kottke.org posts about magic

Documentary about actor and magician Ricky JayApr 11 2013

Deceptive Practice is a documentary about Ricky Jay which features, among other things, a shaggy-haired Jay playing Three-card Monte with Steve Martin on an 80s chat show.

Jay is a fascinating guy, as this 1993 New Yorker profile of him by Mark Singer demonstrates.

Ricky Jay, who is perhaps the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive, was performing magic with a deck of cards. Also present was a friend of Mamet and Mosher's named Christ Nogulich, the director of food and beverage at the hotel. After twenty minutes of disbelief-suspending manipulations, Jay spread the deck face up on the bar counter and asked Nogulich to concentrate on a specific card but not to reveal it. Jay then assembled the deck face down, shuffled, cut it into two piles, and asked Nogulich to point to one of the piles and name his card.

"Three of clubs," Nogulich said, and he was then instructed to turn over the top card.

He turned over the three of clubs.

Mosher, in what could be interpreted as a passive-aggressive act, quietly announced, "Ricky, you know, I also concentrated on a card."

After an interval of silence, Jay said, "That's interesting, Gregory, but I only do this for one person at a time."

Mosher persisted: "Well, Ricky, I really was thinking of a card."

Jay paused, frowned, stared at Mosher, and said, "This is a distinct change of procedure." A longer pause. "All right-what was the card?"

"Two of spades."

Jay nodded, and gestured toward the other pile, and Mosher turned over its top card.

The deuce of spades.

A small riot ensued.

Anyway, the film is coming out next week in NYC. (via @aaroncoleman0)

More Apollo Robbins pickpocketing amazingnessFeb 06 2013

In January, I linked to a piece in the New Yorker about master pickpocket Apollo Robbins.

One day, over lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant in a Las Vegas strip mall, Robbins demonstrated his method on me. "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."

Robbins was recently a guest on the Today show and the amount of criminal shenanighans he pulls off in this four minute video is astounding:

(via digg)

How to pick a pocketJan 06 2013

If you read the piece on pickpockets in the New Yorker last week (and if not, I encourage you to), you've got to check out this video they made of Apollo Robbins taking all sorts of stuff from Adam Green, who plays the bewildered NYer writer part perfectly. Way better than the YT video I embedded last week.

The neuroscience of pickpocketsJan 01 2013

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Adam Green profiles Apollo Robbins, by most accounts the world's best pickpocket. How he goes about engaging his prey is fascinating:

One day, over lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant in a Las Vegas strip mall, Robbins demonstrated his method on me. "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."

Robbins needs to get close to his victims without setting off alarm bells. "If I come at you head-on, like this," he said, stepping forward, "I'm going to run into that bubble of your personal space very quickly, and that's going to make you uncomfortable." He took a step back. "So, what I do is I give you a point of focus, say a coin. Then I break eye contact by looking down, and I pivot around the point of focus, stepping forward in an arc, or a semicircle, till I'm in your space." He demonstrated, winding up shoulder to shoulder with me, looking up at me sideways, his head cocked, all innocence. "See how I was able to close the gap?" he said. "I flew in under your radar and I have access to all your pockets."

Hard to choose just one passage from this story, so I will also include this bit about attention:

But physical technique, Robbins pointed out, is merely a tool. "It's all about the choreography of people's attention," he said. "Attention is like water. It flows. It's liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope that it flows the right way."

Robbins uses various metaphors to describe how he works with attention, talking about "surfing attention," "carving up the attentional pie," and "framing." "I use framing the way a movie director or a cinematographer would," he said. "If I lean my face close in to someone's, like this" -- he demonstrated -- "it's like a closeup. All their attention is on my face, and their pockets, especially the ones on their lower body, are out of the frame. Or if I want to move their attention off their jacket pocket, I can say, 'You had a wallet in your back pocket -- is it still there?' Now their focus is on their back pocket, or their brain just short-circuits for a second, and I'm free to steal from their jacket."

This routine is a pretty good demonstration of how Robbins diverts attention for the purpose of theft.

Sympathetic magicJul 24 2012

Lapham's Quarterly has a (not so) brief history of superstition, which introduced me to the phrase 'sympathetic magic'. I also like the quotation bolded below.

For all its erudition and analysis, The Golden Bough has for more than a century helped cement the idea that magic is inappropriate, wrongheaded thought. Yet what separates magic from religion or science is not its methodology -- Frazer himself notes that it "is therefore a truism, almost a tautology, to say that all magic is necessarily false and barren; for were it ever to become true and fruitful, it would no longer be magic but science" -- it's that ordinary people can do it, transforming their lives with the ambitious power of everyday thought.

