A Two-For Tuesday Post With Pete McCabe, Except on a Monday (But Also On A Tuesday)

Man, I really have a way with post titles.

So Pete McCabe is coming out with Scripting Magic 2: The Legend of Curly's Gold in the not-too-distant future. He's shooting for a release date before the end of the year. Look for it on Vanishing Inc's site, and if you haven't read the first volume, it's definitely worth a read. He's including a small excerpt from one of my Presentation Week posts in the new books so we've been going back and forth a little over email which has inspired the next two posts. 

This first post is about performance theory, and tomorrow's post is a quick prediction effect that Pete mentioned in passing and I've added my thoughts to.

So Pete didn't like the Sankey trick, Hide, Keep and Giveaway as mentioned on this site about a week ago. He has a valid point about a flaw in the trick that my "tweak" didn't address. (Intentionally didn't address, I should say.) And I think his criticism is a good jumping off point to talk more about what my style is and why I think it works. (And to be clear, after emailing back and forth, we're closer in our thinking than maybe either of us originally thought, but I'll be quoting from midway through our discussion because it allows me to segue into talking about my performance style.) Yeah, I know theory is dull and all that, but if you're reading this site then perhaps you're interested in why I perform things the way I do. And I think I have some sound philosophical ideas about performing things in this way. It's a theory I call...

The Sealed Room With the Little Door

First, here is an excerpt from Pete's email explaining his issue with the trick...

Okay, the Sankey trick. First, keep in mind I’ve never seen you do it, or even seen Jay do it. All I have to go on is some shitty demo of the trick on youtube, and your description.

Still, the basic idea is that you can tell something about people by what they choose to keep, give away, and hide/throw away. (And yes, throw away is much better than hide from a presentational perspective.) Then you "act as if I'm absorbing and making some calculations in my mind based on these responses”. Right?

So the idea, as I understand it, is that by knowing what kind of person they are, you can make predictions about what they will choose to keep and give away.

But then it comes time for them to choose, they don’t know what they choosing. It’s all random. The choices don’t mean anything. The cards are all identical as far as the spectator can see (i.e. from the back).

So you say you are going to predict their keep/give/trash choices based on how they made other choices (to keep old love letters, etc.). But then they don’t really choose anything.

It seems to me that this is a great idea for a presentation because a) you can genuinely engage the spectator in an interesting discussion and b) it's just barely believe you could actually do it. That’s a great start. Unfortunately, the trick is just another card trick. 

I think this will play much stronger if you give the spectator an actual choice. I am sure you can come up with three much better things than random unidentified playing cards. Things that would force the spectator to make a difficult decision, which you could then prove you had anticipated. Other spectators will have strong opinions on how they would have made the exact same choices. This will never happen in the face-down cards version of the trick.

I completely understand where Pete is coming from, I just disagree with his suggestion. And to be fair, my thoughts on this are completely wrong by pretty much every standard of everything I've read about magic in the past 25 years. But they're right for me. So what follows is partly my email back to Pete which then morphs into the rest of this post...

Ah, I see what you're saying now about the Sankey trick, I thought that's where you were going, but then I thought maybe I was misunderstanding. I understand your point, but I just feel the complete opposite. To me the only thing that makes the trick interesting is the fact that these are blind choices. 

You're right that it would be more believable to have them make actual choices. I don't want it to be "more believable." I think that is a concept in magic that is quickly becoming passe. Or at least I hope it is. 

The premise of my version of Hide, Keep, Giveaway is not "based on your conscious choices, I can predict what other conscious choices you would make." It's, "Based on your conscious choices, I can predict the unconscious choices you would make."

You wrote, "It's all random." But the human mind can't make random choices. It can only make unconscious choices that are seemingly unpredictable. What I'm claiming is that I'm so attuned to your thought process that I can not only predict which three cards you will blindly (unconsciously) pick, but also how you will (unconsciously) mix them and (unconsciously) choose to distribute them. Yes, it's not believable.

You might say, "Well, why waste an interesting premise and use it as a non-believable explanation?" I will tell you.

