Cluster-F at MAGIC Live

Can't believe I once called him "the platonic ideal of a magic lecturer." I still feel sick about this whole thing. It ruined MAGIC Live for me, to be honest.


No post today. Instead I will be live-tweeting a secret lecture that Joshua Jay will be conducting at MAGIC Live. It starts at 2pm Vegas time, 5pm New York time. I've finagled a seat for myself at this ultra-secret lecture and I look forward to letting you know all the juicy tidbits he shares.

And if you're thinking this is just some way for me to make a series of jokes at Josh's expense, and imply he's secretly in a romantic relationship with Andi Gladwin, how dare you suggest such a thing. Now, look, if that's the sort of information that comes out of this lecture, then so be it. But to imply that's my intention?! Wow...that's actually kind of offensive.

Embedding Secrets in Secrets

Flashback 1000 years ago. It's August 14th, 1017.

You claim to have real magic powers and you perform a trick for people. Afterwards, the audience weighs their two choices:

"Either he is a clever charlatan and we must stone him to death, or he is a warlock and we must set him on fire."

Flash-forward to today. It's August 14th, 2017

You claim to have real magic powers and you perform a trick for people. Afterwards, the audience weighs their two choices:

"Either we look up how he did that on youtube, or we give him a wedgie."

My point is, playing it "for real" is a losing proposition, particularly for the amateur performer. Perhaps you could convince some people you have extraordinary memory skills, or gambling skills, or even some sort of low level psychic powers, but what's the long-game there? You're just going to pretend for the rest of your life that you're an expert at cheating at cards or you have psychic abilities? Instead of using this hobby to entertain people, you're going to do it to try and make yourself feel special? How many gambling routines do you think your friends and family want to sit through the rest of their lives?

A lot of amateurs get this concept but then swing too far the other way. "If people aren't going to believe it's real, then why bother?" And their tricks become meaningless demonstrations that are technically magic in the sense that they fool people, but there's nothing thrilling or romantic or mysterious about it. 

I believe you can have it both ways. I think you can acknowledge that yes, of course, this is not "real" magic. But the experience can still have thrilling, romantic, and mysterious moments. Or, to put it another way, magical moments. 

This entire blog is an exploration of that idea. 

One way of imbuing your performance with a greater sense of the unknown is to mess with people's understanding of magic secrets (see the glossary in the sidebar for similar concepts: imps, reps, distracted artist).

When people think of magic secrets, they think of a series of steps that one follows which allows them to apparently do something incredible or impossible. And most people's understanding of magic is that if they followed those same steps they could do the same thing, at least with enough practice.

But I like to imply that there's something more going on behind the scenes. Not something supernatural, per se. Just something they can't wrap their heads around. So when people ask me, "How do you learn this stuff?" I'll say something like, "Oh, well, there's books and dvds that teach, like, beginner's stuff. But once you get past that, it's all just passed on person to person. You can find tutorials on the internet, but that's all basic type stuff. You know, you follow some steps and do the trick. But this sort of thing we're about to do is a few levels beyond that."

Fucking with people's perception of the nature of magic secrets can become an addictive little sub-hobby.

One time I was doing a somewhat involved, process-heavy card trick for a couple friends. Because this was my first time performing it (or so I told them), I had the magic book in front of me and was reading out the process step-by-step. The trick worked. It was a decent enough card matching type effect. I set the book aside and we went on with our evening. 

Later that night one of my friend's said, "I looked at your magic book while you were in the bathroom."

"Okay," I said. 

"The pages are blank," she said.

"Huh?" I replied. "Oh, yeah. I mean, it's not made to be read by everyone. It's not that type of book. It's for a specific reader." I didn't explain beyond that because I'd already "said too much."

If that seems to fantastical for you, you can try this other variation. Same set-up, I'm reading the instructions from an old looking magic book. Later, when I'm out of the room, someone's curiosity gets the better of them and they take a peek at the book and find... it's The Count of Monte Cristo (or whatever). When they mention this I say, "Oh, yeah... they don't just write up these secrets, they always code it into another text." They'll start looking at the book wondering how the hell it could be a magic book in code. 

You may think they'd obviously see through this as just another part of the deception, but because you don't present it that way (it's just something they stumble on, apparently) it doesn't necessarily feel that way.

Here's another idea. Send yourself a deck of cards (minus the four aces) and a sheet of instructions in the mail. You don't open this envelope until someone else is in the house and you want to perform for them.

You grab the envelope off the table. "Oh, I think I know what this is."

You open up the envelope, dump out the deck, and open up the instructions. 

"Interesting...," you say, "Can we try something. I want to see if this works."

You spread the deck towards you and rearrange the order a little. Then you give the deck to your friend and ask her to shuffle it four times. 

Then you take the cards and cut and shuffle them a little yourself. 

