If you’re talking about raw sleight of hand, a lot of magicians will pick this card move invented by Ray Kosby called “Raise Rise,” as their choice for the most difficult card trick in the world. It looks like trick photography, but it’s pure sleight of hand, done with an ordinary ungaffed deck. My hat’s off to those who can do it–I sure can’t. The clip above is quite a good version with no cheating or editing. I wish I knew who the magician here was, but I only have the name of the guy’s YouTube channel.
When I hear from Greg Chapman that he’s working on a new book, my ears perk up like a rabbit hearing about a new cabbage patch. His first two books, Details of Deception and The Devil’s Staircase were advanced explorations of gambling style card material with methods that leave the audience in the dust. When I heard what Greg was up to this time, I was filled with joy in a completely different way. What he had in mind was a small book, 52 pages to be exact—a monograph, for the more precise among us—on the faro shuffle. And I’m happy to say that book has now come to fruition, Faro Fundamentals. (Full disclosure: I gladly did some proofreading on this as well as the earlier books.)
It was a brilliant idea. First, because Greg was the man to do it, and second, because it was such an obvious gap in the literature that it was startling that no one had thought about it before. Those starting the journey of learning the faro shuffle have always had to be like mosaic quilters taking patches from here and patches from there, piecing together the knowledge. Some of the sources were easily available and some of the sources were not. You didn’t know where it was going to turn up. The knowledge consisted of three categories: a) the mechanical information necessary to actually accomplish the shuffle, b) the properties of the shuffle that make it useful, and c) how to put those properties to work in magic effects. Although there are some wonderful chapters about the faro in Marlo, Elmsley, and Expert Card Technique, to my knowledge there was no one exclusive resource that covered all three aspects. Greg’s book can help in all three areas.
Let’s start off with just learning how to do the damn thing. I have to admit I am skeptical of those who claim to have learned the shuffle from the few sentences in a certain famous book about close-up card magic. If you did, my hat’s off to you, and you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. Let’s face it, for most, there will be cursing and weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth in the beginning without proper instruction. Fortunately, Greg’s book addresses several issues that beginners to the shuffle come up against. If listened to, Greg’s helpful advice can significantly cut down on the wrong approaches that only serve to frustrate. Greg has the knowledge and the chops to describe and to illustrate excellently what an approach to the faro could be. He isn’t dogmatic about how to approach it—he openly admits that if you’ve already got an approach that works for you, fine, then go with it; he isn’t trying to proselytize for one particular method. What he does do, though, is to lay out a path to achieve the faro. I especially enjoyed the line drawings made from photos to emphasize the key placements of the fingers of each hand. I also learned some very surprising properties of straddle faros.
As Jeremy Griffin says spot on in his foreword to the book, when it comes to the faro shuffle, people tend to overestimate its difficulty or underestimate its usefulness. In ancient Greece, at a certain point, students of Euclidean geometry advanced to a theorem known as the “Bridge of Asses.” The student had learned all the proofs of previous theorems, but now it was time to join the big boys: the crossing of that bridge signaled something special. It meant that if you could now prove that theorem you had enough tools under your belt to tackle the larger problems. So it is with the faro. I can’t say that I use the faro everyday, but the learning of the faro is what convinced me that I could actually progress further with card sleights. Once you have the faro under your belt, nothing seems too difficult to accomplish. I mean it’s absurd on the face of it: to perfectly split the cards in half and then to perfectly interlace them while no one suspects that that is what you are doing? And moreover, even if they do understand what you are doing, they don’t understand the implications of such an action? That’s powerful.
And that’s something that Greg has expressed to me as a prime motivation for writing the book: “If only I could get folks to climb this mountain with me, because from up here you can see what’s on the other side. Sometimes you can’t know what’s possible until you actually experience something.” Jeremy Griffin in the introduction puts it perfectly: there is the balance of learning something along with all its difficulty, but also balancing the knowledge of its potential on the other side.
And so Greg’s teaching of the faro has a not-so-hidden agenda: he wants to teach you the fundamentals because he wants to grab you and take you up the mountain so that you can see what he sees. And what’s up there? Well, of course, some wonderful effects like Paul Gertner’s Unshuffled (which he doesn’t teach here) and the two bonus routines Greg does teach from his two previous books. But also more than tricks; once you know the faro shuffle you have a very effective way of controlling cards to any position while doing a very fair shuffle, and when combined with a memdeck, it’s an especially powerful tool.
There are those who are skeptical of the audience acceptance of the faro shuffle, and feel like that’s why they wouldn’t want to spend time to learn it. But Greg definitely holds another view. He gives persuasive arguments and advice on how to condition the spectator to accept the shuffle’s fairness and naturalness. Yes, another magician will often recognize an in-the-hands faro—but even then, Greg suggests ways that can throw the wise guys off course. Of course, if one can master the table faro, then that objection disappears completely; and while not claiming to be the last word on the table faro, and acknowledging its difficulty, Greg also gives some tips for achieving it. I don’t pretend that I am willing to put in the time, or that reading Greg’s book will make me a master of the table faro, no book can do that, but I know that if ever one day I wanted to start that journey, this would be the first place I would look to begin my instruction.
The two effects that Greg includes from his previous two books are “Searchers Undone” which is an almost self–working (aside from the faro) version of Larry Jennings “Searchers” effect, where two black kings trap two known cards; and a real magician fooler, “One Card Missing”: a card is chosen, the deck shuffled, cut by the spec, and then shuffled, cut again by the spec, spread for an instant and the performer names the card. (Think about those spectator cuts, even if you’re familiar with the faro!) Greg also streamlines a Marlo location: a card is taken by a spec from the center of the deck, replaced, shuffled, one cut, and the card is on top. The strong parts here are that no breaks are held after the card is replaced, and the shuffle happens immediately afterwards. There’s nothing to see.
As I mentioned before, Greg’s hope is to open up a can of worms. He tantalizing gives you a glimpse of what in practice the ability to faro nonchalantly can mean for stack work. The positioning of cards as they are shuffled means that one can work not with just one kind of stack but different stacks throughout a set for different purposes. Imagine various effects depending on the deck being stacked first by color, then by suit, then by four of a kind. The faro becomes a powerful tool to cycle from one stack to another with relatively little effort.
