Magicians Teach How to Figure Out Tricks

Inside Magic Image of a Magic Show

Some stories about magicians helping the police or military detect trickery seem fluffy and lame.  We came across an article in the Boston Globe’s The Braniac column yesterday that defied those labels.  It had substance often lacking in the publicity pieces generated by magicians in need of a headline fix.  The article “Magicians and the Military” is actually a reflection on a New Yorker piece on magician / pickpocket Apollo Robbins work with our counterdeception troops.

First of all, we didn’t know there was such a word as “counterdeception” or that we had “troops” who worked in this area.  But, despite the warning signs, we are willing to accept for the sake of argument that there exists such a discipline and specialists within said field. But let us take a second and analyze this new word.  Deception is the art of deceiving, tricking or lying.  Counter means to work opposite to or in conflict with.  So counterdeception would be a method to act contrary to a lie or a trick.  Some would call that “observing” or “understanding” but likely not “counterdeception.”  If the wordcrafters intended to coin a term for seeing past a deception or a lie or understanding how a trick is performed, they may have chosen a term like cynic or insightful or not easily fooled.

We are rarely consulted on the coining of new words these days.  We attribute this to the natural jealousy that develops within any profession — including word maker-uppers.  (How ironic that they haven’t adopted our term for the skill, wordcrafters?  Just further evidence of petty jealousy from the ivy towered, academics who think they own vocabulary.)  We came up with the term “baggage handler” in 1974 and offered it at the annual international symposium on new word combinations held that year in Martinique.  We intended for the term to define porters or service people responsible for loading luggage on planes, trains or buses.

Our term survived the first five rounds of consideration before being shot down by psychologists who worried the colloquial use of the term “baggage” could bring their profession within the term’s definition.  “Baggage” was also used to describe “superfluous or burdensome practices, regulations, ideas, or traits” — things often “handled” by therapists or psychologists in the course of their treatment.  We appealed the last-minute veto to the “bigger committee board” (they really needed to work on their own terms first, we think) but lost on a close vote.  As it turns out, “baggage handler” became an accepted, gender-neutral term adopted by those who care for luggage and so we won the ultimate battle.  The academics never forgave our impertinence and have boxed us out consistently over the years.  We are prohibited from attending their symposia or playing their reindeer-inspired games.

But we digress.  The point of the Boston Globe article and to some extent the New Yorker profile of Mr. Robbins, was that magicians can teach lay-folks how to analyze events or visual demonstrations to detect deception.

The Braniac column notes that Truth has a single face but Deception has many disguises.  The key, say magicians, is to analyze the “unrelated or anomalous” aspects of the performance and deduce what the magician does not want you to see.

One of the best-known techniques for this type of anomaly-centered counterdeception comes from magician Jeff Busby, who devised what he calls the “Ombudsman’s Method” for searching for discrepant information. In 1984 he gave a lecture at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in which he had a group of seasoned intelligence officers watch a video of a magic trick called the Sucker Sliding Die Box. He instructed them to document all the gestures and movements in the magician’s performance that seemed unrelated or anomalous to the final effect. And after several viewings – in which they stripped down the performance to everything the magician didn’t want them to be looking at – most were able to figure out how the illusion was achieved.

This is likely a stretch; a literary indulgence.  We have seen The Sucker Sliding Die Box millions of times and doubt anyone could discern its secret by merely looking for what the magician wants to hide.   In fact, of all tricks in the catalog of magic trickery, the Sucker Sliding Die Box and Hippity Hop Rabbits are two of the tricks least likely to be revealed by looking for the “anomalous” or “unrelated” aspects of the performance.  The premise of both effects is that the audience is “suckered” into believing the magician is performing the trick with an obvious method.

What is shouted during the Sucker Sliding Die Box, “No, the other door!  Open the other door!  You slid the die to the other side and then you opened the wrong door!”  And what does the Hippity Hop Rabbit performer hear, “No, turn it around!  Turn the bunny around!  No, not you, don’t turn yourself around, turn the bunny around.  Show the other side!”  In both cases, the trick is performed with no variation in the effect’s handling.

A better example of a trick that could be exposed with careful observation is Paul Curry’s Out of this World.  We have performed this masterpiece more than 500 times in our brief 45-year career and have never had a problem with an audience with one exception.  A Scottish friend of ours wondered aloud why anyone would be impressed by the demonstration.  The others gathered tried to explain that she had just witnessed the impossible — the red and black cards of a fairly  mixed-up deck were properly sorted by a volunteer blindly.  Our friend smiled and nodded.  “Oh, I see what it looked like to you.  Yes, that is a good trick.”

Because she was honorable and brilliant, she did not share her theory with the rest of the audience.  She confided her deconstruction later and was 100 percent correct.  Something in her brain allowed her to follow precisely every step and the logical consequences of each step.  At the end of the trick, there was no surprise for her.  The end made sense but did not surprise.

The similarly brilliant Bob Cassidy tackled this topic on his outstanding “Mental Miracles” DVD.  While explaining the method behind his Inside Magic Favorite Effect “Card Memory,” he actually advises performers to add a false shuffle to prevent the highly disciplined mind from discovering the secret simply by following the logical progression of the trick.  If the false shuffle is performed convincingly, he suggests, it breaks the apparent cause and effect of each action.  He tells the teach-in audience that one observer saw no mystery in the effect because what Mr. Cassidy did with the cards would produce exactly the result the audience saw.  He added a false shuffle to break the logical progression to make sure even the brilliant, keenly observant audience member would enjoy the trick.

But Sucker Sliding Die Box?  Naah.  We think the magician who taught this counterdeception topic using the age-old sucker trick was adding another layer of suckerness (if that is not a word, we hereby coin it). Still, this edition of the almost trite “Magician Teaches Law Enforcement” story has more meat than most and is worth your perusal.

Check out the New Yorker profile on magician / pickpocket Apollo Robbins as well.



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