Bits of Books - Books by Title

Fooling Houdini:

Adventures in the World of Magic

by Alex Stone

Las Vegas on average one suicide a day - twice rate of any other US city.

Casinos keep mathematically precise tabs on how much each table gives out - any anomaly triggers forensic exam of every player. So a crooked dealer has to make sure he takes off someone else if he's helping a confederate.

Card sharp tricks simply take endless practice. A blind guy who is never without a pack of cards in his hands - reckons he's logged more than 150,000 hours of practice.

Small touches can exert a measurable influence. A small tap on arm makes people more receptive and willing to co-operate. And simply holding a warm drink can make you feel better about person in front of you.

All scams have universal features - appeals to our desire for a quick and easy solutions to life's problems. They appeal to our greed, and exploit that little kernel of dishonesty that everyone has. And when people get greedy, they get manipulated.

Some magicians try to keep tricks secret. But in fact just about every trick has been exposed at some time. Penn and Teller will explain to audience how a trick is done, but then fool them with the same trick done a slightly different way. Even after you know the secret, magic tricks can still fool you because they exploit our brain's perceptual mechanisms.

'The hand is quicker than the eye' is completely wrong. You cannot move your hand faster than a watching eye can track. It's not that the eye doesn't see, it's that the brain doesn't notice. Magicians use misdirection - verbal, visual or tactile - to force your brain into multitasking mode, inducing a temporary impaired awareness.

Verbal misdirection can be as simple as using your name, which grabs your attention - you cannot ignore what guy is saying. Then ask simple questions - are you left or right handed? can you feel the coin in your hand? - which force you to process information and provide answer, which are cognitively enough demanding tasks to distract you from what magician is doing with his hands.

(Author uses this technique as he takes watch off victim's wrist and puts it on his own - gives vic a small task to do with the coin, which doesn't work, but then deals a quick card trick to get over the anti-climax. At this stage he says he struggles not to laugh out loud, "because your watch is on my wrist as I'm doing this trick, and you're looking right at it." But they never notice.

Continuity errors in movies. About 30 minutes into Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts' character is eating a pancake. Camera cuts away, then returns and pancake has magically become a croissant. Then in next shot it's back to a pancake again. One of about 20 mistakes in PW. But The Godfather has 56, including one where windscreen of Sonny's car is magically restored seconds after being machine-gunned at the toll booth. The point is that no-one notices - and this change blindness is fundamental to magic.

Simple trick that illustrates this. Take 8 of clubs and 9 of spades out of card pack and put them on top. Then get out 9 of clubs and 8 of spades, give them to vic and tell him to put them into middle of deck. Then ripple the pack, and voila! they're magically at the top.

Bertram Forer's 1948 test of Barnum Statements had interesting refinement. The more personal info you could get person to reveal, the more likely they were to be convinced. Those who gave day, month, year of birth were more convinced than those who just revealed year. And moderate praise works better than outright flattery. But works, because on a fundamental level, people want to believe them.

Mentalists pretend telepathy - guy out in audience picks an object and asks vic to visualize it. Then asks assistant on stage (a coded Q) to ID it. "Here, what is it?" might indicate a watch, "Here, look, what is this?" signifies a gold watch; "Here, please, what is this?" is a silver watch. Others have embedded clues, not in vocab, but in length of pauses between syllables.

Get vic to write a name or number on scrap of paper then shred with what is called a 'center tear' which lets you see what they wrote.


This is a rare book on magic: it doesn’t unmask tricks. Instead, it exposes the strange sub­culture surrounding magicians and magic and the murky realms they rub up against: gambling and pickpocketing; psychological experimentation and psychic deception. Its author, Alex Stone, is a nerdy graduate physics student at New York’s Columbia University who falls under the spell of competitive magic. These are not the Derren Browns and the David Blaines we know, but the unsung men who invent the original moves. Stone finds his guru, Wesley James, at a New York pizzeria.

James’s eyes may be “like dog tags pierced with bullet holes” but his eyes can deftly extract a card projecting from a pack by one 16th of an inch. That’s nothing, though, to the truly remarkable Richard Turner, a blind “card handler” who can feel the thickness of a deck of cards’ paper stock to a thousandth of an inch. Such talents led him to be hounded by mafia and Saudi gambling syndicates, and employed by manufacturers of playing cards.

Turner’s skills, the author explains, are also evidence of one of the more exciting recent discoveries of neuroscience. Stone is curious about the neurological and psychological explanations of magic, and he describes how Turner’s brain co-opts its own visual cortex to interpret what his hands touch. Neuroscientists call this cross-modal plasticity. To put it in the simplest terms, Turner actually sees in his mind what he feels.

Talents such as Turner’s, of course, are also the outcome of insane amounts of practice. Stone’s book is framed, in the burgeoning American journalistic tradition, as a personal odyssey, and he describes his intensive training towards the International Brotherhood of Magicians (IBM) Gold Cups in San Diego, the ultimate competition for specialists in “close-up” card and coin tricks. He begins hand-muscle drills and finger-fitness exercises. He starts executing “false cuts” and “Zarrow shuffles” in poker games with friends (one of the great pleasures of this book is its delight in thieves’ cant).

Stone then tries to get in with a “monte” gang in New York — street scammers who can relieve punters of up to $10,000 in an afternoon using three cards (or three cups and a ball). With the help of a large cast of gang members, a monte “broad-tosser” lets the punter believe he has spotted a slip, when actually the real, deadly “hype” occurs once the money is on the table. Like magic, monte isn’t a game, it’s a performance.

Stone himself learns to steal watches (but gives them back). Exploring the shyster’s world of mind-readers and mentalists allows him to reflect on “dishonest liars”, who deny they are offering illusions. He considers the sometimes cynical world of or mind-reading, and its links to corporate psychology and the tricks that sales and marketing people employ. Ever since Houdini, who was a repentant spirit medium, magicians have felt a duty to expose charlatanism. So while Stone won’t unmask magic, he will reveal exactly why Uri Geller’s spoon-bending is no more than a parlour trick where the spoon is surreptitiously pre-bent.

All this — plus the story of how Stone loses one girlfriend to his obsessive card shuffling before picking up another with a magic trick — builds towards the denouement at the Gold Cups. Stone shows precisely how his big set-piece makes brilliant use of the mathematical De ­Bruijn sequence — but it would be ­profoundly unfair to disclose whether or not it wins the ­competition. Suffice it to say, this book is clever and winning — and it’s well written, too, though it occasionally strains for a noirish tone. In turning our attention away from the magic and towards the magicians, Stone has pulled off an excellent trick.

More books on Mind

Books by Title

Books by Author

Books by Topic

Bits of Books To Impress