Archive for the ‘Magic’ Category

I was listening to a podcast today, the Hidden Brain podcast. It was about coincidences and how we, as people, think they have special meaning; but in reality the mathematics behind coincidences is that they aren’t that unusual after all. We tend to confuse probability with unlikelihood, and attribute meaning to it when we encounter it. We’re not good judges of randomness.

Anyway, the podcast went on and then gave the listener a chance to use probability in order to demonstrate their own magical powers. Here’s how the trick goes:

First, you get a group of people together and tell them you’re going to have a coin flipped 30 times. But before you do, give everyone a piece of paper and enter in columns of numbers 1 through 30. Each person in the group should then make a prediction of what a coin toss of 30 times in a row will look like. For example:

1. Heads
2. Tails
3. Tails
4. Head
5. Tails
6. Tails
7. Tails
8. Heads
9. Tails
10. Heads

And so forth.

One person refrains from writing their prediction. It is this person who is going to flip the coin 30 times in a row and write the results on their own piece of paper. They do this while you leave the room. So, in effect, everyone but one makes a prediction of 30 coin tosses, and then that one records the results of the actual tosses. You can’t see the results of anyone – predictions nor actual result – since you are in a separate room.

You then re-enter the room and gather up all the predictions plus one actual result (the reason why you have one person refrain from making a prediction and recording the actual result is so that you cannot tell due to a duplicate set of handwriting who has two sets of results – a real one and a prediction – because otherwise people will accuse you of doing this and narrowing your odds to 50/50 [1]).

You gather up the results, look them over, and correctly announce which one of the sheets of paper contains the actual tosses from amongst all of the predictions.

It’s an amazing magic trick!

So how is it done?

It’s done by using mathematics, and more specifically, probability and statistics. For you see, in the example above, the heads and tails alternate with regularity. Heads, then tails, then heads twice, then tails, then heads, then tails, and so forth. The results flip back and forth quite often because as we all know, flips of a coin are 50/50. It’s either heads or tails, and maybe we get two or possibly three results in a row. That’s what our predictions would reveal.

But in reality, a 50/50 occurrence in a coin flip will have long sequences of heads or tails. That is, we might get 5 or 6 heads in a row followed by 5 or 6 tails in a row. It’s unusual to sit down and flip a coin that often and get that result, but given 30 coin flips that’s almost inevitably what you will see in real life.

So what you have to do is look for the result with the longest sequences of heads and tails because that’s the one that will occur in real life, whereas everyone’s prediction will only have short sequences of heads vs. tails.

And that’s how you use probability and statistics to do a magic trick.

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Last year, I wrote a blog post about an old friend of mine who competed on Britain’s Got Talent and came in fifth place. Before the finale, I wrote that he probably wouldn’t win because magicians can’t beat musicians. Furthermore, I wrote that while I like magic, I picked an art that doesn’t connect at the same emotional level that music does and as a result, trying to compete in a talent show probably results in magicians coming up short.

Well, I was wrong about that.

In 2014 on America’s Got Talent, magician Mat Franco (a 26-year old magician at the time) did win America’s Got Talent. He now has a regular show in Las Vegas. I went to his site and watched several of his YouTube videos of when he was on the show, and he’s good. He’s better than I was at that age… or any age. But not only did I think he had good technical skill but he also had good showmanship, a bit of an “Aw, shucks” personality most similar to Lance Burton.

So, I guess magicians can win the talent show. But, that was a fluke, right?


In 2015 – this year (!) – there were several magicians that made it to the final or semi-finals:

  • Oz Pearlman did mentalism performances (hey, just like me!) and I can (almost) do many of the effects that he did.
  • Piff the Magic Dragon is a comedy magician that I first saw on Penn and Teller Fool Us
  • Derek Hughes is a comedy magician
  • Aiden Sinclair didn’t make it to the semi-finals but still appeared on the show and impressed all of the judges

In the past, I’ve always thought that magicians couldn’t make it far on the show, getting past the audition but getting eliminated in the round thereafter. Or, only a single magician would go far on the show. But this year, there are a lot of magicians making it through.

