Sunday, June 29, 2008


When looking for solutions to Fifty-One Faces North it is worth considering other tricks and seeing whether they can be transformed into something that resembles Stewart James’ creation.

In the Not The Berglas Effect manuscript I described the Will de Sieve key-card (Greater Magic page 478). I was always impressed how Ted Lesley used this gimmick in his Kismet Connection (Ted Lesley’s Paramiracles) in which one of three cards is predicted. The same gimmick makes for an excellent version of Fifty-One Faces North. Essentially all you're doing is reducing the number of alternative predictions and giving the trick a different dressing.


1. If you want to stick closely to Stewart James’ conditions you would secretly prepare one of the cards in a borrowed deck during a previous effect. Knowing the name of the gimmicked card, King of Spades for instance, you write it down as your open prediction while the spectator is shuffling the deck.

2. Take the deck back and, as you talk, casually cut the deck to bring the gimmicked card to the top. And then cut it again to place it just above centre.

3. Place the deck on the table and tell the spectator, ‘I want you to reach out and cut the deck like this.’ You demonstrate by cutting a few cards from the deck and then replacing them. ‘But cut more than that. We want quite a few cards.’

4. Continue giving directions to the spectator, ‘Just cut. Don’t even think about it.’

5. The spectator cuts the deck and if things are working well he will have cut right above your gimmicked card. If the light is right, a glance at the raised back of the card will let you know that the trick has worked. Immediately ask him to turn the packet he has just cut face-up and drop it back onto the face-down deck and square the cards.

6. Tell the spectator to pick up the deck and deal all the face-up cards onto the table and let you know when he sees the King of Spades. When he has dealt all the face-up cards tell him to deal the next card face-down. This is your gimmicked King of Spades.

7. He now turns all the remaining cards one at a time and deals them face-up onto the tabled pile. Again the King of Spades does not show up.

8. Ask him to turn over the pile of cards and spread them across the table. The only reversed card turns out to be the King of Spades, the very card you predicted.

NOTES: You might be wondering what happens when the spectator doesn’t cut to the gimmicked card. Fortunately because you never told him what would happen, you can pretty much make anything you want to happen. The King of Spades is still gimmicked. If you ask the spectator to cut the deck several times he will at some point cut your gimmicked card to the top of the deck. When he does you shout out ‘Stop!’ You remind him that he shuffled the cards. He cut the cards. And that you made your prediction long before. Ask him to turn over the top card of the deck. He will be surprised that it is the King of Spades.

Alternatively, assuming the King of Spades is not among the face-up cards he has dealt to the table, you might risk the following. Ask him to cut the remainder of the deck a couple of times. If he cuts the King of Spades to the top, have him deal it face-down onto the tabled pile and then deal the rest of the cards face-up. You might get lucky a second time. If not, you can still find that gimmicked card any time you wish but once you start using different outcomes the more you lose sight of Stewart James conditions.

In The Mind and Magic of David Berglas I described how David uses a bridge in the deck to have a spectator cut to a force card. It is an old principle but David has huge success with it as does Chris Power who uses it in his close-up work. If you don’t want to work a gimmicked card into a borrowed deck, then the bridge is an equally good way of bringing about the effect.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Thomas Baxter emailed me to say that I had overlooked some additional conditions that Stewart James had mentioned in Ibidem 3. These are:

Spectator deals straight through from top to face. Only variation is when he leaves a card face down. Not a once-in-a-while trick. If instructions are followed, it cannot fail. No card handled by you from first to last. Spectator himself checks that face-down card is predicted one. Believed to be a new angle on a known principle.

Thomas considers ‘No card handled by you from first to last’ means that the magician doesn’t touch the deck. That’s not the way I interpret it. These conditions seem to relate to the effect once the spectator has the deck in his hands. I don’t think James meant that the magician would never touch the deck at all. If he had, I think he would have laid far more emphasis on this aspect of the trick, after all, how many tricks do you know where the magician never touches the cards?

I think that in this paragraph James was specifically addressing solutions that he already knew existed and was pointing out the difference between his method and others. The reference to the trick not being a ‘once-in-a-while’ affair would distinguish it from Marlo’s psychological approach to the problem which James was sceptical of. Indeed he refers in his correspondence to seeing Marlo demonstrate this with very limited success.

Having the spectator check the face-down card himself would distinguish the trick from suggestions that Haxton had made about the effect having to conclude with a switch of the card.