Is there everything here about the faro? No; in this 52-page book there’s not going to be everything, nor is it meant to be encyclopedic, though there is a short bibliography of major works concerning the faro. Greg’s last two books were eagerly snatched up by aficionados, but they were clearly for a limited audience. But I predict that Faro Fundamentals will be one of those relatively rare perennial sellers in the magic literature. Because there can be no question now: if someone asks, “Where should I go to learn about the faro shuffle?” Greg’s book is it.
If you’ve been putting off learning the faro, or you’ve tried but just couldn’t get it, or if you can faro, but want to understand more about what the faro can achieve, I urge you to pick up a copy of Faro Fundamentals. It fills a huge gap in the magical literature and you will be glad to have this as your faro companion.
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 there’s 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.
There are times in card magic when you want to set up a shuffled deck into alternating colors. Tricks like Tamariz’s “Neither Blind Nor Stupid” and Nick Trost’s “Odd Man Out” demand it. The typical way to do it is to first do a separation of the colors à la Mr. Green or Mr. Lorayne, and then do a perfect faro. That’s probably how I would do it these days.
But back in 2004, I couldn’t do a perfect faro, and so I sought another way to do it. Besides, sometimes you’re handed a beat up deck with which even Steve Forte couldn’t do a perfect faro. (Okay, who am I kidding? He probably could.) Anyway, so I came up with a way of putting a deck into alternating red-black condition in one pass without a faro.
The reason I’m re-visiting this from sixteen years ago is because of an excellent new booklet put out by Dr. Hans-Christian Solka called Gaukelwerk with Cards available at Lybrary.com as a pdf for a nominal price. It’s a little monograph on a way of clocking a deck that to my mind is one of the quickest and most efficient methods I’ve seen. I first came across the idea of clocking a deck in one of Martin Gardner’s books decades ago, but others have refined the process through the years. If you’re not familiar with the term, it refers to a way of finding out a missing card from a full deck by keeping a mental mathematical count of cards seen by running through the deck a few times, ideally the fewer times the better. Dr. Solka, in my opinion, has come up with the best way yet of doing this.
It turns out that one thing that can really help you clock a deck extra quickly, not surprisingly, is if you know prior to clocking the deck whether the missing card is red or black—and an alternating red-black deck can help you determine that quickly. That is not Dr. Solka’s advance—people like Harry Lorayne have exploited that idea before as have others. But in his booklet, Dr. Solka details his method of clocking called “The Solka Location,” which using the alternating deck and an elegant counting system allows one to clock a deck in two very speedy passes.
In addition to this clocking method, in his booklet Dr. Solka includes a false shuffle and a way to get into alternating colors using a method he calls the Mingau Cull. After reading a first version of Dr. Solka’s booklet, I pointed him to my 2004 post on the Magic Cafe which detailed my variation of that cull. Never having heard of the Mingau Cull before, I did not realize at the time that what I had created was essentially a mirror image of the Mingau. But Dr. Solka liked my version, and included it in a subsequent printing of his booklet. He calls it the “Landmark Cull,” after my screen name on the Magic Cafe.
While the two culls are similar, if you are dealing from left hand to right hand, I believe that my version is better covered and more natural looking to the audience.
Anyway, here is that “Landmark Cull.” I’ll try to describe it a little better here than I did back in 2004. And I’ll add that Dr. Solka in his booklet added a little suggestion which speeds up the process even more (which I will not put here as it is not mine to share).
Okay. The deck is face up in the left hand, dealing position. The right thumb thumbs the first two cards from the left hand one by one onto the right upturned palm, the second card on top of the first. The right thumb is now on top of its packet, with the four right fingers below.
The right fingers shift the bottom-most card of its packet (i.e. card closest to palm) a bit to the left so that that card can be seen.
Now, look at the color of the card facing you in the left hand. If it is the opposite color of the card face up in your right hand, then thumb that card on top of your right-hand pile. Keep moving cards from the left hand to the right hand, one at a time, as long as the cards alternate in color.
Now, suppose you reach a point where the face-up card in your left hand is the same color as the face-up card in your right hand. You peek at the bottom-most card in your right hand. If it is the opposite color of the face up cards, use your right fingers to slide this card on top of the left-hand pile as you bring your hands together. Then separate your hands. Now you can thumb this same card, which is now face up on the left-hand pile, onto the face of the right hand pile. So what you’ve done in effect is to transfer the bottom-most card of the right hand pile to the top of the right-hand pile.
What if the bottom card of the right hand pile is the same color as the two face-up cards? In that case, simply transfer the left-hand face up card to the bottom of the right hand pile.
Just continue doing this through the whole deck and you’ll have the deck properly sorted.
1) Deal two cards one at a time, one on top of the other into the right hand.
2) Deal one at a time, alternate colors face up from left hand pile onto right hand pile.
3) If the face colors match, check the right hand bottom color. If the bottom card is different, slide the bottom card onto the left-hand pile. If it’s the same, deal the left hand card onto the bottom of the right hand pile.
One of the keys of this is to keep the bottom right hand card constantly jogged to the left as it changes, so you can quickly decide which action to take, so that you can keep a steady regular rhythm.
And that’s it. Now go learn how to quickly clock an alternating deck from Dr. Solka.
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.
Shin Lim’s card magic raises the bar for everyone. It’s rare that card magic looks and feels magical, rather than just an intriguing puzzle or demonstration of skill. Shin Lim’s performances give me that feeling of wonder.
Magician Richard Turner, the fabled blind card mechanic, is the subject of a compelling new film documentary directed by Luke Korem called Dealt. I interviewed Korem who spoke about the challenges and pleasures of making the film. Though ostensibly about magic, the story is also about independence, disability, discipline, creativity, and about learning how best to play the hand that life has dealt us.
Click on the grey triangle to listen to the interview as broadcast yesterday on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM..
Pit Hartling has amusing presentations for card magic, along with some of the most clever methods. His book In Order to Amaze should delight most card workers. Here is a fairly recent performance from The Magic Castle.
Three-Card Monte is a con game that has intrigued me ever since I first saw it played in London in the early nineteen eighties. Over 20 years ago, I wrote an article about it for Theatre Annual magazine, discussing how the monte gangs used elements of theatrical technique to achieve their deception. My brother found a copy of the article in his files, which was fortunate, because I no longer had a copy of it myself. I’m posting it here as it first appeared, except for some slight stylistic changes. Whit Haydn’s invaluable book, Notes on Three-Card Monte, was not published until the following decade, but it is the go-to resource for anyone who has further interest in the subject.
