Shin Lim Has Turned Sleight Of Hand Tricks Into Significant Acclaim

It’s not his preferred term, but you can call Shin Lim a magician if you wish. What the “America’s Got Talent” champion does on stage falls under the broad rubric of the entertainment we call “magic.” But Lim tends to think of magicians as grand, large-scale illusionists like David Copperfield and Criss Angel. He calls himself a “sleight-of-hand artist.”

A handsome and boyish 28, Lim works small scale. His well-honed specialty is close-up card acts, which is what you’ll be watching (mostly) on a large video screen should you see him live at the Chevalier Theatre in Medford on Wednesday, Jan. 8, or at Foxwoods Grand Theater in Connecticut on Friday, Jan. 10. He shares the stage with fellow “America's Got Talent” contestant Colin Cloud.

Lim’s act is a slow dazzle. He executes a series of fluid, multi-layered maneuvers that leave audiences — and TV reality show judges — gasping in wonder. And when a card that has “disappeared” into someone’s pocket slowly reappears, folded up, exiting Lim’s mouth, accompanied by a puff of smoke, the eyes go wider and the astonishment grows. It’s what he calls his “Dream Act.”

“I’m not pretending I’m doing actual magic,” Lim says, on the phone from Los Angeles, where he now lives, “but rather performing sleight of hand. I see close-up magic as a totally different art form and other people have seen that as well.”

Although, he adds, “It’s not just sleight of hand. A lot of people think it’s just the dexterity, but it’s not. There’s a lot more that goes into it, a lot of misdirection. That’s actually 90% of it.”

He won the “America’s Got Talent” title in 2018 and then came back the following year to win “America’s Got Talent: The Champions,” which pitted previous winners and finalists against each other. Lim has a simple, three-word answer when asked what winning did for his life: “Changed it forever.”

Lim, whose given name is Liang-Shun Lim, was born in 1991 in Vancouver to parents who’d emigrated from Singapore. They relocated to Singapore in 1995 and then came back to the States — to Acton, Massachusetts, when he was 11.

On stage, Lim evinces natural charm. There’s a sense of graceful elegance in what he does, his act accompanied by appropriately dramatic music from Hans Zimmer’s “Inception” score. And there is, by and large, no banter. Lim says that came about simply because he was shy in front of strangers and found Zimmer’s dramatic, sweeping music set a better mood than any quips he might make. (When he’s doing tricks on “Ellen” or “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon,” he engages with the host and he does talk more during his live shows than he did on "America's Got Talent.")

Lim relates his show to what, as a teenager, he envisioned his career would be: a concert pianist.

“I’ve always found magic a lot like the piano,” Lim says. “The way you have to practice eight hours a day sometimes to figure out how to do a move.”

Doing close-up card tricks began as a hobby. Lim was introduced to it by his older brother, Yi. He then dug deep and trawled YouTube to learn more. He was hooked, but the card play evolved into more than a hobby when in college he was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome.

Lim was 20 and studying at the Lee University School of Music in Tennessee. His goal of becoming a professional pianist came crashing to a halt. He moved back home to Acton and lived with his parents.

“I didn’t feel that terrible because a lot of my friends were also staying with their parents,” Lim says. “I thought my main career was music and that was over. The entire time I had this working up to that one moment, since I was 9-years-old, and then all of a sudden, it’s taken from you. [It's] a weird feeling and pretty depressing.”

He worked on his sleight-of-hand moves. “A lot of of it,” he says, “was watching videos and, ironically, copying other people’s material. I never create something out of nothing. I replicate other people’s tricks, and then I slowly change over time and it becomes my own.”

Lim subscribes to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours maxim — the key to mastering a skill depends on that much practice — and says he’d spend up to eight hours a day working at it.

“But not eight hours of the same thing,” he adds, noting copious time in front of the mirror and camera. “I found magic to be a little bit easier to practice than piano and the reason is there are so many variants with magic: there’s sleight of hand, there’s misdirection, there’s props, there’s the smoke, there’s music.”

And, he says, although his act looks ultra-smooth, it’s never a case where he can run on autopilot. “Definitely not. No room for that.”

In 2015, Lim became the International Federation of Magic Societies champion for close-up card magic. The same year, he appeared the TV show, “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” and returned two years later. He fooled the veteran magicians both times, and Penn Jillette praised Lim’s directness, honesty and lack of irony.

Lim also came back from serious injury: In March 2016, while working on a new trick, he sliced through two of his left thumb tendons, and thought his card trick days might be over. He credits his surgeon and physical therapist for saving his career.

During this two-year whirlwind sparked by “America's Got Talent,” there has been money, acclaim and fame. Lim is clearly enjoying the run, but is aware of what can be showbiz’s trajectory.  “Anything can die,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s up to me to keep it going.”

Jim Sullivan Music Writer
Jim Sullivan writes about rock 'n' roll and other music for WBUR.



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