And I believe he used the phrase ‘No card handled by you from first to last’ to mean that once the dealing begins the magician doesn’t need to touch the deck. Earlier James had said that the magician does need to know that the predicted card is in the deck and in most cases that would mean the magician takes a look at the cards to make sure this is the case. I’m pretty sure James would have made an even bigger deal of any version of the trick that didn’t require the magician to touch the cards at all.

Having said that Thomas Baxter did take that particular condition literally and to his credit has worked out several methods that don’t require the magician to touch the deck. He sent me a copy of one version which he had published in The James File. It’s called Brrrr!

Funnily enough it uses exactly the same key-card principle that Stewart James used in Method 8 (Ibidem issue 3) but instead of peeking the card Thomas has a very simple way of finding out what the top card of the deck is without the magician having to touch the cards. It’s a great solution and I urge you to look it up.

No Touch Method 8

I sent Thomas another handling for Method 8 that would enable the key-card method to be worked in the hands of the spectator. Here are the details:

1: Peek the top card of the deck before the cards are handed to the spectator or find out what it is using Thomas Baxter’s handling from Brrrr! Make an open prediction of the sighted card.

2: Instruct the spectator to remove a portion of cards from the middle of the deck, look at and remember the face card of that portion, and then drop it on top of the deck. This places his noted card above your predicted card. This is a very old key-card placement.

3: Tell him to cut the deck three times to ‘mix’ the cards. This should put your predicted card and his noted card somewhere in the middle of the deck. In Brrr! Thomas Baxter has the spectator give the deck a quick shuffle but this risks violating James’ statement that the trick is not a ‘once-in-a-while’ effect since there is a chance that the noted card and key-card will separate. But a shuffle is more convincing than a series of cuts. It might be worth the risk.

4: Tell the spectator to deal cards from the top of the deck, one at a time, face-up onto the table. When he sees his noted card, he is to remove the next card and deal it face-down. After that he continues to deal cards face-up onto the table until the pack is exhausted.

5: As in the previous handling the predicted card has not been seen throughout the deal. Have the spectator turn over the single face-down card to reveal your prediction is correct.

These are merely the mechanics of the trick which has the benefit of being sleight free. I should add that I still don’t consider these solutions ideal performance items until plausible presentations have been found to excuse the handling. And in particular why someone is using one card (or process) to lead to another instead of simply appearing to stop on any card they choose and deal it face-down. However, I’m sure that such a presentation can be found.

Stewart James, frustrated at Haxton’s insistence that it was the effect not the conditions that mattered, said that if this was his attitude he may as well use a confederate. Ironically, the key card approach makes this a possibility. You can flash your confederate a key-card, which you ensure goes above your predicted card, and let them use it as a guide to which card to deal face-down. Should fool the guys at your next club gathering.

Thomas Baxter mentions another statement that was made by James: ‘the method could be used by someone for criminal purposes.’ This was not listed in Ibidem 3 and at the moment the origin of the statement is not clear to me. My admittedly sceptical interpretation of it would be that it was used as an excuse for James not to discuss the effect further. ‘I can’t tell you, it’s too dangerous’ sort of thing. It would be good to be wrong.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Stewart James is famous for many things and one of them is a card problem known as Fifty-One Faces North, the origin of which has a convoluted and controversial history. The idea for James’ legendary effect came about following a visit to the magic convention in Colon in 1952 where James and his friend Francis Haxton, who was visiting from England, met Ed Marlo. At a card session Marlo told them about a card problem he had been working on.

The Marlo Problem
The problem began in an unusual fashion with the performer openly making a prediction of a card, say, the Ten of Clubs. This prediction could be made verbally or written down for all to see so that everyone knows the identity of the predicted card. A shuffled deck of cards is handed to the spectator who is asked to deal cards face-up one at a time onto the table. The spectator is told he should deal one of the cards face-down, a card of his choosing, and then continue dealing through the rest of the deck turning the remaining cards face-up. As this is being done the magician points out an unusual fact, that so far no one has caught sight of the predicted card among the face-up cards. Only one card has not been seen, the one the spectator chose to leave face-down during the deal. When that card is turned over it is seen to be the predicted card, the Ten of Clubs.

Marlo demonstrated one of his solutions for Francis Haxton who when he returned to England wrote to James (11th Oct 1952) saying that he had created his own version of the trick. In his reply James revealed that he too had a solution. There then followed a series of letters in which they swapped ideas about the ‘Marlo problem.’ This culminated in the publication of two tricks in the March 1953 issue of The Pentagram: Peter Warlock’s Angle on Marlo and Stewart James' Angle on Angle on Marlo. The tricks were accompanied by a piece from Haxton describing how Marlo had originally given him the problem and how he had then set the same problem to an ‘exclusive gathering’ of magicians in the UK, one of whom was Peter Warlock.

