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Teller Reveals His Secrets (2012) (smithsonianmag.com)
470 points by Tomte on Apr 27, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 144 comments

Lovely article, quick, to the point, and actually applicable outside of Magic as well. Think of some of the strategies employed in Magic as correlating to Advertising. There are techniques in each to serve goals, and, fundamentally speaking, they're both exercises in manipulation. As a Writer, these are the tools of the trade when put into words (see also: O. Henry).

It took me a while to find it, but I loved reading this article in the New Yorker about a pickpocket - goes great with this one!

>“Come on,” Jillette said. “Steal something from me.”

Again, Robbins begged off, but he offered to do a trick instead. He instructed Jillette to place a ring that he was wearing on a piece of paper and trace its outline with a pen. By now, a small crowd had gathered. Jillette removed his ring, put it down on the paper, unclipped a pen from his shirt, and leaned forward, preparing to draw. After a moment, he froze and looked up. His face was pale.

“Fuck. You,” he said, and slumped into a chair.

Robbins held up a thin, cylindrical object: the cartridge from Jillette’s pen.


That's a fantastic article, thank you. Favorite bit:

"He is probably best known for an encounter with Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service detail in 2001. While Carter was at dinner, Robbins struck up a conversation with several of his Secret Service men. Within a few minutes, he had emptied the agents’ pockets of pretty much everything but their guns. Robbins brandished a copy of Carter’s itinerary, and when an agent snatched it back he said, “You don’t have the authorization to see that!” When the agent felt for his badge, Robbins produced it and handed it back. Then he turned to the head of the detail and handed him his watch, his badge, and the keys to the Carter motorcade. "

That article made pickpocketing feel ever so slightly like running a debugger on code and halting execution, inspecting values, etc. Robbins freezes his mark's mind or attention and then make changes to their state. And they keep going oblivious to it all.

Like the article stated, it feels like he can freeze time at will.

TED talk with Apollo Robbins is very interesting as well. https://www.ted.com/talks/apollo_robbins_the_art_of_misdirec...

Anything with Derren Brown in it is fascinating as well. He's done pickpocketing, but he's also given orders to people to give him stuff.

A lot of Brown's act isn't what you think. He uses psychology and hypnosis as his form of misdirection for regular tricks. He isn't actually using psychology tricks.

Edit: If you're going to downvote facts please explain why.

That is actually how all mentalism works. It's traditional stage magic that is sold as psychology as part of the act to lower the audiences guard. It's super effective. Reading books like Corindas 13 steps to mentalism blew my mind when he goes over all of the shtick and stage magic gimmicks they employ so effectively.

True but I've heard other magicians critique him for overstating the psychology aspect.

If you're going to make unsourced bold claims expect to be downvoted or disregarded.

Sure, but hypnosis is awesome.

Derren Brown isn't as interesting (IMHO). He doesn't mind using camera tricks (e.g. his lotto prediction) and for me, that doesn't feel very clever.

Go see his live on stage shows. no camera tricks there.

I'd have to agree with you about his magic tricks. He doea blur the lines a lot and it's hard to see what he really did. In that sense all of his act is a huge demonstration of misdirection. But when it comes to hypnosis, I've never seen anything more impressive

That's because some of the people he hypnotizes are just stooges.

Ever see his show where over weeks he hypnotized and conditioned normal people to rob a bank (The Heist)? They were actors. :(

What gets me is that anybody would even believe something like that was real.

I can't find any source for this random comment's claim that they were actors, which seems like it would be pretty easy to prove. I think you've been bamboozled.

Why wouldn't it be real? Hypnosis does work.

Hypnosis only works if the hypnotee wants to be hypnotized or feel social pressure to play along, not what lay people usually think hypnotism means.

Do you have any evidence or source for this or are we expected to believe a comment from a random person on the internet ?

No they weren't?

Edit to replace first sentence: This is what I feel I really need, having just read your comment, and realised just how valuable is the filter here, to me personally. This is what I want, and what I think many would come to find they need:

Paid subscription to HN curated pay walled content.

Edit add:

This by no means has to dilute the HN culture or forum, because you can handle a separate discussion system around the curated content, to keep a clear water between HN proper, and HNdigest/talk.

I think the "brand" can handle it, out there in the wild world.

My background is in magazine publishing, incidentally. I'm professionally confident could brand and sell a glossy tech + curated digest of the MSM. Even newsstand.

I would gladly pay say twice or thrice what a newsstand glossy magazine costs, so ten to fifteen pounds a month is not unreasonable.

Cannot someone figure out a deal WSJ, Conde Nast, Murdoch et.al, will accept?

Practically just how hard is it to have a different referrer and link to paid articles, and authenticate against a HN login? If anyone is doing this or similar, please please also develop a pdf bundle delivery / digest I can read on my ride home from work. I cant help thinking how easy if would be to pitch the adverts in that.

