How could you not be intrigued by a man who is quoted as saying, “[a]nyone who considers arithmetical methods of producing random digits is, of course, in a state of sin”?
But you would correctly ask, what does this statement have to do with magic, Las Vegas, Barry Richardson, Criss Angel, David Copperfield and Doug Henning?
The answer that would come back would, at first, be unsatisfactory.
Dr. John Von Neuman was a distinguished polymath who could speak ancient Greek, helped to determine the scientific models necessary for the first atomic bomb and several schools of mathematics. To say he was a genius is an understatement.
But it is his connection to magic and magic tricks that brings him to the front page of this humble publication.
Personally, we’re not good at book tests and don’t really enjoy watching them. We have seen perhaps hundreds over our very long life but none have left a lasting impression.
While we take pride (also a sin) in our ability to speed read books but we don’t remember every word.
But Dr. Von Neuman could memorize entire phonebooks. For real. In fact, on one occasion he recited every entry until those listening agreed he had the phonebook memorized – that was after about fifteen minutes of reciting the name and associated phone number on each page.
The late genius of mentalism, Barry Richardson would often couch his effects with a story about some incredible individual who actually lived a real life and could be identified. He would then duplicate the effect they performed allegedly by psychic powers but disclaim such powers in his performance.
We watched Mr. Richardson duplicate a demonstration performed first by a young Russian girl who could allegedly read any item with her fingertips. She would be blindfolded or perhaps she was legally blind (we can’t recall) and could, through a pane of glass held by her examiners, read the serial numbers of currency, handwritten notes and other documents using only her fingertips running along the glass. The pane of glass was used to prevent her from sensing the characters by feel.
Folks were amazed and attributed great powers to the young lady.
Mr. Richardson would then duplicate the effect, pane of glass and all, whilst blindfolded to the satisfaction of the magicians in the audience. He could then read the serial number of a bill previously offered and signed by a random audience member. The bill was signed to prevent his memorization of a pre-prepared note. It was an outstanding performance. We were astounded not only by the effect but also the story upon which it was based.
Dr. Von Neuman’s ability to memorize a phone book handed to him by a volunteer was performed as a trick for entertainment.. He used the power he had to entertain, not to boast. Unfortunately for us magicians, he apparently actually did memorize the content of the phone book and there was no trick employed; thus making this duplicate by his method.
But, by combining Dr. Von Neuman’s story with a book test, magicians could elevate the effect on audiences. In place of a book test, the memorization of an entire deck of cards ala Bob Cassidy could also benefit from the real-life story of Dr. Von Neuman.
We have performed the Bob Cassidy method of memorizing a deck of cards shuffled together by four audience members and then reviewed by us for just 15 seconds. We never had a story to go with it. It was at best a stunt or demonstration of our alleged powers.
But just think how using Dr. Von Neuman’s story in a method similar to that employed by Mr. Richardson could boost the effectiveness and interest in the trick by audiences. It would no longer be a stunt but a duplication of a talent possessed by a real person who really existed. It would therefore be possible and real.
We never claim to have psychic powers and disclaim any such ability but until today, we have never had a satisfactory story to present along with our performance. We can now move beyond “hey, look at me and my clever stunt” to “let me tell you the story of an extraordinary man with a real history who had a real talent.”
Most book test performances we have witnessed involve the apparent guess of a word selected by the volunteer from a book selected from a collection of two or three volumes. The magician asks the volunteer to select a page (either directly or through some apparently random process) and then proceeds to read the volunteer’s mind by having her concentrate on the selected word. The magician presses his hand to his forehead for effect and then announces the word or phrase with some guessing (in some methods) or directly. The volunteer is thanked for her participation and the audience applauds.
Perhaps this article is just a note for us and will be dismissed by those performing putative memorization or psychic readings. We hope that it is more than that.
Mr. Richardson’s performance left a lasting impression on us not because the effect was impossible – the solution would be apparent to most magicians – but because it was couched in a story and built to the demonstration of what was apparently sufficient to have the young woman in the story proclaimed to be psychic and exceptional.
The memory of such a presentation lasts long after the volunteer retakes her seat and we move on to the next effect. It brings the audience on a journey and leaves them with questions about the real person on whom the effect is based as well as the performer now duplicating that effect.
That’s a win in our book.
Read more about Dr. Von Neuman and his amazing skills and contribution to our everyday life through higher mathematics here.