I’ll assume you’ve learned enough about basic sleights and presentation so that now I’ll recommend books that explain more advanced techniques or books that offer a broader scope of action. I also include more books that give a more intimate look into aspects of the history of magic.
Bound to Please by Simon Aronson is a collection of three smaller books by the author. The first is a collection of early card effects of Aronson’s, the second is a description of his memorized deck, and the third is devoted to a single card effect called “ShuffleBored.” Aronson, by training a lawyer, was one of the best writers of magic around. His writing is thorough, detailed, engaging, and some of the cleverest card magic you’ll ever encounter. You will fool yourself.
Let’s take the three sections from back to front (and it’s probably the best way to read the book!) : ShuffleBored is not only the best “self-working” card trick in the universe (and I’ll back that up with money if need be!) it’s stronger than 90% of most other card tricks as well. (Hot tip: do John Bannon’s version from Dear Mr. Fantasy. His ideas with the eye covering and shuffling procedure are great improvements.)
The second section is an extensive tutorial on Aronson’s memorized deck: how to learn one, and the specific features built into the Aronson stack. You’re not going to acquire a memdeck overnight, but it’s not as hard as many think. If you’re serious about this stuff, you might as well start now, and you’ll get it down long before you get your pass or strike double to where you like it. You’ll have an incredible tool in your kit.
The third section is a collection of card magic, some of which uses the memdeck. My favorite trick here is “Some People Say,” which has a very simple plot, but the conditions are so stringent that it seems a complete impossibility. Very good for driving your analytical friends crazy.
BTW, if you’re skeptical about learning a memdeck or just want to know more, Aronson wrote a booklet for those contemplating learning a memdeck and graciously offered it for free here.
Simply Simon, by Simon Aronson. More card magic from a great thinker of card magic. There are some wonderful routines, including my favorite memdeck routine, “Past, Present, Future.” But it’s not just a book of memdeck effects—even if you never want to remember another card in your life, there’s great material here, somewhat challenging to learn, but not overly difficult.
Stars of Magic: This thin volume consists of the original Stars of Magic pamphlets that were originally printed separately but are now offered as a bound collection. And a stellar collection it is. There are effects by John Scarne, Dr. Daley, Francis Carlyle, Dai Vernon, Slydini, and more. This is professional level magic and a career could be assembled from learning all these effects. They’re not necessarily easy, and they do contain some advanced sleight of hand, but these are classic routines that have stood the test of time and probably every professional magician working today has one of these effects in his or her repertoire. Even if you don’t master all of these routines, you should be aware of them.
Gerald Deutsch’s Perverse Magic: I wrote at length on this book here and here. One of the big hurdles for performing for people you’ve known for years is that they find it hard to swallow that you are suddenly endowed with superhuman powers. How do you perform for friends and family without coming off as a narcissistic jerk? Well, Jerry Deutsch has an approach which really resonates with me. In this style of presentation, the performer is as surprised by what happens as the spectator is. In fact, even when the performer tries to do a trick, the trick goes wrong (that’s the Perverse part)—but with a stronger effect than what was first expected, much to everyone’s surprise.
Dai Vernon: A Biography by David Ben. The most influential magician of the twentieth century, Dai Vernon, was essentially an obsessed amateur for whom the art of magic was more important than business, family, or just about anything else. “The Man Who Fooled Houdini” created some of the greatest close-up effects and techniques in magic and was also a consummate teacher. Because Vernon did little documentation of his own work (although he was an endless storyteller), this first volume of a projected two volume set about his life is a valuable detailed look at the trajectory of Vernon’s domestic and magic lives.
Tricks Every Magician Should Know by Al Schneider. This is a fun book filled with, well, stuff. The kind of throwaway novelties that some magicians seem to know, but aren’t necessarily written down anywhere: How To Shoot Rubberbands, Making a Handkerchief Rabbit, How To Tie A Knot Without Letting Go Of The Ends, How To Push A Cigarette Up Your Nose—you get it, the essential things.
ThePhoenix, edited By Bruce Elliott. I’m a magic magazine junkie, and it was a toss-up whether to list Hugard’s Magic Monthly or The Phoenix. I went with the latter for now, because The Phoenix has more of a close-up focus than stage, and it’s much more available.
The Phoenix was the offspring of Ted Annemann’s The Jinx, and like The Jinx it eschewed sleight-of-hand effects for those using subtle and clever principles. There were some wonderful contributors, including Vernon, Marlo, and Paul Curry (“Out of This World”) who had a regular column. Bruce Elliott was a writer by trade who kept the magazine lively with his strong opinions and commentary on the magic scene of the 40s and 50s. Yes, you can find pdf files of this, but the bound collection is so much more fun to read.
Classic Secrets of Magic by Bruce Elliott. I first read this book as a teen-ager when it was issued in paperback. It covers a dozen or so classic close-up effects of magic. This is not meant as an expose book, but a serious book of teaching magic. The book, much of it drawn from articles in The Phoenix, covers effects like the Cups and Balls, The Four Aces, The Miser’s Dream, The Ambitious Cards and others.
The methods given for these tricks are not always the most sophisticated, but they are meant for advanced beginners and they will get the job done. A warning—this book is not for children. There’s a version of the Swallowing Razor Blade Trick that’s not at all suitable for young people, and there’s another trick involving corncob pipes that has a good chance of seriously harming the performer (both ammonia and hydrochloric acid are involved here. Ah, the 50s!). But the rest of the book is very good, and the Dr. Sachs dice routine, which is not easy to find elsewhere, is an excellent impromptu item to know.