Sorry for the ninja editing I had to clarify the above. I just thought to add, even if reading such predigested content is not for you, having a small but dedicated media operation, could do projects like accumulating the "best of" discussions, but set against a tech dictionary format a to z. I would love to have a reference to pass around for work, to current tech, with full entries listing examples of important debates for e.g. language design directions, or the systemd lark illustrated (for benefit of client management) with recent from the trenches debate. Would anyone not like to have their comment "immortalized" in a annual HN cyclopedia?

(sorry again for edits, phone not helping)

I'm a top Writer on Medium for Music and Social Media. They are trying a pivot into a subscription service and solicited me for an article pitch. If you like the kind of work I do, I do it because I love it and I only hope that monetary rewards can be tangential to the rewards I get from my work. Yeah it's high minded but I got this far by myself in a lot of ways and I like to think I've earned my standing.

HN is, like it or not, a sketchpad for me when it comes to thoughts and ideas to test on a specific market. That's why my original comment went 80+ up.

Wise man once say, people read things and invest when they believe they can learn something. Trust is earned.

I don't have a twitter account, so just re your script writing, this fellow Martin Lewis (add a dot com) was friends with my late business partner, who said Martin was a go to sounding board / interface, for selling early stage scripts. I never met him, but my given appreciation was of a very open, if busily scheduled, self styled imposter in Hollywood, who (at least for some time) kept sharp at pitching movie treatments, in order to be able to start warm on his own projects, or as agent. Anyone my late partner knew was both super cool, tolerant (as said to me, of my fiercely artistically sensitive friend, who also took a very difficult route to his success) and left field enough to be always alert to the vivacity behind what may not be first understood. All I can say, is i wish I'd met Martin, and could offer a warm lead, but you know probably, almost certainly by now, just how to go in cold with the right attitude, so I wish you the best luck in hunting, generally. I just skimmed your relevant piece on Medium, and came right back, lest I forget. If by off chance you think I myself ever could assist, please don't hesitate to email. For myself, I claim nothing, but I apprenticed to a extraordinary talent manager, and I'm always happy to try to squeeze out what I absorbed.

Replying in reverse order:

True, I enjoy the openness combined with conciceness / on topic habits, especially here at HN. My idea was not to reprint HN save as a cutaway box, maybe with 2d barcode links, to provide context for the written article that takes survey of, e.g. HN as a measure.

The value to the reader, is that by showing the original thoughts & debate, the reader can clearly see they are not receiving stale material, bounded by the three to six months print magazine lead time.

My editorial approach is to build ground up. Top down is the publishing (and programming) tradition: Plan, project, design, assign, assemble. But HackerDigest's approach i would be a clean slate, monthly: Follow discussions, cross reference trends, back check technical factors in the debates, especially not overlooking edge cases; compile overview; write synopsis; commission to journalists who can turn around fast, alongside seeking major vendor comment (something that would help drive advertising pitches) and publish.

I'd love to read your work, but I'm on mobile this holiday weekend so will probably have to wait until I'm home. However you seem to have simply stated how it can be hard, to become a paid writer, especially off your own bat.

That's a truism, I'm afraid. I've been frequently published, but under the unnamed title imprint (like The Economist, not yet unfortunately The Economist, a good school friend eventually strained at that limit with them, and his next told was surprisingly public. I don't know how hard it is to get good writers to forgo byline at least..but certainly that newspaper can.) Or as a ghost, more frequently for advertorials under a CxO's name.

I think my proximity to the profit centers in publishing, helps massively. I started in publishing, because in 1993, a fast growing stock market darling, had no sales who understood what multimedia was, so I got hired with almost a "start now" exhortation. I started next working day.

I say that, because -- at least in print -- I learned the financial constraints quickly (befriended by a ex PwC fellow who quit partner track off a first class math degree, because he rightly identified the optimization opportunity in print media, set against internet threat)

So I was first published when the pagination left space spare, and a advertiser who I had sold by comparing how their tech worked vs a forthcoming competitor ipo, and got their ceo to take the space if we could turn around advertorial fast enough to meet copy date. They already had display adverts, so this was the only thing that made sense.

As you know, highlighted even, possibly, by Medium, the economics of writing for online journals, is radically different.

Despite this, print has not - trade journal claims are misleading - fallen as significantly as you may believe. Traded forward, print ads in magazines, discounts to a $TLN market. I help super verticals,and trade association titles, discover sell side alpha. Why the trade press dismisses the print market, is a combination of traditional buy side monopolism, and the online advertising business lately being described by the outgoing CEO of Mediacom, as "criminal", no qualifications of that word.