Haxton regretted the publication of the tricks almost instantly. James pointed out that Haxton had missed out the main point of the problem, that the prediction is made openly and not written down on a folded piece of paper as it was in the versions published in The Pentagram. Haxton explained that he didn’t consider the open nature of the prediction to be the best part of the problem and argued that it lessened the suspense and could only lead the spectators to conclude that the predicted card was not in the deck to begin with. On that point Haxton and James always disagreed. But more importantly for Haxton was the realisation that Marlo had not yet published any of his own solutions. The problem was ‘underground’ and Haxton had just been instrumental in bringing it into the light. He soon learned from others that Marlo was not happy with the situation and appears to have written to Marlo to apologise and smooth things over.

He felt slightly less guilty when James subsequently discovered that the ‘Marlo problem’ was not Marlo’s at all but owed its origin to Paul Curry. Marlo, who had never claimed the effect as his, later acknowledged Curry in The Cardician (1955) where he published the version of The Open Prediction that he had shown to Haxton. Interestingly it made use of another Paul Curry idea, a card switch from Curry’s awkwardly titled A Cur (r) i-ous Prediction (More Card Manipulations Vol 3).

The World’s Most Impossible Card Trick
With the problem of the Open Prediction now in the open Stewart James published a lengthy article on the topic in July 1955 issue of Ibidem (issue 3). James not only described dozens of different Open Prediction effects but also listed many basic ways to solve the problem. More importantly, it was here that he first introduced the world to an even more impossible version of the Open Prediction: Fifty-One Faces North.

Fifty-One Faces North imposes a number of conditions on the trick that makes it exceptionally difficult to solve. James described them in a letter to Howard Lyons, editor of Ibidem, an extract from which was published in that issue:

Borrowed cards may be used. A brand-new deck is not required. The deck might even have cards missing from it, you do not have to know which ones or how many, you have only to be sure that the card you predict is there. You do not need privacy with the cards to set something. The deck is never out of sight for a moment. No card or cards are stolen from the deck. Borrowed writing material may be used. It is described as a prediction at the time of writing. The prediction is nothing more than the name of a card. It is known to all before the first card is dealt. No alternative meanings. No alternative effect. Strictly impromptu. Nothing but the borrowed articles used. When he starts dealing, you do not know where predicted card is. It would not help you to know, with this method. Nor do you know the location of any other card. You never know when he will leave a card face down, until after he has done it.

The Secret’s Out
Stewart James never published Fifty-One Faces North and he died in 1996, apparently taking the secret to his grave. At least that’s what everyone thought until in 2001 Allan Slaight, the noted collator of James’ material, found a single typescript sheet among James’ papers which described the solution in detail. It can viewed online at the Stewart James Exhibition curated by Joe Culpepper at the
University of Toronto. The James/Haxton correspondence is also available and at the Ask Alexander database courtesy of the Conjuring Arts Research Center.

For magicians looking for an amazing trick the solution is disappointing. It has the bizarre quality of meeting all the conditions James set down but not meeting any of the expectations of Paul Curry’s Open Prediction. To meet the conditions it links three effects together, each one setting up another, which is why it doesn’t resemble the clear cut notion of a spectator dealing one card face-down as he deals the rest of the cards face-up. Instead the spectator has to cut a portion of cards off the deck during a previous trick, count them and then later deal down to that mentally selected number in order to find out which card will be left face-down during the deal. It resembles an overly complicated version of the mathematical clock effect.

The Controversy
The secret of Fifty-One Faces North is so disappointing that some magicians refuse to believe that this is Stewart James’s real solution to the problem. They prefer to believe that Stewart James had a hitherto unrevealed method that remains unpublished. There is no evidence that points to James having such an effect and a lot of evidence pointing in the other direction.

The most obvious point is that the title of the trick is at the head of the instructions. It is clearly titled Fifty-One Faces North. James made no claim that he had a whole genre of tricks entitled Fifty-One Faces North. Just one method that met all the conditions he set out in Ibidem. James was very particular about titles. It seems unlikely that he had two tricks with the same title.

The trick is dated July 15th 1955. Ibidem issue 3 was published in August 1955. That the two dates are so close together it is difficult to believe that the trick found by Slaight is not the trick Stewart James wrote about in his letter to Howard Lyons. I don’t think James meant to hype the trick in the way it has subsequently been hyped. He had said to Lyons that it might make a good 'teaser' but he couldn't have envisaged the way it would be viewed many years later.

