Sunday, February 13, 2005

Zener and the Art of Inspiration

Yesterday I got an email from a friend asking if I’d seen the advert for’s new trick as advertised on Duncan Trillo’s MagicWeek website. The trick is called The Zenner Effect. And the reason my friend had contacted me is that the advertising says that it is inspired by Zennerism, a trick I’d marketed back in 1980. The suspicion was that the new trick owed more than just inspiration to the original.

I downloaded The Zenner Effect and found it uncomfortably close to my 1980 routine. Virtually identical except for the handling of the finale. And bizarrely, in an age where magicians regularly attach their names to the flimsiest of ‘inventions,’ there was no name to claim credit for this particular inspiration.

Perhaps it is a matter of judgement. Is The Zenner Effect different enough from Zennerism to warrant marketing? Well, you can make that judgement yourself for what follows is a description of Zennerism, the trick from which The Zenner Effect draws its inspiration. I’ll also take the opportunity to correct one grievous mistake. Back in 1980 I spelled the names of the now familiar ESP testing cards incorrectly. They are Zener cards, named after Dr Karl Zener. Not Zenner cards. I notice that the anonymous writer of the TrickShop manuscript has even copied my error. Inspired indeed!

A prediction trick using ESP cards. You have five cards. The spectator has five cards. You place one card face down on the table, he places a card face down on top of yours. This is repeated with all ten cards. At the end of the trick, each pair of cards match. Okay, so it’s not quite as straight forward as that, but we’ll get to the details in a moment. First, some history.

My own interest in this matching effect began around 1973. I was on holiday in Blackpool where I met a magician called Peter Royal. He was demming svengalis for Mark Lewis who had a pitch in Ripley’s Odditorium on the promenade. Mark also had a magic studio and one of the items Peter showed me was a matching card trick. Five cards were laid face down on the table. The spectator laid five cards face up on top of them. And when the pairs were turned over, the cards matched.

If my memory is correct it was sold as something that Al Koran once used. The method consisted of five double back cards and five double facers. I think one side showed an ace to five of a red suit and the other an ace to five of a black suit. The double backers were placed on the table and the double facers were placed on top of them. And then you did the old two card monte move to apparently show that the faces matched.

It was a great effect but I wondered if there was a way of doing it without the fake cards. Back at the rented holiday flat I worked something out and showed it to Peter the next day. It used an ordinary deck and the one ahead method. Some years later Peter Royal marketed it as a manuscript.

Although very pleased with it at the time, I later discovered that the trick was really no different to other one ahead solutions that had already appeared in print. Perhaps the most famous version of the effect is that of Bro. John Hamman called The Million To One Chance. It can be found in LePaul’s The Card Magic of Bro John Hamman. An earlier version is in Dai Vernon’s booklet Select Secrets, as part of his Royal Marriages effect. One routine I haven’t seen is Rolf Andra’s ESP. It was marketed by Harry Stanley in the 1950s and might well have used the same principle.

One problem with all the one ahead solutions is that you often run into a dead end where you need to change the handling to accommodate choices that the spectator makes. Million To One Chance is a nightmare of mental agility. It is a brilliant effect but you really have to be on your toes to do it well. I’d imagine that someone like Lennart Green, with his deliberately chaotic presentation, could really make a grand performance out of it.

The principle behind Zennerism has one thing going for it. The routine never varies. There are no outs. I never felt it was 100% but I did think it worth publishing. Here it is again.

The Cards
You need two sets of Zener cards. They can be different colours on the face but should have the same back designs. And they need to be marked on the back. The Magic Christian ESP-Deck manufactured by Piatnik actually contains two sets of cards that are already marked. See here for a source of all kinds of ESP cards including SBS cards.

The Handling
Show the cards to the spectator, explain that they are symbols used for testing ESP, and then ask him to choose one of the packets. “This experiment involves five decisions. This is the first. Take one of the cards and put it in your pocket. Don’t look at it.”

Shuffle the chosen packet and then spread the cards out face down so he can take one. He puts it in his pocket sight unseen. However, because the cards are marked you know what it is. Let’s assume it is the star. By the way, this ruse is the foundation upon which Zennerism rests. It’s also the key method to The Zenner Effect.

Hand the rest of the packet to him and ask him to shuffle them. You pick up the remaining packet and shuffle those cards.

“Here’s the second decision.” You take the star from your set of cards and place it face down on the table. “Just take any of your cards and place it face down on top of mine. Don’t think about it. Just do it.” He does and you then tell him to mix up the three remaining cards he holds.

Look at the markings on the back of the card he just placed down. Take out the matching card from your set and place it face down on the table to the right of the first pair. “Let’s go again. Take another card. Don’t think about it. Don’t worry about it. Just take a card and put it on top of mine.” He takes another card and puts it on top of yours.

