive and rarest playing card I own,” he shares.
Another reason why collecting playing cards is so popular is the sense of community that comes with it. There are many online forums and social media groups dedicated to playing card collecting where enthusiasts can share information, show off their collections, and even trade or sell cards.
“I joined a group on WhatsApp through someone I followed on Instagram who is a locally based cardistry performer.
“Although we have around 120 participants in the group, we only do meet-ups here and there. Unfortunately, magic or cardistry conventions are not yet available here,” he says.
Collecting playing cards is an affordable hobby, as many decks can be found for under RM20. However, some limited edition sets can be quite expensive, with prices reaching hundreds of ringgit.
“From our group, I noticed someone selling a deck of cards produced by a popular playing card company for around RM600. It was a collaboration with an established apparel company, so I figured that was the reason.
“They sold it for around US$50 (RM212) in the US so when it came here, the price skyrocketed because the two companies were well-known and the deck itself was limited at that time,” he adds.
These types of decks are often highly sought after by collectors, as their value can appreciate over time.
When looking for cards to add to one's collection, it is important to consider their condition. Cards that are in good condition will be more valuable and more appealing to display.
Although collectors usually keep an item in its original packaging, Zhafran is not someone who fancies that idea.
“I am the kind of guy who when I buy it, I'm gonna use it. Right now the card deck that I love is already worn out. It was great at doing cardistry but it doesn't really support it in the long run.
“I think that applies to all my collections. Most of them are already worn out but that also shows their quality,” he shares.
In addition to limited edition sets, there are also custom-designed decks, which can be created by artists, designers or even popular illusionists like David Blaine, and feature unique designs and illustrations.
“My favourite playing card based on the feel, quality and durability is David Blaine’s White Lions. It is my favourite until today,” Zhafran says.
Speaking of David Blaine, he adds that what makes a deck of cards rare and valuable also depends on a particular event or thing that happens to it.
Zhafran encourages people to pick up a new hobby as it can challenge one’s mind.
He adds that most people who collect playing cards also know a thing or two about magic tricks and card flourishing.
“It is a good form of mental exercise, apart from the fact that it is pretty in design. A lot of people don't know what to do with their hands, so cardistry is one way to keep them occupied and develop a skill.
“It is also a good way to destress," he concludes.