I spent much of the last 10 years working on my presentations for effects. And I've tested a lot of concepts with real people and one of the concepts I've tested the most is what my spectators respond to the strongest in regards to the implied method behind the trick. So, I looked at:

  1. A strong trick with no implied method.
  2. A strong trick with a believable implied method.
  3. A strong trick with an UNbelievable implied method.

And I consistently get the best initial reactions with 1 and 3. The most mild reactions with 2. And the most long-term reactions with number 3.

Here is why I think this is. I'm not saying the analogy I'm about to give is necessarily true, but it's how I picture things in my mind and it's true when perform.

A very strong magic trick (where the spectators don't have any insight into the actual method) is like taking a person and sealing them in a square room with no windows or doors or any means of exit. When you give no explanation, people become trapped. They are amazed, but often, after a little while, they give up because there's no where for them to go. 

However, when you give them a believable explanation it's like putting them in a room with a door for them to walk out of. When you say, for instance, "I know where the coin is because I read your body language," you are giving them an exit. And they have two choices: 1. Feel trapped or 2. Walk through the exit you've given them. And so they will do number 2. (Not shit, I mean, they will go through the exit.) They may still be amazed ("That guy can read my body language!") but you are kind of sacrificing the mystery, in a way. And the mystery is the beguiling, interesting, frustrating, and long-lasting part of the magic trick.

Now imagine this, you're in a sealed room with a little tiny door the size of a cereal box. You're trapped, but there's this thing that beckons you as if it's an exit. Your rational mind knows it's not. You know you'll never fit through it, but you can't help but keep returning to it and shoving a hand or a leg out and seeing if maybe there's some way to work your way through. Rationally, you know it's not the way out, but it's the only thing that even suggests a way out, so your mind keeps returning to it. (In the same way you keep looking in your jacket pocket when you can't find your keys, even though you've already checked it five times. You know they're not there, but you can't imagine where else they could be.) This is, I think, the cruelest way to trap someone because they have the hope of escape and each time they reach out that little door and feel around in hopes of finding something that will let them out, it reinforces that they're trapped.

This is how I believe presenting magic with an unbelievable (yet internally logical) implied method affects people too. They know it doesn't provide the escape they need but it's something for them to explore when they feel they have no other option. And I feel like it's a way of fooling people multiple times with the same trick. You show them the trick and fool them, and then their mind looks for a logical explanation and when no logical explanation presents itself, they start poking around your unbelievable explanation (the little door) in their mind. "Okay, I know he didn't really stop time like he said... but maybe he stopped me perceiving the passing of time for a moment? Like maybe when he twirled that card he hypnotized me to not notice time passing? What the fuck am I saying, that's nonsense too." And every time they consider your unbelievable explanation, even partially, they are fooled again.

With a believable explanation you have two possibilities. 1. The spectator believes it, which is good for your ego, but not great entertainment, I don't think. 2. The spectator doesn't believe it and is put into the awkward position of wondering if you really want them to believe this somewhat believable explanation. For these people the believable explanation often seems less like a "presentation" and more like you're lying in order to impress them with some skill/power your don't really possess. Which a lot of you are, of course.

With an unbelievable presentation, you don't have this issue. They understand that you're doing this to entertain them, not to get them to "believe" anything. At least that's my experience. Do they still get caught up in it? Yes. You'll know this because they'll come back an hour later to poke some hole into your bogus explanation. "You said you found that metal disc in the wreckage of an alien spaceship when we were camping. But you couldn't have because I was with you the entire time." To which I'll either say, "Yeah, no shit, I was goofing around. It was just a magic trick." Or, "What are you talking about? I went for an hour hike by myself that night. Wait... you don't think they sent some kind of replicant in my place, did they? Oh my god, please tell me you didn't have sex with my alien cyborg doppleganger." 

Again, I'm not suggesting this is the right way to do things. Just my preferred way of doing things. For me it's more interesting and definitely more entertaining. Of course this is all on a spectrum. Some of my presentations are completely unbelievable, and some are partially believable. Some of the doors I give them will be just big enough to get their pinky through, and some they'll be able to poke their head through. But I always stop short of giving them something they could comfortably walk through.