Curiously James did not hype the trick to his friend Francis Haxton. He never made special mention of the trick either by describing the effect or offering a solution. Having read through their correspondence I can understand why. Haxton made it clear to James that he was not interested in convoluted solutions to the Open Prediction. He did not enjoy roundabout methods of forcing the spectator to stop on a particular card. James’s solution undoubtedly fell into that category.

One aspect that is easy to overlook about Fifty-One Faces North is that James does not describe the effect. He describes only the conditions under which the effect takes place. It is easy to assume that he is talking about a clean version of the Open Prediction but a read through of his other solutions to the problem in Ibidem reveal that he had a very broad interpretation of the effect. Few of his routins involve the simple straightforward procedure of a spectator dealing through a deck of cards and leaving one of them face-down. So why assume that Fifty-One Faces North goes back to Paul Curry’s original ideal?

Convincing the Sceptics
If the trick was as good some currently believe, you might wonder why Stewart James didn’t perform it, which, after all, is the sole purpose of any magic trick. Around 1970 James wrote to Haxton telling him that Bill Miesel had been one of those who doubted that the effect existed. You would have thought that the solution to this dilemma might be to perform the trick for Miesel. But James took another route to convincing the sceptics. He told Haxton:

This year I had Al (Richards) get a deck and I worked the trick with him checking every statement in IBIDEM. Later I met Miesel for the first time. Al had already got to him to tell him triumphantly that he had seen it done. M seems a pleasant enough chap but I am not sure he is convinced Al and I are completely truthful.

I think Stewart James was being truthful. But it seems reasonable to assume that the reason he didn’t show Miesel the trick is because he knew Miesel, and anyone else who discovered what the real effect was, would be disappointed. The trick he showed to Al Richards could have been the trick that Allan Slaight found and this would allow James to honestly claim that it met all the conditions in Ibidem. Prompted by James odd story Haxton did write to him in 1971 asking whether Fifty-One Faces North had ever been published or whether he had any intention of doing so. But there wasn’t the least bit of curiosity shown by Haxton about the workings of the effect. And Haxton had never taken its mention in Ibidem as an indicator that there was some great mystery to be learned. It was left to others to create the legend of Fifty-One Faces North, a practise that continues today whenever effects are hyped beyond their capacity to deliver.

How To Keep A Secret
They say the best way to keep a secret is to publish it. That is true in the case of Fifty-One Faces North because while many people have searched for a solution that meets all Stewart James’ impossible sounding conditions, they have overlooked the fact that Ibidem 3 already contains such a trick. Yes, a solution to Fifty-One Faces North has been hiding in plain sight for over fifty years.

Let me recap what the major conditions are, you can check them all at your leisure. The trick has to be impromptu, performed with a borrowed deck which might not even be complete. All you do know is that it contains the predicted card. The prediction is clear and unambiguous and is in full view from the beginning of the routine. Most interestingly you never know when the spectator will deal a card face-down. You also don’t know the location of your predicted card before the deal begins. Yet the face-down card will always match the prediction.

An Authentic Stewart James Solution
The solution is listed as method 8 in Ibidem. And this time there is no doubt that it was created by Stewart James. It is easily overlooked because it is not described in any detail being an extension of previous methods. Let me try to clarify the description.

1: Take anyone’s shuffled deck and secretly glimpse the top card as you reach for a pen and paper. Write the name of this card as your prediction. Let’s assume it is the Ten of Clubs. Everyone sees the prediction.

2: Take the deck face-down in the palm up left hand. Lift the deck with the right hand, fingers at the outer short end, thumb at the inner short end. Dribble cards from the right hand into the left hand and ask a spectator to call ‘stop.’

3: Raise the right hand packet so that the spectator can look at and remember the face card. This is the card he called ‘stop’ at.

4: Bring the halves of the deck together but as you close them up execute the Kelly Bottom Placement so that the just-noted card is controlled to the bottom of the deck. Stewart James used the Kelly Bottom Placement (Ovette Master Move) but I prefer The Elliott Control (Bruce Elliott’s The Best in Magic) because there is more cover from the front.

5: The situation is that the noted card is on the bottom of the deck. The predicted card is on the top of the deck. Stewart James now gave the deck a Charlier Shuffle which brought both cards to the middle of the deck together.

I prefer to ask the spectator to give the deck three complete cuts. If you’re nervous about handing over the deck with his noted card on the bottom, then give the deck one cut yourself and ask him to give it two more.