Read the back of the card he just dealt and take out the matching card from your set. Place it down on the table, always to the right of the tabled cards. I should say that you can either openly look at the faces of your cards or you can just read the backs and pretend to be pulling a card out at random. It’s up to you.

He now has two cards left. Tell him to take a card in each hand. “Now, when I say go, lay one of the cards down on top of mine. One, two, three, go!” He places a card down. You read the back as before and place another of your cards down next to it.

He only has one card in his hand and places it on top of yours. You place your last card down, saying, “You had no idea which card I’d be left with but you placed one card in your pocket right at the beginning. Take it out and put it down on mine.” He does.

There are now five pairs of cards on the table. Gather them up from left to right, into the left hand. As you pick up the fourth pair, get a break under the top card. Pick up the last pair saying, “This contains the card you placed in your pocket. Let’s leave that for last.” Briefly you drop the pair onto the left hand packet, but you immediately pick up all three cards above the break, as if two cards, and openly transfer them to the bottom of the packet.

“Let’s see how we did.” Deal off the top two cards, turning them over to reveal a matching pair. Lay the pair on the table. Deal off the next pair and place it face up on the table. The cards match. Same with the following two pairs. And finally, “The card you placed in your pocket.” Turn the last pair over, of course, the two symbols match.

In the original manuscript I mentioned several things. First, that you could perform this trick with ordinary cards. The packets are stacked in a memorised order at the beginning of the effect. When the spectator takes the first card its position in the fan gives away its identity.

In this case the spectator deals his cards face up on top of yours, otherwise you have no way of knowing which cards he is placing down. I prefer to use marked cards. They are your cards anyway so they might as well be marked.

The Zenner Effect uses both these strategies. The only point in which the trick differs from Zennerism is the handling of the displacement at the finale. The handling in The Zenner Effect is an interesting idea but I prefer my own routine.

The handling in Zennerism was described for its simplicity but in fact I usually finished the routine with a bottom deal. I turned all the spectator’s cards face down before gathering the packets. The last pair went on top of the packet. I pushed over the top two cards and appeared to turn them over. Actually I executed a simple bottom deal, taking the top and bottom cards as a pair and throwing them face up onto the table. I separated these two cards on the table before taking subsequent pairs of cards and turning them over to reveal that all the symbols matched.

One final thought from the original Zennerism. You can do this trick with an ordinary deck. Give half to the spectator and take half yourself. The spectator puts a card in his pocket. You can force or glimpse this. Either way you know what it is and can now place a card face down on the table. The spectator places a card face up on top.

You continue placing cards face down and he follows each time with a face up card. Unless you have taken care to divide the deck equally there will be times when you can’t match the value of the spectator’s card. So just match the suit instead. Keep dealing until you have about ten or a dozen pairs of cards on the table, just as in the Hamman effect. Present the trick as quickly as you can, slapping cards down on the table and encouraging the spectator to make fast decisions. With so many cards involved I don’t even bother to turn the spectator’s cards face down. Just gather them up and deal off the top and bottom cards together, as a pair, into the right hand. Turn the pair over to show that the cards match. Then deal both cards face up to the table.

No one notices that the left hand packet is now topped by a face down card. You can now legitimately start dealing off pairs from the top and showing that they match. Most cards will match in value, some value and colour and others just suit. But it looks remarkable.

Here’s another tip for this presentation. Let’s say that the first card you placed down was a jack of spades. And you also know that the jack of clubs is in the spectator’s pocket. Well, during all the subsequent dealing it is just possible that the spectator will deal one of the red jacks face up onto one of your tabled cards. If this happens, and there are at least half a dozen pairs on the table, I stop the dealing procedure here.

I gather up the pairs, hand them to the spectator and ask him to cut the packet several times. As he does this I tell him I’m trying to get an impression of the card he placed in his pocket. When I see that he has a face down card on top of the packet, I tell him to stop cutting. Then I ask him to deal the cards off in pairs. They match. Finally, I mentally divine the card he put in his pocket right at the start. You can see that in this instance the pocketed card acts as insurance against ever reaching a dead end in the Hamman effect. Other ways of handling the finale should occur to you.

When downloading the The Zenner Effect from MagicShop I did send a note saying that I hoped the trick would be sufficiently different from Zennerism that I wouldn't be disappointed. I then received an email from the owner Patrick Converso who graciously refunded my money saying that he had intended to mention to Duncan Trillo that he wanted to send me a complimentary copy. Perhaps if he had contacted me before putting his manuscript on the market I wouldn’t have felt so irked by seeing Zennerism reproduced within its pages. Then again, you wouldn’t have been reading it here. Every cloud has a silver lining!