This is the last formal post in this series, although there will be a Part VI with some random tangents that got cut from other posts on Friday, and next week there will be a mailbag post discussing the series further.
How to Bother
You ever watch those shows on HGTV where a couple buys a house, renovates it, and then re-sells it? I see that process as similar to the process of turning a good trick into a powerfully resonant trick.
Real Estate: Finding a structurally sound house in a good neighborhood.
Magic: Finding a structurally sound trick that you’re capable of performing (See Part II: Broken Tricks)
Real Estate: Fixing the obvious issues with the house.
Magic: Addressing the “obvious” solutions a spectator might come to. (See Part III: No Easy Answers)
Real Estate: Adding cosmetic touches and staging the house. (These are the things aren’t “needed” but may be what connects with a buyer and “sells “the house.)
Magic: Putting the trick in a compelling context (See Part IV: Weaponizing Surprise)
Real Estate: Making a lot of money when you sell the house.
Magic: There is no corollary to this in magic.
Here is the process with an actual trick.
The trick is Directed Verdict by John Bannon. It is, perhaps, the trick that has been in my active repertoire for longer than any other. It’s a very direct Spectator Cuts the Aces routine.
What are the conditions that make a Spectator Cuts the Aces routine impossible? I would say they’re these:
That it’s a normal deck with only four aces.
That the spectator can cut with relative freedom.
That the cards the spectator actually cut to are the ones that are turned over.
Does the method for Directed Verdict allow me to prove these conditions? Yes. It’s not a Broken Trick. It’s structurally sound.
What are the “Easy Answers” someone might jump to when considering this effect?
Sleight-of-hand. Most of this trick happens in the spectators hands so sleight-of-hand is less likely to be suspected. One might be tempted to turn over the cards themselves at the end to “control the pace of the climax.” That makes sense for a show, but in this setting, where you’re trying to create the most bulletproof effect for just a person or two, I think you want to sacrifice presentational flair for a cleanliness of handling. Let them turn over the aces.
It’s a gimmicked deck. As far as Directed Verdict goes, the solution I find people frequently jump to is that there’s something funny about the deck. They think there must be a lot of aces in the deck. There aren’t,. They can look through the deck at the end to prove this, but an even better way to subvert this Easy Answer is to use a deck from the spectator’s home.
“He forced me to cut at those points.” What I found is that the only answer people were left with is that I must have known the location of the aces and directed them to cut in their general area and then I got lucky. It’s not a rational answer, but it’s all they have left, so let’s demolish it.
I do this in two ways. First I allow them to shuffle the deck at the start (palming in the cards after the shuffle). Second, when I demonstrate the cut (which is part of the method), I don’t say, “Cut about this much” because I want to emphasize their freedom rather than their constraint. So I say something like, “You’re going to cut off a few packets. You can do just a few or a bigger chunk. But don’t cut off too much more than this each time because we need enough for four packets with some leftover.”
So you, as the spectator, shuffle the cards, you cut the cards into four packets at positions of your own choosing, and then you turn over the cards and they’re the aces. There’s no outlet for the Surprise, so I think it’s likely to make the transition to Astonishment.
Surprise: “Whoa! I cut to the aces.”
[Trick gets processed through their brain.]
Astonishment: “Wait… hold on….. How? That’s not possible!”
But besides that impossibility, there’s not much to consider about the trick. The impossibility is strong, but also arbitrary. Cutting a deck into four piles isn’t even part of any popular card game. And cutting to aces is no more or less impossible than cutting to all the 3s. So there’s not really a “story” to the trick to allow the spectator to really get wrapped up in it.
Now consider the Creepy Child Version of the effect from this post.
The spectator stops over and sees a child’s drawing that matches today’s paper. Is this… real? Probably not. So it’s a set up to something? Part of a trick or just a joke? Or what exactly?
What I’m doing is beginning to build a story around “just” a strong trick.
Later in the night I offer to show her a trick, where she’ll cut to the four aces. This feels normal. She’s seen tricks from me before. The trick fails. I notice the cards she did cut to look familiar. Wait… what about that drawing my niece did of the cards that’s hanging on my refrigerator? And… of course… that matches up.
The trick isn’t just impossibility anymore. It’s connected to a story—and while people may have a push-pull relationship with Astonishment—we universally love an interesting story. (And by “story” I don’t literally mean a “Once upon a time”-style narrative you relay to the spectator, but a story they take part in..)
There’s a creepy child with the powers of precognition. There’s foreshadowing. There’s a punchline (see the original post). It’s an impossibility people will enjoy ruminating over.
I’ve done the original Spectator-Cuts-The-Aces version hundreds of times. It’s a strong trick.
I’ve also done a version where I act like I want them to cut the aces, they don’t, and then I reveal they cut to the four cards I predicted. I’ve done that probably 10-15 times. That’s good too.