You have your spectator cut the deck into four piles. She turns over the top card of each and it's an ace. 

Now, this is just John Bannon's Directed Verdict, which is described in a lot of places. Including The Jerx, Volume One (with John's permission). 

In this version, the aces aren't in the deck at the beginning. So you don't have to palm them out. You just have to palm them in after her shuffling. Which is not overly difficult. You could even have them under the instructions at some point and get them on the deck while readjusting the items in your hands. 

But what takes this from an impressive trick to something truly strange and mysterious is when, at some point later in the evening, your friend picks up the instructions you left on the table and reads them to herself.

The Four Ace Cutting Trick

Step One - Situate the sitter so he/she is facing the largest window in the room.

Step Two - Place the aces at the following positions. 1st ace - 43rd card in the deck. 2nd ace - 45th card in the deck. 3rd ace - at the numerical position in the deck that corresponds with the day of the month the sitter was born in. 4th ace - anywhere in the top half of the deck.

Step Three - Allow the sitter to shuffle the deck. Three times if the sitter is male. Four times if the sitter is female.

Step Four - Cut and shuffle the deck yourself. Set it on the table, untouched by anyone for at least 5 seconds. 

Step Five - Allow the sitter to cut off three packs of cards. 

Step Six - Allow at least 15 seconds to pass before the sitter cuts a final packet. (You may shuffle at this point.)

Step Seven - Have the sitter cut off the final packet. 

Step Eight - If the sitter is male, have him turn over the top card of each packet from right to left. If the sitter is female, have her turn over the top card of each packet from left to right.

Step Nine - The first three cards turned over will be aces. The fourth card will appear to be an ace to the sitter as well. (Be sure not to mention what the actual card is or the illusion will be broken.)


Now, to be clear, you're not reading these instructions out loud as you do the trick. You're just reading them to yourself. Then you leave them out, folded up on the table. Then go take a long shit at some point. Your friend will read them.

And when they do...?

It's not what they expected. It gives them no answers. Instead it brings up a bunch of different mysteries. Why do they need to face a window. Why have you put the cards at specific locations only to have the deck shuffled? And how could the person's birthday matter to this specific placement. Why does the deck need to be left untouched for a period of time? Why the gap in time before the last cut? Why do men and women need to do the procedure differently? And what's this about the last card appearing to be an ace? 

You return to the room. "I'm back. Just parked the submarine," you say, referring to the fresh dump you just unloaded. 

She'll ask you about the instructions. You admonish her for not respecting your things. She presses further.

You say, "Look, I don't know, really. It's not that kind of trick. This isn't like something you find on youtube or even at a magic store. Remember once I told you this sort of thing is passed from person to person? Well, to ingratiate yourself into that inner circle of secret caretakers, you can't ask too many questions. I mean, ultimately, they're just tricks. But honestly, half the time, I have no clue how they work."

This is a mind-bending notion. And if you consider the whole thing a performance, it's interesting to think of structurally. The trick itself is part of the set-up. The magic really happens when they learn the "secret."

Gardyloo #30

Will I be seeing you all at MAGIC Live? 

It seems unlikely as I won't be there.

Please remember this post and feel free to put it into action.

If you're not in a position to sing or hum, you can use this code phrase to secretly let people know you're a Jerx reader: "Sure, the history books might tell you the holocaust really happened... but my research suggests otherwise."

Whenever a magician dies, I consider stopping this site just to start the rumor that they were behind this.

The Miracle of Life

Does the pattern on the suit help hide her situation? There's probably some element of stage illusion design baked in there, I'm guessing. 

Mentioning Pass at Red in last Friday's post inspired me to play around with it again. 

One idea I tried was using blank cards instead of jokers, marked up in the following way.

This is the true nature of each card. 

After the pass I would take the deck in right-hand biddle grip and gesture outwards with my hands and when they came back together I would have rotated the deck 180 degrees. So when I spread again it would still seem the same with the Upper Limit and Lower Limit cards in place.

I think this adds a layer of deceptiveness. It feels, even to me as the performer, very fair. Like that chunk of cards in the middle is isolated and can't change.

Of course blank cards with words on them is much less organic than jokers, so it might not be worth the trade off. 

I actually presented it as an exercise I was practicing to learn card forcing. That there was a program I was involved in that would send you different parameters to practice with every day. "You don't just learn to force 1 card out of 52, you build up to that. So they might have you practice forcing 1 card out of 2. Or forcing someone not to pick one specific card out of 20." 

I like this concept. It's interesting and almost believable. It's sort of like the idea of a Workout of the Day in Crossfit. But it's some secret program where you can learn sleight-of-hand techniques. And because people already know the basic concept of card forcing, it's not like you're exposing anything. In fact, this trick would just muddy their understanding of how that works (given that you're not actually forcing anything at all). And it helps justify the Upper/Lower Limit cards—like they're just part of the guidelines for this particular SPOD (Sleight Practice of the Day).