Some years ago, mentalist Bob Cassidy published “The Thirty-Nine Steps – A Mentalist’s Library of Essential Works” a list of what he considered the most important books for a mentalist to be familiar with. He undoubtedly was inspired by his hero Ted Annemann’s list first printed in The Jinx in 1936, called The Jinx Five-Foot Shelf. The idea of TJFFS was to put together a list of books that would be foundational texts in the arts of magic. The ground rules were that you had five feet of shelf space to work with, all the books had to still be in print, and the primary purpose of the list was to pick out those books that would best help beginners start in magic and continue on as their skills and knowledge grew.
On several of the magic forums, some people are putting together their own more recent lists; Jeff Kowalk in particular has a very nice series of videos he’s produced which you can see here. I thought I would contribute my own list, based on books that I’ve owned or read. As a little update to the rules, I do not allow ebooks or DVDs—not that ‘s there anything wrong with them. (Perhaps one day I will do a post on the great Books vs Video debate.) Also, if a book is out of print but is readily available through second-hand sources, I allow it.
I figure I can fit about ten average volumes in a foot of shelf space, so here are my nominees for the first foot, which I’ll call Getting Started:
Magic For Dummies by David Pogue: I rarely see this book on lists of this kind, but it’s a great introductory book that teaches a variety of magic without overwhelming the reader. There are contributions in each chapter from some famous modern magicians, but the real contribution is that it teaches from the get-go that magic is a performing art, more than just a collection of methods. It encourages readers to create compelling presentations, not just learn the moves. There are some great tricks in here, pretty much self-working in terms of method, but even if you’re more advanced in magic you’ll find some usable material here. Hot tip—Don’t let the Dummies in the title put you off: on page 64, you’ll find a method that fooled Penn & Teller a few weeks ago.
Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer: A practitioner of any art should have a knowledge of its history, and that’s certainly true of magic. Steinmeyer, who is one of the great modern illusion designers, is also one of modern magic’s best historians. By telling the story of Houdini’s disappearing elephant—and how it might have been accomplished—Steinmeyer introduces the reader to a whole cast of larger than life personalities and what it was like to be a stage magician in a rough and tumble, competitive performing era. But more than that, he gets you inside of magical thinking—what is it to imagine an effect and then to invent a way to bring it to fruition?
The Glorious Deception by Jim Steinmeyer: Another great magic history book by Steinmeyer, it tells the wild story of Englishman Will Robinson, who performed as a Chinese-born magician under the name of Chung Ling Soo. Robinson started out as the backstage assistant and “brains” for several famous nineteenth-century magicians, but his biggest trick—his secret double life—was not discovered until he died in a Bullet Catch trick that went wrong—or did it? Steinmeyer writes books that you would read even if you were not into magic—they’re that full of vivid writing, period detail, compelling action, and some of the most colorful characters in show business. It helps the reader to understand that s/he’s stepping into a deep tradition, and has something to uphold.
Royal Road to Card Magic by Frederick Braue and Jean Hugard: Most people learn a few card tricks along the way, but when you’re ready to get more serious about cards, this is the place to start. It’s an absolute model of how-to-do-it pedagogy. Each chapter adds a new sleight, incrementally, and then teaches a few tricks that focus on that sleight. By the time you reach the end of the book, if you’ve been following it, you are well on your way to card magic mastery.
Some people recommend Roberto Giobbi’s five volume Card College as the more modern place to begin with card magic. There’s no doubt that Card College is quite an achievement, and its teaching is impeccable. But I find Card College dry, better used as a reference resource than a series of books to be read straight through. There’s a ton of information in Card College, but for beginners I would still recommend Royal Road over the Giobbi series. Royal Road is inexpensive, the teaching is very good, and there are some wonderful tricks in there that you will do for the rest of your life.
Fast Track CoinMagicby Al Schneider: Here, I’m again going to go against what a lot of people recommend for a first coin book. People invariably recommend J. B. Bobo’s Modern Coin Magic as the place for beginners interested in coin magic to begin. Frankly, I think Bobo’s is a horrible book for beginners. It’s cramped descriptions are difficult to follow, it’s illustrations are not helpful, and it’s massive size is way too much information for a beginner in coins.
Coin magic is famously one of the most difficult branches of magic in which to achieve mastery. It’s very reliant on what can be difficult sleight of hand. It also depends a lot on the timing and co-ordination of the two hands’ movements. A written description of a deceptive two-handed coin vanish may take very few words—but if the timing is slightly off, there’s no illusion. Frankly, I think coin magic is the one area of magic where video illustration is of immense help.
But if you’re limited to books, I’d go with this Al Schneider book. It goes over the fundamental sleights well with lots of clear photos and explanations, and it has directions for coin tricks with a variety of plots. You won’t find much in the way of presentation scripts, but Schneider does give the bare bones with which to add your own personality. Once you finish this book you’ll be much better equipped to dive into other coin books, including Bobo’s.
Mark Wilson Complete Course In Magic by Mark Wilson: Mark Wilson had a tremendously successful weekly magic show in the 1960s on Saturday mornings and here you’ll find a big book of entertaining magic with kid-friendly illustrations. It covers the range of magic—cards, coins, ropes, mentalism, and even platform illusions that you can make yourself. It’s kind of like a Forest Gump box of magic. It even includes whole routines for sponge balls and a section on impromptu magic. If you’re thinking about putting together a school show, this is a great place to start. Even for an experienced performer there is some surprisingly good material here. A lot of bang for the buck.
Magic With Everyday Objects by George Schindler: This is a great book for doing magic in casual settings like the dinner table or office. Technically, most of the tricks are not difficult, and it’s nice to have a repertoire of tricks that you can perform at a moment’s notice in just about any situation.
Scripting Magic (Volumes I & 2) by Pete McCabe and others: These are must have books. At a certain point you realize that if you’re going to spend time working to perform your magic for actual people and not just the mirror, your time is best invested by scripting your magic. McCabe gives dozens of examples of how a good script can take a trick from the mundane to the astounding. And as a bonus, there are lots of wonderful tricks–with scripts!–from some excellent magicians.
