Sunday, August 20, 2006


I remember the moment very clearly. I was at the office of Martin Breese videotaping Basil Horwitz as he demonstrated some of his material for a forthcoming book. This would have been in the mid-eighties.

Basil had dealt some ESP cards onto a table and I was looking through the viewfinder on the video camera. Then I noticed something very odd. I stopped filming, went over to the table and took a good look at those cards. They appeared perfectly ordinary, it was a pack of ESP Cards manufactured by Haines House of Cards in America. So I went back to the camera and looked through the viewfinder again and it was like looking through a pair of magic spectacles because I could see marks on the backs of the cards. I stepped away from the camera and looked at the cards again. To my surprise I could still see the marks.

“Basil, pick up those cards and give them a shuffle,” I said. Basil did, he knew I was up to something but couldn’t figure out what. “Now deal them in a row.” Five cards went face down onto the table. “Now turn the one on the right face up. It’s the star.” He did. And it was. And all the time I’d been standing a dozen feet away from him.

What I’d discovered, quite by accident, is that the Haines’ pack of ESP cards is marked. I’m not referring to the tiny markings at the corners, those are quite well known, but two big broad strokes on the backs that can be read across a room. In fact, here’s the peculiar thing. They can only be read across the room. Go up to the pack, examine the backs of the cards and I promise you you’ll never find those markings unless you know where to look.

Some years later, I mentioned this to magician and mentalist Ray Hyman on the phone, saying only that the Haines cards were marked. It’s a one-way mark, which is how I knew where the Star was on that table. I’d noted that its back was the wrong way up compared to the others. Anyway, Ray was coming to England to appear in a television documentary, and I met him at the airport on his arrival. First thing he did was bring out a deck of Haines ESP cards and ask where the hell the marks where. He’d been examining them on his plane journey and just couldn’t find them. But that’s the beauty of it. Look at the cards up close and it’s impossible to spot them. Put the cards on a table across the room, and they are as clear as day.

Enough of the teasing. The marks are the result of a flaw in the spacing of the tiny stars on the back of the cards. It produces two broad strokes across one end. And you can only see the strokes at a distance. I’ve tried to illustrate the position of the strokes in the diagram (1). Both cards have the marks at the same end, but I’ve highlighted them on the second card. They are impossible to see in the first card because of the reproduction process but if you had the real cards in front of you, you would be able to pick them out. Dig out a pack and try it for yourself.

As soon as you get near the cards, the markings disappear from sight, which means you have to be careful when sorting them into a one-way arrangement. Reading the cards up close is an acquired skill. Reading them from a distance is much much easier.

As for applications, well like names of the Devil, they are legion. Set up a pack in the usual Circle, Cross, Lines, Square, Star order. Have every Star arranged the wrong way and you have a stacked deck you can read across the room. Someone can cut and cut and deal four cards onto the table. You immediately know their order (if no Star appears, obviously you have the other four cards). From here, miracles can be worked.

The best kind of effect is one in which you stand well away from the spectator and the cards. A hands-off routine, possibly working with two spectators sitting at different tables, as they would be if involved in an old Duke University telepathy test. It’s a scenario that gives you a good excuse to use the cards. Have the spectators sit back to back, so that they can’t see each other. You, of course, can see all the cards as they are cut and dealt and you’ll find it easy to bring about remarkable coincidences just by controlling their actions and introducing one or two instances of Magicians Choice. I’ll leave the rest to you.

NOTES: This item was originally contributed to Trevor McCrombie’s online magazine The Centre Tear. As several readers proved, the marking system can be used in a variety of ways. So have fun!