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.