Wednesday, September 15, 2004

You Have a Lucky Face

So there I was, standing outside a store in New Oxford Street, killing some time before a 3 o’clock meeting when I heard the words, “You have a lucky face.”

They came from a small Indian guy, possibly in his late teens. He’d crept up behind me and when I turned to face him, he said the words again. “You have a lucky face.”
“Pardon?” I said.
“You have a lucky face, yes very lucky. Let me see your hand.”
And I did, I let him see my hand. Instinctively I knew he wanted to read my palm so I held it palm uppermost and sure enough he started to point to the lines on my hand with a pen. As well as a pen he was carrying a small leather folder, the kind with a zipper around the edge. Clipped to the folder with his thumb were several small scraps of paper. “This is the lucky line,” he said, tracing one of the creases in my palm. “I show you.”

He started to write something down on one of the pieces of paper, rolled it into a ball and then dropped it onto my palm. I closed my hand to stop the ball of paper rolling away.

“Tell me the name of a flower,” he said.
“Rose” I answered.
“And a number from 1 to 5.”
“3” I said.
“Look at the paper.

I opened my hand, unrolled the paper and saw that he had written down the words rose and the number 3.

He started to write some other things on a second slip of paper and mutter some stuff about this being true, that I was very lucky and that money was coming my way. He looked up at my lucky face. “Do not shave or cut your hair on Tuesday” he advised. “Tuesday very lucky day for business. You will get much money.”

Then he stopped writing, reached into his leather folder and rummaged around inside. I could see other pieces of paper in there and something else, a picture of some kind. But what he brought out was what appeared to be a small red-brown nut or seed. He handed it to me. “This is very lucky stone. You keep it. You will be lucky.”

Obviously my lucky face and not shaving was not going to be enough to draw in the money on Tuesday. I was going to need celestial help and the stone would do the trick. Thank heavens I met this fortune teller today!

I looked at my watch and it was starting to get close to 3 o’clock so decided it was time to leave. But he kept talking away and then reached into his wallet again and pulled out the picture. It was a drawing of a holy man. Either that or James Randi. “This is my teacher,” he said. “Everything I say is true, this is what I believe.” Then came the capper, which I had been expecting from the first moment I heard the words about my lucky face. “Make a donation please.” The leather wallet now lay open on his upturned hands like the collection platter in a church. It was universal body language for “Give generously.”

Yes, here I was being hustled for money in the West End of London by an Indian fortune teller. There was something not quite right about it. I thought for a moment, looked at him and then pretended to search in my pockets, looking first in one and then the other. I found what I was looking for and held it out. “Here,” I said, “take this. It’s very lucky.” And I gave him the small red nut. He didn’t look very happy about this.

As I walked away I turned back and reminded him, “Oh, and don’t shave on Tuesday. Tuesday very lucky day for you.” I felt very pleased to have found such a good finish to our encounter.

I made my meeting on time but it was a messy affair and we didn’t really resolve anything. The trip into London had been a bit of a waste. But the real finale came this morning when I was browsing some news sites and read that main prize in the National Lottery was won by a man who had been given a lucky stone by a psychic.

In London.

At 3.15pm.

It's true!

I will not be shaving on Tuesday!

Okay, I made that bit about the lottery up. I hope you checked the link. Here’s the real 100% unvarnished truth.

I was really pleased when I heard the words “You have a lucky face” because a couple of years ago my friend Carlo told me about some psychic swindlers working in Hong Kong. They were Indian fortune tellers and the scam went like this.

They engaged you in conversation, wrote something down on a piece of paper and then asked you to think of a flower.

It was always a rose, most people will name a rose.

And then they asked you to choose a number from 1 to 5. You won't be surprised to hear that 3 is the most popular number.

But there was a third phase to the routine. They scribbled something on a slip of paper and asked for your date of birth. And when you opened the paper that’s exactly what you found written on it. Amazing. And worth ten dollars of anyone's money, which is what the fortune teller usually asked for.

Now the reason I wanted to see this is that unlike the first two parts of the trick it doesn’t depend on population stereotypes and fast talking. It depends on the fortune teller being able to write your date of birth down after you’ve said it and then switch it for the blank pellet that you’re holding in your hand.

Carlo is a knowledgeable sleight of hand magician so was able to work out the basic method. On my behalf he’d even offered the fortune tellers a couple of hundred dollars if they’d let him film them doing the routine. They all refused. So I was left to work out a suitable handling myself.

It was featured in an expose of fake psychics on the Channel 5 series Psychic Secrets Revealed that I consulted on. We managed to work out quite a smooth routine for Alistair Cook, the magician who was posing as a psychic on that show. We filmed him performing it in China Town to great effect. People are really amazed when they see their birthday written on that slip of paper. Which is why when the fortune teller asks for a donation you readily give one.

I went along with the first two predictions, naming rose and 3, because I wanted to see the switch in action. But he was so close to me that I knew the trick would be difficult to do well. So did he, unfortunately. Or perhaps he just thought I was so gullible he wouldn’t need it.

A switch is definitely part of the fortune teller’s repertoire. The tip-off is that there is no reason for using small pieces of paper in the first place if you are not going to switch them.

So listen out when walking through the West End. You may have a luckier face than mine and get an opportunity to see your birth date on one of those papers. But if you give money, give it for a performance well done. The only faith you'll be supporting is the one that fake psychics have in the gullibility of humankind. Oh, and keep a tight grip on your wallet. He might be small but I bet he can run like the clappers!