Fascinating. That article held my attention all the way through. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but it's probably the longest article I've read 100% of for months.

And now where is your watch?

On his shoulder, no doubt! Glad to have shared some great literary journalism. Seeing other people enjoy something I find of high quality is encouraging to say the least.

>“When I shake someone’s hand, I apply the lightest pressure on their wrist with my index and middle fingers and lead them across my body to my left,” he said, showing me. “The cross-body lead is actually a move from salsa dancing. I’m finding out what kind of a partner they’re going to be, and I know that if they follow my lead I can do whatever I want with them.”"

Oh wow, maybe Donald Trump is a pickpocket!

Until I looked it up I definitely assumed you were quoting Art of the Deal.

Actually, Trump is checking how firmly the person's arm is attached. If he can manage to rip it off, they'll put up less of a fight with only one remaining.

"Your bloody arm is off!" "No it isn't!"

- Monty Python

Another really great New Yorker on the topic of Magic is this profile of Ricky Jay:


Teller is possibly one of the greatest living historians of magic. Once got a chance to speak to him at the bar of the Oxford Union once, and he has an absolutely encyclopedic knowledge of almost every trick, turn, swindle, deception, racket, illusion, con, prop and misdirection technique that mankind has ever invented.

Absolutely astonishing when he's in full flow.

I did ask him if he ever saw a trick that he didn't immediately know how it was pulled off, and he said yes: the first time he saw David Copperfield's circular saw trick. Then apparently Penn Jillette got Copperfield so trashed that he eventually gave the game away.

Penn & Teller do have a show called "Fool Us" where a magician performs a trick for them, and then P&T try to guess how the trick is done, immediately confirming their accuracy with the magician. They're quite good, but they're also "fooled" reasonably often.

Although maybe that just makes for better television... ;)

Well according to the rules, if their first guess is wrong, they are considered fooled. I'm pretty sure they have the right guess for all of them somewhere on their list of possibilities. There have been a couple where they very convincingly look fooled though.

A very good and memorable one where they were very fooled was Shin Lim's card act [1]. As is common with card acts that have someone from the audience pick a card, he has them sign their card. Before moving on with the amazing card manipulation, he makes the pen disappear. According to Teller (as reported by Penn), "We didn't even know how you vanished the motherfucking marker".

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAN-PwRfJcA

That may be the most impressive magic performance I've ever seen.

Yeah, sitting here rewinding dozens of times on Youtube I can see a couple of his tricks. But they all require insane dexterity and coordination. We see in the intro that he's capable of that, which I guess he could have skipped if he wanted to conceal that for us. And that vest of his is clearly not ordinary at all. But I think almost getting it makes it even more impressive really, which is why I think he hints at some of it. It's pretty beautiful.

Can you elaborate on some secrets you found?

Every time he's making the marker disappear he's making small movements with lots of energy in them - he's clearly throwing the marker, and he's throwing the marker so that it's path is obscured by his hands. I'm speculating that it lands inside his vest. That must have taken an insane amount of practice.

He's also moving a card from one side of his body to another. Later he's moving a card back the other way. My bet is that his vest has some sort of mechanism for moving cards. He moves very awkwardly while doing it, so he's certainly doing some complicated procedure we can't see. He could of course be throwing the card, deflecting it with the insides of his hands or otherwise creating a very curved path, but that's just barely plausible.

Anyway, this guy's Dex score is insane.

You should have a look at Lennart Green's cards.

He did a demo of his skills at TED: https://www.ted.com/talks/lennart_green_does_close_up_card_m...

For impressive street magic performance, there's Cyril Takayama.


Yeah, in one episode the contestants optimized for the benchmark and purposedly faked a sloppy move that could explain the trick, but wasn't the real method they employed. P&T went for the obvious move and got fooled.

I think you are referring to Jay Sankey's appearance on the show. He has a YouTube channel where he teaches magic in a manner that I think any engineer would respect. I first discovered him watching the video where he discusses his appearance on the P&T show [0].

I have been watching a lot of his videos since then. I doubt I'll ever learn to do any of his tricks 100% but I find his commentary on the social aspect of magic very interesting.

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSIijZf2GiQ

That's brilliant. Misdirection within misdirection.

There was one episode where they didn't even make a guess. Penn got really pissed off and said something to the effect of, "Fuck you, I have no fucking idea how you fucking did that!" Not sure if the anger was real or a put-on but it was a lot of fun to watch. Just thinking about it is making me smile :-)

That was real! I mean he wasn't really angry but he really did have his mind blown.

The backstory is that the magician in question (Kostya Kimlat) did a trick that Penn & Teller also do, and he did it more or less the same way they do it - except that at the end, at the part where P&T do the sleights that make the trick work, in Kimlat's version the effect was already done because he'd done a different sleight, earlier, about five inches under P&T's noses. It was pretty glorious.