Theater of the Mind by Barrie Richardson: I have a special place in my heart for this book because it was the first magic book I ever purchased as an adult. And I was very lucky that I did. Not just because of the sheer volume of clever magical thinking per cubic inch, but because of the humanistic approach that Barrie Richardson takes towards his magic. His warm, kind-heartedness shines through the whole book and his magic; in an entertainment form that too often uses audience members as props, Barrie implicitly teaches a generous attitude which is one of the most important lessons a performer can learn. Some of the material is not beginner level, but there’s so much more to this book than just the tricks. And Barrie gives full scripts and presentations for each of the effects. He urges performers to keep thinking about what they ultimately want an audience to experience and walk out with.
Here’s an update on three magic books I’ve received recently, each of which I can recommend to aficionados.
First, The Top Change by Magic Christian. Christian, a seasoned performer and recognized expert on 19th century card magic history (he wrote the massive two volume work on his Viennese forerunner, J. N. Hofzinser: Non Plus Ultra) has written a monograph on the top change and its variants, illustrated with over 200 sharp black & white photographs, and includes an extensive bibliography from Denis Behr. It begins with a chapter on the history of the sleights, then gets down to basics teaching them.
The section describing the basic top change that Christian prefers is actually fairly brief—four pages of Christian’s general philosophy about the top change, and then about ten pages of photos and text breaking down the move, step by step. Those familiar with the description of the move in Expert Card Technique or Giobbi’s Card College may be surprised by some of Christian’s recommendations. He prefers a subtle, subdued approach: he does not try to cover the move with wide sweeping arm movements, and he prefers not to move both hands.
The top change is one of those sleights which is extremely useful in card magic—Christian calls it “the most useful, the most regal sleight” in all of card magic. I have to admit that while technically it’s a much easier move than palming or doing a classic pass, I feel much more comfortable with the latter sleights than doing a top change. Like many, I am afraid of being caught out because of the boldness of the move. But I can say that with some study of the book and practice, I have been gaining in confidence, and my current efforts, as recorded on video, are not too awful. So thank you, Magic Christian.
Next up is David Regal’s new book, Interpreting Magic. It’s a big book, with the usual kind of Regal attention to close-up card and coin magic. Regal is a guy whose roots are in improv and scripting (no, not mutually exclusive at all!) and his focus is always on presenting an entertaining story and premise for his audience. If you’ve seen any of Regal’s other books, you know he’s got literally scores of such workable effects. But curiously, my favorite part of the book was not the close-up magic, but rather the platform magic section. His imagination really lets loose with the larger effects. He’s got very original, ingenious premises and presentations with props that are more unexpected and amusing than the usual card or coin routines. Also, scattered throughout the book, he has some great interviews and essays. There’s not a whole lot of organization to this huge book, so at 500+ pages it’s a bit of a hodge-podge, but I really like dipping into it at random. Definitely recommended.
And finally, there’s Thinking Of You, the latest annual offering from Andy of the magic website, The Jerx. The previous book from The Jerx, Magic for Young Lovers, was one of my all-time favorite magic books. The current book is also quite good, though unsurprisingly, not in the same league as its predecessor. MFYL set a high bar to reach and Andy seems to be aware of that. While the earlier book was conceived as a whole philosophy and approach to amateur magic—and largely succeeded—this one is much more modest in its aims. Thinking Of You is mainly concerned with the performance of mentalism in an amateur social context, and as such it’s more of a toolkit—okay, a bag of tricks—rather than some overarching vision, despite some valuable advice on how to approach social mentalism. That said, many of the individual ideas and effects are quite strong and without the comparison to the other book, it’s quite a respectable piece of work. The book is physically similar to the last two Jerx books, though there are no illustrated endpages as the previous books had. However, for those complaining about the high price of subscribing to the site and receiving the book, here’s a hot tip: some of the best ideas and effects in the book are already on the Jerx site for free, if you comb through the site. Either way, Andy has a ton of great advice for those performing in an amateur social context.
And upcoming: the gambling subset of magic fans has been eagerly awaiting Steve Forte’s new double volume opus on gambling sleights i.e. false deals, shuffles, switches, and so on. It’s Forte’s name that’s the draw here, as his status as a card worker is legendary, and his knowledge and invention of gambling sleights is second to none. In any reasoned list of the best living card workers, Forte’s name is probably going to be right at the top. Forte printed up a first run of 1000 copies, and by the time you read this, it probably will be all sold out, despite the fact that it won’t even be published for another few weeks. A special section on Erdnase’s Expert At The Card Table in the book promises to be a paradigm-breaking re-imagining of the old master. It will be interesting to see if Forte’s book, called Gambling Sleight of Hand, lives up to its high expectations.
All of the books are very good. Depending on your taste in magic, at least one of these books will make a worthwhile read for you.
This one is for the magic nerds. For the rest of you, nothing to see here, move along.
The close-up magician, Dai Vernon, was perhaps the most influential magic teacher of the twentieth century. His impact was so great that he was known simply as “The Professor.” In his later life, still sharp as a tack in his 80s and beyond, he would hold court at The Magic Castle and other such venues, where conjurers from around the country would come to get The Professor’s critique of their magic. Vernon was a pretty mischievous fellow by most accounts, and his lessons could sometimes be quite pointed. My favorite story about him is one that magician Bill Palmer has told on The Magic Cafe internet forum, which I’ll repeat here.
Palmer was attending a magic convention in Texas where Vernon was one of the headliners. Now one of the nice and maybe unique things about magic conventions is that the performers often mingle with the attendees in their off time. So Palmer is wandering around the lobby of the hotel where the convention was held, and who does he see sitting on a sofa, but The Professor himself, Dai Vernon. He’s startled to see that Vernon is all alone on the couch, so he decides to take this opportunity. He gathers up his courage, goes over to Vernon and introduces himself, gushes a bit, and then Palmer decides he’s going to make his impression on The Professor by showing Vernon a feat of mentalism. After all, though Vernon was expert with cards and coins, mentalism is a whole different branch of conjuring.
