Magician’s Deceit Syndrome and Other Problems

I taught the ‘Geiger Counter’ card trick to a couple of nine-year-old magic students recently. The theme of the trick is that due to ‘human radiation’ left behind on a chosen card, the Joker – your makeshift Geiger counter – can locate their card. Both of the boys loved this trick and both knew intuitively that the theme was a flight of fancy (which, nonetheless had a ring of truth to it on some level: humans do emit a form of radiation; the best fictions contain a seed of truth).

I didn’t have any problem presenting this theme and there was no misunderstanding about its fictitious nature. Many magicians do, however, find patter and presentational themes problematic; not always for the same reasons. There are, in fact, many reasons why one person’s acceptable theme is another’s stumbling block, and is one reason we keep returning to the subject of patter here.

What kind of magician are you?

A close-up magician usually uses patter as presentation and misdirection, and in order to know what to say we need some kind of theme on some level, even if a general or basic one. To do that we have to know what kind of magician (if any) we are: are we a magician who summons mystic powers or are we claiming to be a sleight-of-hand expert, hypnotist, mind-reader, swindler, or just a normal person doing a few tricks?

After all, a swindler will – according to his character or job title – have different technologies available for creating illusions than, say, a hypnotist, and these methodologies are referred to in patter: ‘I’m reading your mind’ or ‘I’m misdirecting you’, ‘I’ve got superhuman powers’ and so on. The magician-persona feeds the patter and vice versa. Martin Nash, the Charming Cheat, will have different thematic explanations for his effects than Banachek the Mindreader. The same trick will produce a different effect.

Having (hopefully) pinpointed what kind of magician we are (if any; many magicians never refer to themselves as such) we come across a plethora of further problems with patter and presentation, some of which are wholly subjective and some justified. There are many possible issues and the most we can do here is look at one or two along with some tentative solutions.

What’s wrong with being a magician?

When we click our fingers or wave our hands, magic-wand style to ‘make the magic happen’ it’s obvious to most people except the very young that we are not really summoning the spirits to exert their mystical power or claiming such power oneself. It’s just part of the fun of magic and as magicians it is allowable to act out the part.

Nonetheless, one of the seeming paradoxes of magic is that there are many magicians who find the idea of magic embarrassing! Not the effects per se but the underlying claim as to how they are achieved and the ways they are presented.

It’s not that they don’t get the make-believe or the fun, it’s just that clicking the fingers or waving the hands and the implications of that are just a bit too much for them. You can see why it’s potentially embarrassing: claiming magic powers, even in a tongue-in-cheek or humorous way, is a bit silly or fey for some people; it clashes with their personality and ‘isn’t for them’. They avoid tricks with silks and soft, white magicians’ rope for similar reasons, probably.

The dreaded sponges

I know magicians who wouldn’t be seen dead with sponge balls. This, in itself, probably says more about those magicians than it does about sponge balls. After all, if a top scientist gave a lecture and the best prop available to illustrate some esoteric area of physics was a couple of red sponges, no one would accuse the scientist of being a ‘silly clown’ or whatever the accusation is.

But for whatever reasons there are professional magicians out there who do not call themselves such – they are deception artists or psychological illusionists. This may be due to ideas left over from bygone eras about magicians wearing top hats, white gloves and waving wands. In other words the whole magic thing is seen as contrived or antiquated.

We’re not particularly interested why magicians avoid the magician moniker, only that they do and they want solutions to their problem. Sometimes it’s just down to personality and the fact we live in a world of variety; there are big, burly truckers and there are dainty people making handmade tea cosies.

A more legitimate problem facing magicians in general is that claims of magic are not believable and therefore have only weak potential for mental misdirection. More believable themes have stronger potential, but these create further problems.

Fictitious patter

One way around the ‘claiming magic power’ issue is to use the modern-day mentalist’s tactic (popularised by Derren Brown) of claiming psychological phenomena as the cause, or simply to claim (often not untruthfully) that it was sheer sleight of hand; or else esoteric physics or maths, probability and so on. ‘I didn’t make your card fly magically to my pocket, I cleverly placed it there when you weren’t looking.’ But this approach creates its own problems.

For some magicians the ‘magic power’ thing (which is self-evidently make-believe) is not the problem but the fictitious patter; in particular for magicians who do not perform professionally and therefore do not have a magician’s stage persona or mask to hide behind.

