Reading Situations: Why Strong Magic is Not Always the Goal

For the amateur performer, choosing the right trick for the right context is key to doing magic effectively. We may know some great tricks, but if we don’t speak our audience’s language, for example, then we may have to find some alternatives or get creative. While ‘strong’ magic is usually preached as the gospel, there is another pathway to performing based on quite different criteria.

The intellect wants a system or simple formula for everything. It asks ‘What’s the best trick for such and such a context?’ as if contexts come in predesignated packages. ‘Well, for context L27 you clearly want “Twisting the Aces”’. The point is that every context is unique – L27 only happens once to one magician – and so it’s impossible to say what one should do in an infinite number of unique contexts which have to be experienced first-hand. There is no system.

Turn on and tune in

Choosing the right trick is all about tuning in to the vibe of the moment, thinking of a possible trick, and then mentally playing out how it might go across here and now. We may have only a few seconds to do this. Intuition plays a big part. ‘Will these people understand? Will they like it? Will it mean something to them? Is there enough room on the table?’ These and lots of other issues must be thought about, sometimes in the space of a few moments.

It doesn’t matter what the trick is, what matters is the effect. This is an unusual concept: that it is not the trick but the effect that counts. We normally use the terms interchangeably but the effect is both the underlying magical impact and also what these people here and now will make of a certain trick – how they are affected.

Visual impact

We can think in purely visual terms about the effect. For example, ‘A Poker Player’s Picnic’, ‘The Sevens’, and ‘Effective Poker Deal’ are different tricks but all have the same underlying, visual effect. On the most basic level, all four-of-a-kind revelations are the same effect: that you have such command over the cards as to control and reveal any you desire, at will. You can, for the sake of fun and interaction, give the impression that the spectator found the cards, or you can produce them with overt digital dexterity. Whether we cut the Aces, deal them, or serve them up on a silver platter, they’re the same underlying effect, because even when the spectator cuts to them, clearly your presence had something to do with it!

When we realise this we can think more conceptually and less from within the confines of the labyrinthine world of tricks. There are tens of thousands of tricks but only a dozen or two effects. Even if we know only half a dozen tricks, it can be easier and quicker to think of an effect, which is the outer shell or mental snapshot of a type of trick, than a trick itself. Once we have thought of an effect we can choose our closest trick to achieve this.

Emotional impact

Categorising effects visually can help us quickly scan our knowledge of effects, but visual impact is not the only way of judging a trick’s suitability. Another way, just as important if not more so, is to feel the mood of the moment and measure an effect against that. Every effect has a certain unique feel or vibe, based on the human interaction generally experienced or associated with it when performing.

‘Be Honest, What Is It?’ (aka, ‘Two-Card Monte’) = shock-surprise-laughter (although we all have our own, unique experiences of this and other tricks). ‘Spectator Cuts the Aces’ has a different feel to it from ‘Magician Cuts the Aces’. Think of a trick and you also think of how people react to it. I don’t mean whether they burst into spontaneous applause or not; I mean how they perceive you and your effect. Call this its emotional impact. In a given situation, take a mental freeze-frame of the emotional impact of an effect (one that you plan on doing) and juxtapose this with the current situation. If you get a match-up – if the feeling engendered by the freeze-frame matches the current vibe – then go for it, but if you get a mismatch then try another. Sooner or later you will hopefully get a match-up.

Reading tells

We need to look at or feel the vibe of both the trick and the present situation. For example, ‘Circus Card Trick’ can be funny or biting depending on who is doing it, when, and for whom. There’s no guarantee that everybody here and now will laugh at the ending of ‘Be Honest, What Is It?’.

This is an unusual approach. We normally think in terms of doing the strongest magic possible. But there is an alternative aim, which is to do the most appropriate magic possible. Give the average magician a choice between a visual miracle effect (eg, ‘Raven Coin Vanish’) and a puzzle card trick like ‘As Many as You’ and it will ‘go without saying’ that the visual stunner is the stronger, better and more appropriate trick. But going without saying is another way of saying ‘not thinking about it’ or not evaluating the audience before selecting a trick.

Thinking in terms of a full spectrum of possible impacts will help us choose the right tricks for the right moment.

At least one must think about this proposition before rejecting it; that in certain circumstances a puzzle-trick may play better than a visual stunner. To reject it outright is to essentially admit to being a non-thinker. If an audience member has poor eyesight then a coin vanish, even the most miraculous, may not be seen. Very often a group is a mixture of personality types which is why the sensitive magician has a harder time than the egoist, whose only goal is to show off inside their own mind-space, or the hyper-enthusiast who just wants to try out their latest trick on everybody. For the latter, people are not even spectators but guinea pigs.