The trick: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SCFXV6o7cro

Penn talking about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MuKail7Jwwg

Yep, that's the one. Wow, what an awesome trick! And the back story is great. Penn's reaction now makes a lot more sense.

Oh man, that is devious. You can just barely see the finger-work from the camera's perspective; but Penn and Teller didn't stand a chance.

Can you tell me the timestamp in the video where something happens? I'm at a complete loss.

The action is when he runs through the deck for P&T to make selections and return them. Literally right under their noses.

I think his move is at 4:04 in the video, when he cuts the deck, saying some cards are face up, some face down, and Penn groans at his patter.

Edit: I think the actual trick starts at 3:49, when he asks Teller to insert his card, either face up or face down. The move at 4:04 finishes the trick and it's done.

This is great, I love watching magic at 1/4 speed. I think he's sorting the cards into a face up and face down half and puts the two picked cards in the opposite half. It looks like he sorts faces up on the top half and faces down on the bottom. He might even have left the top card face down so the deck looks more unsorted because he flips it during the 4:04 move. Then he flips the halves which results in a sorted deck with the picked cards flipped.

Yep, you got it. The trick happens entirely during that fan-out of cards that Penn and Teller are inserting into. The trick is that Kostya's bottom hand is not a passive receptacle but is actively reaching out underneath the deck to grab any face-down cards and pull them onto the bottom, but he's practiced it so well that it doesn't look unnatural or jerky. The "into" hand is holding in order:

    1. a few face-down cards on top to make it look like it's still mixed,
    2. all the face-up cards plus Penn's card, which went in face-down,
    3. all the face-down cards plus Teller's card, which went in face-up.
At 4:04 Kostya does a simple move which Penn and Teller are totally allowed to see which reorients these; indeed, Penn's bellow at 4:06 is apparently because he was 100% convinced that this was going to be a "blink and you'll miss it" trick: maybe swapping out the deck, maybe the cards are not perfect rectangles and he can separate them at will, maybe a dozen other ways he knows to get the same illusion -- but instead he just saw the guy turn half of the cards over, meaning that they were already split into face-up and face-down: and he had totally missed it because the cards seemed to move so naturally and the hand underneath was 100% totally hidden from him.

The moves start earlier than that, from when the cards are being selected through to when they're replaced. Penn's groan at 4:06 is because the move at 4:04 tells him that the up/down cards are already separated and the trick is already finished.

> Well according to the rules, if their first guess is wrong, they are considered fooled

That plus they only get half a minute (usually less) of discussion time to figure it out.

I think the only reason they get fooled is that they're time limited to come up with a solution and only get one shot at it. 99% sure it's not 'just for TV' as they did the original series in the UK and as it's a competition (which is highly regulated) they said there were lots of rules in place to ensure it was real and not set up or anything like that.

Being a huge P&T fan who's watched them all, of the tricks where they get fooled there are a small handful where someone just flat-out, stone-cold bewilders them. But there are a lot more where they clearly know pretty much what's going on, but either they take a 50/50 guess and miss, or there's some hangup about wording or somesuch. But definitely I agree that they don't miss on purpose for TV reasons.

Deliberately taking advantage of that 50/50 guess is one way to improve your prospect of winning on Fool Us.

Have a trick that could be done in several different ways. P&T propose one method, and if that wasn't the way you did it, then you win.

DO N tricks of that sort in a row for a chance of 1 - 1/2^N of fooling them!

Agreed. I happened to watch a video earlier today of one (from the US series) and it seems like one that really does fool them [0]. Worth watching if others haven't seen it.

[0] https://youtu.be/3gpq4ML2DDo

Think he dipped each card in something seperately and memorized the taste for 52 cards?

I did a little Googling after I watched and supposedly he has denied several potential methods, with that being one of them.

Yeah, the "ideal" format would be something more like Mythbusters, where they get to go off and try various things for days/weeks (shown as a montage), and then come back to the magician with their best shot.

I'd bet if they did that they would figure out how 99.9% of the tricks are done and it wouldn't be much of a competition. It would be cool to see though, particularly if they explained the method.

Penn has talked a few times on his podcast Penn's Sunday School about the format. The idea is to showcase magic on TV, but in a way that reassures the viewers that there isn't any camera trickery etc. "If Penn and Teller are trying to figure out how it is done, why would they let them do camera tricks?" To that end, they don't need time to go away and figure it out; a couple of minutes is just fine.

How often are P&T's guessed solutions better than the real ones?

The default case is the that the contestant's trick isn't original to them, and Penn just gives the trick's trade name or its inventor's name, obfuscated a little, and the contestant grins and waves goodbye.

