The Dr. Phil Deck

Things you need to know to understand this post.

1. Dr. Phil - He is a television psychologist here in America (and undoubtedly in other parts of the world as well) who likes to build people up or break people down. 

2. The Phil Deck - In the traditional version of this trick, you ask your spectator to think of a card and you say that you're going to name it. They think of a card and you say, "I'm going to name your card... it's Phil!" This is greeted with incredibly mild amusement. You then ask them to tell you what card they were thinking of. They say, for example, the three of diamonds. You say, "Yup, that's Phil." Then you pull out the deck and show them that the cards all have a different name on the back. And on the back of the three of diamonds, it says "Phil." 

It's a fun enough trick. Not earth-shattering, but decent. But the nice part of the Phil deck is that you can have whatever you want appear on the card they name. You can buy "blank" Phil decks and customize them. I've found most of the customization ideas somewhat underwhelming -- often it involves having numbers on the backs of the cards (instead of names) or putting a company name on the back for corporate work. I don't know, that's all fine, it's just not my scene.

I've probably bought a dozen blank Phil Decks in my life and have used them for a few different purposes. This post will cover one of those ways and I'll mention another one (probably my favorite one) in next Tuesday's post. I don't know how useful they'll be to others, but there's definitely something valuable in the idea that these decks can be used for something other than just having the punchline of the trick on the back of the cards.

The Dr. Phil Deck

Like Dr. Phil himself, this moment (it's not exactly a trick) can be used to build people up or tear them down. I generally only perform for people I like so I've only used it for the former, but I'll describe both ways. 

Build Them Up

Imagine you have a friend who's dealing with some upheaval in her life. A divorce, break-up, loss of a job, whatever. You've invited her over to watch a movie and order dinner and maybe take her mind off things for a few hours. She notices a book on your coffee-table. Something like the one below that you can pick up off Amazon for a few bucks used.

Maybe she thinks this is a little unusual for you because you normally don't go for this type of nonsense. You explain that it's just an offshoot of your interest in playing cards and you thought it would be a good idea to know what the meaning of each card supposedly is. "I don't really believe in the cards' ability to predict the future. But I do think there may be some validity to the idea that certain types of people gravitate towards certain cards, and you may be able to get some insight into yourself by knowing what the meaning of a card you're drawn to is." You pull out a deck of cards that you've created as "flash cards" for yourself in order to help you memorize the personality traits associated with each card. You spread through and show her how each one has a few words or sentences on the back with some personality traits. Then you pull out the Ace of Spades and the Queen of Hearts. "If you ask someone to think of all the cards in the deck: Ace thru King, clubs, hearts, spades or diamonds. And to let their mind scan thru all the cards and eventually settle on one, then you will have some understanding into who they are as a person. It's not magic. It's just an unconscious preference for certain things by different types of people. Which just makes sense. The numbers, letters, and symbols of a deck of cards aren't meaningless, so of course different types of people will be drawn to different cards in a manner that's not completely random. Like if you went through the visualization process and settled on the Ace of Spades, it would suggest that you are," you turn the card over and written on the back it says:

You are generally good natured but are easily manipulated and lack creativity. 

"So that's probably not the most flattering one," you say. "And if you named the Queen of Hearts it would suggest," you read the words off the back, "That 'You have a great capacity for love and a big heart, but often immature notions of what a relationship entails.' And that's because a lot of young girls tend to think of the Queen of Hearts, so you can see why that would be accurate."

You spread through the cards and show her other message that discuss people's work ethic, the way they handle finances, their tendency towards laziness and so on and so on.

"Let's try it with you," you say. "Imagine all the cards in a deck of cards spread out in front of you. Try to see all of them in your mind. The number cards, letter cards, clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds. Some of them might be visually appealing, but it's better to let yourself be drawn to one seemingly at random. Can you picture the cards in front of you? Okay. Now let all of them fade away except one. Which one are you left with?"

"The five of diamonds," she says.

"Okay, let's see what that means." You spread through the deck and pull out the 5 of diamonds and turn it over. It reads:

You underestimate your ability to deal with change. You have vast reserves of strength that will get you through times of turmoil. 