Finding the Red Card: The Performance of Three-Card Monte
by Jack Shalom
Theatre Annual 47 (1994): 61-70
The scene: a large crowd gathered in the middle of the sidewalk; a fast-talking guy is standing behind a make-shift cardboard-box table challenging spectators to find the one red card from among three face-down cards as he shifts them around. While the spectators may think of this three-card monte as a game, to the man behind the box–and to his cohorts–this con game is in fact more nearly a performance of a play, a play that has been produced in its present form internationally for at least one hundred and fifty years. Carefully scripted, acted, and costumed, monte draws on many techniques of the theatre, even manipulating the spectators’ concepts of theatrical convention itself, in order to accomplish its ultimately criminal goals. And, as in the theatre, the amount of money made by the players depends directly on their acting skills, and their ability to create a working ensemble.
To understand how monte works, it would be helpful to experience it first from the perspective of the naive spectator.1 For the urban spectator leaving work or taking a lunch break, the first contact with monte seems intriguing and innocent enough. The first scene the spectator—the victim– sees and hears is a crowd of people on the street: commotion and noise, cheering, clapping, and groaning. Intrigued, the spectator draws closer and sees that a game is going on, with money changing hands.
It’s easy enough for the spectator to follow the game: there’s a dealer tossing three cards, two black ones and one red one, face down onto the cardboard-box table. The dealer has a stack of money in one hand, and moves the cards around on the table, chanting hypnotically, “Find the red, find the red, find the red. I don’t complain when I lose, but I grin when I win!” The dealer urges someone to point to the red card and a few people take him up on the offer.
“You gotta pay to play, show me your money,” demands the dealer, so they each show him twenty to forty dollars. Some of the players have evidently been watching carefully: they picked correctly, the red card. The dealer pays these people the amount of their bet. Others, fooled by the man’s quick moves, lose their money, having chosen a black card. It soon dawns on our naive spectator that he can do better than those who keep losing. In fact, when one of the active players asks the spectator for advice on which card to choose, the victim manages to select the right card. The player thanks the spectator for the help and insists to the dealer that the spectator be paid as well. The dealer, however, is adamant that the spectator has to put up his or her own money to play. Meanwhile, several more rounds go by, with players winning and losing money, although the stakes have now gone up to eighty and even a hundred dollars a round. The spectator, encouraged by his apparent ability to follow the red card, finally decides to put up some of his own money: one hundred dollars. Unfortunately, however, the spectator is mistaken this time and picks the wrong card, losing the money.
But fate seems to intervene to restore hope to the hapless spectator.
While the spectator was trying to get over his shock and disappointment in losing, the other players were fighting with the dealer, insisting that he give their new colleague—the victim—another chance. Although the dealer refuses, a stroke of luck comes the spectator’s way. One of the players knocks over the cardboard table, which distracts the dealer’s attention. As soon as the dealer goes to pick up the cards from the floor, another player grabs the red card and bends a corner of it while the dealer isn’t looking. The dealer begins the game again, only this time it is very easy to follow the red card because the bend in the corner of the card is apparent even from the face-down side. The dealer now begins to lose all of his bets; at last, the spectator, sufficiently recovered from the shock of the previous mistake, now has the confidence to put up another hundred dollars.
The dealer, however, declares that he will no longer take any more hundred dollar bets; it’s two hundred or nothing. The other players look at one another and smile as they look at the bent corner. They put up their money, and so does the spectator, confident now that finding the red card—the one with the bend—is a sure thing. When the spectator is told to turn over the chosen card, however, the spectator gasps in astonishment and horror: the card—bend and all!—is black, not red. How could it be? But it is. “How can I possibly explain to my family that I just lost my whole paycheck?” whispers the shaken spectator. As the dealer sweeps up the money, packs up the game, and leaves, the spectator is left only with the comfort of another player who commiserates, “Well, I guess he beat us fair and square.”
But, in fact, our spectator was not beaten “fair and square.” Most people who lose at monte assume that they have been beaten “fair and square” by the talents of a skilled dealer. They assume that the dealer’s sleight of hand was just too quick for them, the “hand being quicker than the eye.” While it is true that there is sleight of hand involved, this trickery alone will not guarantee the success of the enterprise. Rather, in the words of one writer about monte, the spectator “walked into a carefully rehearsed play with an elaborate cast of characters and a detailed script. [The spectator] was cast in the role of sucker and he played his part to perfection.”2 Contrary to appearances, far from being a one-man operation, three-card monte is usually enacted by companies that consist of about twenty-five actors at a time. These twenty-five break up into casts of five to seven actors, each cast performing simultaneously on a different street comer although often in close proximity, say a couple of blocks apart. This allows for the easy understudying and replacement of parts should an actor in one cast become indisposed or exposed. The three roles that must be enacted by the monte gang are the mechanic, the stick (or shill), and the slide. Later, a fourth role will be taken by the spectator, called the mark or the vic. The mechanic, sometimes called the broadtosser, is the most visible member of the cast. He is the one who manipulates the cards and is most often, though not necessarily, the cast’s director. He is the only member of the cast who the spectator believes is involved in running the game. Using sleight of hand, the mechanic can toss the cards in such a way that the red card can appear in any given position. Maskelyne and many other conjuring authors give good descriptions of how this ancient sleight is accomplished.3 The sticks, usually numbering three to five in a cast, have an equally essential, if not more important, job. Their role is to act as if they were ordinary people who have stopped by to watch the show and have ended up betting. They are there to entice the spectators, by example, into betting on the wrong card. Since often the mechanic’s sleight cannot be followed even by the sticks, the sticks must look for secret signals from the mechanic as to where the red card actually is. This can be done in one of two ways. Either the mechanic indicates which card is the red card by holding his stack of money in the hand nearest to it, or he actually says out loud in code during his patter where it is. For example, if the mechanic says “C is the blow, money is the top,” he’s telling his sticks that the center card is the sucker card, while the red card is nearest to him. The final role undertaken by the monte cast is that of the slide, sometimes called the wallman. The slides, usually two of them, post themselves at either end of the block. Should they see the police or any other trouble coming, they will yell out “slide!” which is a signal for the mechanic and sticks to disappear.