Originally I tried to play it off like I completely screwed up. That I was trying to force any three cards other than the three black ones in the red half.  And instead they got all three black cards.

But that seemed to be too backwards for people to wrap their heads around. 

So instead I upped the impossibility to an absurd extent. The first card was selected from a spread in my hands. The second was selected from a spread on the table. And the third by the spectator tossing a matchstick from a few feet away onto the spread on the table and the selection being whatever card the match-head was touching or pointing at.

The idea that the second and especially third selection could somehow be a force is what pushed this into the realm of the ridiculous. 

It definitely fooled people. And I like the SPOD idea, but I don't know if it will make it into my regular repertoire. It's a little too magician centric for my style. But I may play around with it and take it in a different direction.  

We're coming up on the year anniversary of the release of The Jerx, Volume One. If you are someone who asked me to hold a copy and haven't paid in full yet, just know that those reserves have started to expire. If you don't want your copy to go to one of the people on the waiting list, then contact me.

Here's a chart that lists letter frequency and next letter frequency for words in English. It could be of use when designing some mentalism routines. 

Or, you could use it overtly. Pull out a printed version of the chart. Your spectator is thinking of a word that you either forced or peeked in some way.

"Is there an E in it?" you ask.

"Yes," they say.

Now you consult the chart, start crossing out rows and columns and connecting letters with lines. 

"Are you thinking of the word beagle?" you ask.

When they're wondering how you could have known that you say, "Oh, well you said it had an E in it, so I just followed the chart." Like that explains it.

A few people have written me suggesting using a Chinese lantern instead of a helium balloon for Faith (JAMM #6) and Little Faith (JAMM #7). I think that would be cool, and could look great. But I think it would likely illuminate something you don't want it to with Faith.

For Little Faith there would be no issue with it. Although it's a little less organic, because, while helium balloons normally have a string or ribbon dangling down, lanterns don't.

This has nothing to do with magic, but If you're a guy trying to come up with some shared activity to rope in some girl you like, I have a suggestion. I'm on an email chain with 4 male and 8 female friends. I said, "Hey, do any of you want to go as ABBA circa this 1975 performance of SOS for Halloween this year?" 

And I have never witnessed girls more enthusiastic about anything. All 8 of them are now positioning themselves to be my Agnetha and Frida.

I'm not saying they want to do this to be around me. I'm saying they want to have the 70s hair, and those boots, and wear that dog or cat outfit, swing their hips and sing ABBA songs all night.

So if you're looking for some kind of outing to get some quality time with a woman you're interested in, I think the ABBA halloween option might work well. From my limited experience it has a pretty high hit rate. 

(I'm going to be the dude on the right. Not the elf in the platform shoes on the left.)

If you're going to bother doing this routine...

I think a good kicker ending would be to take a cue from Paul Harris' Uncanny or Shigeo Takagi's Solid Cup routine and at the end you say, "In fact, there's no way I could have put the pea under this poo at all." And you turn it over to show that it's packed solid with your real human feces.

My friend has a little gumball machine in his house and I literally ate a half-pound of gumballs while trying to come up with some tricks with them. Like "eat" in the sense of literally chewing and swallowing them. I may be dead by Monday as I try and push this through my colon. If this is my last post, hey, it's been real. 

When I was 8, and playing Little League baseball, one of my teammates died in a car crash. At the team meeting that followed, my coach said, "I guess god needed a left-fielder."

So, to paraphrase him, if I end up dying from eating a half-pound of gumballs, "I guess god needed a moron."

See you next week (maybe).

Bedrock: Feels Like the First Time

This concept is a very fundamental idea to what I believe is the best approach when performing amateur magic. And it's completely opposite of what most magic texts on presentation teach. And that's because those texts are geared towards the professional. 

Every now and then I'll get an email from someone that says, "I'm surprised it took so long for someone to put forth the idea that amateur magic is a different style of performance than a professional performance." Hey, shit, I'm surprised too. I doubt I'm the first one to come to this conclusion, but perhaps I'm the first one to really lean into it and explore it to the extent I have. I think the reason it took so long is that a lot of amateurs want to be professionals, and those that don't, may not perform for anyone ever. And neither of those groups would probably ever come to the conclusions I have as someone who does perform a lot, but with no eye towards doing professional shows.

(However, I am willing to perform one night at the Magic Castle provided they give me a prime spot in whatever their most prestigious room is. I will do them this honor because I think it would be cool if my first (and only?) public show was in the Magic Castle. Just realize I'm not going to rehearse anything in regards to the show before that performance. In fact, if anything, I'll be using the Magic Castle show as a workshop for some stuff I want to show my friends. Don't worry. I'll kill it.)

