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."