For those who only perform for friends and family (and thus never call themselves magicians) the question from family members may be ‘why all of a sudden are you taking an interest in human radiation’ or talking about things out of character. There may also be problems with the patter theme itself: it may not make sense or it may not follow through logically to the end of the effect.

Fictitious patter and claims of magic power may therefore be subjectively conceived (or accurately perceived), not by lay people but by magicians themselves as:

  • Deceitful
  • Inane
  • Ineffective
  • Affected
  • Anachronistic
  • Illogical

Born liar?

Many magicians will be wondering what the problem is. Somehow, having grown up with magic since the age of nine I have been inoculated against many of these problems. Nonetheless, newcomers and even intermediate and advanced students worry about these issues, and even if some are subjective there still needs to be some form of resolution.

Finding solutions to all of them for everyone would of course be wonderful, but if the student can at least pinpoint their own, specific issues that will be a major step forward. The main problem is lack of a specific, personal diagnosis, without which one might give up completely or assume one has an overall problem with patter, which may not be the case.

Many magicians and mind-readers today dress their tricks up as ‘psychological illusion’. This technique was described by [Reginald] Scot as long ago as the 16th century. – Paul Zenon

Lie detector

We are not referring to the lie inherent either in our methodology or the pretexts we use for certain actions. We avoid directly lying (‘Your card is in my pocket’ when it’s actually inside a box on the table) not because it makes us uncomfortable but because we may be ‘protesting too much’ or stating the obvious and thus drawing attention at the wrong moment; we lie more subtly through suggestion and inference.

The problem magicians have with lying is the presentational context or theme of an effect. If we tell spectators that a deck of cards can be used as a lie detector, that is blatantly untrue. Because we know it to be untrue we need to be comfortable weaving this sort of untruth into our magic. Some magicians aren’t. So that’s an identifiable problem and we can, for want of a better phrase, refer to this as a form of deceit syndrome.

In ‘A Poker Player’s Picnic’ we might talk about how a group of people at MIT in America who discovered card-counting (advantage play) also found algorithms that sort cards out and create order out of chaos. This is a complete fabrication (albeit loosely based on a true story about said card-counters).

If you are one of those possessed of what is referred to as a ‘twinkle in your eye’ then you will get away with outrageous claims and fabricated themes because people will either swallow them whole or twig that they’re fanciful and will even play along with them. This is why we should never say ‘avoid being untruthful’ in magic. Part of the fun is the question of whether the theme is real or not.

Funny dichotomy

The issue we are dealing with for magicians with deceit syndrome is that many of them find performing stressful enough without suspect patter adding to their list of anxieties. When a fictional patter theme – let’s say your ability to visually or computationally track high-value cards in a spectator’s shuffle – spills over into an actual conversation with spectators, some of whom may be poker or bridge players, you have that funny dichotomy:

‘Well yes, I did say during the trick that you can follow cards in the shuffle, but now we are having a conversation about it, do I keep up the fiction; and if not, how do I square now-truthful statements with previously untruthful patter?’

Even magicians normally comfortable weaving fictions in and out of their patter can be nonplussed by this situation as it can open up a Pandora’s box of questions, accusations and challenges: ‘Okay, so let me shuffle the deck and then you do the same trick again!’ A concert pianist, for example, doesn’t have to worry about someone rushing up on stage and saying ‘Here, now play that again blindfold!’

Considering how people who watch soap operas talk about the characters as if they were real-life people (‘Did you hear what Beryl said to Bob last night!’) it’s no wonder some spectators are taken in by the real-sounding and yet fictitious patter we use. We cannot blame them because unlike soap actors we are performing live right in front of them and apparently talking truthfully, probably with a straight face. (As mentioned above, many lay people do immediately realise it is all made up, but some will swallow the bait.)

Stage magicians do not have this issue because (a) they will have a stage persona which conveys the fictional themes (as does the professional close-up magician) and (b) we don’t get to question them after the show about their authenticity. The informal close-upper on the other hand may even live with their spectators! The performance of ‘reading poker tells’ last night becomes the subject for interrogation at breakfast today.