Ok. Where was I? Yes, the fundamental difference between amateur and professional performances. It's this: Most often, the professional wants their show to feel polished and structured, but the best amateur performances will feel raw and spontaneous. They will feel like what's about to happen is happening for the first time.

Even someone like David Williamson—who is as offbeat and wild as the come—when you watch him perform, you know he's applying that chaos to something he's done 1000 times. That's the charm of watching him perform.

You're kind of locked into that as a professional. If you pretended every trick in your 45-minute parlor show was brand new it would stretch credulity and ultimately be off-putting. (You could certainly imply one thing was brand new. And that would give that piece an interesting feel to it, but it's not something you could do with every routine.)

Most magic theory on performance has been written with the professional in mind. So there's a focus on things like patter and routining effects together. And yet they don't write "Oh, by the way, if you're an amateur, this is the opposite of what you should be doing. It's alienating to 'perform' in non-performance situations."

If you have a friend who's a singer, it might be nice to hear them singing around the house, and in casual, off-hand situations. But if they sit you down and say, "For my next piece I will be singing a song I wrote called, 'Autumn Came Early This Year.' You know, it's a funny story... How many of you feel that autumn is your favorite season? Well, me too. And back in 2007, Halloween was just around the corner [blah, blah]," you'd be like... "Debbie, what the fuck are you doing?"

You don't "perform" for friends and family. You show things to them and share things with them. That's not to say there isn't some artifice to the presentation. But don't pull them out of the experience by doing something that mimics a professional performance. You want your presentation to mimic a natural interaction between humans (albeit an unusual one). 

Making your tricks feel like it's the first time you're performing them is the unstated goal of most of the effects and performance styles I write-up on this site. For example, the Tenyo idea where you receive the mysterious package, that's a way of taking the most obvious sort of prop-based magic and turning it into something that feels like a unique occurrence that you're experiencing together in that moment.

A lot of this will just come down to you telling them flat-out that what you're about to do is something new for you too. "I have this thing I want to try. I haven't shown it to anyone else yet, so this may blow up in my face. Can I try it with you?" "I belong to this facebook group where we discuss psychology and different quirks and oddities of the mind. And there's this test this lady on there was talking about. I don't think it works, but can I try it with you." 

The real key is to make sure you don't enter "performance mode." I've seen people who totally struggle with speaking like a normal human once they start a trick. Instead their pacing gets all weird and they start enunciating and emphasizing words like a child actor doing a monologue from Our Town. It's really unsettling to people. Knock it off.


Anti-routining is another way to remove the "performance" feeling from a trick to make it seem less prepared, in a way that clarifies and strengthens the magic.

If you have a trick that is multiple phases—like a triumph that turns into a color changing deck—don't immediately follow the first phase with the second. Act like the second phase is an afterthought or a separate trick entirely. Not only will it feel more spontaneous, but if the second phase is something that is set-up during the first, then by distancing the climax from the set-up you can have some stunningly hands-off effects.

For example, in the triumph that goes into a color-changing deck; if those two phases are performed in quick succession, not only will the whole thing feel more planned, but the distinct effect are likely to get muddied. The triumph part can get forgotten altogether. Which is understandable, because you're grouping them together so if both effects are caused by the same thing (your magic abilities, or your sleight-of-hand abilities) then the lesser effect (the change of the orientation of the cards) will be overshadowed by the larger effect (the change in the color of the cards).

But let's say you separate the two. Now you perform triumph and leave the deck spread, face-up on the table. That moment gets its full opportunity to breathe. And all the convincers you've done to show the deck as blue (for example) were done during the triumph part of the routine. So in the spectator's mind it's a blue deck spread face-up on the table. 

Now, wait however long it takes to make the moment pass. Just as your spectator is changing the subject from the trick to some general question about magic, or to something else entirely, you go to scoop up the cards but stop yourself. Interrupt your spectator. "Sorry. Can I try one last thing. This is... I probably won't get it to work... but...uhm.... That last trick was pretty much all sleight-of-hand... but this is... well... not that." You then go through the process of creating a "color energy ball." (Maybe it sucks the color spectrum from the light in the air? I don't know. It's supposed to be unbelievable.) And then you push and spread the ball over the cards (without actually touching the deck). 

Then you turn over one card. It has a rainbow back. Then another. Then another. Then the whole deck. It worked! "Holy shit," you say quietly, "That's never happened like that. That looks amazing."

By anti-routining you take one—perhaps confusing—compound effect and turn it into two (or more) straightforward, simple effects. And because, often, all the set-up for the second trick happens during the first, the second effect happens with minimal handling or no handling at all. That can create a trick that feels very different for people, suggesting a method more ethereal and intangible than they can wrap their head around. And that creates an experience that feels distinct from the first effect, so both will be remembered.