Magic on Mars

Try to think in universal terms, not magician terms. Certain tricks have universal appeal. The laws of physics apply equally on Mars as on Earth so a pebble vanishing should be as amazing to a Martian as an earthling. Remember that in most situations in ordinary life (I’m not including professional performing) one should forget all about what one ‘as a professional should do’. ‘But I can’t possibly do “Poker Player’s Picnic”! That’s a beginner’s trick. I regard myself as an expert.’ A real expert does not think in such limiting terms. An expert reads the audience and serves up the best effect. We’re talking about applied psychology and reading people and situations. A real expert is a pragmatist and an independent thinker, not someone limited by stereotypical thinking.

Some magicians have an agenda: ‘I only do such and such type of magic’. That’s fine. But even then one must detach from that agenda and view it for what it is – an agenda and not an ingrained part of one’s being – in order to read the moment and do the best trick from within that agenda. I’m not saying do sponge balls if you hate sponge balls (some magicians do) but stop hating them for a moment and even picture yourself doing sponge balls for a certain group to see (a) if that’s the right vibe for them and then (b) do something from your repertoire that is somehow equivalent to sponge balls.

The best trick may be no trick

There are no best or worst tricks, only more or less appropriate ones. If your entire repertoire consists of only two tricks – say Bob Hummer’s ‘Mathematical 3-Card Monte’ (with polystyrene cups) and the ‘Turning Cups’ puzzle – you can choose the most appropriate of those two. After your first trick the audience may become more attuned and amenable to you and your magic, possibly making your other trick now more suitable or effective. Do the tricks in the wrong order and the initially ‘appropriate’ trick may get no reaction.

The worst-case scenario is not doing the wrong trick but doing magic when the situation does not warrant it. This is like walking into a bar and randomly shaking hands with strangers.

To summarise, then, we should pay attention to the following points:

  • Observe closely and feel the vibe of the moment
  • Generally only do magic when asked
  • When someone says ‘Show so and so here a trick’, observe so and so’s reaction; generally assume they don’t actually want to see anything unless they press you themselves
  • Keep it simple, do something universally magical
  • Remember that a cerebral trick can give people more to ponder and talk about afterwards than a visual trick. Visual can be good if language is an issue, but it doesn’t give people much to talk about other than ‘that was clever’. Give them something to argue about: ‘I cut the cards’; ‘No you didn’t, he cut them’, etc
  • Forget what your peers might think; as Ben Earl once said to me, we imagine Marlo and Vernon are looking over our shoulder. Forget that
  • Take your time – there are no prizes for speed
  • Quit while ahead – keep it to one trick in case their request for magic was only politeness and not real interest

Our obsession with ‘strong magic’ can block our perception of what is appropriate magic. Thoughts block perceptions. A true magician is a sensitive person and an improviser based on the perceived context. This is the true meaning of interactive magic, far beyond merely ‘tricks with spectator interaction’. Most magicians are obsessed with tricks, but we need to start thinking in terms of effects, people, and gut feeling rather than the latest miracle ‘that kills’.

Full spectrum warfare

According to comments on web forums, magicians like to stun, fry, kill, or slay their spectators! Some magicians won’t leave home unless armed to the teeth with packet tricks, thumb tip, sponge balls – you name it – carried in their ‘Assassin’s Pouch’ (an actual magicians’ accessory) ready to slay any passer-by who dares show up on their trick-victim radar.

But do we always really want to ‘kill’ or stun people? Do they deserve to be stunned? Will they like it? How about intriguing or amusing them instead? Remember that being entertaining is not inherently the same as making people laugh; advocating entertainment is not an alternative to stunning them. We can – we should – always fool people, but we can do that subtly while entertaining them emotionally, intellectually, or appealing to some interest of theirs. We do this by tuning in to them as people, not by imposing our own criteria. Thinking in terms of a full spectrum of possible impacts rather than a polarised, weak/strong limited outlook, will help us choose the right tricks for the right moment, and make full use of our repertoire and knowledge of magic.

Magicians suffer from keeping up with the Joneses, but lay people are unaware of the limitations we place on ourselves such as doing the latest version of XYZ trick. The best magicians are those who cut their own path and make their own rules based on a grounded and realistic understanding of magic and human nature.

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