When P&T actually make a guess about an original mechanism, sadly Teller either whispers it or draws it on some paper that they then dispose of in some suitably flashy way. (He's usually right of course!)

They're kind of vague on what the solution is since they don't want to give it away to the audience so they just kind of say a hint. The attempted fooler will generally understand what they are getting at and say if they are correct or not and there are some judges listening who know how it was done as well.

Unless the contestant is an ass about it, in which case they blow the secret wide open. That part's fun too.

Yeah, I think that's just for TV. Ain't no way Teller's getting fooled by any fresh-off-the-cruise-liner cabaret magician.

Those guys do come on the show, and very rarely win.

The winners are most often low-profile professional magicians who make a significant income consulting for the famous ones. Inventing and selling tricks is an important revenue stream for many magicians.

So they come on, do some trick that they invented in secret and worked on for years, and give P&T that same childlike sense of awe and amazement that the rest of us experience almost all the time. It's the best part of the show.

Like this guy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyZp4sPqBAI

I thoroughly enjoyed this reddit AMA[0] with a Rubik's Cube magician who 'fooled' P&T.[1]

[0] https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/3d5wlc/hi_im_steven_b...

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwDAXC0_Bxk

Huh, I never thought about "consulting magician" as a career. Sort of like the professional songwriters who work for music labels, ghostwriting for dozens of bands.

Given that these exist, I wonder how many magicians with a signature trick got it from a consultant instead of inventing it. Are a few people creating all the world's magic acts?

You should watch Jonathan Creek - a murder mystery series about a consulting magician. Pure fiction but rekindled my childhood interest in magic. I'm currently, slowly, teaching myself card magic now. Starting with The Royal Road.

In this case it's difficult to tell. A lot of small time acts hit it big with their one REALLY good trick they develop, or just good enough showmanship that there's reasonable doubt.

I've watched the show a few times and I don't know how carefully detailed the rules of success vs failure are, but on a few instances, Penn and Teller announced they had a fair idea of what tricks were being done but couldn't really place it in an acceptable order or say the how/when.

So even if Teller is the magic encyclopedia, he can be fooled, it seems.

I was at a startup conference a few years back where they did a fireside chat with Copperfield. It was amazing.

He talked about how he had to constantly work to stay ahead of the audience, to recreate and create new concepts and tricks, and how to continue to appeal to groups as the technology available and interests changed. Some of it was marketing 101 but the vast majority was someone who was truly dedicated to mastering his craft and making it "look easy" while making it incomprehensible to everyone watching.

Echoing your point, they actually have a documentary called the Magic and Mystery Tour http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0398512/ where they travel the world seeing different magic acts and searching for the first documented magic trick on record. It is fun if you can find it. Last time I watched was on a physical DVD years ago, but maybe it is online now.


That was the first time I heard Teller speak.

Many years ago I attended a small scientific conference that P&T were also attending. They weren't presenting; they were just in the audience listening because they're interested in science. One presenter was having great difficulty with the A/V equipment. This went on for about 10 minutes and the audience was growing frustrated but we were all too polite to say anything. Finally one guy stands up and says -- very loudly -- "My name's Teller and I'm a professional magician and I know a little bit about A/V equipment. Would you like some assistance?"

The guy has no problem speaking when he's off stage.

I remember going to a show and meeting Teller afterward. It was the same voice that I had heard during a piece where a voice was doing some narration over the PA (IIRC during a piece that Jillette does onstage alone).

So if you've ever seen a full P&T show, you probably have heard him speak. Just not onstage.

Now that is a good trick!

One of the best conference talks I've ever seen (from any sort of conference) was Teller gave the keynote at IdeaFestival a few years back (IdeaFestival is a somewhat Ted-esque conference held in Louisville, KY). From what I've heard Teller has only delivered this talk in a few unrecorded keynotes over the years and I'm still grateful I managed to get a front and center seat for this talk.

In the talk, Teller walked through the entire history of a single trick from both directions: his history in finding and learning about the trick, and the history of the trick's development and evolution from magician to magician.

An interesting takeaway is the interesting frisson between the need of magicians to be public figures and broadly advertise (and televise) and yet their need for some secrecy in the details of their work. You can often see the evolution of a trick across advertisements and filmed portrayals of a trick: they are open secrets of a sort, because magicians want an audience. Few professions are so deeply secretive and yet so deeply and publicly documented.

The biggest takeaway, though, was a deeper appreciation for the skill often required to learn a trick, the incredible amount of dexterity and practice required until you can make it look easy, until you can make it look magic. That you can know the entire history of a trick and every detail of how it was performed and not accomplish that trick without years and years of practice.

Teller stated his hypothesis of that talk was that for some tricks, knowing how it is accomplished and seeing a trick decomposed into component parts doesn't lose all of the magic from a trick because you get the corresponding magic of that appreciation of the skill and timing and dexterity needed to pull it off, to run through all of the parts in quick enough succession.