Before the monte cast can actually perform, they must find a suitable area to put up their cardboard box set. It must be placed in a heavily trafficked area, but not so blatantly as to compete with other businesses for their customers’ dollars: the monte cast cannot afford to stir up the animosity of the local businessmen. Therefore, the best location is in front of a building closed for renovations or under construction. It is helpful to find a location that is near a city garbage can. The ensemble will take boxes and cardboard and overstuff the garbage can so that some boxes will have to overflow onto the sidewalk nearby. This will provide a perfect backdrop in the event that the cardboard boxes which make up their set have to be hurriedly knocked down: the two boxes that serve as the table on which the cards are tossed can be thrown aside quickly into the existing pile of boxes, leaving no trace of the performance that has occurred. Yet the set can be re-formed in a moment as soon as circumstances permit. As soon as the set is up, the sticks start performing. At the beginning, before there is a crowd, it is important to draw spectators to the set. The sticks bet loudly on the cards, making sure that they make enough noise by shouting, cheering, and clapping. The sticks all have wads of money in their hands to indicate that they have been playing for a while and that they have been making money. Some sticks will deliberately bet on the losing cards while others will bet on the winning card. The mechanic makes no attempt at sleight of hand. Anybody paying a modicum of attention can predict where the red card will be. Eventually, spectators will start to gather and it is from this audience that the sticks will select the mark. The first crucial moment in the psychology of the con lies in getting the mark to enter into the circle of performance. There are a couple of ways that this is done. As outlined earlier, a stick might ask a potential mark to choose the card for him. Another possible way to rope in a mark is for the stick to ask the mark to be a witness for him, or, perhaps most brazenly, a stick may even sidle up to the mark and whisper in the mark’s ear that he knows the game is fixed, but that he can still get the red card every time. The point of the script at this time is to get the mark to participate in the game, while simultaneously letting him believe that he is at no risk. As soon as the mark responds, however, he is literally put center stage. The mark up to now has been outside the circle that the sticks have initially established around the mechanic and his stage. A stick will now physically take the mark by the hand and lead him center stage in front of the cards, as the other sticks draw around him, physically locking him in the crowd. The mechanic may, in fact, actually move his cardboard boxes so that the mark is directly in front of them. Now that the mark is ringside and has convinced himself that he can follow the card, he is encouraged to put up his money. The mark feels confident; after all, he has seen people win and lose, and each time he has guessed correctly as to the whereabouts of the red card.
The success, then, of this production depends on the ability of the sticks to convince the mark that 1) they are on the mark’s side and share a common interest with him and 2) each stick is independent of the other, and independent, of course, of the mechanic. The sticks must appear to be a society of ordinary strangers who by chance share a common monetary interest with the mark. It is from this guise that the sticks gain their psychological and moral powers of persuasion over the mark. This power of persuasion is enormously important to the success of monte. For once the mark starts losing he will stay in only if the sticks can encourage him to do so. To do this, the sticks carefully encourage an “us against him” mentality with regard to the mechanic: they will groan anytime the mark loses money, and cheer when one of the sticks wins. (The mark, by the way, never gets to win, not even as encouragement. The sure way to spot a stick is to see who wins.) The sticks assure the mark that “this time we’ll get him, let’s both put up $80.” A recent wrinkle on this is to have one of the sticks ask the mark if he has a bank card. If so, the stick just happens to know where the bank is: “Why that’s my bank too!” he’ll reply, and he will take the mark by the arm and lead him to the bank, all the while assuring the mark that “this time, we’re going to get this guy’s ass.” While the stick walks the mark to the bank, the set is quickly knocked down and the actors disperse: there is no sense in playing when the mark is not there; that would only run the risk of the police coming and closing the show in the middle of their big scene. However, the slides are keeping a lookout and as soon as the mark and his newfound friend can be seen coming back, the play quickly reforms as if it had been going on all this time. (In some cases the police are enlisted as part of the cast as well. I saw one incident in NYC where as soon as a particular policeman walked by, the cast knocked down the set. The slide walked over to the policeman and murmured, “Don’t worry, I respect you.” The policeman gave a furtive wave to the slide as he walked by; before the policeman had even turned the corner, the set was back up again.)
The mark by now has seen lots of people winning—all sticks of course—but somehow the mark never seems to win, since anytime he bets, the mechanic pulls his sleight, assuring the mark’s loss. When it finally looks as if the mark has lost too much money and wants to quit the play, the lazzi of the bent corner is employed. As described above, one of the players puts a bend in the corner of the red card while the mechanic is not watching. The mechanic, contrary to appearances, is fully aware of what has happened. Until the mark bets, the mechanic will allow the bent corner to remain in the red card. When the mark finally gets enough courage to bet again on this “sure thing,” the mechanic can get the mark to put up an unusually large amount, since the mark is very anxious at this time to make his money back, and the mark is buoyed by the encouragement and example of the sticks. Then, and only then, does the mechanic pull his sleight. The mechanic is actually able to uncrimp the corner of the red card and put a bend in one of the black cards unbeknownst to the mark. I observed one poor mark, a man who twice earlier had been walked to the bank, lose five thousand dollars this way.
Once this scene is played out, the mechanic leaves the area as quickly as possible. It appears that the performance is over but there is still one more scene to be played. If the mark starts to chase the mechanic, a stick, usually one who has not yet played much of a role, will go up to the mark sympathetically in order to calm him down and allow the other actors a quick exit. “Well, I guess they beat us fair and square,” she’ll commiserate with the mark. The mark does not understand that he has just heard the curtain line of a classic play starring himself.
As in the theatre, a monte performance depends not only on the viability of the script and the skill of the performers but also on the details of casting and costume. In New York City, a city beset with a highly polarized racial climate, many of the best monte production teams are inter-racially cast. The monte actors know—perhaps with more acumen than Broadway producers realize-=-that if they are to achieve a high degree of verisimilitude in performance, then they must represent the current racial reality of the city. The sticks are deliberately cast and costumed in such a way as to suggest that they are each of a different race and class background from one other and from the mechanic. The mechanic is almost always Black, and dressed in lower-class street clothes. This helps to foster the “us versus him” attitude that the sticks hope to instill in the mind of the typically more middle-class mark. By including sticks who are white and Hispanic, the actors play on the racist assumption that people of different races couldn’t possibly be working together. The diversity of class, sex, nationality, and race also allows various categories of marks to form bonds with sticks who look or sound like themselves. I observed a particularly memorable example of this near Times Square when a French tourist and her husband stopped to watch and discuss the monte performance going on in front of them. As soon as the first few words of French were heard out of her mouth, one of the sticks turned to her and replied in flawless French. He explained to her that she could win money by betting on the red card. Needless to say, it was not too long before the French couple lost their money.