However, the reaction to this version has been significantly greater, in my experience. And it seems to make a much more lasting impression.
I’m not suggesting, “John Bannon created this trick, but then I made it good.” No, I’m saying Bannon created a trick and it’s so well constructed that it makes a perfect substrate for all sorts of different presentations. I have eight presentations for this trick that I use regularly.
I think a fair question to ask is, “Do people even want to be intensely fooled by a magic trick?”
If you think that’s a stupid question then you’ve either never “intensely fooled” someone, or you don’t pay much attention to people’s reactions.
In my experience, and from watching others perform, a really strong trick can turn people off almost as frequently as it can draw them in.
I don’t think “Astonishment” is generally a welcome feeling. If it was, why would our brain’s natural response be to attempt to diminish it?
It makes sense that surprise/mystery based astonishment might be seen as something to be avoided. It’s probably baked into our DNA. Imagine you’re a prehistoric man seeing a mysteriously large wave coming in from the sea, or hearing an unusual noise coming from the forest. If your instinct is to run away and hide behind a rock, you’ll survive to pass along your genes. If your instinct is to approach the mystery with an open heart, in search of astonishment, then you’re like, “Ahhh! How splendid! I’m enjoying a state of such child-like wonder—OH FUCK I’M BEING CRUSHED BY THIS TSUNAMI WAVE!!!” Or, “SWEET CHRIST! HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO APPRECIATE THE DELIGHT OF THE UNKNOWN WHEN THIS TIGER IS CRACKING OPEN MY SKULL LIKE A CHESTNUT!!!”
So when you magically change one bill to another, don’t be surprised when people try to fight a sense of mystery from taking hold. “You have another bill in your hand,” or, “It’s a trick bill,” is just them trying to make sense of something they don’t understand. We’re the descendants of millennia of humans for whom there was no biological advantage to the feeling of, “I have no fucking clue what’s going on.”
But, I don’t think that’s the full story. Here’s why…
There was a time when I would perform for people and I’d get the sense that they enjoyed being fooled to a point. But once we got past that point—into the realm of something that felt genuinely impossible—they didn’t seem more amazed, often they just seemed to get frustrated.
However, as my performance style changed from magician-centric to audience-centric, I found that point diminished and then disappeared. People were more and more inclined to really let the astonishment overtake them, and seemed to enjoy being profoundly fooled.
While I think we may instinctually recoil from astonishment. I also believe most people are evolved to the point where they can appreciate it as long as it meets two requirements:
1. It doesn’t seem self-serving.
2. It comes packaged in an interesting “story.”
If they question your motivations at all, it’s going to be very difficult for them to be vulnerable enough to feel astonishment unabated. If they think you’re a creep or that you’re hoping to gain status or that you want to “get” something from them, they will shut it down.
If you can avoid that, however, then you have the green light. And I can honestly say, since coming to this model of spectator experience over the past few years, I’ve received the strongest reactions I’ve ever had to magic. And I think a big reason for that is because it didn’t seem self-serving—they knew this was intended to be, ultimately, a positive experience for them.
And because I delivered the Astonishment as part of an interesting story.
The two are related, you see. If you’re just demonstrating “impossibility for impossibility’s sake,” then it’s hard to come off as anything other than a show-off. It’s hard for them to see the experience as being anything other than about you.
But put the magic in the context of a story/experience that isn’t about you, and that suggests that you’re doing it for them rather than for yourself.
Story makes everything palatable. Most humans don’t like being scared. Pop out screaming at your roommate from behind the curtains enough times and he’ll eventually punch you in the face. Being scared is another thing our ancestors tried to avoid. And yet, we will pay for horror movies, books, and tv shows. Put fear in context and many people are all for it.
Story is how we infect people with Astonishment. It’s too easy to dismiss the feeling without it. Having the goal of doing the strongest possible magic—with a plan that just consists of showing people impossible things with no context—is like having the goal of being the funniest comedian in the world and your plan is to tickle people the hardest.
The strongest magic is a synthesis of bulletproof method/execution and a story element that captures and keeps their attention.
That’s not exactly controversial. But as I said when I originally introduced this series of posts…
“I don’t think the ideas are all that ingenious, in fact they’re almost basic, but I think they’re things we maybe forget to focus on when we’ve been in magic for a while.”
As magicians, we can get so caught up in clever methods and new techniques that we forget about the spectator altogether. I’m not immune to any of that. But by sitting down every week or so and running a trick through the process described in this series, I am consistently reminding myself to focus on the spectator, with the goal of giving them the most intense experience possible through magic. Which is, as Henning Nelms said, “To blow one’s mind so forcefully as to project it down their body and right the fuck out their butthole.”
He was a wise man.