Palmer says to Vernon. “Please think of any three-digit number. Concentrate, please. Visualize that number in your imagination.” Palmer then takes out his business card, cogitates furiously, writes something on the back of the business card, then puts the pencil down, and says to Vernon, “I have committed my answer in writing. Would you now, for the first time, name your number, please?”
Vernon replies, “4-5-8.”
Palmer continues in the canned patter of the day, “Aha! Does that number have any special significance to you?”
“Yes,” replies the elderly Vernon, with narrowing eyes, “those are the three most difficult numbers to write with a nail writer.”
“So to make things fair—even though it is not easy to be fair in a capitalistic society—each time I earn money from performing magic, I would have to give a portion to Ascanio’s widow, Slydini’s heirs, and many others and say, ‘Here, please, this is your portion of my success.’ “—Juan Tamariz
Over a cup of coffee at a back table at the magic convention, a magician is informally doing magic as a crowd of onlookers watch. The people in the crowd nod their heads knowingly in approval, or they throw in their two cents to make suggestions at this “session.” The young magician has great chops, an engaging personality, and an easy laugh. You feel an instant warmth, a comradely attitude. He’s not trying to prove his superiority, he just wants all of us to have fun and experience the magic.
At one point, a know-it-all makes an arrogant criticism; about to defend himself, the young magician stops that impulse, and steels himself, as if to say, “No, I’m not going to defend myself, I’m going to listen to it all, be humble, and take it all in.” I think to myself, this young man has been mentored and parented well.
I wish I had been able to find that magician again, to talk with him about that incident. It was such a great attitude. It must have come from somewhere. The magician had a Hispanic last name, but I had no idea whether he came from Spain or not. Nevertheless, I think this young man has absorbed much of the spirit of what’s now come to be known as the Spanish School of Magic.
By Spanish School of Magic I am talking about the style of magic that is exemplified by Juan Tamariz, Gabi Pareras, Dani DaOrtiz, Miguel Angel Gea and several other younger magicians, many who have been mentored by Tamariz himself. There are sometimes discussions on the magic internet forums as to the distinguishing features of this school of magic, but for me, the most important—and often overlooked—aspect has to do with emphasizing the feelings of friendship between the magician and the audience. It’s much more than just an approach to constructing an effect, or the means utilized for the method, though there’s a lot of that, but it’s also about consciously constructing a relationship of comrade-to-comrade with the audience, rather than competitor-to- competitor. It’s akin to, but not quite the same as, Gerald Deutsch’s conception of Perverse Magic.
If magic is about power—and it is—then it’s natural to ask, who gets to keep that power? In a sense—let’s say metaphorically, for now—it’s a question of capitalism versus socialism. Does the individual get to keep all the power s/he accrues individually, or is the power going to be shared among the community? For convenience, I’m going to describe two styles of magic: capitalist and socialist. If you don’t like those words, you can substitute two other labels, though I think there may well be a good reason to use those particular terms.
It’s enlightening to look at the experience of magic for many audiences: the capitalist magician’s effort is to widen the power inequality perception, seeking to put the magician far above its audience. “Admire me because I am so much more powerful than you,” implies the capitalist magician. After all, real capitalists like to proclaim that the most wise, the most moral, the most worthy, the most capable of solving all problems—business and otherwise—are those with the most power. So it’s natural that some magicians would strive to emulate those models. But the Spanish School approach is the opposite. The socialist magician is not your superior; on the contrary, he’s your bar buddy, the guy you want to hang out with, or the lovable eccentric, maybe the town Foole, who wants nothing other than to delight you and to be friends with you. The socialist magician has somehow won or been gifted his power, and now he wants to share it with you. I say “he,” because while it is changing, some of it does have an undercurrent of sexism; in that comradely fraternity, there’s the assumption of mainly male bonding. Now here’s the leap, you can take it with me if you like: it’s like the aura of the Ortega boys during the Nicaraguan revolution and the Castros during the Cuban revolution. The masses loved them because they were the boys who made good, the brothers who stuck together and won power for the people. “You’ve won the power, we admire you, we thank you for it, and we have no fear of you at all, because we know you are going to share that power with us.” Whether those promises ever came true politically is an issue that I won’t get into here, but the point is the similarity between the revolutionary and his audience on the one hand, and the socialist magician and his audience on the other.
A nice Cuban magician I discussed this with didn’t agree with my characterization of the socialist personality as the driver of the Spanish School’s attitude towards magic, but rather he attributed it to the close family ties in Spain. He reminded me that many Spanish men live with their parents up until the time they get married. Well, yes, but what is a family but a group of people who care for each other, and work with each other, and are committed to each other?
At any rate—and I’ll add here the fact that Tamariz in the 60s lived in a commune with 15 or 20 other people and was thrown out of his university for opposing the Fascist Franco regime—the Spanish model is of the community member who gives back. He makes good and returns to buy his Mom a house, he pays for his sister’s college, he buys a round of drinks for the boys at the pub, he plays with and entertains his nephews with laughing magic. It’s the understanding that the magic itself is only important so far as it engenders positive relationships. The magician makes the whole community feel more powerful because of his skill and talent, and the magician knows that what he is doing—that is, his effect on his audience—is not just a personal good but a social good as well. It’s his social responsibility to share what he has. He shares with his comrades this wonderful gift of inducing the magical feeling in others. They laugh together about how wonderful it feels, and how happy they are to have each other.