The best ensembles pay close attention to the details of costume, dressing to suggest specific identities. One of the more successful casts I saw had sticks who were costumed in the following way: a Black woman in her twenties in a green pants-suit outfit, suggesting a secretary on her lunch hour; a young trendy-looking white man in his twenties wearing a designer rugby-shirt-and-shorts set carrying a shopping bag from an upscale department store, suggesting a yuppie just passing by en route from a shopping spree; an olive-complexioned man in his thirties with an Israeli accent, wearing a loud flowered shirt and cheap polyester dress pants, suggesting a foreigner fairly new off the boat; and finally a white man in his forties in a conservative brown suit, short hair, and wire-rim glasses who gave the air of a successful, cautious businessman. The casual observer would have had a difficult time determining that they were working together: only by realizing that they were the sole people winning money, and by noticing the little conferences that would take place amongst them when the set was knocked down, could one know that these seemingly unrelated spectators were sticks.
Not that all monte casts are successful. Even with a good mechanic there must be an ensemble sense of playing. The bare bones of the production can be learned fairly easily: Ortiz reported in 1984 that “the going rate in New York jails for a convict to teach another inmate the techniques of working three-card monte is one hundred dollars.”4 A longtime street performer and observer of monte, Bill Rafael, claims that by watching long enough one can deduce which “school” the casts attended, each school being marked by stylistic differences.5 Occasionally one observes an unsuccessful monte cast, and it only emphasizes the point that a good mechanic alone will not create a successful performance. I observed one monte cast on Broadway and 48th Street in New York City that was singularly unconvincing: the actors could not even draw a crowd. All of the sticks as well as the mechanic were Black; two of the three sticks were wearing cheap t-shirts and gym shorts as was the mechanic; and the third stick who was wearing a dress shirt with dress pants was also incongruously wearing sneakers, as were the other two sticks. The semiotics of the sticks’ costumes and race fairly shouted out to any passerby that the sticks and the mechanic were part of the same cast. The few times a small crowd did begin to form, the too-cautious wallman yelled, “Slide,” even though the cops were blocks away. As the set was knocked down and the spectators dispersed, the mechanic complained angrily to the wallman, “Why do you call out when there’s no trouble!” Eventually this cast broke up and left the location, having made no money at all. In monte, a talented leading man alone will not bring in the box-office receipts.
For all its apparent simplicity, monte continues to fool even the relatively sophisticated spectator. This is because, unlike many other kinds of con games, monte has two layers of deception. The first layer, designed to take in the more naive player, is simply on the level of sleight of hand. That is, the most naive player takes the game purely at face value, and does not even assume that the dealer is capable of card trickery. He assumes that as long as he watches the dealer’s movements carefully enough, he will be able to choose the right card. This kind of spectator does not think that he is engaged in a battle of wits with the dealer. The second layer of deception, however, is more subtle and is designed to trap the more sophisticated spectator. This kind of spectator knows that the dealer is capable of trickery. He sees the dealer “onstage” by his little cardboard box, and knows that the performer onstage is capable of all kinds of deceit. ‘l’he spectator may even sneak around behind where the dealer is standing, in order to obtain a “backstage” view of the dealer’s actions—perhaps the dealer has some extra cards up his sleeve, or hidden behind his table. What that spectator never realizes, however, is that no matter where he stands, he is never “backstage,” but always, in fact, “onstage,” still in the sphere of influence of the sticks. The monte cast’s achievement, then, is this: they have manipulated the theatrical convention of a defined stage area by making it appear as if the monte stage were confined to the cardboard box and the mechanic. In reality, the stage extends right into the presumed audience area and encompasses the mechanic, the sticks, and the spectator himself. Unless the spectator understands this, there can be no safe, objective viewing place from which he can observe without illusion.
Despite the sophistication of monte’s deception, it has a history that takes it back in one form or another at least 1700 years. It has survived several incarnations including a version with three walnut shells and a pea, and the conjuring routine of the cups and balls. The latter has been described as early as the year 200 AD. by the Greek Alciphron in his Letters from the County and the Town. In one letter, a farmer visiting town to sell his produce tells of stopping by a local theatre and being amazed by a conjurer who manipulated three plates and three ordinary white stones: “He hid them first one under each plate; but then, somehow or other he showed them to us all under the same plate, and then he made them disappear from under the plates altogether …. I should not like such a creature on my farm. No one could catch him: he would steal all our household goods and we should never see them again.”6 The great card magician John Scarne pointed out that the cups and balls routine turned up in a fifteenth-century painting by Hieronymous Bosch called The Conjurer.7 The Elizabethan society, too, was rife with all kinds of conmen, in particular the vagabond called the fingerer, who was what we today would call a card mechanic. John Awdeley in 1561 described in The Fraternity of Vagabonds how the fingerer operated. What is of special note here is that it seems to be one of the first descriptions of card sharps working together as a team. As with our modern-day monte ensembles, the success of the fingerer depended not so much on his manipulation of the cards as on his and his assistants’ acting ability. The lingerer’s young assistants would first make friends with some wealthy young man-about-town, courteously inviting him to breakfast at a local inn. The fingerer, disguised as a ragged old man, would seat himself at one end of the table where the young men and their mark were sitting. When the fingerer’s assistants would propose that they should all participate in a game of cards, the fingerer would further lure the mark by agreeing to play although complaining that “Ich am an old man and half blind, and can skill of very few games.” The “old man” would then deliberately lose several games. Acting enraged, he would stalk out, vowing to get his life savings from home to bet against the young men. Then the mark would be encouraged to put up all his money in order to make a big killing against the old man; in fact all the young men would agree to bet against the old man along with the mark. “They thus, tickling the young man in the ear, willeth him to make as much money as they can, and consent as they will play booty against him.” Once the old man fingerer returns, it is the time for the fingerer and his assistants to manipulate the cards in order to win the victim’s money: “they so use the matter, that both the young man loseth his part and, as it seemeth to him, they losing theirs also[;] and so . . . one runneth one way, another another way, leaving the loser indeed all alone.”8
