The Dumbest Thing I've Ever Seen In Magic

What's the dumbest thing you've seen in magic?

You might think back to one of those rejects who speared himself (or someone else) in the hand during some tired russian roulette type effect.

Or maybe it's that escape artist (or, more accurately, "gets stuck in shit" artist) on the Criss Angel tour who had to be rescued from his escapes twice in the same summer. (Either he not competent, or it was a poorly conceived publicity stunt. "Poorly conceived" because—while it may garner publicity—that's not good publicity for someone who nobody knows about. Failure can be good publicity for someone who's established. It makes it seem like that person is taking on new challenges. But if nobody knows who you are they're not going to be like, "Let's go see this guy who sucks at his job!") 

Or maybe the dumbest thing you've seen in magic was Brian Brushwood rocking this look for a fucking decade!

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How you go about avoiding reflective surfaces for 10 years is beyond me. Honestly, you don't even need a mirror to realize this looks like shit. Your goddamn shadow makes that clear.

But no, that's not the dumbest thing I've ever seen in magic.

The dumbest thing I've ever seen is Jeff McBride's version of Chad Long's trick, The Shuffling Lesson.

Now, Chad Long's trick is a modern classic. You and the spectator each take half of the deck. You give them a lesson in shuffling and cutting the deck. At the end you've each shuffled and cut your cards into four piles. You turn over the top card of each of your piles and they're all kings. "Don't feel bad," you say, "I've been doing this for 20 years." When the spectator turns over the top cards of his piles, he's found the four aces.

It's a great trick because not only is it easy to do, but it builds beautifully. When you show you've found the kings, it's an okay moment, but not that impressive as those cards were in your hands and it's not inconceivable that you could have controlled them in some way. But when the spectator finds that they've located the aces with the cards in their hands, it's damn near a miracle. 

It's kind of similar to a sucker trick, but rather than them thinking you messed up and you showing you haven't, it's a situation where they think what has happened is only mildly impressive but it turns out to be very impressive. Not what you did, what they did.

McBride's performance is a bit of a cluster-F. It's part "shuffling lesson," then he does this weird mirroring stuff...


And then he keeps repeating "YOU cut the cards. YOU control the game." Which is bizarre because there's not supposed to be a "game" at this point. It's supposed to be a lesson. If you asked someone what McBride's version of the trick is supposed to be about, they would have no idea.

But that's just a convoluted presentation. It's not the dumbest thing I've ever seen in magic. The dumbest thing I've ever seen is how he concludes the effect. He has it structured so he beats the spectator at the end.

What is he thinking?

Does McBride not understand the trick? Does he think it's truly about who has the highest cards?

Listen to his justification for why he does it this way. It genuinely bananas. (I particularly like the sweetly condescending way he pauses and say, "That was a choice," when discussing how Chad Long originally structured the routine.)

The hell? There is no defending that structure. He starts with something impressive (the spectator finding four of a kind) goes onto something less impressive (the magician finding four of a kind) and caps it off with something not impressive at all (showing that together they have blackjack hands—the trick has nothing to do with blackjack! If you want that to be a "moment" you have to establish blackjack as being relevant at some point early on in the trick (he doesn't)). He calls this the "punch" and the "second punch." Those aren't punches. They represent a fundamental misunderstanding of what an audience—certainly what the main spectator—would find amazing about the routine. 

You beating the spectator does not make it a win/win. I'm puzzled by how he could even come to that conclusion.

I bet the hardest thing for someone who knows as much about magic as Jeff McBride does, and performs as much magic as Jeff McBride has, is to get back in the layperson's head. But it really needs to be part of the process of creating a presentation. Try to forget everything you know about magic. Imagine yourself at the age before you knew secrets. Someone gives you half a deck which you shuffle and cut and then you discover you've found four of a kind. Imagine how unreal that would feel to you. Really try and put yourself in that feeling. Now, is that feeling intensified or diminished if the magician says, "Hey, I did that too. And I did it better." Does that feel win/win to you?

In magic, as in life, your goal should be to preserve or amplify people's positive feelings about themselves or their situation. Make this your hobby.

I guess you could say, "Well, Jeff is a professional magician. So he has different concerns. And, for him, it may be important to come across as the winner because he is really playing the role of the the archetypal Magician." But if that's your goal, this is a bad trick for you. Just do a regular routine where you cut the aces yourself. Don't set up the audience member only to take away from their moment. No one sees what you did as more impressive anyway. People understand the symbols on the cards are arbitrary when it comes to cutting four of a kind. No one is like, "Yeah, sure, I knew he could cut to four twos. But four aces!? Now I'm impressed!"

Honestly, McBride has such a strong presence that it would be so much more interesting for him to be like, "And despite all that shuffling and cutting, I have managed to find the four kings!" Then do a real cocky magical flourish and raise an eyebrow. "I can't take all the credit. Yes, I have an incredible gift. But a gift is something that is given to you. I am the descendent of Merlin, of Hecate, of 1000 generations of magicians before me whose power now flows through these nimble fingers." Then gesture to the spectator and say casually, as if it's an afterthought, "And how about you? Did you find a pair maybe in your first attempt?" The spectator turns over all four aces. The cocky smile falls off Jeff's face. He furrows his brow and sniffs through his nose. "Uhm...yeah. So that's... I guess... I mean, that's great, that's great...uhm... hmm...." He goes off, scratching his head, mumbles some nonsense analogy about how the other guy may have opened the pickle jar but he was the one who loosened the lid. In my opinion that would be a much funnier and more compelling "storyline" for the effect. 

I remember watching this on the True Astonishments DVD set when it first came out and feeling sick. Not because he screwed it up by needing to be the one who "won." But because McBride is pretty well respected in magic, and Eugene Burger is also in the room when this is being filmed, and it's on Paul Harris' DVD set. And none of them thought to say, "This is retarded." It was like the feeling you get in school when you realize you're smarter than your teachers. That's not a good feeling. "You're supposed to be the smart ones! You're supposed to be teaching me!"

It was at that point I realized it was up to me to come back and save magic. And yes, I sat on my ass for another 5 years before starting to blog again, but eventually it happened. Get off my back.