I guess I was wrong. A magician can do well, he just has to be really, really good.

Hmm, maybe that explains why I didn’t get through.

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I had a magic performance a couple of weeks ago and I decided to develop a new routine. I have never before performed this trick before. I like it because it is very heavy in sleight-of-hand and misdirection which are some of my specialties.


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The results are in for the 2014 edition of Britain’s Got Talent, and Winnipeg magician Darcy Oake came in 5th. I watched his act online and I liked his finale a lot. In fact, even though I knew it was a trick, it did make me a little antsy because I wondered if he was going to get out of his straitjacket in time. How was he going to get down from where he was hanging? He performed it very well. As Simon Cowell said, I think we are witnessing the birth of a star.

Darcy, however, did not win.

I don’t think that I could ever win ______’s Got Talent, or even get on the show. As I wrote before, I am not good enough. I will go one step further and say that I don’t that any magician could ever win.


Because magicians cannot beat musicians.


Long ago when I decided to specialize in magic rather than music, little did I know that if I wanted to become popular that I had bet on the wrong horse.

Why do I say this?

This is my opinion, but music “speaks” to people in a way that magic cannot (well, to be fair, that magic does not). For you see, I can listen to a song over and over and over again. But a magic effect is great the first couple of times before it loses its luster. But does a song? Most pop music does, but your favorite songs don’t (there are exceptions to some magic tricks but not that many; that’s why magicians don’t repeat tricks).

I think the reason for this is biological.

Suppose I were to ask you if you like donuts. You’d say “Yes, I do!” I ask why you like them. You’d say “Because they taste good!” I’d ask why you think they taste good. You’d answer “Because they are sweet!” I would then ask why you think sweet things taste good. You’d answer “Because… um… er… they do?”

You’d be hard pressed to explain why sweet things taste good. They just do. Why is that?

The reason is that your body runs on glucose. When our ancestors were evolving for millions of years, food was hard to come by. Our bodies evolved such that when we ate something that contained glucose, or sugar, we burned the sugar and glucose immediately for energy. Our bodies need glucose.

To ensure that we would eat it, our taste receptors that connect to our brains sent signals to the pleasure parts of our brain. When our taste buds register that we are eating sugar, our brains interpret these signals and give us positive reinforcement by releasing chemicals – this tastes good! The reason it tastes good is because our body needs it. Thus, evolution hard wired the liking of sweet things into our brains. That’s why you can’t explain why you like it. It’s a deeply implanted instinct.

Aside: the problem with us liking sweet things is that in the past, sweet things were scarce. Now they are abundant, but unfortunately our brains cannot turn off the signals that say “This tastes good.” We eat too much of it and then get fat.

Switching to music, there is a theory that music is “auditory cheesecake.” Cheesecake tastes good because it contains sugar and fat, two things that were necessary to our development. However, it contains too much of those things. Our brains can’t tell the difference, all it knows is that it contains these ingredients in abundance.


Similarly, one theory of music is that rhythmic beats was necessary to our evolutionary development and just as liking sugar got hard wired into genes, so did the precursor to music (for evidence, consider that musical preferences are different across cultures, but music itself is universal across all cultures). Some think that the intentional steps of walking together in unison while hunting on the African savannah is a precursor to musical tempo, or perhaps the rain has a rhythmic, deliberate beat to it. In any event, music is not random. It is part of our past but served a different purpose and was necessary to our survival.

However, just as cheesecake is junk food, music today is basically auditory junk food. It sounds good, just like cheesecake tastes good. But just as cheesecake doesn’t really do anything for you other than taste good (and contain far too many calories), music’s “purpose” is that it sounds good but those sounds are triggering very old parts of our brains.

This is an oversimplification and music does more than that, but the point is that it’s an instinct in the brain that can be triggered just like our desire for sugar.

This gives music an advantage over magic. Music triggers something that is very part of the way our brains are constructed. Magic is different. Magic makes you think. You need to apply logic and unless you experience other emotions that are part of our genetic makeup as a result of magic, music will always have an advantage.

