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Every magician has been faced with the situation where the plans go wrong; say, the spectator is supposed to put the card back in a special spot, for the trick to work, but the spec doesn’t. Or maybe someone particularly ornery grabs the deck and shuffles it up before the magician gets to do his magic juju. What’s a magician to do and still save face?

There’s a little booklet for card magicians called Outs, Precautions, and Challenges. It’s not that well known, and it’s very incomplete, but the thing I love most about it, is its title. Charles Hopkins, the author, saw a need and rushed in to fill it. Mr. Hopkins’s book is a little first aid kit for magicians.  Let’s take a little tour of its taxonomy.

First is the section on Outs. “Out,” as in find a way “out” of the mess I’m in. The prepared magician knows that there will always be times when things can go awry, and so s/he prepares by having alternate endings in case something goes wrong. Let’s say the magician is about to produce the spectator’s card from his or her shoe, and then realizes at the last moment that the card stuffed in the shoe is not the spectator’s card. Here’s where the magician uses an “out.” Rather than aborting the trick, the magician, surreptitiously or not so surreptitiously, obtains the name of the chosen card from the spectator. Then the magician finishes the effect by, say, producing the card from a pocket instead of the shoe. The spectator has no idea that the effect has gone wrong. Though the effect was not the one originally planned, the magician has not been embarrassed, and the spec is sufficiently entertained.

Hopkins likes to frame this kind of denouement by saying that the magician has won the battle of wits. Magicians nowadays, however, consider that kind of phraseology a little bit too aggressive; it’s like snapping your fingers on the beat, as Duke Ellington once said.

Next are the Precautions. The well-tempered magician, knowing that Murphy’s Law is proved anew everyday  (“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” and O’Toole’s corollary: “Murphy was an optimist”), seeks advance preparation. The thoughtful magician has not just a series of outs prepared for when things go wrong, but also has taken precaution to make sure that outs aren’t needed in the first place. So, for example, even before a spectator returns the chosen card to the deck, the magician makes sure to surreptitiously learn its identity. This way, the magician doesn’t have to worry if the card accidentally gets lost in the deck. Or even better, unknown to the spectator, the magician arranges that the card that the spectator “chooses” is a predetermined one. These magical prophylactics insure that there are no unpleasant surprises in the near future.

Finally, there are the Challenges. Because for some spectators, magic is not just the appreciation of the impossible, but is a battle of wits, the magician must always be prepared for challenges. There will always be that participant whose attitude is, “Okay, Magic Maestro, you found my card in your pocket, but can you make it fly to my pocket?” Now, despite whatever previous miracles and wonders the magician has wrought in the past five minutes, the magician will look like a Mook if s/he doesn’t have a way to answer the challenge. What’s a magician to do? The magician can’t possibly anticipate every challenge presented by a clever spectator. This is where the magical artists are at their most devious. The accomplished magician actually steers the spectator into choosing the challenge most advantageous for the magician.

Hopkins is a little sketchy on this, but there is another wonderful book called Card Fictions by Pit Hartling that goes into brilliant detail about Challenges. One of Hartling’s suggestions, for example, is the following: Suppose the magician does the Card to Pocket effect, where the spectator’s chosen card lands in the magician’s pocket. The magician must now lead the spectator into challenging the magician towards a specific direction. But it must be done subtly and indirectly. For the magician to declare the intention explicitly would be gauche. No, the magician must make it seem as if it were totally the spectator’s idea. Ideally, the magician would proceed as follows.

The magician offers to repeat the effect of card to pocket. Only this time, the magician steps away from the deck on the table and says, “Now I will do something even more difficult. I will make the card fly to any pocket!” As the magician says this, s/he gestures towards the spectator’s pocket and then quickly says “I mean, this one or that one,” but now pointing towards the magician’s own pockets. Thus, the magician with the first part of the sentence communicated that the card could fly to the spectator’s pocket, but then with the second part of the sentence clarified that it was only the magician’s own pocket that was meant. The trap is set. The ornery spectator cannot help but jump at the misunderstanding–okay, Houdini, let’s see you make the card jump into my pocket! The magician protests that there was a misunderstanding. The spectator insists. The magician, like Br’er Rabbit jumps into the briar patch. There’s no fear, because long beforehand, maybe even during a previous trick, a duplicate card had been loaded into the spec’s jacket pocket.

Game, set, and match.

Outs Precautions, and Challenges. A dandy set of concepts. It helps one understand  the sage advice of the gambler in Guys and Dolls:

“One day, a guy is going to show you a brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken. Then this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of this brand-new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you’re going to wind up with an ear full of cider. ”

So said Sky Masterson who had an out for everything, but falling in love.