6: The deck is now in the spectator’s hands. His noted card is directly above your predicted card somewhere in the middle of the deck. You tell him this: ‘What I want you to do is deal through the deck slowly. Deal each card face-up into a pile on the table. But when you come to your card, I want you to stop and deal the next card face-down. Understand? Good, let’s begin.’

7: The spectator deals through the cards, spots his noted card and deals the next card face-down. At this point you say, ‘Strange thing is we haven’t come across the Ten of Clubs yet. Keep going.’ He does, finishing with all the cards on the table only one of which is face-down. Have someone square the deck up, turn it over and spread it to reveal that the only face-up card in the deck is the one you predicted.

NOTES: Well, at least you didn’t spend twenty quid on it as the result of an over-hyped dealer ad campaign. On a positive note I think it shows that sometimes it is worth going back to the source when tackling these problems. It certainly surprised me when I found that James had already published a solution to the much sought after Fifty-One Faces North.

Since the effect depends on a simple key-card placement there are dozens of different ways to accomplish it. What is needed is a better presentation to dress it up. As Haxton always maintained it is the effect, not the conditions, that is important. Coming up with a presentation that covers the mechanical necessities in a plausible way might lead to a good trick. Happy hunting.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


I’ve mentioned Dunninger’s ability to baffle magicians on this blog before. The following description is taken from The Phoenix issue 170 where Clayton Rawson describes another of the master mind reader’s impossible card locations.


We sat in a restaurant with Joe Dunninger one night when he took our shuffled deck of cards, spread them out on his hands and held them beneath the table.

"Reach under the table," he said. "Take a card. Look at it without bringing it up above the table top, then replace it.” We did all that, and as we shoved the card back among the others under the table, he said, "Now take the deck and shuffle, still under the table.”

We did that, too. He took the deck again, and, still without bringing it out from under the table, concentrated, and named the chosen card.

Joe not only never tells another magician how he does a trick; he never admits anything either. And a few nights later when we did the trick for him three different ways, he shook his head. "Sorry, that's not how I do it."

We can't therefore, tell you how Joe accomplishes this miracle by mindreading no doubt. But since he says our methods are not his, that gives us the right to publish them. Okay, Joe?

Clayton Rawson went to describe several different methods of accomplishing the effect. George Blake republished Rawson’s description of the Dunninger trick in the May 1950 issue of The Budget requesting readers to send in their solutions. Several clever ideas appeared in the June issue. And George Blake had eight of his own solutions published in issue 174 of The Phoenix.

The Dunninger trick is a good problem because it allows for some latitude in the method but I think Clayton Rawson got it right with one of his own solutions and this is the solution described here with a couple of personal tweaks.

The solution is simple. When the spectator takes a card you turn the deck upside down. Now when he replaces it his card is the wrong way up. He shuffles the deck under the table and then hands it back to you. There are several different ways to go from here.

A: Take the deck and spread it face-up under the table so that you can see the cards. The spectator’s card will be face-down. Flip it face-up and upjog it out of the spread. Upjog any other card too. Bring the cards above the table with the two cards still upjogged, their backs to the spectator. Tell the spectator that you think it is one of these two cards. Put both cards face-down on the table. ‘We need to eliminate one of them. Concentrate on your card. And when I snap my fingers reach out and put your right hand on one. Got that? Good.’ You snap your fingers and he puts his hand on one of the cards. If it’s the selection have him turn it face-up. If it is isn’t, then say, ‘Okay, let’s eliminate it’ and turn the other face-up.

B: Give the deck to a second spectator and tell them to take it away in a corner of the room, look through the cards and bring back the one that they think the first spectator chose. This is a piece of instant stooging and you’ll use appropriate phrases to make sure he understands what you want him to do. For instance, ‘Spread the cards from hand to hand. One of the cards will stand out from the rest. And whichever card stands out for you, that will be the card that he selected. Be confident. Be bold. You can do this. And he will be amazed.’

C: This is slightly riskier but I think it is very convincing. As soon as you get the deck hold it face-down and give it a tight pressure fan. You will instantly see the index of the face-up selected card. If the card appears to be reasonably centrally located in the fan, you can bring the fan up and flash the faces towards the spectator. He will not see the reversed card. Say, ‘Okay, you are thinking of one of these cards. Concentrate.’ Close the fan and then name the card. Because the cards all appear to be facing one way the handling negates the idea that the selection was replaced upside down.

If the card isn’t in a good position for the fan, i.e. too close to the face of the deck, then follow through with a different revelation. As I said, this is a great card problem because there are dozens of ways at arriving at a workable solution.