That's something that you can see Penn & Teller often play with in their act, revealing the components of an illusion explicitly, just before or just after combining them in thrilling ways at a full pace. That continues to marvel even knowing everything about how it is done.

I often wonder if Penn & Teller sometimes think the magic field is too secretive for its own good. I think it's interesting how much in their act they seem to imply that the best magic is the magic where you know what is going on and it is still magic to watch; that it is not the secrets of magic that make it compelling to watch but the human skills of elocution and drama and timing and dexterity.

ETA: Obviously a lot of the talk I saw is a little more coldly direct in the article here than as I saw it presented, but I felt like waxing poetic on the same subject.

Your comment reminds me of the bit of the magician, who I believe was David Blaine, that puts a needle through his arm. No real "magic" involved there, he literally spent months impaling himself to build up the scar tissue necessary in order to stab himself in the hand and other appendages without bleeding. Even if you know the medical possibilities behind it and that something is physically possible doesn't make it any less impressive.

Penn and Teller usually show you how a trick works the simple old way (like by using transparent props), and then do the trick again in a mysterious way that you can see is NOT being done the way they showed you.

> the first time he saw David Copperfield's circular saw trick

I believe that is this one:



* Before closing the box, his arms look weird (position, but also from his back)

* his fists are always closed

* he can't really move his arms (probably fake arms), the helper take his hands to put them in the handcuffs

* When the box is being closed something weird happens, you can see his hands getting back inside

I don't think the hands have anything to do with it:


Thanks for posting that! You can definitely see something weird with his hands though.

Does this by default, make Copperfield the greatest living magician? If he can trip up Teller, that's saying a lot.

I also read he was mugged at gunpoint a few years back and used used sleight of hand to save his wallet. I'm both impressed and horrified by that. I don't think antagonizing a armed criminal was within his interest, but at the same time its crazy he pulled that off under that pressure.

I also have a small interest in magic and a little research goes a long way. I recently saw acclaimed Chicago magician Dennis Watkins perform up close and most of those tricks were obvious to me, I mean his showmanship was excellent but once you understand how common magic works, its really hard to be fooled by it anymore. I was stumped by perhaps two or three tricks. If you like magic, don't read about how its done. It completely ruins the experience on a certain level. On a 'enjoying the craft of others' level, Watkins was unbelievably impressive and recommend him to anyone interested in magic.

Copperfield has since admitted using slight of hand to save his wallet at gunpoint was dumb. But it's really cool to know he did that. :)

I agree that learning magic can take away some of the mystique but having practiced it off and on since I was a kid, I can appreciate it for the art form that it is now. Which is why it infuriates me when some loud asshole announces, "It's in his pocket!" when a trick is done. It's everything I can do to keep myself from yelling back, "STFU and let an artist create his art!"

I agree, but would be remiss if I didn't say that Ricky Jay is the greatest living historian of magic.

For all Ricky Jay fans, this (very old) profile in the New Yorker is excellent:


Penn and Teller have a show called FOOL US where sometimes they say they have no idea how the person did it!

Great article.

If you find magic interesting, I highly recommend you search YouTube for Penn & Teller's material. There are not only a lot of tricks to be seen, but also plenty of speaking appearances where they talk about their philosophies and their art (and yes, some where Teller speaks!).[0]

One thing that is special about their approach is that they like to make the audience aware that it is a _trick_. In fact, in some instances, they repeat a trick two times, revealing how the trick was done in the second go-around[1]. My very favorite P&T trick actually shows how the trick is done the first time![2]

What's amazing is, the second time you watch it is no less fun. And they know that. They have the firm belief that magic is entertaining because it is an intellectual exercise. It's not that you think magic is real. Rather, you know you're being tricked, but you can't quite figure out how they've done it. Showing how some tricks are done keeps that awareness alive.

This is in contrast to some magicians--David Blaine being a famous example--who believe it is their job to convince the audience _they are actually doing impossible things_. If you watch some of the P&T talks, you'll see that they discuss that quite often.

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5siSa4A9M_Q

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PoDhuIp3I0

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wbDYjAeXMK4

(You can tell you are on HN when people number their references from zero instead of from one)

I love the Cup and Ball trick, where they repeat it again with clear cups.


Adding to that, if you like card tricks (magic?) you should check out the movie Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants. It's on Youtube, and is one of the most mind-blowing bits of slight-of-hand I have ever seen. It helps that Ricky Jay is also a stupendous performer, and very well versed in the history of card tricks.

I think I first heard of the movie from someone here on HN, and I have shared it with all my friends, who all agree it is amazing. Even people who have no (initial) interest in magic are captivated.