On a personal level the paradox of such situations can be mildly amusing, particularly the way I have to carefully concoct answers, some of them verging on the politician’s evasive answer:

Member of public: ‘Are you going to fix our roads, yes or no?’

Politician: ‘I can assure you unequivocally that we are doing everything we can to address this issue and put road fixing at the very top of our agenda!’

Spectator: ‘But how exactly did you do that trick?’

Magician: ‘I did it very well, thank you.’

But again, for whatever reasons some magicians will do everything they can to avoid being put on the spot.

Inherent fictions

It’s actually difficult in magic to get completely away from lying unless we use symbolic or story patter (which we will get to later). For example, if instead of making false statements about a deck being a lie detector we just ask ‘Do you think it’s possible to tell if someone is lying or telling the truth?’ there’s no lie in that. But if we then offer to ‘try an experiment’ (presumably to determine the truth of the matter, otherwise why do it?) that then becomes a form of lie.

When we perform magic, like Uri Geller bending spoons in front of scientists we are performing live experiments (albeit under non-laboratory conditions). Like the scientists who were fooled by Geller, basing their verifications on false data, our spectators witness seeming verifications of the stories we tell which supposedly explain or justify the magic. We determine their card in spite of their lies, implying we knew when and how they were lying.

Truthful nonsense vs untruthful

Talking truthfully about certain themes does not help our predicament. Let’s say we have done our research and can talk authoritatively about, say, astrology. We spend a few moments introducing this as our theme. Fine; except that we’re implying that our upcoming demo is somehow authentic, because why wouldn’t it be if we are talking authentically? On the other hand, if we haven’t done any research and talk nonsense about astrology (‘Mars is conjugating with Saturn right now’) then anyone watching who has studied astrology will know it is nonsense. Either way we are lying!

The problem, then, is not the accuracy or otherwise of our patter but the way we are using patter in the first place. We are using exposition instead of conversation (or interaction). When you set out a theme, you have to explain and rationalise, and it’s this rationalisation that can cause problems for magicians who ‘don’t want to lie’.

The more expositional our patter – the longer we waffle on about some theme or other – the harder it is to backtrack later when questioned. Interactive patter can go a long way towards solving our problems with fictional themes.

Magicians are a nervy lot. – James Woudhuysen

The interactive approach

Instead of talking about lie detectors or ‘computer cards’, or the ability to read a person’s ‘tells’, we simply instruct the spectator to lie or tell the truth as they see fit in response to our questions. The theme is therefore implied; we make no claims. It is entirely up to the spectators to interpret what they witness.

Instead of talking about shuffle-tracking we simply ask the spectator to shuffle the deck but to do so slowly as we observe their actions. We are using the same theme – shuffle-tracking – but we aren’t talking about it; we are demonstrating it interactively. We are merely implying, not explaining.

When your card gets shuffled into the deck and I ask for your star sign, and then spell Aries followed by revealing your card, I haven’t claimed anything whatsoever about either ‘reading your sign from your personality’, ‘harnessing the powers of astrology’ or indeed anything at all. You are free to interpret the effect as a demonstration of astrology on some level if you wish or as a fun trick with an intriguing theme.

The lie is still there but it is only as big or small as the spectator’s assumptions about, or interpretations of, the theme. The hope is that they take it all in good fun; if they take it seriously, well…

Exposition vs conversation

‘Gemini Twins’:

Exposition: there is a magnetic attraction between pairs of cards, or some mathematical causation that you have discovered that causes the cards to come together.

Conversation: they could have stopped dealing anywhere, you had absolutely no influence over them; somehow the cards match up.

Neutral analogies

The only problem with the direct, instructional and conversational approach is that unless one is particularly good at it, it can seem wooden, barren and cold. If possible we should warm it up with some humour, analogies, the odd story here and there and any lines and gags we have picked up over the years. After all, a performance consisting of pure interaction (mainly instruction) may be fine over the kitchen table, but when we are performing professionally these added details are pretty much a necessity (both for purposes of entertainment and misdirection).

Here are two or three analogies or metaphors in connection with ‘Gemini Twins’:

‘Have you ever been walking down the street and thinking of someone, and you then bumped into them [reveal first matching pair]? But what if you started thinking of someone else, and the same thing happened again a few moments later [reveal second pair]? That would be amazing!’