Now it’s true that some capitalist magicians also see the dilemma of declaring themselves all-powerful magicians, and so they, too, seek to ameliorate the power imbalance. But rather than sharing power, they seek to solve the power inequality problem by denying that power exists at all. So we have the great spate of comedy magicians who do magic, but while so doing, they undercut their own effect on the audience with a wink or a nod, or a wise guy remark. In effect, they deny that any magic occurred. And, indeed, if magic is what happens in the spectator’s brain, in such circumstances, it can’t occur. The actual experience of magic for the spectator is obliterated. By denying the power imbalance, these magicians present the magic community correlative of real capitalists who like to deny that there are in fact any class differences. It’s a false solution to the dilemma of unequal power in magic.
The socialist magicians, however, seek to maximize the magical experience in the spectator without undercutting it. The implicit message is always: “Yes, I have this power to make you feel something special, but I am going to share it with you.” It is a beautifully humanistic way of dealing with the power imbalances inherent in the performance of magic.
I was happy last week to spend four days in Orlando, Florida, attending the 2019 Genii Convention. For a comprehensive, contemporaneous, blow-by-blow audio account, click on the triangles below.
Day One: Intro, Tom Gagnon, Paul Vigil, Sara Crasson, Jonathan Neal
Day Two: Michael Chaitlin, Hector Mancha, Jim Steinmeyer, Paul Vigil, Nick Diffate, Lucy Darling, Hector Mancha, Raymond Crowe, Eric Jones
Day Three: Gaeten Bloom, Bill Cheung, Michael Vincent, Hector Mancha, Alexandra Duvivier, Terry Ward, Hannibal, Penn & Teller, Pat Hazell, Jonathan Neal, Gaeten Bloom, Read Chang, Piff the Magic Dragon
Day Four: 49 Boxes, Eric Jones, Gaeten Bloom, Dominique and Alexandra Duvivier, Nick Diffate, Lucy Darling, Romany, David Kovac, Jay Johnson, John Archer, Summing up
Yes, it’s that time of the year again, and I have to admit I never thought I’d be seeing yet another year of this. But it’s always been a lot of fun for all involved, and it gives me a chance to connect with magic fans directly.
I thought since this is now the fifth year, I’m going to repeat the theme of the very first contest. Here it is:
Explain three actions or ideas that you think were the most helpful in the improvement of your magic or mentalism. Your explanations don’t have to be profound, although profound is fine, too. But if you just want to talk about how your little pinky sticking out this way instead of that way made everything a lot better, that’s okay, too.
You don’t need to be a professional or anything like that, hobbyists are welcome to participate as well. And feel free to participate again, even if you were a past winner, as long as you were not a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place winner last year. And if you contributed to that very first contest, you’re still welcome to participate, but please don’t submit the same entry, let’s see how you’ve changed over the years.
No criteria for winning here other than what strikes me as interesting and useful. Details and specifics are key. Extra points for humor and entertainment value. It would be especially helpful if you could analyze why the actions or ideas were important to you.
And wonderful prizes, as always, will be awarded:
First prize is first choice from the grab bag of magic books and DVDs I’ve put together; second prize is second choice from the grab bag, and third prize, in a pleasingly parallel harmonic consecutive manner, is third choice from the grab bag. The items in the grab bag are all commercial books or DVDs, at least one of which, I guarantee, you will be happy to have.
And, as always, in the spirit of everyone being a winner, I’ll ask all entrants to allow me to make up a pdf file which includes their entry. This pdf will NOT BE SOLD, but will be distributed to everyone who entered.
Send your entries please to email@example.com
Make sure to put the word CONTEST in the subject line
Deadline Sunday, November 3, 11:59 PM. In case of a tie, earlier entries get preference.
Steve Spill is at it again—writing that is, and his books just keep getting better and better. It’s a shame that the title Lost Inner Secrets is taken, because this book is that. No, it’s not going to tell you where to put your left pinky when (at least not too much), but it’s a book that could supercharge a performance from just competent to extra special. I can’t imagine a better investment of your magic time than reading this book.
Steve’s recent retirement from daily performance at his Magicopolis venue, interestingly, has put Steve in a different frame of mind; you can feel it in his writing. There’s still the same love of humor, magic, and people—still plenty of funny jokes—but there’s something else this time around, something deeper, more philosophical…wiser. With his new perspective, he gets at what the real essentials are in this performing art.
To my knowledge, what Steve talks about here just isn’t available in magic writing anywhere else: the information within comes only with the repetition of thousands of performances. It’s about hard-won expertise that is deep in the performer’s bones. And it’s not easy to articulate it without a lot of self-awareness and self-reflection. Reading, I felt I had a privileged view watching from the backstage wings, thinking: Oh, that’s what he’s doing, that’s how he’s getting that laugh. that’s how he’s making rapport with the audience, that’s why he does that move then. If you’re reading this, you probably have shelves of magic books with tricks and sleights; you likely have near warehouses full of magic equipment. Those are not going to make you a better magician at this point. Leave them alone for now. Pick up this book. It will tell you what you don’t know about performing, and will never know, unless you’ve performed as many times as Steve Spill has.
Steve starts off with persona. A magician, he explains, doesn’t have to be relaxed and carefree—but s/he has to give that impression. Magic is an aggressive art at bottom; there’s always the iron fist in the velvet glove. It takes a lot of time to find the right balance of mystery and playfulness to keep an audience from feeling abused. “It’s important,” says Spill, that magicians “not take themselves so seriously that audiences feel beaten over the head by the performer. I think a cultivated casualness is an antidote to the oft-perceived pomposity that comes with fooling people, and that can help whatever you do become more viewer-friendly.” And, a bonus of such apparent casualness: “Performing without a lot of affectation can conceal methods, and presents everything that’s said and done as something brought about without laboriousness.”