There's also a good Ricky Jay documentary called "Deceptive Practice" that used to stream on Netflix, but now is DVD only, Amazon, etc.


Perhaps not known by the younger audience, but Penn & Teller helped Dennis Ritchie and Rob Pike perform a practical joke at Bell Labs:



Teller illustrates some of these principles in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5x14AwElOk

Bonus: He speaks!

I refuse to seem him speak. He's made some sort of otherworldly bargain, I just know it. Like Odin trading his eye for wisdom, Teller traded his voice for magic. Or maybe Penn traded Teller's voice for magic. I could see that.

FTA: When I cut the cards, I let you glimpse a few different faces. You conclude the deck contains 52 different cards (No. 1—Pattern recognition). You think you’ve made a choice, just as when you choose between two candidates preselected by entrenched political parties (No. 7—Choice is not freedom).

Subtlety is good here. He's teaching us neuroscience and politics at the same time. :-)

Well... subtle isn't the word I'd use.

> Every night in Las Vegas, I make a children’s ball come to life like a trained dog. My method—the thing that fools your eye—is to puppeteer the ball with a thread too fine to be seen from the audience. But during the routine, the ball jumps through a wooden hoop several times, and that seems to rule out the possibility of a thread

The trick in question: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhnATlPdG6A

For this trick, Penn tells you at the outset that it's done with thread. Which naturally adds to your belief that it isn't done with thread, especially when combined with the hoop trick. After reading what Teller wrote, part of me is still suspicious that he's lying even there.

> just as when you choose between two candidates preselected by entrenched political parties (No. 7—Choice is not freedom).

This. This and gerrymandering. Politics is run by magicians.

> Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself.

We are still far from a true democracy, yet have told ourselves we are already there.

> When a magician lets you notice something on your own, his lie becomes impenetrable.

Looking grim :(

> Then I manufacture an entire deck out of duplicates of those three cards. That takes 18 decks, which is costly and tedious.

Ok, so far so good.

> When I cut the cards, I let you glimpse a few different faces. You conclude the deck contains 52 different cards.

Well, you'd have to cut the cards very precisely then, and you can only show three cards. I'd say the subject would sense something is fishy here.

> You think you’ve made a choice, just as when you choose between two candidates preselected by entrenched political parties.

Really? This is getting interesting. But where is this trick explained?

> Well, you'd have to cut the cards very precisely then, and you can only show three cards. I'd say the subject would sense something is fishy here.

He doesn't mean that he cuts, shows three cards, and says "as you can see, the cards are all different", or anything like that. He means that he handles the cards loosely, as if it doesn't matter whether the spectator sees the faces, and what they do see is enough of a jumble that it doesn't just look like a deck of 52 queens of hearts.

> But where is this trick explained?

That was the whole thing. Note that the spectator reveals their chosen card before he does the mime, so naturally he mimes the card going to wherever their chosen card happens to be.

I believe the cards are face down when you choose them (which gives the impression that the magician doesn't know which cards you are picking).

What is not explained is how the magician determines which of the 3 cards was actually picked.

You tell him. The trick is that the has your card in his wallet or his shoe etc.

> Well, you'd have to cut the cards very precisely then

The first eighteen cards are QH, the next eighteen are AS, the last eighteen are 3C. You only have to be precise enough to cut to to the top third, middle third, bottom third.

Whenever I hear a magician explain a trick I can't help but think it's another misdirection.

Misdirection all the way down...

I saw Penn and Teller live when I was much younger. At one point in the show, they announced that they were famous debunkers, and were therefor going to explain exactly how the next trick was performed. They went through it step by step, with Penn talking and Teller demonstrating. Then, of course, they ran through it again, repeating the patter and performing all of the same apparent motions but with wildly different magical outcomes. It was phenomenally well executed, and really left me reeling at how completely they were in control of the experience.

If you can see them live, I highly recommend it.

A really good magician will make it look like magic even if you know how it's done. And a really really good magician will make it look like magic even if you can see how it's done. P&T do the venerable cups-and-balls with transparent cups so you can see exactly how it's done, and it still looks like magic. Or at least like a ballet.

Copperfield has all his illusions patented but even the patents look like piles of misdirection https://www.google.com/patents/US9017177?dq=Copperfield&hl=e...

"Nobody thinks that magicians will work this hard to fool you." - Jamy Ian Swiss


What I find fascinating is that it doesn't matter if you know the trick, you will still get fooled.

"The method is not the trick" — Jamy Ian Swiss

I was thinking this would be about thermonuclear weapons. Had my coffee poured and all..

Yes, I was wondering the same. What were Edward Teller's secrets?

This reminds me to finally finish reading "Dark Sun" by Richard Rhodes.

I think "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" was one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read.

>7. If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely.

Video game designers especially should take note of this one!