Sophisticated as the Elizabethans were in this kind of theatre, the full flower of the monte script in its present form, bent card scenario and all, does not come to the United States until sometime in the 1830s. Henry Chafetz reported that monte was “to be found in high class saloons and at public balls and fetes [of New Orleans].”9 The game soon made its way to the steamboats that operated on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in the 1840s and later. “The throwers took to the steamboats without fear,” wrote Chafetz, “since the captains (it was believed they collected one-third of the profits) let them operate unmolested.”10 Monte also proliferated in the West during the California gold rush and on the railroads with similar protections in effect. The famous card man Canada Bill once offered the Trunk Lines Railroad “a premium of $25,000 per annum to be allowed to practice confidence games upon its trains without molestation, a condition of the offer being that he would not attempt to victimize any class of passengers except preachers.”11
One of the best eyewitness accounts of the era is an autobiography by a riverboat conman named George DeVol. In his FortyYears a Gambler on the Mississippi, DeVol described how he and three partners made over a million dollars from monte in four years on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers during the 1850s. Monte in such circumstances was necessarily enacted in a more private manner. Rather than try to attract a crowd, DeVol would impersonate a member of the wealthy class in order to befriend a mark. In DeVol’s very first monte game, “I represented a planter’s son traveling for my health”; before the boat had reached its destination, he had won $4100 and four slaves from a slavetrader on the boat up to Vicksburg.12 But the game could not be won on DeVol’s talent alone: he too had to have his stick, or capper as he called his partner. DeVol tells of a time he set up a monte game on the steamer WarEagle traveling from Dubuque to St. Paul in the 1850s. He had picked out his mark and “invited him to join me in a drink, and then steered him to the barbershop. I told him I had lost some money betting on cards, but I did not mind it very much as my father was wealthy. While I was showing him how I had lost the money, my partner came in; and after watching me throw the cards for a little while he wanted to bet me $100 he could pick the right card.” DeVol and his partner smoothly orchestrated the betting: after appearing to win a few times, DeVol’s partner then bent the corner of one of the cards in plain sight of the mark. Turning to the mark, DeVol protested that he couldn’t continue betting with a man that kept beating him. The mark at this point picked up his cue perfectly, asking whether he could be allowedto place a bet. “The man then got out his big roll and put up $100. I told him if I won, I would only be even; and that I would not bet less than $500. He put up $500 and turned the wrong card.”13 Remarkably, however, DeVol and his partner were not finished with the mark. They then pulled a variation on the bent card scene: the pencil dot routine. When the dealer was supposedly not paying attention, DeVol’s partner marked the corner of the correct card with a pencil mark. The mark, who had put up a diamond tie stud, felt sure that he could win this time—all he had to do was follow the pencil-marked card. Of course he was doomed to failure once again. When the pencil-marked card was turned over it had somehow been transformed into one of the wrong cards. The correct card was clean as a whistle. DeVol probably had rubbed off the pencil mark unobserved with his thumb, and then used what magicians call a nailwriter—a small pencil lead that fits under a finger nail—to mark one of the other cards.
While Ortiz’s sense is that monte had come East to New York City only recently, in fact, a form of monte had been present in New York since at least the 1850s as well.14 An 1857 booklet entitled Tricks and Traps of New York City, written to warn newcomers to the city of the dangers and temptations that awaited them in New York City, described the workings of the thimble-rigger, a conman who ran the monte game using three thimbles and a little ball. Although there is no bent-card scene, there is an analogous scene described in which the ball is “accidently” seen peeking out from under one of the thimbles. Of course, when the mark goes to pick up the thimble, the ball has disappeared, The thimble-rigger, naturally, also had others working for him. In the description of thimble-rigging, the author makes clear one very important, heretofore unmentioned aspect of the duties of the cast: defense. The book tells of one mark who after losing, “with commendable promptness and presence of mind knocked the thimble-rig man about four rods with a single blow. . . . [The mark] however only got one single broadside into the enemy before he was boarded by the whole crew, who pummelled him till his face looked as if somebody had used his head to fight bumble-bees.”15
So monte is an ensemble act, for the conman plays for keeps; his livelihood and perhaps his life depend on his acting skills and his companions. The best monte actors, however, manipulate not only cards, but the markers that allow us to know that we are in a theatrical setting, seeing a performance, Through misdirection, the spectator believes he is seeing one kind of performance, when, in fact, a completely different kind of performance is taking place. The ultimate proof that monte must be an ensemble performance and not a solo piece by the mechanic is in the actual practice: no mechanic on the street works by himself. Despite the fact that he will have to split the profits, the mechanic in every instance chooses to work with others in creating the illusion; he cannot do it by himself. During a recent crackdown by police on monte gangs in New York City, a dealer insisted on telling a New YorkTimes reporter, “I don’t work with no partners and the game ain’t fixed.”16 But how could one possibly believe the first part of his statement when the second part is so clearly a lie? Like so many theatre artists, the con artist would have the spectator believe that it’s all about the star.
The con game and the theatre seem to have so much in common that it is tempting to mistake one for the other; in fact the long anti-theatrical prejudice against actors has much to do with the perception that actors and conmen both disguise their “true” characters and attempt to fool their audiences. Because both the actor and the conman present “lies like truth,” it is not that easy to distinguish between theatre and monte. Some might say the distinction lies in the convention that the theatre audience knows that they are seeing a performance. But if we want to continue to categorize as theatre such enterprises as Augosto Boal’s Invisible Theatre, where the audience never knows that they’ve been part of a theatre experience, then we must abandon that distinction. The con game is different from true theatre in that the con game always sells the promise of profit for the spectator, with no intention of fulfilling that promise. The theatre on the other hand, sells the spectator the promise of entertainment and/or enlightenment, which promise may or may not be fulfilled. Though the con game draws many techniques and structures from the theatre, the con game remains an essentially criminal enterprise. The performance of monte demands of the spectator not willing suspension of disbelief, but unwilling suspension of cash.17
The following description is based in my own observations during the years 1990-92, and accounts by Darwin Ortiz, Gambling Scams (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1984) and J. Peder Zane, “The Sticks, The Slides, and the Shaker,” New York Magazine, 19 June 1989, 36-39.
John Nevil Maskelyne, Sharps and Flats (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1894), 11-17.
William Rafael, personal communication to the author, 1991.
Alciphron, Letters from the Country and the Town, trans. F. A. Wright (London: Routledge, 1923), 85-86.
John Scarne, Scarne’s Complete Guide to Gambling (New York: Simon and Schuster,1961), 517.
John Awdeley, TheFraternity of Vagabonds, in The Elizabethan Underworld, ed. A.Judges, (London: Routledge, 1930), 58.
Henry Chafetz, Play the Devil (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1960), 84.
John Philip Quinn, Gambling and Gambling Devices (1912; rpt., Montclair, N.J.:Patterson Smith, 1969), 57.
George H. DeVol, Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi (1892; rpt., New York: Holt, 1926), 45-46.