Music goes straight from sound to our brains.


Magic goes from visual (plus sometimes sound) to our brains where our brains have to interpret what we see and then decide what to think.

That’s not the same thing and music has a definite advantage. Magic doesn’t trigger any automatic reflexes (for the most part). Some magic does, but it’s hard to perform and discover. To be sure, magic is entertaining. Many people enjoy it. It can trigger humor, wonder, and amazement. When it does, it is powerful. There are far fewer magicians that musicians, so scarcity works in magicians’ favor. But music has a shorter path to our emotions.

That’s why I think that a magician cannot win _________’s Got Talent. Magic is entertaining and fun to watch and I enjoy performing it. I personally prefer it over music… sometimes. But I am the exception, not the rule. People probably can’t explain why they prefer music over magic.

But I can.

And hopefully now, so can you.

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How did you do that trick?

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to perform a magic trick at a church campout.  Whereas the last couple of years I performed I did a mentalism effect, this time around I did a mentalism effect that turned into a “pure” magic trick.

The effect is this:

  • I ask for a member of the audience who has a background in first-aid.  I get them to come to the front and I hand them a first-aid kit.  The sit to the side of the stage with instructions that should something go wrong, they need top help me.  But not until then.

  • Next, I show the audience four wooden bases, but sticking out of one of the wooden bases is a sharp nail.  If it punctures my hand, it would be a very serious injury.

    I get second member of the audience to come up on stage and write his initials on a small piece of tape, and then I wrap the tape with his initials onto the tip of the nail.

  • Next, I cover the wooden bases with styrofoam cups and the cups are mixed up so that nobody, not even me, knows where the nail is.  The audience member then names a number 1 through 4 and I lift up my hand over the cup corresponding to it, and slam it down onto the cup.  Obviously, if the nail is there, I become very badly injured.

  • The first cup is called out and I slam my hand down.  But my hand is fine! The audience member then names a second number and I slam my hand down on it.  They then call out the third and final number and I slam my hand down on it, but each time I have escaped uninjured!

  • Finally, as the coup-de-grace, I say that the audience member did a great job.  But what would have happened had he called out the other number?  I then quickly raise up my hand and slam it down onto the last remaining cup.  Everyone expects me to cry out in pain, but I don’t!  Instead, I escape from that one uninjured, too!  The nail has mysteriously vanished and I wasn’t in any serious danger.  Success!

  • Originally, that was the final ending to the trick.  I did it that way in Vancouver in 2010 when I presented it for the first time at a conference:


    But for this trick, I decided to take it one step further.  The original audience member with the first-aid kit has been at the front the entire time.  I then walk over to them and ask for the first-aid kit.  We peek inside and get rid of all of the stuff in there – bandages, gauze, and tape.  But at the bottom of the kit is a nail… with tape on the tip of it… with writing on the end of it!

    I tip the box over and the nail drops into the first-aid kit audience member’s hand.  She takes it over to the other audience member.  Was that the nail you signed earlier?  It is the nail you signed earlier!  It is!

    This is amazing!  The nail that the hand-slammer signed ends up in the box that the other audience member had been holding the whole time! 

    Absolutely incredible.

There was a small hiccup in the trick that I think I got away with, and the audience member I wish I had back.  But the rest of it went pretty well.

But today, as I was walking across the field, a young girl asked me “How did you do that last night?”  I answered with my usual response – I smiled and said “It’s magic!"  But now that I think about it, that was a poor answer.  Even though I want to preserve the secret, people deserve a better, more magical explanation.

This trick is the first one that I designed specifically to use both psychology and magic.  I intentionally added parts into it to enhance the quality of the effect:

  1. Breaking the “logic” trap.

    In order to get an audience to stop thinking about how a trick is done and more “into” the trick itself, I have to get them to stop thinking logically.  The more emotionally invested you are into something, the less energy you can devote to deconstructing how something is done.