Your choice is: Press X or have to do the QTE again. Be happy we gave you that much.

If he ever runs for political office we will have no idea whats about to happen.

Ah, so like Trump then.*

(*Regardless of my personal feelings, I'm not even being judgemental. His campaign effectively kept the media and opponents on their heels during his campaign.)

> 7. If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely.

Dan Ariely has a great talk on "decision illusions"(1) that goes into more depth on this topic. He starts off with visual illusion as a metaphor for rationality:

"So if we have these repeatable and predictable mistakes with vision, which we are so good at, what's the chance we don't make even more mistakes with something we're not as good at?"

(1) https://youtu.be/9X68dm92HVI

I was lucky enough to personally inspect, on stage, their "double bullet catch" trick. Chatted quietly with Teller in the process, inspected the gear, marked the bullet & case, watched Teller fire it, and had Penn spit the bullet back into my hand. I know guns & magic, and don't know how they did it. http://www.donath.org/Rants/PennTellerBulletTrick/

I remember reading this article a while back, and this phrase in particular stuck with me:

> You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest.

There's a strong analogy here I think with how computers are essentially magic: CPUs do very simple things just insanely fast, essentially investing way more "time" than you as a human could consider putting into a task.

Besides misdirection there is also a lot of plain training, if you are into card tricks you will find this video quite entertaining


it is amazing how he can just say "I am picking up X cards" or "you put card in position Y", that must've taken a LOT of time to learn how to do...

I spent a few hours trying to learn how to gracefully lift two cards off the top of a deck as if I took only one card. A few hours later, I was just starting to be able to tell the difference between one card, two cards, and three cards against my thumb without looking. My conclusion was that I was at least many more hours away from being able to consistently lift two cards and yet more hours away from making it look like one.

After trying to learn this one single trick for so many hours, I have nothing but respect for people who can do it on stage.

> "We often follow a secret move immediately with a joke. A viewer has only so much attention to give, and if he’s laughing, his mind is too busy with the joke to backtrack rationally."

I've seen this same trick used a lot, by self-serving people who want to convince others of a lie when it's especially not in their favor. It seems very manipulative and wrong.

Which I guess is the point of magic. Manipulative, but delightfully right :)

The final explanation doesn't entirely follow with "more effort than it is worth". There should be three decks - each with one card removed - and you cop the "proper" deck with the chosen card removed. Don't want an attentive observer to realize three cards are missing from the deck and not just their chosen card. It would be more difficult to hide two additional decks of cards but it gives the trickee one less way of spotting the trick.

I'm heavily interested in trying to 'spot' magic tricks. So I'm always looking for the sleight of hand or what contraption could have been built to 'fake' a trick. P&T are masters of the craft because they really take the "more effort than it would be worth" to heart. The things they do are usually things I'd never have even thought of - or dismissed because I think it would be too difficult!

Which is why some of David Blaine's "tricks" are so amazing to me [0] [1]. Because there is no trick some of the time. He is actually swallowing frogs and keeping them in his esophagus and then regurgitating them back up. Something I intuitively think is impossible, even if I'm aware of 'regurgitation magic'.

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0fylxoxC_o

[1] Explanation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPE928xUKL4

David Blane is more about straining the limits of human endurance under strikingly abnormal conditions. His TED talk was interesting, and when he talked at length about how various stunts had the risk of brain damage ... you could tell.

Penn & Teller's bee trick was a similar thing. In one of Penn's books, he explains that the actual trick wasn't to not get stung, but to be stung hundreds or thousands of times without giving any indication that it was happening. His body ended up having a pretty massive reaction to all the stings, so much so that skin on his scrotum peeled off.

Shook his hand after a show in Vegas one time years ago. He's genuinely a super friendly guy. And such a damn good showman.

Clever! In sort of a weird way, it kind of reminds me of cryptography. There are so many subtle assumptions that can fool you.

Once you get the basic principles, it's not hard to figure out most magic tricks you can see more than once. Video has made being a magician much tougher. One of the key concepts is that there are often two misdirections, so that the obvious assumptions don't work.

I once saw a magic show at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, done on their stage in in the sand in brilliant sunlight. The poor guy did a classic levitation, and in that light it was painfully obvious.

I really enjoy watching Teller at work, and it's fascinating to read this 'behind-the-scenes' stuff.

Are there any good resources (apart from Art of Misdirection) for explaining tricks of modern performers?

> 7. If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely.

Applicable to so many things unrelated to magic.

Yes, fun read...BUT do not read this if you're an entrepreneur!! Do not try to "fake" or "trick" your users with your product!!

> If you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely.

Also known as the Democracy misdirection.

Yes, he makes the same observation in the article a bit further down.

Thanks for pointing out, I did not notice.

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