I had a friend, Jeremy, staying with me this weekend. Many years ago, Jeremy was a part of the group of guys with whom I started the focus group testing of magic effects in NYC. In the early days of that testing, before this site existed, we would often test something, get what we thought was a clear answer about an issue, and then kind of forget about it. What I mean is, the testing started as a hobby for us, and another excuse to perform while hopefully getting some insight into things that you wouldn’t get in a traditional performing situation (that is, a performing situation with a friendlier crowd). So we weren’t taking a bunch of notes and keeping a lot of records. We were just performing or showing people clips and encouraging them to be as critical as possible to see what sorts of things were consistently getting busted.
Because we weren’t doing it for posterity, a lot of the specifics of the things we tested have been lost to time. But usually when I meet up with one of the guys, I’m reminded of somethings we tried back in the day. And this weekend, Jeremy reminded me of some of the things we looked at that magicians do frequently that fool nobody.
Half-Assed Card to Pocket
If you palm a card off the deck and then pull it out of your pocket and you think anyone watching thinks you’ve done anything other than take a card from the deck with your hand and shove it in your pocket, you’re deluding yourself.
This was one of the most clear-cut things we ever tested, with a near unanimity of people fully understanding that the card was in the magician’s hand before it went into the pocket. Why we would expect people to think otherwise is honestly a little strange.
There may still be an effect there. They may wonder how you got it from where it was in the center of the deck (or so they assume) into a position to be removed from the deck. But beyond that there’s no question in regards to what’s going on.
I’m not saying Card to Pocket is inherently a bad trick. I’m just saying that if the audience doesn’t see an empty hand going into a pocket, they will naturally assume you’re placing something in there rather than removing something that was already there. Showing an empty hand is the first thing you would do if you wanted to show people how you can make an object teleport to your pocket. Laypeople understand this.
Fortunately, there are Card to Pocket routines that take this into account. But there are still a ton of magicians who are doing a very basic palm and removal sort of thing and not fooling anybody.
Pulling Coins from your Elbow or Behind Your Knee
This just seems lazy. And it looks like exactly what is going on, that is, that you’re pretending to take a coin out from behind your elbow. I get it, you have to get the coin back in play during the course of your one-coin routine, but why emphasize the face that it was really just hidden in your hand by pulling it from somewhere like your elbow? Wouldn’t it make more sense to pull it from your mouth or under your collar or your butt-crack or shake it out of your shoe or something?
Jeremy reminded me that we once tested a simple coin vanish and appearance (or vice-versa) and compared it to a minute-long one coin routine with multiple vanishes and appearances. We had the people rate the effects based on how entertaining and how amazing they found them (we may not have used those exact words, but that was the general gist). The short routine was not only more entertaining but it destroyed the longer routine as far as “amazement” goes.
Since that time, I always pay attention to the audience during a one-coin routine. They’re frequently pretty zoned out.
I think often the thought process of magicians is, “I’m just going to overwhelm them with so many different moments of magic.” But I’m not even sure that’s possible. It seems to me that for a moment of magic to hit there needs to be some space to breathe. Too many moments together just kind of blur into nothingness.
Switching Small Objects Under Larger Objects
Sometimes you’ll see something like this: The magician is holding a pad of paper. The spectator chooses a card and hands it to the magician. The card is taken under the pad in the process of putting the pad into the other hand, and in that action the card is switched. Or a bill is borrowed, folded into quarters, and in the process of shuttling the wallet from hand to hand, the bill is placed under the wallet and switched for a gimmicked bill.
This is another technique that was widely called out by laypeople in our testing. Understandably so, I think. I believe the technique can work when properly choreographed and done on an offbeat, but that’s hardly ever how it’s done. Usually someone is switching an object that has just been made the focus of attention with no proper justification for why they’re moving the objects around between their hands like they are. If you take something of importance and then even momentarily hide it behind something else, it’s going to create suspicion. So if you’re going to use this type of switch I would say you need to make sure your justification and choreography are really well though out.
This Type of Coins Across
This is a similar situation to the card to pocket mentioned above. The spectator may not know the exact details of how everything got into place, but they certainly know you’re just dropping a coin from your right hand into the spectator’s palms under the cover of pulling their thumb.
If you watch this Coins Across on youtube, you’ll see the first coin to go across gets a polite chuckle from the main participant. The second coin gets zero reaction from anyone. They don’t even blink.
You might think it’s a dead audience, but then the third coin to go (which uses a different method) gets a good response.
You could argue that the first two coins are meant to be a set-up for the final coin. Okay, that’s fine, but why use this structure:
Phase 1 - Nothing moment
Phase 2 - Nothing moment
Phase 3 - Magic moment
When you could use this structure:
Phase 1 - Magic moment
Phase 2 - Magic moment
Phase 3 - Stronger magic moment
(In the autumn issue of X-Communication I will explain the impromptu coins across that I’ve been using for a long time that follows this structure. There’s nothing revolutionary about the handling but it’s got a really nice build to it which is sometimes lacking in coins across.)
The participants in our focus group would say, “He just dropped the coin from his hand.” And when we’d say, “Yes, but how did it get to that hand?” they would just kind of dismiss that question as if it was unimportant. They had figured out the ending of that moment, so the middle didn’t matter. If Ammar had just opened his right hand to reveal the coin (in other words, if he had made the middle of that moment the end), they would have been left with something they didn’t understand. But by going the extra step of “making it appear in the spectator’s hand” they felt like they had figured it out.
(Another trick with almost an identical issue is coins to glass where the magician holds the glass from above like a mutant and then the audience is supposed to be surprised when something appears in the glass. They’re not.)
By the way, in November, when book number two is complete and at the printers, I’ll be back in NYC conducting another day or two of testing. I’m not sure what the focus is going to be right now, but if you have something in mind, let me know. Just make sure it’s something that’s simple and quantifiable.