    In other words, emotion gets in the way of logic.

    This is not easy to do in magic. Some people will always care, but there are always some that don’t.  How do I get them to care? By invoking fear – the fear that I would get hurt, or the fear of seeing blood, or the fear of a serious injury.  When someone tells you of a serious injury someone suffered (such as twisting their ankle all the way around), don’t you cringe, close your eyes and turn away?  You’re not using logic at that point, you’re responding to the emotion of fear (that you don’t want it to happen to you).

    The fear of personal injury to me is the first emotion I try to create in my audience.  This isn’t really the novel part of the trick, though.  I’ve seen magicians perform this type of trick many times.  But the danger principle works.

  2. Reinforcing the logic gap.

    In order to sell the audience that there is legitimate danger involved to me personally, I set it up ahead of time.  Why should the audience take this trick seriously?  Because I am taking it seriously.  I take preventative measures up front because if something really can go wrong, I need to be prepared for that.

    At the beginning, I ask for an audience member with medical experience to help me out and I give her a first-aid kit.  I then give someone else a pre-printed map to the nearest hospital and instruct them that if something goes wrong, me and my temporary nurse will need a ride to that hospital (at the conference, I put the address of the hotel on the big screen and instructed someone to call 911 and come to that address if something went wrong).

    Why do I do this?

    Because it reinforces in the audience’s mind that something dangerous is happening. If I am taking it seriously enough to set up preventative care, then they should, too.

    This little bit – the ride to the hospital and the audience member with medical background – are new innovations to the trick that I invented.

  3. Selling the uncertainty.

    When I am up on stage and I’m about to slam my hand down on the cup, I mustn’t do it with a high degree of confidence.  I may know that I will be safe, but I have to make sure the audience believes I think I’m in danger.  How do I do this?

    I act out the emotions associated with uncertainty.

    Three years ago I learned how to read body language.  I also paid especially close attention to what we as humans do when we’re nervous.  So, when I’m doing the trick, when I’m about about slam my hand down, I act nervous.

    For example, I raise my arm and touch the back of my neck with my hand.  I purse my lips together.  I tap my leg up and down just as I’m about to slam my hand down.  My hands tremble with indecision.  At one point, I backed away and walked around in a circle with my hands on my hips the way a person may do if they were undecided (something I personally do but it’s not a universal action across all people).

    These are all actions that we, as people, subconsciously recognize as pacification techniques.  We do them unconsciously when we are uncomfortable with our surroundings or situation.  When others exhibit them we pick up on them.

    I know what body language signals the emotion I want people to think I am feeling, and so I do them.  This further reinforces the logic gap because people are empathizing with my plight at a subconscious level.

    This is an innovation that I added to the trick.

  4. The kicker finish

    Originally, the trick ended with a surprise – the nail is gone.  But after I performed it twice, I began thinking “Where did the nail go? Where should it go?”

    That’s when it hit me. It should be in front of the audience the entire time. While I had the audience member at the front at first, I didn’t give her (or him) anything to hold onto.  But what if they ended up with the nail at the end? 

    How could they get it?  By holding onto a box or something that they had the entire time. 

    But what sort of box?  A first-aid kit, because it’s something they would naturally need.

    I like this finish because it introduces something up at the beginning and then closes with it at the end.  It’s a natural finish to the trick.

    One thing I forgot to account for are the theories that people would invent for how the nail got into the box.  To the audience member with the first aid kit, it’s very clear that when it is opened, I remove bandages and gauze and stuff and underneath it all is the nail.  It’s impossible for me to sneak anything in there.

    When I was practicing the trick, I would show both my hands open as I went to grab the box.  I wouldn’t call attention to it (too obvious), but the point is to ensure that I don’t put anything into the kit.

    During the trick, I have one hand on a microphone. Then I have to do an awkward hand-off between the mic and kit and only then can I show my hand empty, if only briefly.  I do unwrap the rubber bands and you can see my hand, but it’s not as clear this way.