‘In business it’s important to match up the right products with the right customers. Shall we see how good you are?’

‘Would you say you’re a lucky person? Shall we see?’

The themes here are purely symbolic and thus do not contain falsehood.

Symbolism and stories

We can take the idea of analogy further and make the whole effect symbolic (this form of patter does not suit everyone). In ‘Red Hot Momma’, for example, the red-backed card turning up in a blue deck represents how ‘some people stand out from the crowd’ or ‘some people feel they are different’ and so on (the ugly duckling fable).

Another option is to create an actual story, the trick effectively illustrating the story. Again, this has limited applications for the informal performer (we wouldn’t want every trick to become a story). The classic ‘Thieves and Sheep’ is one example:

‘Two thieves were hiding in a barn. At nightfall they came out and started to rustle the sheep. A light came on in the cottage so they quickly put the sheep back. The light went off. So they started rustling the sheep again. Suddenly the farmer came running with his gun. What did he find? The sheep all in this barn… and the two thieves, fast asleep in this barn.’

Logical themes

For some performers, it is not the deception in the patter that is the issue but the lack of logic. Some themes start with a certain concept which the effect promises to expand on; but the theme all of a sudden disappears mid-trick and is never referenced again. The underlying ‘point of the trick’ is therefore never realised.

Let’s say we are doing ‘The Three Piles’ (spec cuts deck into three piles, bottom cards are shown to be X cards, one is selected, it turns into selection). One possible theme is probability:

‘What’s the probability of your choosing that specific card? One in 52? Good. So now, what’s the probability that your card is on the bottom of one of those piles? Three in 52? Ok. So now, what’s the probability that that is your card? Zero? What was your card?’ Reveal it is their card.

This is fine, but there is one thing missing: what does the change into their card at the end have to do with probability? In what way is the final outcome – that their card was somehow on the table or that you magically changed a wrong card into theirs – a demonstration of probability? We start with and build the probability theme and then it stops mid-air with an ending that has nothing to do with probability. There is no logical conclusion that wraps everything up.

Even if we only add the punch line ‘Now you know why magicians don’t rely on probability!’ we are acknowledging the theme right at the end of the trick in a way that somehow wraps up the theme. (There are other solutions but we will leave it for the reader to ponder over.)

Sometimes, no rationale or theme is used at all and this can leave people actually asking ‘Why are you doing this?’ In ‘Poker Player’s Picnic’ we need some kind of rationale for moving cards around. If the MIT story mentioned earlier is too fictional for comfort, a possible theme is to mention how three has always been seen as a lucky number. That’s it! That’s why you are transferring three cards each time. It acknowledges the actions even if there is no apparent logic. (Furthermore, there is no deception in the idea that three is a lucky number; it’s an unprovable premise.)

This is what I meant earlier when I said that we need some form of theme, even a simple one that comes with no further explanation. A theme can be a mere word or phrase, the merest hint of an idea; it does not need to be a full-on exposition of concepts. Indeed, the problem with totally logical patter eruditely delivered to cover all bases is that it can rob the effect of surprise, result in overly wordy patter and can squeeze any inherent humour out of an effect.

The humour solution

Humour, on the other hand, can neutralise otherwise problematic patter. When we are doing the ‘Rising Card’ we can ask ‘Are you thinking of a light or heavy card?’ While not comedic (we are not trying to be) the question creates puzzlement and then a smile as they wonder what you could possibly mean. This becomes the theme as their card then rises mysteriously and the issue of ‘light or heavy’ becomes apparent.

Many of the problems associated with patter melt away as soon as it’s obvious we are not taking ourselves seriously. Again, in ‘Red Hot Momma’ we can go on at length about how as a magician we hate being accused of using marked cards; we then spread the deck and slowly zone in on the obviously odd-backed card in the middle that stands out like a sore thumb but is never referenced as being different by the magician. While bland on paper, in performance the humour works well.

Comedy vs humour

We are not doing comedy. Comedy is staged, sustained humour whereas humour is light, occasional comedy, and may arise naturally in real life. Both may involve false logic (at train stations you often see ‘Accessible Toilets’ signposted, but you never see signs to ‘Inaccessible Toilets’…).

