Mailbag #12


Lately I've been trying to rework my presentation for the tricks I perform to make them more interesting and unique. The other day, I came up with a sort of half-baked presentation for Out of This World […]

So, you start by asking your spectator for if they know what a marked deck is. If they don't you give a brief explanation of how some decks have small markings on the back that are barely perceivable. Then you go into how you always hated using them because the marks would always be in code and were usually too small to read effectively. So, you decided to develop your own subliminal marking system that anyone could read quickly with almost no effort. You explain that you've started to create it but right now the marks only work for color and not value or suit. You then ask if they'll test it to see if it's easy for them to use. Then you tell them to deal it into two piles without looking for anything specific on the backs and to just go with whatever comes to mind first.

Anyway, what do you think? Is it too convoluted? I feel like there's something there but maybe I'm over-complicating the effect. I have this bad habit of making my patter more cerebral than it needs to be. I'd love to hear any tips you may have to develop or rework this idea. —AO

I don’t think it’s too convoluted. I believe I’ve seen other presentations along these lines, so presumably it has worked for others. I haven’t tried it myself so I don’t know how it comes across.

I’d probably want to squeeze an extra moment out of it, so here is how I’d probably perform it. I’d bring out the deck of cards and ask for their help with something and tell them to deal the deck in two piles of about the same size.

Then, after they’ve dealt, is when I’d introduce the subject of marked cards.

“I’ll tell you why I asked you to do that. You’ve heard of marked cards, yes? Well, I’ve been experimenting with a different style of marked cards. Instead of having markings on the back to give me information about what’s on the front. They have markings on the back that guide other people to do what I want them to do.

“So, for example, if we were playing poker and I wanted you to fold, because I didn’t think I had your hand beat. Then I could draw your attention to the back of a card that had the word Fold embedded on the back. You’d sense the word, and you would feel like it was your idea to fold.

“The markings themselves are interesting. They’re done with an ink that is not in the spectrum that the eye can see, but it’s still something the brain can register in the subconscious. But only if you don’t know the markings are there. You actually have to not know they’re there to absorb the hidden messages. If you actively look for them, that engages another part of your brain which effectively blocks out the signal from the hidden message. It’s crazy.

“So here’s the cool part. We shuffled the cards and you dealt them in two piles. These cards are marked on the back using this special ink with the words Left and Right. If this worked, you should have dealt all the Left cards here and all the Right cards here, to the right. Now, if I just claimed you actually did it, you’d probably never believe me. But I can prove it because I wrote Left on the black cards and Right on the red cards.”

During this bit I would start revealing the cards and doing the necessary adjustment to make the display work out right. Since the focus is on the back of the cards initially, I may be able to get everything in the right position before the reveal starts.

Here is the “extra moment” I said I’d add. And the reason I’d add it is because the presentation is bordering on too believable to me. Even though it’s pretty unbelievable. I want to make it more so.

After showing that they did in fact deal the Left/Right cards correctly, I’d pull out a black light to show them the markings on the back of the cards, but there wouldn’t be any. Then I’d notice, on a table off to the side, another similar deck. “Oh wait, this must be the marked one,” I’d say and grab it, shine the light on it, and show them the Left/Right markings. Then I’d let it hit me that there is now no explanation for how they separated the other deck.

That is, of course, even more convoluted than your original idea. But I think it could still be a coherent trick and leave them with a nice, unexplained mystery.

I received a couple emails about a subject I didn’t think I had much to say about: close-up pads.

How do you feel about carrying close up pads around? I almost never do because they seem inorganic/eager, and also arouse some suspicion. But, obviously handy for certain tricks.

Was wondering if you had any ways to introduce them in a not-so-cheesy way. —AG

I don’t do too many tricks that require a close-up pad. If I need that type of surface, I will do the trick while sitting on the couch with someone and using the cushion between us, or while sitting on a carpeted floor. Occasionally I’ll use a table with a table cloth. But I’m more of an Arby’s guy than a fancy table-clothed place guy, so that’s not too often.

As far as a non-cheesy way to introduce them, I don’t really have one. My friend gave me a nice small close-up pad from Dan and Dave. It’s the type of thing I probably never would have bought myself, but I do use it sometimes while practicing something when I’m out and about. And I think it actually does draw some attention in a way that just a deck of cards sitting on a table by itself would not. And it makes people more inclined to ask, “What are you doing there?” or “What are the cards for?” So it can be useful to sort of pique someone’s interest and then transition into a trick.

About three weeks ago I performed Tiki and Ronde for my girlfriend […] but I changed one thing that I normally do when I’m performing card tricks. I ditched the close up pad. Now I know that might seem like an obvious thing to you, but it wasn’t to me and I feel it made a big difference to the effect. […] I think I’ve been conditioning my normal spectators (friends, family, people at the bar) with the close up pad. It’s magic time now. Maybe I’ve conditioned myself with it. I think I have even read somewhere that the close up pad is your stage for close up magic. Which is fine I guess for professional performances, but doesn’t help when you’re trying to immerse people into a magical fiction. So ditching the pad worked for me. I hope this tip will help others who are trying to transition to more immersive audience centric magic. My girlfriend really liked the effect. She said this was some spooky X-Files level shit and I couldn’t have asked for a better reaction.—NT

This is an interesting idea. We assume a close-up pad is just an item we use when we need to secretly pick up our coins for a Matrix routine. But this email sort of demonstrates a way that it can used to adjust people’s expectations.

If people are used to seeing you perform at a table with a close-up pad with your special coin-purse and your aged half-dollars, they are used to seeing you doing magic as a “performance.” And that’s great if that’s what you’re going for. But this also means it’s going to be extra interesting and feel very spontaneous when you show them something on the trunk of your car using a borrowed cigarette. So you should take advantage of that opportunity from time to time.

I have sort of the opposite situation going on. I try to present my tricks so they don’t feel like formal performances. But what that means is that I can occasionally pull out a close-up pad and coins or cups and balls, and that can feel special to people. I would still try to come up with a context that made sense. I’d frame it as me practicing my “audition piece” to get into some secret magic club or something.

Just a heads-up… I’ve been getting a number of emails where people will send me a link to a trick and then ask, “Do you have any good way to present this?” I have no problem getting those emails. I’m glad there is a subset of people who like the style of performance I talk about here. But just know that more often than not I’ll probably have no good ideas. If I think a trick looks interesting, I generally buy it myself. And if I stumble upon a good presentational angle, then I write that up and put it in the newsletter. So if you’re approaching me with a trick out of the blue it’s probably going to be something I didn’t think looked interesting enough to buy in the first place or that I had no particular insights on once I got it.

So it’s not that I’m ignoring your question, it just means I’m as lost as you are about a way to make it good.