    I say this because some people (i.e., one person) claim I stuck the nail into box while I was unloading stuff from it (i.e., I tossed stuff out and then snuck the nail in).  This is not how it works.  Unfortunately, it didn’t come across as clearly during the show as it did during rehearsal.

    The trick “object-to-impossible-location” is a pretty common one in magic.  The idea for how to get the nail into the kit came to me as I recalled a discussion with another magician about 7 years ago when I heard the story of how he borrowed a dollar bill, and then it ends up in the pen cap of the sharpie that the audience member had used to sign the bill and he had been holding the whole time.  He explained to me the technique.

    I don’t use quite the same technique; I’m proud to say that I use some mentalism and a variant of his method to accomplish it.  My innovation with the marked nail tip – and the way it is discovered by the audience – is something I haven’t come across before. 

    Anyway, the way it worked this time – the first time I have ever tried it – was better than I had planned.  My hand-slammer audience member was genuinely surprised when his nail ended up in the box at the end (I watched his body language).

    A slam dunk!

So you see, the answer to the question of “How did you do that?” is complicated.  It combines magic, suggestion, psychology, showmanship and misdirection all in an attempt to present an amazing effect.

I think that this one went pretty well.

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Today I had  a mentalism show down in Seattle.  I had a 60 minute slot but I prepared enough material for around 40-45 minutes.

I haven’t had a show that long since… ever.  I have had long shows but never continuously.  Prior to this I’ve always broken them up into two slots.  No such thing for this one.

As I was planning for it, I went through my repertoire of effects.  What should I do?  They needed to be larger stand-up effects, not close up, so everyone could see them.  Then, they had to be routined properly.  My mentalism library consists of a lot of predictions (do something, I predicted it ahead of time) and after-facts (think of something, I figure it out later).  As I was scribbling around my notes, I re-ordered my tricks a few times because I couldn’t have too many prediction effects.  I also had to make the best stuff come at the end.

Whenever I do a show, I’m always worried I don’t have enough material.  Will I get through it in only 25 minutes and then have a huge hunk of time left over? I can practice, but practicing always goes faster than performance.  I’m not sure why that is but I ad lib a lot when I perform.  Stuff comes to me as I’m doing the show and I just toss it in.  I become more creative when I perform on stage – much more so than close up.

I was also concerned ahead of time that there would be a small crowd.  I was performing on a stage at a street festival but I knew the same caveats would apply as when I street performed before – I am not talented enough to draw a huge crowd street performing.  I can entertain some people and draw others in, but I’m not good enough to draw the crowd, retain them, and keep getting more.  It’s a technique I have yet to master.

Anyhow, I settled on 10 effects and I ended up performing 9 of them.  Here’s my mental notes:

  1. I didn’t transition smoothly – When I do close up shows, I frequently put a lot of stuff in my pockets and when trick is done, I go right into the next one.  I can’t do that with stage shows. I was painfully aware that when one trick completed, I had to go and hunt through my props to get the next set ready.  The lapses between effects felt really awkward and when it was occurring, I was thinking “Shoot, I planned this very poorly.”

  2. Microphones are awkward – I don’t have a voice that projects so I prefer to use a microphone.  But it’s hard to use a microphone and do magic at the same time because it gets in the way.  I’m always tilting your head one way or the other, trying to ensure that my voice project.

  3. Two tricks went wrong – The first four tricks went well.  I was pleased with how they turned out as well as the reactions they got.  I forgot a prop at home so I had to construct a new one before the show, but it still worked out.

    However, tricks #5 and #6 were terrible, they could not have gone any worse.  One effect involves a spectator putting an object under a Styrofoam cup and I guess it.  Unfortunately, being outdoors, the wind blew them off my table.  Why didn’t I think of that ahead of time?

    The next trick involves me slamming my hands down onto the cups in an attempt to find which one has a nail under it.  Unfortunately, I was using my portable table and the first time I slammed my hand down, the table top slipped off the base and all of my props went flying about.  A complete disaster!

    The worst part is that these two were back-to-back.  That really sucked.  Unprofessional, not up to my normal game.