Gags, one-liners, playful sarcasm and innuendo are quick bursts of humour sprinkled over the top of otherwise straight-laced performances. Deadpan humour can work well: ‘Think of a number as long as it’s four.’ The deadpan delays the joke, allowing it to penetrate more deeply before they realise it’s funny. A young magic student (Richard Brassey) invented a wonderful gag:

Laying four sponge balls on his close-up mat he asked me how many pieces of sponge I saw. ‘Four’, I said. ‘No five’, said Ricky, lifting up the corner of his sponge close-up mat. I now use this gag in every show.

A Johnny Paul gag (that magicians often get wrong) is to comment, after demonstrating some particularly difficult piece of sleight of hand, ‘…years of practice and weeks of self-denial’. (Magicians get this gag wrong by saying only ‘…years of practice and self-denial’, which robs the line of its humour.)

In ‘Call to the Colours’, during a pause in the false deals one can turn to a spectator and say with a nudge and a smile, ‘I used to work in a bank.’

The advantage we have over comedians and comedy magicians is that our humour is subtle and unexpected; we therefore use the element of surprise in the same way we use it with magic. A comedian’s job title essentially says ‘I am funny and I will [attempt to] make you laugh in a few moments from now’; hence the element of surprise comes only from the twist of logic itself not the unexpectedness of humour. This is why the ‘office comedian’ is funny in everyday life but would probably fall flat at an open-mic night.

Being a comedian is probably the hardest job in entertainment, and why many comedians use the straight (deadpan) face; to help keep the moment of the joke unexpected as it is woven in and out of straight talk. The way to become a comedy magician is to start off straight and then, noticing that people laugh at certain points, realise why they are laughing. Over probably a long period one can gradually increase those moments until the laughs are coming thick and fast.

Jay [Marshall] admits that the third step, figuring out how to present the magic… is the tough one… – Eugene Burger

The disclaimer solution

One solution to the deceit problem is as old as the hills and is so subtle it may fly right under your radar. In connection with the shuffle-tracking effect it sounds like this:

‘Some poker players claim to follow high-value cards when the dealer shuffles the deck. I’d like to simulate this for you now.’

Did you catch that? When the uncomfortable conversation arises afterwards you can simply fall back on ‘But I did say it was a simulation. Whether or not it is really possible is another matter.’

That can be our whole stance: ‘Everything you’re about to witness is a simulation and a fabrication: an illusion. Remember, in the world of the magician, black is white and white is black.’ You are now free to claim anything you like, and no special moniker (other than magician) is needed to justify this position.

The magician’s paradox

There are many possible pitfalls when it comes to patter: telling fantastic stories, being either too accurate or inaccurate, failing to provide rationales or logical conclusions, boring people or confusing them, artificially segueing from one theme to another, not being yourself and so on.

The magician’s paradox is the same as the actor’s: ‘I’m here to fabricate something right in front of you, but you will immerse yourself in that fabrication even though we both know it is occurring.’ This is referred to as the willing suspension of disbelief.

For informal, interactive close-up magicians the paradox is even more severe because we are not role-playing in the same way an actor or stage magician is; our role-playing is far more subtle and keeps crossing the line with reality. Fake patter weaves in and out of real interaction.

That, I believe, is the crux of the close-up magician’s dilemma and why many magicians (particularly amateurs performing for friends and family) find patter and presentation hard: because we are not doing magic as someone else – an on-stage character – but as ourselves, and we are struggling to integrate fictional and untruthful actions and patter into the present-moment, non-fictional reality.

The good news

If you have read this far hoping for a grand solution to all of your woes, there may actually be one. It has to do with the willing suspension of disbelief.

The solution is twofold:

  1. Avoid relying on family-spectator reactions as the benchmark not just for your successes and failures as a magician but for your role as a magician in its own right (no man is a prophet in his own land).
  2. Stop undervaluing your magic (again, probably based on said reactions). For those seeing your magic for the first time, the amazement factor in itself is enough to flip their outlook from disbelief mode into that of suspended-disbelief.

The solution, in other words, is to try and perform more, for as many different people as possible, rather than firstly trying to find solutions to problems which may, in practice, dissolve away.

2 thoughts on “Magician’s Deceit Syndrome and Other Problems

  1. Matt Dickinson

    Liking the good news at the end! I’ll keep re-reading that when a teenage son rolls his eyes as I get my cards out…..

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