Most magicians are familiar with Paul Curry’s Unsolved Card Problem, also known as the Open Prediction.
There’s another story from magic history that is less well known, but along similar lines, and it’s one of my favorite pieces of magic lore. In the 40s and early 50s there was a magic periodical called The Bat, which was given away free with every order over a dollar from Magic Limited. It was, essentially, the Penguin Magic Monthly of its day.
In 1948, they published something called, The Bat Coin Conundrum. It was, essentially, a “challenge” to magicians (similar to the Open Prediction, but actually pre-dating it). The goal was to create a routine where three silver coins would change to three copper coins. That doesn’t sound that unique, I know. But the rules of the challenge were that only three coins could be used and they had to be examinable at the end. There were more rules than that, but those were the big ones.
So, how do you do a fully-examinable three coin transformation with no extra coins? Well, you don’t, of course. That would be real magic. And that’s probably why the publishers of The Bat were comfortable offering a $5000 prize ($50,000 in today’s money) for anyone who could present a solution.
So that’s printed up in the magazine and maybe it caused a little buzz, I don’t really know. Anyway, cut to three years later, and a guy named Carl Manley, who lives in the town of Brocton, NY, writes to The Bat publishers and is like, “Hey, I solved it. Show me the money, bitches.” Or whatever words to that effect someone would use in 1951.
The people at The Bat are like, “Well, we need to see you do it. Our judges need to make sure all the rules are followed, blah, blah, blah.” It’s 1951. There’s no internet, you can’t send a DVD. So they agree to meet up at a magic convention in Pittsburgh later that year where he’ll perform the trick and—if he has met the requirements—he’ll be presented with a check for $5,000. I’m assuming it would be a big novelty check.
So the magic convention rolls around and it’s the day he’s supposed to perform the effect and The Bat people are there (presumably with the big check, or perhaps they went the other way and had prepared a novelty teeny-tiny check—that would be cute), but Carl doesn’t show. People are pissed because this was intended to be a big moment at this convention. You can imagine if MAGIC Live was promoting the possibility that someone had solved a seemingly impossible magical problem, and the solution was going to be demonstrated live for the first time with the potential of someone walking away with $50,000, that would be a pretty exciting thing to witness.
But he doesn’t show and The Bat people and the convention organizers are assuming this was all a hoax the whole time. They’ve only corresponded with the guy through letters. He probably never had a solution. “Carl Manley” probably never even existed.
But that turned out not to be the case. 15 miles outside of the city, in a crappy motel room off the highway, Carl Manley’s body is found. It looks to be a robbery gone incredibly bad. His money and wedding ring were taken. And he was choked to death in a manner so violent that his neck was completely broken in the process. Nobody is ever charged for the murder.
In the early 60s, Carl’s now-grown daughter is going through his possessions that the police returned to them after the investigation. And she going through her dad’s magic notebook where he described tricks and routines he was working on. And she notices, for the first time, that two pages were ripped out of the notebook. By the dates on the pages surrounding the missing pages, it’s clear that the missing entries would have been written right around the time that he had, apparently, stumbled across the solution to the Bat Coin Conundrum.
So his daughter gets a new theory that this wasn’t some random robbery gone wrong, but that he was, in fact, killed by someone who either wanted this secret for themselves, or wanted to prevent the secret from being released. She believed it was the publishers of The Bat not wanting to pay up. But that seems a bit extreme, and nothing ever came from that theory.
This whole story pretty much faded into obscurity for 50+ years. Then, in 2015, there was a murder of a 22 year old named Gerry Parker in Gainesville, FL. Gerry was strangled to death so violently that his neck was completely broken. Gerry was also an amateur magician.
These were his last two tweets…
The cops, of course, looked into his social media and tried to make sense of these tweets, but they got nowhere. In fact, it wasn’t until almost a year later that anyone figured out what the tweets were driving at. There was a thread on The Magic Cafe about the murder and they mentioned the tweets and someone began to put it all together. You have a guy who was killed in exactly the same manner as the guy who supposedly solved the Bat Coin Conundrum and he’s a magician, and he tweets right before he dies with an image of a bat, money (coins), and he mentions 5 Gs, aka five thousand dollars.
But here’s the thing that makes it super messed up. Whoever killed Carl Manley in 1951 would be at least 85 now. An 85-year old is not going to be breaking a 20-something guy’s neck. So it had to be two murderers. But the weirder thing is this… Gerry had under 30 followers on Twitter. He wasn’t well known. Nobody knew he was working on this trick. And yet hours after apparently “figuring out” how to do this trick—and posting about it vaguely on Twitter—he’s murdered in the exact same way someone was 65 years prior? That’s crazy.