Anon., Tricks and Traps of New York City (Boston: C. H. Brainard, 1857), 29-30.
Richard Perez-Pena, “3-Card Monte: It’s Just a Shell Game, Officials Warn,” New York Times, 11 November 1992, B3
Unfortunately, NYC criminal court judge Sheryl Parker is unaware of the criminality of monte. On 17 August 1994, she dismissed misdemeanor gambling charges against a monte dealer arrested for running a game, ruling that three-card monte is not a game of chance but skill. Newsday, 18 August 1994, 6.
Card mechanic Richard Turner is not shy about revealing his weapons of choice: second deals, bottom deals, even middle deals. But even accounting for the imperceptible execution of the above, how in the world does one account for what happens in the video after the spectator shuffles several points along the way?
Here’s a first world problem: You have a shuffled deck of cards, and you want to restore the deck to New Deck Order or some other pre-determined stack arrangement.
With a table, it’s easy, but sometimes a table isn’t available, so an in-the-hands-sort is required. Here’s something that might be useful to some card workers. I use the following mainly as an in-the-hands sort for NDO. I’ve used it as well for Aronson, but it can be generalized to any stack:
Run through the deck upjogging all the black cards. Pull out the black cards to the face of deck.
Run through the deck upjogging all the spades and diamonds. Pull out this half to the face of deck.
Spread the bottom 13 spades and arrange in order with the right hand as if arranging a bridge hand. Cut those 13 cards to the top of deck. Repeat with the next three suits. You are now in New Deck Order. Bicycle New Deck Order simply requires you to pull out Spades and Diamonds in descending order, Clubs and Hearts in ascending order.
To generalize for any stack:
1) Upjog all cards within the ranges of 14-26 and 40-52, and cut to face of deck.
2) Upjog all cards within the ranges of 27-52 and cut to the face of the deck.
3) Spread 13 cards at a time and put in ascending order, then cut to back of deck. Repeat three more times.
With practice you can get into stack order quite quickly.
The Devil is back, and the Devil is all in the details.
The Devil, in the guise of card man Greg Chapman, has returned with a new volume of mischievous pasteboard knowledge, Details of Deception: Artifice and Entertainment with Cards. If you thought Greg’s first book, The Devil’s Staircase,was a tour de force of gambling-themed card magic ideas, you’ll be even more delighted with this follow-up. The new book can certainly stand alone as a contribution to the literature, but when seen as a companion book to its predecessor, it really makes its full impact. (Full disclosure: I gladly did some proofreading on this as well as the earlier book.)
Dai Vernon liked to quote Da Vinci, “Details make perfection, but perfection is no detail.” Vernon knew that especially in the art of magic, the difference between the right detail and the wrong detail could mean the difference between success and failure. As Teller once pointed out, magic is very binary in the sense that an effect either fools an audience or it doesn’t. There’s no “sorta” or half pregnant in magic. A slight detail can be the difference between the audience experiencing a sense of verisimilitude or not.
Greg takes on a relatively narrow slice of the magic universe and focuses sharply on the details that make a difference. As he did in his first book, Greg here first introduces the tools he will be discussing: the peek, the key card, the stack, the crimp, even the humble ribbon spread. If you think you know everything about those tools, odds are, you are in for a pleasant surprise.
Greg’s focus as he circles back to these subjects is always how to get ahead while maintaining naturalness in action and speech. To this end, Greg is all about learning how to feel comfortable in one’s habitual environment—in Greg’s case, at the card table. His style is low-key, innocent, and absolutely fooling.
The second chapter of the book introduces effects which require little to no set-up (except for, in one case, the introduction of a gaffed card). Some of them, such as “Rubaway Switch” and “OHSD Switch” are transposition effects which can also be used as utility moves. Others, such as “Any Pair” and “Card at Number,” are basically self-working tricks with a strong impact. And with just a little more faro-ing effort, “The Accomplice” and “PUnDoM” are impressive quick demos of card control.
The following two chapters are, for me, the heart of the book. In the chapter entitled Stacks, Greg goes into greater detail regarding the tools that he mentioned at the beginning of the book. There is a lengthy and invaluable discussion of estimation that opens the chapter, and I can say that for me personally, it took a skill that seemed mysterious and out of my reach, and turned it into something achievable and usable. Greg even provides outs for those times when one’s estimations are a little off. I don’t have to tell anybody who does MD work what a valuable skill estimation is to have.
Equally useful to me was Greg’s discussion of the Ribbon Spread. It really opened my eyes to the devious uses to which this ubiquitous little flourish can be put. In the sections on peeks, shiners, and deck switches, there is also much of use: not only concerning the sleight-of-hand aspects of the moves, but also the timing and body gestalt as well.
The next chapter is devoted to memorized deck routines. There is a clever ACAAN, which has some important features: the spectator can genuinely name any card, and also has a wide range of numbers from which to choose. More importantly, the spectator can do the final countdown deal to the card. And . . . the method is essentially sleightless. Other tricks that I especially like in this section are “One Card Missing,” a snappy determination of a card missing from a deck under seemingly impossible conditions, and “That Old Trick,” a discovery of a selected four-of-a-kind that is quite enjoyable to perform, and is a painless and safe way to practice your Mexican Turnover.
The last chapter of the book is called Second Thoughts. It is a detailed mini-treatise on how to perform Greg’s version of a push-off second. This is painstaking, nuanced work, and probably will most interest those who can’t afford the slightest inkling of suspicion. If that sounds up your alley, there are lots of diagrams, advice, and encouragement here for those who decide to tread the path. The good news for the rest of us is that Greg includes in this section an excellent gambling deal effect, “Stacked To Win,” which while requiring some quick thinking and quick second dealing, actually demands less skill than the overall impression of the effect conveys.
Greg ends the book with a wonderful Cards to Pocket that will likely fool most magicians. It incorporates a very clever, efficient gaff. I don’t know if the gaff is original to Greg, but I’ve never seen it before, and I can well imagine its use in other situations as well.
You don’t often get to see how the mechanics of sleight of hand and misdirection are accomplished by a master. But in this signature routine of magician Tony Slydini, “Paper Balls Over the Head,” the audience is in on the trick from the beginning.
No, not the film (not perfect, but worth seeing for some excellent acting, and a tautly written account of a little known but important event in US history), but magicienne (that’s what she calls herself) Julie Eng.
That’s her dad, Tony, who you see in the video, also in the family magic business, at least that’s his face. But the hands—and the sleight-of that goes with them—belong to daughter Julie.