“Cultivated casualness” is a wonderful phrase and Spill goes on to explain exactly how to cultivate that casualness and how to use it to the performer’s advantage. First, there is a terrific section on improvising, which is unlike any other advice on improv that I’ve seen. As Steve points out, the improvisation techniques that a comedy magician needs to learn (and really the techniques here are good for all magicians, not just those committed to comedy) are different from the techniques that one learns in a theater improv class. Simply put, an actor works with other trained improv actors, but a magician is largely exchanging banter with audience members who are untrained. Steve gives you techniques that make those interactions wittier, funnier and more engaging. I practiced his exercises for a single day, and I was already faster on my feet with other people. This chapter alone will improve performances greatly. It’s a real gift.
Then there’s a whole chapter devoted to comedy tags. Wait, I know—Dammit, Jim, I’m a magician, not a comedian! Okay, okay. But you know what?—Steve is giving you ready-made callbacks here, and if you play your comedic cards right, four or five-time callbacks. Even if you’re not a comedy magician, only the most dour of performance personas would find these suggestions out of character. Short of some Bizarre Magic approach (and maybe even then) humor almost always lifts a performance.
On to a chapter about doing magic for teens. As someone who’s worked with teens as an educator for many decades, I’ll tell you this: Steve Spill understands and appreciates the way teens think and act. He is exactly right about how to approach them. He gives not only a general approach, but also some very specific bits that work and carry him through a show. I like that Steve Spill likes teens. And oh yeah, if you don’t know how to deal with teens who love their cellphones—and they all do—once again, Steve comes to the rescue with both general and very specific advice.
Steve ends this section with some disarmingly frank advice about playing the long game:
Being a pro may be a labor of love, but is labor nonetheless. It is a job. Usually it is a fun job, but not always…Very few in our craft are ever in the position to turn down work. Some jobs are ones you desperately want—others you don’t want, but take just for the payday. In my lifetime I’ve given tens of thousands of performances. Some were great. Most were good. Some were bad. A few were really bad.
And then Steve goes on to say how he saves himself when things go South.
I really should stop the review here, because the book I’ve described so far is worth every penny to a person who repeatedly gets onstage for a living.
But duty says, continue. And it’s not really a duty, it’s a pleasure. Because the second half of the book consists of some wonderful unpublished routines from Steve’s repertoire, with their full scripts. It includes “The Mindreading Goose”—“Not bad for a goose!”; and “Broken Mirror,” a spirit slate routine done without slates, suitable for your favorite spooky holiday; then a lovely sleight of hand interlude done with a Cub Scout neckerchief slide; and a brilliant Torn and Restored routine that can be customized for special occasions. They are all effects that although not overly elaborate can play big and funny for a large audience.
But my favorite routine here is Steve’s version of the Slydini “Paper Balls Over The Head.” The piece should win some kind of award for the most brilliant comedy magic script of the decade. This thing is a comic masterpiece. This is one to bring down the house. Okay, remember what I said about the first half of the book being worth every penny? Forget that. Because for the right person, this script alone is worth every penny. Seriously. It could be a reputation maker.
Overall, the book is bursting at the seams with fantastic performance advice and magic routines. I can’t recommend it highly enough. The icing on the cake is a back cover photo of Dai Vernon that I assure you, will have you laughing out loud.
You’ve got an uncle in the business. His name is Steve Spill, and he’s telling you everything he knows. Thank you, Steve, for one of the most entertaining and useful books of magic I’ve ever read.
There are Third World Problems, First World Problems, and then there are Conjurers’ World Problems. This is to address one of the latter.
From time to time, a magician needs a deck of cards to be arranged back in the original factory order after it’s been all shuffled up and disordered. Magicians call that original factory order New Deck Order or NDO. Surprisingly, there’s no industry standardized order. It varies according to card manufacturer and even varies from brand to brand manufactured by the same company. So, for example, Bicycle brand cards are ordered in a different arrangement from Bee brand cards, even though they are both manufactured by the United States Playing Card Company. Next time you open up a new pack of cards, check the order. You might find it interesting.
The most popular brand of cards, Bicycles, are arranged from top to bottom in the following order (take a guess first before you read on):
Ace to King of Hearts, Ace to King of Clubs, King to Ace of Diamonds, and King to Ace of Spades.
So suppose the cards are all mixed up, and you want to get them back into the original order—not that you are trying to do it secretly, you just want to do it quickly. What do you do? Well, yes, the logical thing to do is to make four piles on a table, one for each suit, and sort out the cards that way.
But often a performer doesn’t have a table available, so sometimes an in-the-hands-sort is useful. Here’s a method i came up with a few years ago of how to sort a deck of cards quickly into Bicycle NDO when no table is available. Later, I’ll talk about how to generalize the process to make it even more useful to magicians.
1) Hold the deck face up in the left hand, facing you. Spread through the deck without changing its order and, using your right hand, as you come to each black card, upjog it about halfway. Then, with your right hand, swing out all the black cards to the face of deck.
2) Run through the deck again, upjogging all the Spades and Diamonds. Swing out this half to the face of deck.
3) Spread the bottom thirteen Spades and arrange them in order with the right hand as if arranging a bridge hand. That is, holding the deck facing you in the left hand, spread the thirteen Spades out in a fan so that you can see all the pips. Now with your right hand, fingers pointing down, palm facing you, thumb closest to your body, pick out the King of Spades from above; next scan the cards and pick out the Queen of Spades on top of that, then the Jack of Spades and so on until the Ace of Spades is on the face of that small packet. Then just cut those thirteen Spades to the top of the deck.
4) Repeat with the next three suits (remembering that for Clubs and Hearts., you will reverse that order, pulling out the Ace first, then the Two on top of that and so on up to the King). You are now in Bicycle NDO. You’ll see that after just a bit of practice you can arrange the whole deck quite quickly.