Disdain for sympathetic magic, particularly for its simplicity and its universal application, can be traced back two millennia before Frazer and his peers. In the Laws, Plato's Athenian Stranger complains of the gullibility of the citizenry, lamenting that "it would be a labor lost to bring conviction to minds beset with such suspicions of each other, to tell them, if they should perchance see a manikin of wax set up in a doorway, or at the crossroads, or at the grave of a parent, to think nothing of such things, as nothing is known of them for certain." Even aware of the fallaciousness of such belief, Plato seemed hesitant to ignore it altogether, and the Laws goes on to advise that while white magic is perfectly acceptable, any professional diviner or prophet suspected of "doing mischief by the practice of spells, charms, incantations, or other such sorceries" be put to death, while an amateur practitioner should pay a fine.

How to beat a chess grandmasterJul 06 2011

Watch as magician Derren Brown beats a room full of grandmasters and other top chess players even though he doesn't really play chess all that well. At the end, he explains how he did it...it's a dead simple clever method.

The CIA magic bookNov 30 2009

The Boston Globe has a slideshow with a few examples from the now-declassified Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception.

CIA shoelaces

Here's the associated article. One could imagine a Mad Men/Bond-style spy show set in the 1960s that would utilize these techniques.

Ricky JayAug 19 2009

Can you resist reading an article that starts off with an anecdote this interesting? I couldn't.

The playwright David Mamet and the theatre director Gregory Mosher affirm that some years ago, late one night in the bar of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago, this happened:

Ricky Jay, who is perhaps the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive, was performing magic with a deck of cards. Also present was a friend of Mamet and Mosher's named Christ Nogulich, the director of food and beverage at the hotel. After twenty minutes of disbelief-suspending manipulations, Jay spread the deck face up on the bar counter and asked Nogulich to concentrate on a specific card but not to reveal it. Jay then assembled the deck face down, shuffled, cut it into two piles, and asked Nogulich to point to one of the piles and name his card.

"Three of clubs," Nogulich said, and he was then instructed to turn over the top card.

He turned over the three of clubs.

Mosher, in what could be interpreted as a passive-aggressive act, quietly announced, "Ricky, you know, I also concentrated on a card."

After an interval of silence, Jay said, "That's interesting, Gregory, but I only do this for one person at a time."

Mosher persisted: "Well, Ricky, I really was thinking of a card."

Jay paused, frowned, stared at Mosher, and said, "This is a distinct change of procedure." A longer pause. "All right-what was the card?"

"Two of spades."

Jay nodded, and gestured toward the other pile, and Mosher turned over its top card.

The deuce of spades.

A small riot ensued.

That's from a 1993 profile of Ricky Jay, who is probably more well known now for his acting (Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Deadwood, The Spanish Prisoner, The Prestige) than his magic scholarship. Check out a couple of Jay's tricks on YouTube: Four Queens and Sword of Vengence. (via df)

The Neuroscience of IllusionApr 27 2009

In a bit of a sequel to Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer talks to Teller (of Penn and Teller) and learns how the tricks that magicians do can be explained by neuroscience.

Our brains don't see everything -- the world is too big, too full of stimuli. So the brain takes shortcuts, constructing a picture of reality with relatively simple algorithms for what things are supposed to look like. Magicians capitalize on those rules. "Every time you perform a magic trick, you're engaging in experimental psychology," Teller says. "If the audience asks, 'How the hell did he do that?' then the experiment was successful. I've exploited the efficiencies of your mind."

GalangalMar 30 2009

Related to ginger, galangal has been used since medieval times to spice food and quell digestive issues, but it doesn't taste like your friendly, corner-store ginger candy.

If you were to bite into this tuberous rhizome, you would be very surprised at the slightly sweet, "perfumy" taste and scent of it, not to mention the spiciness factor. While not exactly "hot" like a chili, galangal has a sharp pungency to it that will make you gasp and perhaps cough a little.

Galangal's role outside the kitchen includes a place in folk medicine and hoodoo magic, where it's called "Chewing John." If you're entering litigation and require a favorable verdict, you're supposed to chew it thoroughly before spitting it onto the floor of the courtroom.

If only Blake Griffin of the Sooners had hocked a ginger loogie yesterday, North Carolina would have been sent packing.

Video demonstrations of 20 magic tricks.Jun 20 2007

Video demonstrations of 20 magic tricks.

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