She’s an excellent close-up and all-around magician herself. In the video she proves it by magishing without looking. The magicians at the convention are well aware of what Julie is doing and just how difficult it is to pull off.
And proud Dad is able to smile and say—Look Ma, no hands!
While you, Mr. Magician, are YouTubing coin rolls and card flourishes, the really cool high school students are watching videos featuring finger tutting. So, Meyer Yedid, eat your heart out, It’s Finger Fantasies: The Next Generation.
Click on the video above to view the impressively impassive finger tutter, Pnut.
Richard Pitchford, better known by his stage name, Cardini, was a master of sleight of hand. But extraordinary as his manipulation was, what elevated him to the top of his art was the creation of his unique character, a tipsy ne’er-do-well who has trouble keeping reality in focus. If Keaton or Chaplin did flawless magic, Cardini would be the result.
The above clip is from his only television performance in 1957. It was the re-creation of his nightclub act for which he earned a very handsome salary. His assistant in the clip is Swan Walker, also his wife.
Magician Harry Riser, who was a friend of Cardini, tells the story that in the rehearsal for the show, Cardini, who had never performed on television before, had gotten flustered by the cameras and burnt his fingers on his cigarettes. So all the manipulation, especially with the 2 1/2 inch billiard ball, was extremely painful for him that night. We are lucky to have this clip for posterity as it is the only recording of his act.
Usually when I talk about magic in this blog, I try to make it accessible to even the readers who are not involved with magic. But you’ll excuse me if I go magic geek on you today. This post is about a new magic book that I had a peripheral involvement in producing, and is primarily aimed at those already familiar with the technology of card magic.
Greg Chapman’s new book is called The Devil’s Staircase. If you do any kind of gambling material and know the difference between an out-faro and an in-faro, stop reading this post and go order it right now at: http://www.thedevilsstaircase.com
You must have this book. You will thank me for it later. I’ll wait.
If you have a belt handy, strap it around your head while watching the above video so your brains don’t fall out. No, it’s not trick photography.
Everybody back? Okay. Now, clearly the must-haves will love this book. But there is also a whole group of magicians who are the should-haves who will also enjoy and benefit from this book. I’ll describe who I think this group should be a little later in the review. But first, let me describe the book in more detail so you can get a sense of why I am so excited about it. (Full disclosure: I proofread a late version of this book. I didn’t know Greg beforehand. It was hard sometimes to focus on the proofreading because as I read it, I got so engrossed. I realized it was an excellent book.)
In the first chapter, Greg introduces his weapons of choice for the cardician. They will not be unfamiliar to the practitioner: the stack, the faro, the run up, the false shuffle, the memdeck, the estimate, the glimpse, and the joker. In this introduction, Greg lays all his cards, as it were, on the table. He assumes the reader has the same tools available for use as well.
The next chapter takes us into a collection of FASDIU (from a shuffled deck in use) effects that are just knockouts. Learn the material in this chapter and you have an evening’s set of killer entertainment that you can do impromptu. Here’s a description of the first effect in the book, Snap Transposition:
Four kings are removed from a deck of cards. One red king is placed on a participant’s hand and the other red king is inserted face-up between the face-down black kings and held, spread at the fingertips. In a snap all four cards instantly change places. That is, the red kings are now seen to sandwich a black king and the face down card on the participant’s hand is shown to be the other black king.
It’s a beautiful effect, and an instant visible transposition.
There are several other excellent tricks in this section including Thought Card Across, a plot which has been explored by others including Bruce Bernstein, but Greg’s version has some decidedly superior features, and Searchers Undone which has a plot similar to the video above, but can be done entirely impromptu.
Greg’s teaching and explanations are detailed and clear; if you’re a fan of Simon Aronson’s books, you will immediately see Aronson’s influence on the way Greg takes such care with his explanations. As with Aronson’s books, you’ll find much to read and re-read carefully because sometimes what seems like a throwaway comment actually contains within it a door that opens up a whole new avenue of magical thought.
You’ll run across that in the next few chapters especially. Chapter 3 details Greg’s personal MD stack, one especially suited for those who enjoy doing gambling effects. However, even if you don’t do such material, it is well worth reading as there are certain concepts employed that are useful to anyone wanting to create her or his own stack. In the following chapter, you’ll find the Switchable Pairs concept, a simple but intriguing idea with some fascinating implications. This should lead the creative enthusiast to a field of fertile explorations. The Fixed Floating Key Card concept is another idea that could be very helpful to any memdeck worker.
In Chapter 5, you’ll find memdeck effects that are stack independent. While the plots here are not novel, the treasure is in the care that Greg takes to make every step seem absolutely innocent looking. He explains what he thinks some of the pitfalls of memdeck work are, and how to overcome them. If you do any kind of memdeck work, this chapter will improve what you do, no matter what stack you use.
Chapters 6 and 7 are for the hard-core gambling demo guys and gals. These chapters concentrate on the use of the overhand run-up shuffling system to stack hands. This will also enable you to get even further ahead with a memdeck. It is frankly quite technical material, but well explained and Greg strikes a nice balance between holding the readers’ hands and treating them like adults. In the right hands, it’s powerful stuff. If it’s not your cup of tea, you could probably skip these chapters for now, with the knowledge that if you do decide to learn this later, Greg’s teaching here is very good.
Chapter 8 uses Greg’s stack to illustrate the built-in effects possible with it. Some will be happy to know that there are two different plausible Texas Hold’em deals that are available. Also, fairly easily, the stack can be gotten into from NDO and back into NDO as well, certainly a nice little way to end a set.
Finally in the last chapter, Greg spills the beans on the effect in the video above, Dirty Tactics. (You did watch it didn’t you? If not, go back now.) Greg’s diabolical thinking is in full bloom here, and if your pleasure as a magician includes driving your fellow magi crazy, you will definitely enjoy learning this effect.
There are some magicians who are good technicians; there are some magicians who are good writers; there are some magicians who can illustrate their work well; there are some magicians who can create inventive fooling effects. It is relatively rare though in the world of magic to find someone who is all of the above. I think Greg Chapman is such a magician and his book will become a classic in the field of smart, inventive, demanding but do-able card magic. If you like the work of Darwin Ortiz, Simon Aronson, or Dennis Behr, then this book is for you.
I have yet to meet Greg Chapman in person–all our correspondence has been through email. But I can say without reservation that Greg is a man who cares intensely about his work and has taken the care to produce a really excellent book of card magic. Highly recommended.