As he formulates his thoughts, the playing cards shift and slide effortlessly through his hands as if they are extensions of his long fingers, the movement as natural as blinking or breathing.
Ari Slomka is a magician. Not some cute prankster playing with a new toy, but a professional, award-winning, nationally renowned performance artist, preparing to compete, by invitation, on an international level.
Ari is 15.
He practices close-up magic — not stage magic, which often relies on huge props, steamer trunks and saws, but the kind that is up close and personal. It’s sleight of hand performed on a tabletop using cards, coins and the like.
“With close-up magic you really get to bring the magic to people. The best close-up magic happens in somebody else’s closed hands,” Ari said. “I love that feeling of connection with somebody through magic, through giving them an experience they wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Interested in magic since his father showed him tricks at age 4, Ari has been refining his skills ever since. At the Weber School, when other students turn in their cellphones for the day, Ari must also turn over his deck of cards.
About two years ago he began working at a couple of restaurants. “Talking to people, approaching them and sharing my magic with them really brought out my confidence,” Ari said.
“Getting paid in tips and baked ziti,” he also gained proficiency and a following. He was hired to do birthday parties, and people posted about him on Facebook. “I’m still getting gigs from two years ago.”
Things began to change. Two years ago Ari joined the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. Despite being the youngest active member, he was one of three asked to perform at the banquet, so he created a new routine from scratch.
“Doing magic for magicians is particularly difficult,” Ari said. “It helped me learn about my stage presence.”
He watched videos, read and learned new tricks. And his hands grew.
Just as a swimmer benefits from a large wingspan, a magician gains from having hands big enough to conceal coins and manipulate cards, scarves and other tools of the trade. As his body grew, Ari’s art matured.
Last year, before his first IBM convention, he attended a teen summit and won the Staff’s Choice Award, gaining free tuition to a master class at the McBride Magic & Mystery School. He performed the genesis of his routine and received critiques and feedback from other students and “some of the best magicians in the field,” helping him solidify the nine to 10 minutes that would earn him fame.
He saw the close-up magic competition at the 2016 IBM convention and realized that type of performing is what he does. “It wasn’t scary. I looked at it and said, ‘I could definitely do that.’”
He had a similar thought when he saw the Season 9 winner of “America’s Got Talent,” Mat Franco, headlining a show in Las Vegas. “I realized that I could do every single thing that he did, but he did it on a Las Vegas stage with Jumbotrons,” Ari said.
He also realized he had the talent to compete on a larger scale.
The other major industry group in the United States is the Society of American Magicians. Only 10 times before had IBM and SAM come together for one massive magic show, as they did in Louisville, Ky., in July.
Before the IBM-SAM Combined Convention, Ari submitted a video to compete in the IBM North American championship for close-up magic. He was selected with 12 other contestants and was the youngest by far in a field of mostly touring professionals.
“I definitely had the least experience,” Ari said.
Because it was a combined convention, three independent panels judged the competition: IBM, SAM and the Federation Internationale des Societes de Magique. Every three years FISM holds the World Championships of Magic, the Olympics of the magic world, and the continental competition winners advance to that event.
Ari performed in a 1,500-seat ballroom with cameras trained on his every move, displayed on six 15-foot display screens. He was noted for his stage presence and sense of humor while performing a creative routine in which he magically turned poker chips into cash because a teenager can’t legally convert chips into cash in our nonmagical society.
Ari was awarded second place in North America and a cash prize and was one of four close-up acts selected by the FISM panel to compete in the 2018 World Championships in Busan, South Korea.
Suddenly, the Weber student, a Camp Ramah Darom and Atlanta Jewish Academy alum whose family regularly attends Congregation Shearith Israel, was a celebrity in his industry. He was solicited by magazine writers, sought by talent scouts and approached by people wanting photos with him, including magicians he idolized.
“I thought I might win one of the smaller awards, like the People’s Choice, where the audience voted. I did not expect the judges to consider me in the same class as the other performers, but when my name was called, I remember there was a cheer from the crowd,” Ari said.
The winners were announced three days after the competition, and he remembers people coming up and congratulating him in those days, telling him he was famous and a great magician.
Being chosen to compete in the World Championships next summer is “a really big deal,” Ari said. “Very few people from every country go. It’s the people who are representing the magicians of each country, and I’ve seen some amazing videos of these acts. Those are the best of the best, and to hear my name called for that was just incredible. It was a great moment for me.”
“It’s the grand prix,” said Ari’s father, Howie Slomka. “At FISM, he will be representing North America against magicians from Asia and Europe.”
“In front of judges who might not speak English,” Ari added.
“In terms of my everyday life, I’m not famous. It’s not like people know my name,” Ari said. “But for that convention, for magicians everywhere, … some people who I respect and admire very much are now my fans, and that was really very exciting.”
Around town he has performed many times at the Shearith Israel Purim carnival and Chanukah festival. Ari often volunteers for events with Creating Connected Communities and has two scheduled this month.
“Just give me a corner and a table,” Ari said.
People he encounters largely are unaware of the magnitude of his accomplishment, but with the FISM championships less than a year away, he might be out of your simcha league soon. For a magical time before then, call 404-869-6165 (not during school hours), or email Magic@AriSlomka.com.