This isn’t the type of trick I do anymore, and it likely would have rotted in my notebooks from 5-10 years ago if I hadn’t been reminded of it by a recent email. It’s a little too “look what I can do,” for my current style. But it may fit your style. And I think it could probably work well in a formal show. “Look what I can do” is appropriate for a professional performance, because presumably that’s what they’re there for: to see what you can do.
So, while I’ve only ever done this at home or at work, in a casual situation, I’ll describe it as a stage piece. I’m just making up this “script” as I write. When I performed the effect in real life there wasn’t much of a script.
On stage there is a small table with a stack of printer paper and a cloth bag.
You pick up one of the sheets of paper and give it a glance. “These are some of the TPS reports from my old day-job.” You look over the paper a little bit and cluck your tongue against the roof of your mouth. “This is not… looking… too…good,” you mumble, essentially to yourself. “Well, screw it,” you say, snapping into presentation mode. You crumple up the piece of paper and toss it into the crowd and maybe have it tossed to a few more people.
“I spent years looking over those reports. Years of my life. Years of my life at a job that… well… I can’t say I hated it. It was a job I had no feelings about whatsoever. If I hated it, maybe I’d have left much sooner than I did. Or at the very least, I’d have some memories of the time I spent there. Instead it’s just like, ‘Huh? I worked where? Oh yeah, that’s right. For like a decade. I vaguely remember.’”
You ask the person who now has the paper ball to come on stage.
“I knew it was time to leave and pursue my dream of becoming a performer because I was getting too good at work. Let me clarify. I wasn’t too good at my job. I was getting too good at something I was doing to avoid my job while I was at work. I was getting too good… at waste paper basketball,” you say, and mime a jump-shot. As you do, a small metal trash can slides in from off-stage.
“I was a prodigy. I was an office sensation. I organized tournaments with cash prizes that 100s of people participated in. That company may have taken years from me, but I took 1000s of man-hours from it.”
“I’ll tell you my secret. What made me so good wasn’t because I could always hit the shot. What made me the best was I got good at reading everyone else’s abilities. Abnormally good at it. And if I sensed I found a good player who was bound to have a hot hand that day, I’d just avoid playing him or her until I sensed they had cooled off a bit. The cowards way out. But it worked.”
“I feel like I’ve got you sized up,” you say. “I’m going to make a quick prediction.” You turn your back briefly and write something on one of the sheets of paper, fold it and place it somewhere. You also do something with the contents of the small bag that’s on the table. As you do this, you say: “I’m going to have you take 5 shots at the basket. I’m going to tilt things in my favor a bit by having you wear this around your neck, which should throw off your balance just a little in a way I think will help me.”
The audience sees that the cloth bag is actually hanging on a loop of thin rope which you put around the spectator’s head, like a necklace. The bag is about the size of a baseball and there is something of some weight in it.
The audience member takes five shots with five different paper balls. You make a big deal of letting them choose the order in which they take the balls and shoot them. Let’s say they make two of the shots.
You open your prediction and reveal that it says, “You will make two out of five shots.”
“See?” you say. “I knew it the moment I saw you. You’re clearly no athlete. More of a book guy, I’m guessing. Two out of five. It was clear as day.”
“But maybe it was a lucky guess. It wasn’t, but maybe it seems like it could have been. I’ll show you something that couldn’t be a guess on my part. Something that could only be emblematic of my mastery of this game down to the inch.”
You ask the audience member to take any two of the three paper balls remaining on the floor and toss them in the trash can, leaving just one final ball on the floor. You hand a fabric measuring tape to the spectator and have them measure how many inches the ball is from the can. It’s 16 inches.
“I couldn’t have known you’d get two out of five in the basket. I couldn’t have known which two of the three that you missed you’d toss in the basket when given the choice. I couldn’t have known that particular ball would remain on the floor. And I certainly couldn’t have known how far one random ball out of five would end up from a trash can after you threw it. But… [pause] but you see, I had this job once. A job that didn’t really suck my soul, but it did suck away a lot of the years of my life. Which may be just as bad. And I became very good at this game as a byproduct of avoiding that job. So good, in fact, I could foresee any matter of chance or decision related to the game. Can you remove the bag from around your neck and dump the contents into my hands?”
The audience member does that, and into your hands falls a retractable metal tape measure.
“Before you even took your shots I made a prediction on this tape measure. [You show a marker and put it back in your pocket.] On a specific portion of the tape that is now safely wound up inside.”
You slide out the measuring tape and right on the 16 inch mark is a big black X written in marker.
You grab a paper ball and walk the audience member part-way back to his seat. “Thanks for your help. Everyone give Chris a big round of applause,” you say and toss the paper ball in your hands behind you and over your head where it travels 25 feet, right into the trash can.
The primary method I was using when doing this informally is a trick called Heightened Senses by Joshua Jay. It’s on a couple of his DVDs including his Methods in Magic DVD which seems to be sold out in most places, but you can get the download here for $20 (it’s well worth it, everything on the DVD is good). If I remember correctly, Josh uses it to predict a random spectator’s height. Since I perform for people I know, I realized that would be somewhat less than impressive.
But I still loved the method and would use it as a way to predict the length of—or distance between—other things. I started using it with backyard games like horseshoes and bocce ball. And that morphed into doing it with paper balls and a wastepaper basket.
When doing it with paper balls and a trash can, I think the sweet spot is to be about 15-20 feet from the can. You don’t want them to easily make every shot, but you don’t want them to have misses that are 20 feet away from the can either.
The initial prediction—how many they get in the basket—is any kind of one in six out you want to use. I just used an index and a switch when I was doing it close-up. If you’re doing it on stage, obviously you’ll want something bigger. You could do something more complicated and predict which shots they hit, but I never bothered with that. I don’t mind if that first prediction is underwhelming.
Something appeals to me about predicting the layout of missed waste paper basketball shots. It’s fun but also clearly impossible. And it’s an example of an Unknown Personal, which I feel make for the strongest types of prediction effects.
I think Joshua Jay’s effect is good for a parlor type setting or a small stage show where the audience is pretty close. For a larger-scale show (something big enough to have a projection screen) you could have the person toss five different colored paper balls. Maybe have them do it over their head, facing away from the can, so they’re more spread out. Then an overhead camera shot shows the distribution of the different colored balls around the basket. And then you could reveal you predicted the exact layout of the balls with a clear prediction case or a letter you mailed to the CEO of the company or whatever.
The last part of the effect I’ve never actually done. I just thought it would be cool to end the trick with an impossible seeming shot. There has to be some way to rig that up to make it work. In an actual proper show, I mean. Maybe with some kind of reel, or some variation on the type of set-up you use to make a handkerchief fly across the stage. The difficult thing would be getting the trajectory to look natural. But if you’re more of a magician than a mentalist it wouldn’t be an issue if the ball looked like it was “magically” floating into the can. In fact, if you’re a magician and don’t do strict mentalism, the better way to go with it might be to legitimately toss the ball over your shoulder and try and get as close to the can as possible. Then, when you (likely) miss, you point at the ball with the index and middle finger of one hand and give a gesture like, “get in there,” and the ball jumps from where it is into the can.