Anyway, I’ve been working on the Bat Coin Conundrum myself. And I think I actually had a bit of breakthrough. That’s why I asked you to come over tonight. I want you to record this. I want a witness who can verify that I really did this in case something happens to me.
Look, I have three silver coins…
The Unsolved Problem Universal Presentation
Yes, as I’m sure you quickly realized while reading that, it’s all just nonsense I made up.
The Open Prediction is something that has captivated magicians for a long time. And in recent years I’ve seen a few different people suggest presenting it by talking about the history of the effect and the “challenge” nature of Paul Curry’s “unsolved problem.”
I think that’s a fine idea, but here’s the thing… you’re not limited to using that presentation with an Open Prediction and talking about Paul Curry. You can make up magicians, make up challenges, make up rewards, make up situation, make up complete histories of a trick and capitalize on the potential intrigue that is generated by saying, “Here’s this challenge that no one was ever able to solve.” And giving people a peek into a fascinating (albeit fake) history of magic.
You don’t need to get as dramatic as I did in the story above, I was just doing that for your benefit.
The thing about the Open Prediction is, it doesn’t really need much of a hook. It’s a pretty simple, clear effect. So it’s maybe a better use of the “Unsolved Problem” presentation to save it for a trick that isn’t so clean-cut. Thus you’re justifying the procedure as part of the presentation (because that procedure can be laid out as part of the challenge).
For example, think of an ace assembly. Sometimes people will put such a trick in a gambling presentation to attempt to make it make some sense, but that doesn’t always work so great. So, frequently, the trick is just presented as, “I’m going to do this and you’re going to watch me do it.”
Apply the “Unsolved Problem” presentation to it and you can talk about this “classic” challenge in magic that people haven’t been able to solve for 75 years, where you put the aces into four different packets and make them all gather into one. You can build the story up if you want. Add sex and intrigue and death. Or it can just be some long-standing challenge that you think you’ve finally cracked and you want their help to see if it works.
You could separate the presentation out over time. Show them a standard ace assembly. Then mention there’s this long-running “impossible challenge” amongst magicians of doing the same trick but with aces that have different back colors. “I think it’s legitimately impossible,” you say. Then a couple weeks later you’re like, “Remember that thing I told you about? Well, I think I might have actually figured it out.” So now instead of a “meaningless” trick, you’re creating a story that unfolds over time.
As a “Hook” you could have a list of conditions for an effect written on a sheet of paper laying on a table in your house. When someone notices it, you could explain the “history” of the trick to them. Maybe you perform it then or maybe at some other date.
So you create a challenge for a trick you can already do, and then you create impossible conditions for it. The nice thing is, you don’t actually have to meet those conditions. You just say you do. For example, in the coin trick described in the first part of this post, you could just say you’re not using extra coins or gimmicks. You’re not actually performing this for a board of magician judges. So you should be able to get away claiming some conditions you’re not actually meeting.
I always like to put in a condition like, “No sleight-of-hand, and no gimmicks may be used.” If you’re—apparently—ruling those things out, it can be very fascinating to people to consider what you are using.
Now, it doesn’t matter if people believe the story. It’s not there to be believed. It’s there to entertain and add some context to a trick.
Even though it’s not intended to be believed, it’s nice to wrap up the story in some way that puts a bow on it. If you claim you’ve solved some long-standing impossible challenge, then that should play out in some way. For example, in the story at the top of this post, I would text the person the next day and say, “Did you share that video with anyone?” When they say they haven’t, I’d ask them to erase it from their phone. “I’m feeling sketched out. I got a text from a blocked number with the image of a broken neck and the word ‘you’ written underneath it. I’ve literally not told anyone about this but you, so I don’t know who could have sent it to me. Let’s not talk about this again.”
Or, here’s a good “brush off” you can use to conclude any trick with this presentation. Maybe you’ve been telling someone you’ve been working on this trick for weeks. It’s an impossible challenge that you’ve somehow solved. That’s not inherently unbelievable, so they might think what you were saying is true. At some point in the future they might say, “Whatever happened with that trick you figured out?” Maybe you told them there was a prize for solving it, or that you’d get inducted into some secret magi society.
“Oh,” you say, “that didn’t pan out.” You bring up the list of conditions. “You see this one?” you say, and you point at one of the conditions (which is the opposite of one of the actual conditions in Paul Curry’s Open Prediction).
Condition #17: The method must not be something that could be used for criminal purposes.
“I think they thought the method I came up with was too dangerous to release. Because it definitely could have been used for criminal purposes. Definitely.”
Now you leave them with another little mystery wondering what that could possibly mean.