This is a question I get asked frequently, so I thought it might be helpful to write a little something addressing who I think the title should go to. Naturally, it isn’t easy to answer a question like this and so whatever I end up deciding, there are sure to be many others who will disagree with me!
This is absolutely fine; everyone has different opinions on what it means to be one of the ‘greats’, and different types of performances will be much more powerful than others.
I will try (no promises!) to break down who I think the best magicians of all time are, but it will be difficult. The reason for this is that it’s really hard to compare the skill of a mentalist to the skill of a card magician, for example. It’s a bit like asking ‘out of Mozart and Ronaldo, who is the better showman?’. Although we can draw comparisons, but it’s hard to properly compare them when the two areas of magic are so different- generally a card magician will have better sleight of hand, but might not be able to ‘read’ his audience in the way a mentalist can, but this doesn’t mean one is better than the other!
Because of this, I will use decide who I think the best magician of all time is within individual categories; card magicians, stage magicians, mentalists, and whatever comes between.
If you ask someone on the street to name a magician for you, chances are that they’ll mention either Dynamo, David Blaine, or Criss Angel. Penn and Teller might come up a couple of times, and the occasional Harry Houdini. These are all great magicians, but there are so many iconic legends in the magic world that the public seem generally unaware of.
But if you asked a magician to name the best magician of all time, you’d likely hear the name Dai Vernon from a good majority of them, sometimes referred to lovingly as ‘The Professor’. Dai Vernon, also known as the man who ‘fooled Houdini’, was the man who revolutionized card magic. He essentially took worn out, inefficient tricks and techniques, and turned them into showstopping pieces. He is credited with the invention of many tricks and techniques that are still as strong as ever! Even if some say he wasn’t the most technically skilled magician ever, it’s hard to doubt that he changed magic forever.
The other candidate I considered for this spot is Juan Tamariz, a Spanish magician who has a wacky and eccentric style that putts you at ease until right to the end of his tricks, where he’ll blow you away with an impossible ending. He led a new movement of magic that has produced some of the greatest living performers today!
Other mentions include Dani DaOrtiz, Darwin Ortiz, David Williamson, Tommy Wonder, and Bill Malone. Shin Lim is another name I guarantee you’ll be hearing a lot of in the years to come.
Here, the accolade must go to Lance Burton, who blew people away with his incredible dove act, which is still arguably the most impressive version to date. He has won Magician of the Year twice, and is also a FISM winner (the equivalent of an Oscar or World Cup among the magic world). A frequent guest on The Tonight Show, Lance Burton has wowed audiences for years with his elegant and infuriatingly inexplicable performances.
Other strong contenders for this position included David Copperfield, Penn and Teller, and Jeff McBride, who all deserve mention. I recommend you watch a few of their performances to get a feel for their amazing showmanship.
The best mentalist of all time is Derren Brown, I feel (although I might be biased since I watched him live!). He is just such a great showman, and he really, really knows how to work an audience. His act is also mind-stoppingly good, and as a card magician myself, I had no idea what techniques he was using to achieve his tricks, which added to the overall impact of his performance. The guy has some great little videos on YouTube, but none compare to watching this master do his thing live!
Other mentions here include the great Max Maven, Uri Geller, and Banachek (look up how Banachek fooled a group of scientists into believing he was psychic- it’s fascinating!)
This category includes comedy magicians, coin magicians, street magicians, escapologists, and all other types that I forgot to mention already!
Undoubtedly the most famous of all these is Harry Houdini, the man who invented some of the most popular escapes still performed today, but there are a host of other names that deserve recognition.
David Roth, the most famous coin magician who still performs today.
Mac King, the funniest stage magician to grace Las Vegas.
People like David Blaine and Dynamo, who brought magic back into the public eye, and created a whole new generation of magicians.
Finally, some kind of mention has to go to Criss Angel, undoubtedly the best ‘TV’ magician of the 21st Century!
Is it possible to pick an overall best from this list? Definitely, but I’ll leave that one up to you to decide. Do some research- read their books, watch their performances, watch them live, maybe even talk to a few of them. Then feel free to decide who you think is the greatest magician of all time!