    The last three effects after that went well (I mistimed my invisible watch somewhat but still went okay).  I tried out a new trick that worked perfectly (!!!) despite never being perfect when I practiced it ahead of time.  Finally, my trick where a word from a book ends up on a spectator’s arm went well.  I had to do a lot of audience management.

Because of my two mess-ups, and my not-quite-100%-Invisible-Deck routine, but still getting 7/9 effects right, I grade myself a B-.  Not bad, but room for improvement to polish off and get to A+.

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My influences in magic

During my previous post, I was reading on Wikipedia that Japanese anime director Isao Takahata influenced filmmake Hayao Miyazaki.  That got me to thinking: which magicians have influence my style in magic?

I have made this list often in my head, but this is the first time I have formally written it down.  Here they are, in order:

  1. Lance Burton

    Lance Burton is a Las Vegas magician with a smooth, ballroom style of performing.  He wears a tuxedo when he performs and he is very good at sleight-of-hand.  He did a trick on TV during the World’s Greatest Magic in 1994 which is what inspired me to become a stage magician.  I have never seen him perform live, but next time I go to Vegas I am going to get tickets (my wife can consider this advance notice).

  2. Guy Hollingworth

    Guy Hollingworth is easily the magician who most influenced my style.  In 1996, during a TV special, he did two magic effects: Twisting the Aces (where a bunch of cards flip over in his hands) and Restoration (wherein he tears up and restores a signed playing card).  I later bought his book Drawing Room Deceptions, which contained some of the most difficult tricks ever to performed.  But I learned both of those tricks that amazed me!

    Hollingworth’s style was smooth and heavy in sleight-of-hand.  It’s because of him that I wanted to get really good at it, and for a few years in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s I was really good at it.  I’m still good, but not as good as I was.

  3. Alain Nu

    Alain Nu is a magician currently based out of Baltimore, Maryland (or maybe Washington, DC).  I first saw his TV specials on the Discovery Channel called The Mysterious World of Alain Nu.  What makes Nu so special is that he is a mentalist and is what first drove my interest in the topic.

    In 2007, I saw him give a lecture to my magic club where he showed a new twist on my favorite card trick The Invisible Deck. I was amazed when I saw it because I had been doing the trick for years and this new addition was absolutely fantastic and completely fooled me (fools others, too).  I bought his book and can do most of the ones in it, and have bought other effects from him including Any Card at Any Number and The Book Test where you pick a word from a book and I guess it. I’ve learned from him than any other mentalist.

  4. Derren Brown

    I first heard of Derren Brown in 2002 but I didn’t really get interested in him until 2009 when I started switching my act to mentalism. 

    I haven’t learned many of Brown’s effects but I have learned a lot from his performing style and borrowed some of it in my show.  Out of any magician I have ever seen, I have spent more time watching Derren Brown than almost anyone else.

  5. Penn and Teller

    When I was growing up, I enjoyed watching Penn and Teller.  They didn’t have very many TV specials, I only saw them once in a while.  But they were funny!

    It’s possible that they got me interested in magic from the very beginning because of how funny they were and even today they are still entertaining. I don’t do any of their tricks or even copy any of their style, but they are fun to watch and definitely care a lot about the art.  I can’t believe they’ve been around as long as they have.

Somewhat surprisingly, David Copperfield is not on the list.  I always heard of Copperfield and making the Statue of Liberty disappear, but he never appeared on TV specials that I saw growing up.  I don’t think I ever saw him perform until 2004 when I went and saw his show live.

Another performer that isn’t an influence on me is David Blaine.  While he did revolutionize TV magic with his style of performing, I never sought to emulate him or learn any of his effects.

Finally, the performer that has had no impact on me at all is Criss Angel.  In real life, he’s a really nice guy. I think he’s a good person.  But I don’t like his performing style, and I don’t like that he does “TV magic.” If you can’t do the same trick in person as you can on TV – at least 80-90% of your tricks – then it’s not really magic.

Those are my influences.

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