So what have you done here? You haven't done a trick. You haven't told someone their fortune. You've just told them something about themselves that might be useful to remember in a particularly trying time.

I've performed this twice in my life for two different people and both got somewhat emotional and said almost identical remarks. Something along the lines of, "That is exactly what I needed to hear right now." 

B-b-b-b-but Andy, you've always said you don't like when magicians or mentalists play things as real. Aren't you playing this as real? Isn't this being manipulative?

Here's what I don't like. I don't like when people try to make others believe they have a power they don't really have. What I mean is, I don't like magicians who want others to walk away from their performance believing something untrue. I think that's bad for the spectator, bad for magicians, and bad for the art of magic. 

This, however, is not a magic trick. It is a way of you sneakily introducing just what someone might need to be reminded of at a vulnerable time in their life. And shining a spotlight on that message in a way which might allow it to be accepted more than it would if you were just to offer it as some advice.

This isn't like trying to justify being a fake psychic by saying, "Well, I make people feel better." That's just a bullshit rationalization. You're not taking money for this. You're not invoking some phony power. And you're not lying.

I can comfortably say you're not lying because what's written on that card is true of essentially everyone. Are you in the midst of some upheaval in your life that feels overwhelming? I promise you that you are underestimating your ability to deal with that change and that you have vast reserves of strength that will get you through this time. 

We may need to be reminded of it from time to time, but that's just a statement that's true of the human animal. It's essentially a self-fulfilling belief. You might say, "Oh no, not me, I'm bad with change." But look, if 99.99% of the population, including everyone you know and love, died in a zombie outbreak, within two days you would be doing a fucking shoulder roll out from behind a parked car to blast some zombie's head off. You have the capacity to adapt to change, you just don't like to because it's a pain in the ass. I get that.

You can put some other positive message on the backs, of course. Just try to make it something that A) is true, and B) protects or enhances the other person's self esteem. (That should generally be your goal with any interaction with someone you care about.)

Tear Them Down

Of course, this can be used for the opposite purpose as well. In fact, I'm sure this idea will be much more popular than the previous one.

You're performing magic, maybe at a party with friends, or even in a professional walk-around situation. Some guy is being a total cocksucker and annoying you and everyone else. You've put up with him for a while but now you've had enough.

"You're a lot of fun," you say to the a-hole. "Can I try something with you real quick? I've been studying some psychological research that says people's choice of playing card says a lot about them. This isn't like fortune telling or something. Essentially they reverse engineered it by interviewing 1000s of people, asking them to name any card in the deck, and then they seeing what the people who named those cards tended to have in common."

You pull out a deck with phrases on the back of each card. 

"I've actually been conducting the test myself in an unofficial way and it's astounding how accurate this is. I don't want to influence you by showing you the front of these cards just yet, but for example, people who named this card tended to be entrepreneurs, people who named this card tend to excel with languages, people who named this card were generally children of divorce." The cards indicate these qualities with definitive statements and the percentage likelihood of this being true based on the study.

For example, those three cards would read:

96% - You are an entrepreneur
99% - You are good with languages
98% - You are a child of divorce

You continue to spread and show all the different traits that the cards might indicate. Most are positive or neutral.

"So, just for fun, name the first card that comes to your mind? The Queen of Clubs? Okay, let's see... Oh this is interesting, and pretty specific." You turn it over and it reads:

100% - Your dog's butthole smells like your cock

"It's consensual, though, right? I mean, I'm not sure if it's defensible either way. But I truly hope you're not forcing yourself on him. Or are you just rubbing up against it without actual penetration? I guess that's better..."

Okay, so it doesn't need to be that crude (although that's probably how I would do it). It could say something like, "100% - The last time someone referred to you when you weren't in the room it was as, 'That idiot.'" Or, "100% - You are the most dispensable one in your circle of friends. Deep down, you know this." Or simply, "100% - You are not exceptional in any way."

Again, this is not really a trick. Is it a heckler stopper? Kind of. I mean, if you consider making someone cry or instigating a fistfight to be stopping them from heckling, then it definitely is. 

Tuesday: Like the indians did with the buffalo, we're going to butcher up the Phil Deck and use every part of it. It will serve as an emotional hook, presentation, method, misdirection, and surprise ending for a trick called The Mad Lib Ploy.