But here’s the part I’ve been saving for magicians. Getting into NDO is nice, but even more useful is to get into a memdeck arrangement like Aronson or Tamariz quickly in the hands. This can be done for any stack by generalizing the above:
To generalize for any stack:
1) Upjog all cards within the ranges of 14-26 and 40-52, and cut to the face of deck.
2) Upjog all cards within the ranges of 27-52 and cut to the face of the deck.
3) Spread thirteen cards at a time from the face and put them in ascending order, then cut them to the back of deck.
4) Repeat three more times.
The first step is the hardest to get down, but if you know your stack cold, you’ll soon get it. I find that by using this method, I can stack Aronson order in my hands as fast as on a table.
Done. Next job: Solving world hunger and the exploitation of workers by bosses.
Yes, it’s time once again for this blog’s annual World Famous Magic Contest (“World Famous,” as in my local restaurant’s “Sam’s World-Famous pastrami-on-rye sandwich, one trip to the salad bar only, please”).
So here is the challenge this year:
Last year at a magic Convention I overheard the tail end of a conversation where a well-respected famous magician was saying to his companions, “Well, that’s because that’s the Greatest Trick in Magic…” I kept on eavesdropping, but I never heard just what that earth-shaking Greatest Trick in Magic was.
So your mission, Jim and Cinnamon, if you should choose to accept it, is to tell us what the three greatest tricks are in magic. But please don’t just list them. You must explain why you consider each trick a great one. Extra points for coherence, unexpectedness, humor, and persuasiveness.
And wonderful prizes, as always, will be awarded:
First prize is first choice from the terrific grab bag of wonderful magic books, tricks, and DVDs I’ve put together; second prize is second choice from the grab bag; and third prize, in a parallel, numerically pleasing manner, is third choice from the grab bag. The items in the grab bag are all commercial books, tricks, or DVDs, at least one of which, I guarantee, you will be very happy to own.
And in the spirit of everyone being a winner, I’ll also ask all entrants to allow me to make up a pdf file which includes their entry. This pdf will not be sold, but will be offered only as a free download to all those who enter.
Send your entries please to firstname.lastname@example.org
Make sure to put the word CONTEST in the subject line
Deadline Wednesday, Oct 31, 11:59 PM.
All are eligible except those who have won 1st, 2nd, or 3rd prize in the previous two years.
If Lenny Bruce were a magician, he would be Steve Spill.
Lenny has long since passed onto that great big comedy stage in the sky, but fortunately our friend Steve Spill is alive and well and has come out with a new book aimed at magicians called How To Make Love The Steve Spill Way. His first book, I Lie For Money, was aimed at a general audience and contained lots of advice on how to live a creative life. It was served along with large dollops of autobiography and spit-take funny stories about the people he met along the path while building an artistic life for himself. In this new book, Steve not only continues his general advice for would-be artists, but also gives up the details of a dozen of his most creative and hilarious tricks. It would be an understatement to say that I think everyone interested in performing magic should read this book.
It’s always a great gift when a wonderful performer tips the secrets of his act, but it’s an even greater gift when the performer himself does the literate and humorous writing chore. Because it’s in that act of writing that Spill divulges his biggest secret: the most powerful thing a performer can do is to find her or his own quirkiness and unique qualities and put them out on display in a performance-oriented way.
When you read one of Spill’s books, you instantly understand what he’s talking about when he says to trust your own personality, because the pages of his books are drenched in the unique persona which he has nurtured. While on the one hand it’s instructive to pick up a Dai Vernon book written by someone like Lewis Ganson, on the other hand, the fact that Ganson, not Vernon, wrote it deprives the reader of real insight into much of Vernon’s personality. With a writer like Steve, though, it’s all hanging out there, and it’s plain as day. You understand immediately that the twelve killer presentations that Spill has detailed are perfect for Spill. Those who are not Steve would most likely fall on their faces if they did his presentations verbatim, but that’s not the point. The point is…who are you?
There are so many lessons to be learned here, not the least of which is the courage of one’s convictions. I read the beginning chapters twice, because the first time through I was laughing too much at the jokes to pay attention to the content.
But if you’ve got as warped and crazy a mind as Steve does (that’s a compliment, I think) there are bound to be doubts about whether anyone else will appreciate what you’re doing. However, Steve’s examples of himself being true to form, along with his constant brainstorming, testing, discarding, and revising of effects, serve as a model of what can be done, and act as a spur to one’s own creativity.
For each of the twelve effects Spill describes, he gives the background story on how and why he created it, and these stories are useful adjuncts to understanding how to create your own effects. The methods are tried and true, and for the most part they probably won’t surprise you with their cleverness after the fact. But that’s not what Steve is after—what will surprise and delight you is the way that Steve takes an effect from column A and a presentation from column Z, and juxtaposes them to create something never seen before, something to amuse and mystify an audience, which leaves them with the impression of a strong magical personality and experience.
What’s in the tricks section? Well it’s a compilation of Spill’s greatest hits—The Lemon thing, the Needle thing, The Himber Ring thing, the drug and hemorrhoid jokes, they’re all there, with full scripts and extra handling and performance tips explained with loving care. The most audacious routine is one called “Abra Cadavers” which involves, well, a tale of cadavers wrapped in a personal story of tragedy. You would have to be nuts to perform it. I’m happy to report that Spill has done it many times, and tells you how to do it so that you too can be the object of abject speechless horror. I also thought that the presentation given for the UltraMental Deck was one of the best ideas for it I’ve ever come across.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the British magician David Devant expressed his appreciation of his audience with the tagline, “All Done By Kindness.” Likewise, Devant’s American contemporary, Howard Thurston, would prepare to go onstage by intoning in the wings to an imaginary audience, “Thank you, thank you for coming to my show tonight. God Bless You.” And now in the same spirit, as we navigate the twenty-first century, Steve Spill urges us to make love The Steve Spill Way. His love for magic, his love for his audiences and for his unique self are all part and parcel of How to Make Love The Steve Spill Way.
