Dear Magic Man, Jr.: How do they do that trick where the ball floats and then vanishes or lights on fire?
Editor: Thank you for your question. As you may know, we try to avoid exposing the secrets of magic here on Inside Magic. So we won’t reveal the method but your question did cause us to look into the history of the trick you described so eloquently.
The effect was first found in a rough draft of Professor Hoffman’s Modern Magic under the title “Ball Flying and then on Fire before Vanishing.” Hoffman got into a hard-fought battle with his publisher over the trick. The book exposed many of the classic secrets of magic but the publisher was dead-set against exposing this particular illusion.
“Whilst we have no objection to giving away the secret to many tricks that make up the routines of working performers who depend upon secrecy to make a living, we object to lifting the veil on this vaguely described and likely never performed illusion. It just does not seem, to us, to be in the cricket spirit.”
“Cricket” can be used as a synonym for “fair” or “appropriate” and that sense of the word is derived from the game of the same name played by unfathomable rules over the course of days and reported on the BBC shortwave broadcasts we hear at night due to a misalignment in our jaw and the resultant proximity of two silver filings.
But according to some scholars of a magical bent, the publisher was referring not to the game but insect.
At the time of Professor Hoffman’s writing, cricket fighting (or “Grasshoppering” as it was called on some of the colonial island nations) was all the rage in the British pubs and smaller arenas. A “sport” similar to cock or dog fighting, the activity brought the bloody battle to those who could not afford the larger animals. It was considered a more appropriate activity because anyone could find or breed crickets and thus participate. Charles Darwin observed, “the elite pastime of raising cocks or terriers holds no sway for this man. Give me a common tettigoniidae and a wager, and I am a happy sailor.” (See Darwin’s Dairies here.)
The Darwin quote points out an interesting twist on the story. The British “cricket” is actually what we in the United States call a katydid or grasshopper.
In a typical cricket fight, participants would paint the backs of up to five crickets at a time and drop them into the circular arena with the entries of at least two other teams. The battle would ensue for a period of time tied directly to the relative humidity of the venue. On a humid night, the fight could be as long as five hours. On a very dry night, the winners could be declared in five minutes.
Crickets are not naturally aggressive and so they had to be bred and trained to kill their brethren. Darwin used his recently developed understanding of genetics to breed what he thought was the superior cricket – “fierce in battle, loyal to the end and always game.” Vast cricket farms sprung up around London, Birmingham and Liverpool to feed the demand for what we modern, more civilized folks now consider a barbaric sport.
By royal decree, cricket fighting was made illegal and forced underground in the 1930s. During World War II, the cricket farms were converted for purposes more aligned to fighting fascism. The insects were used in covert operations and are credited with assisting in the D-Day Invasion by giving the Germans a false sense of security just before the troopships made their landings. “Alles ist klar, wir hören die Grillen zirpen” (“All is calm, we can hear the crickets chirping”) was an entry in one junior officer’s diary on that fateful day.
To this day, the cricket is the official insect of the United Kingdom and is revered for its essential contribution to the war effort. In fact, in the Academy Award® winning film The Imitation Game, there was a scene – cut from the final release of the movie – where mathematical genius Alan Turing bemoans his inability to secure crickets to help break the Nazi enigma machine. “Blimey, if I could just rub my legs together with the efficiency and dedication of a green warrior, we would have this problem licked before you could say ‘Jack Robinson,’ guvenor!”
Professor Hoffman’s proposed exposure of the vague trick you described was vetoed by the publisher because it was thought to be contrary to the fighting spirit of that great nation. It is tough to question that decision.
We are indebted to John the Englishman for his insight into history of the United Kingdom, its valiant insects and its arguably tangential relationship to the history of magic.
Dear Tim: You wrote a whole article about how you your hands are dry. Is that supposed to be news?
Editor: Your point is well taken. As we noted in the article, the problem of dry hands is one peculiar to magicians and really only to magicians of a ‘certain age.’ In no other line of work would someone complain about their hands being too dry. We spoke with trapeze artists, dentists, massage therapists, puppeteers, door-to-door sales persons, allergy sufferers, pool sharks, professional (and amateur) hand models and high school gym class members required to climb a rope. Each said they prefer dry hands. Only magicians wish to avoid dryness because only magicians need to have the tackiness that comes with a thin sheen of perspiration necessary to accomplish astounding feats of sleight of hand.
So, yes, it is a magic related news item. We wanted to share our research and the discovery of a solution to what we thought was a common problem among our ilk. Perhaps years from now, when you are old and brittle like us, you will look back on the article with fondness.
Dear Toby: What is the most complex shuffle you can do?
Editor: We assume this email was intended for us despite being addressed to “Toby.”
We are not big on complex showy shuffles. We love to watch Dan and Dave videos – as well as those made by magicians inspired by their flourishes – but we just don’t have those skills.
We can do a one-hand shuffle with both right and left hands and have even done it at the same time. We are particularly proud because we are moving up to poker-sized decks made up of more than five cards each. It has been a long learning process but at this pace, we will be able to perform a one-hand shuffle with a full poker deck just weeks after we have died – assuming we live another 22.4 years.