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  • Writer's pictureNicholas J Johnson

What the hell is an “honest con man?”

When I’m performing I always insist on being introduced as an honest con man. (It’s in my rider along with a bathtub full of mountain dew and sixteen bags of jelly babies with the heads removed.)

But what does honest con man actually mean?

The phrase “honest con man” sounds like an oxymoron. Like “jumbo shrimp” or a “act naturally” How can a con artist be honest? And how do they differ from other magicians, mentalists, cardicians, pickpockets and illusions. What the hell is an “honest con man?”

Let’s look at other types of conjurors first.


A performer who uses sleight of hand, gimmicks and psychology to create the illusion that they have impossible abilities. This includes mentalists, cardicians, close up workers, illusionists and any other form of deception you can think of.


Mentalists use the same skills of sleight of hand, gimmicks and psychology as magicians but they use them to create the illusion of extraordinary mental abilities.

They focus on plausible and believable magic such as appearing to read minds, influence behaviour or predict the future. Mentalists tend to hate being called magicians as they like audiences to believe they really are Svengalis of the human mind.

THE BEST: Derren Brown, Uri Gellar, The Amazing Kreskin


A magician who focuses on card tricks. The most difficult type of magic to both perform and make entertaining.

There’s a great W. Somerset Maugham quote about cardicians.

“Do you like card tricks?” “No, I hate cards tricks.” “Then I’ll only do one.” He did five.

But when card magic is good, it’s really good.

THE BEST: Darwin Ortiz, Dai Vernon, Erdnase


With their large boxes, beautiful assistants and incredible production values, illusionists were once the kings of magic.

Now, they play second fiddle to close up magicians and mentalists whose more intimate routines pack a greater emotional punch. But I still have a soft spot for a good sawing in half.

THE BEST: David Copperfield, Seigfried and Roy, Doug Henning


As the name suggests, a pickpocket magician is a thief, stealing watches, wallets and even belts live on stage. Unlike their criminal counterparts, they give back everything they steal. While pickpockets are not performing ‘tricks’ their highly deceptive methods make pickpocketing an allied art of magic.

THE BEST: Apollo Robbins, Bob Arno, James Coates


An ‘honest con man’ combines all these skills into one, recreating classic scams and cons live on their stage. They’ll lie and cheat their way through a performance, stealing your wallet, talking you out of your cash and cheating you at cards.

They’ll often tell tall tales, creating fictional backstories of their days as street swindlers and carnival con men.  Harry “Harry the Hat” Anderson and Simon “How To Cheat At Everything” Lovell are two such examples.

Unlike other types of a magician an honest con man can not only entertain you, they can also reveal the secrets of WHY we get deceived.

We lie about being liars making us the most deceptive of all magicians…and the most entertaining.

Nicholas J. Johnson is a Melbourne magician, author, entertainer and collector of scams.


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