French magician Laurent Piron daringly conceives and executes a wonderfully surreal and visual magic scenario for the 2015 FISM international magic competition. Lots of clever misdirection; you’ll probably catch some moves if you repeat the video–but a live audience only gets one chance!
Yes, it’s time once again for this blog’s annual magic contest.
So here is the challenge this year:
Tell your favorite true story about performing magic. It can be about you or someone else. That’s it. If it’s about someone else, it should not be a well-known story, but inside gossip is always welcome. It can be profound, funny, embarrassing, but it must be entertaining and well told. You don’t need to be a professional or anything like that, hobbyists are welcome to participate as well. And you’re on your honor to tell only true stories.
First prize is first choice from the terrific grab bag of magic books and DVDs I’ve put together; second prize is second choice from the grab bag; and third prize, in a parallel, numerically pleasing manner, is third choice from the grab bag. The items in the grab bag are all commercial books or DVDs, at least one of which, I guarantee, you will be very happy to have.
And in the spirit of everyone being a winner, I’ll ask all entrants to allow me to make up a pdf file which includes their entry. This pdf will NOT BE SOLD, but will be offered only as a free download to all those who entered.
Send your entries please to email@example.com
Make sure to put the word CONTEST in the subject line
Here’s some unusual footage of magician Ricky Jay when he was young, which I hadn’t seen before. He’s on the British variety television show, The Michael Parkinson Show, and Parkinson’s other guests included the well-known Dutch magician Fred Kaps.
The video is of poor broadcast quality but I thought aficionados might enjoy watching Jay perform some of his evergreen effects as Kaps and Parkinson react.
Let’s say that there was some kind of technology that no matter what your mood, no matter how lousy you were feeling, for two hours it would make you smile and laugh continually. Then let’s say the machine blew up and didn’t work anymore. Would you be upset?
Well, you shouldn’t be. Because the current play Old Hats Off-Broadway has exactly the same effect sans technology, and you still have a chance to see it. You will thoroughly enjoy yourself and leave a happier person for the experience.
Bill Irwin and David Shiner are two really terrific entertainers who present an evening of silent physical comedy in the manner of the classic vaudeville and music hall comedians. Think Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Now I know I tend to get hyperbolic in my enthusiasms, but I tell you we mortals are truly blessed to be alive at the same time as Irwin and Shiner. If you live in the New York City area, you will see two superb clowns the likes of whom I’ll wager you won’t see equaled on the stage. And, as an added bonus, the show enlists the talents of singer-songwriter-accordionist Shaina Taub, a composer whose taste in lyric writing runs to Brechtian mordant cheeriness. Her dry cynicism contrasts nicely with the slap-happy Irwin and Shiner.
My favorite sketch (natch!) was “The Magician and His Assistant,” clearly inspired by Johnny and Pam Thompson’s “Great Tomsoni” act. Bill Irwin makes a sexier gun-chewing blonde assistant than Pam herself. Probably the biggest laugh in the show comes as David Shiner, who plays the magician, attempts to make an old-fashioned radio levitate—I won’t spoil the ending, but it brought down the house. They also do a sawing-a-woman-in-two act with a woman from the audience. At first, I thought she was a stooge, but later, as they called up more audience volunteers for other sketches, it became clear that Irwin and Shiner do a very nice job of cueing and instant-stooging the audience volunteers. Steve Cuiffo is listed in the program as the magical consultant, and you can see the thought that was given to making the sketch hilarious without revealing anything that shouldn’t be revealed.
One other wonderful sketch was of two political candidates debating, each one attempting to one-up the other. Believe it or not, the sketch was actually more ridiculous than the current Republican efforts, no mean feat.
The two clowns, Bill Irwin and David Shiner, who worked together in their play Fool Moon over twenty years ago, are now, almost unbelievably, both in their early 60s. In an age-defying way, they dance, pull physical sight gags, and knockabout in ways that would be impressive for someone half their age. It’s a must see. Hot tip: limited TDF tix are available.
Juan Rubiales is not only an accomplished magician himself, but also a wonderfully artistic profiler of famous magicians. I first saw his work on The Magic Cafe, and he generously gave me permission to reprint these portraits. Rubiales’s style reminds me of the great celebrity caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. Juanlu, as he is known to his friends, also sent me this brief autobiographical note:
JUAN LUIS RUBIALES, began magic as a child, and later studied directly from some master magicians. Tamariz was his mentor, and Juan had the good fortune to meet him and be in contact with him since the age of 14. Today, Juan is 36 years old, and is not just a direct student of Tamariz, he is also a good friend of him.
He is an original and creative magician, he is a member of the “Escuela Mágica de Madrid”(Magical School of Madrid), and he is an assistant at the prestigious “Jornadas catomágicas del Escorial” (Cardmagic Days of the Escorial).
He performs extraordinary magic with coins, knives and cards; he has created new techniques of this form of art, developing some original routines that mark its creative magic.
He is also an extraordinary cartoonist. He likes to make magicians’ portraits.
He has three DVDs in English:
“Con Denominacion” which means “with guarantee of origin,” a DVD about coins.
“The Opongobox,” about a new coin box, a DVD produced by Luis de Matos at the 33 Study
“The Bound Deck” another production of the Essential Magic Collection, this time with one card trick.
In December we can enjoy his DVD “Olé!” a pack of four DVDs by Luis de Matos collection with close up, parlour, and stage magic.
“He is very creative, he has an authentic and unique style. Like his Magic, authentic and genuine, a real marvel. Thank you Juanlu for what you are doing”.
“His Magic is absolutely brilliant”.
“I am very excited with Juanlu Rubiales and his new DVD. He is a great Magician.”
And now, some of my favorite portraits of his:
Penn & Teller.
The iconic pose of Dai Vernon, both young and old.