Friday, March 28, 2014

The Trick That Fooled Einstein

The Trick That Fooled Einstein is associated with magician and mentalist Al Koran.  He marketed it as Jackpot Coins. The basic effect is that the performer and spectator grab a handful of coins from a bowl of cash on the table. The magician then makes three statements about the number of coins they hold:

I will take the same number of coins as you

I will take 6 more than you

And I will have enough left over to make yours 15

Both parties count their coins and the magician’s statements are proved true. The trick can be repeated. The trick was originally performed with cards but Al Koran adapted it to use with coins and there have been lots of variations of it over the years. But to many it remains The Trick That Fooled Einstein because that’s the name given to it in Al Koran’s Lecture Notes (1972).  It was here that Koran said:

“While playing at the Savoy, I finished my act, and the manager said someone asked me to join them at their table. It was Albert Einstein, the mathematical genius. He leaned over to me, very personally, and asked: “Where in the world did you get those extra coins…did they come from your sleeve?”

I said, “No, it’s simple, a child can do it.” I did it at his table and fooled him again. I then told him “It’s not the numbers – it’s the words that fooled you.”

In 2005 Richard Wiseman emailed to ask if I knew where and when this trick was performed for Albert Einstein. It was the one hundredth anniversary of the year Einstein wrote three of his most notable papers on physics and seemed a good time to examine the story behind the trick that fooled such a brilliant man.

Richard had contacted the Albert Einstein Archives in Jerusalem but they could find no note of Einstein meeting Koran or being baffled by his trick. While Koran loved to bill himself as The Man Who Fooled Einstein perhaps Einstein wasn’t quite so keen to be known as The Man Who Was Fooled by Al Koran.

I thought that such a memorable occasion might be mentioned in Koran’s best-selling self-help book Bring Out The Magic In Your Mind (1964) and sure enough it is, on page 169. There is an extract from The Bulletin, presumably some kind of PR release, on which Koran makes a comment:

'…But if you’ve seen Al work on TV or the stage and been completely puzzled, don’t worry too much. No less a person than the late Professor Einstein failed to find out how it’s done.’

The professor was fascinated by a demonstration I gave him in London.

When Richard Wiseman checked out Einstein’s travels to England he discovered that he only visited twice: in 1931 and 1933. Both were trips to Oxford although it’s possible he passed through London. But Al Koran would have been nineteen years old and plain Edward Doe at that time, more likely to be cutting hair (he was a barber at the Ritz Hotel) than performing at The Savoy. The meeting with Einstein wasn’t Koran’s only extraordinary encounter with celebrity. In one publicity sheet from the 1970s he is described as being the son of the medium Helen Duncan.

I don’t know how long Koran had been performing Jackpot Coins but magicians saw it at the Annual Festival of Magic in 1956 (Magic Circular, Nov 1956).  That’s a year after Einstein died. The trick was later sold to magicians and first advertised in the March 1960 issue of The Gen.

Koran performed the routine on television several times. In The Gen (May 1960) Harry Stanley talks about a BBC Television performance on 20th April in which Koran introduced the trick as “trickery with words.” Interestingly enough that’s how Koran described it in his fictitious encounter with Einstein, saying, “It’s not the numbers that fooled you – it’s the words.”

This might be a point worth noting because the trick is not without suspicion. If you couch it as “trickery with words” you’re accepting that this is more of an interesting curiosity than straight piece of mind reading. Today, if you present it as the trick that Al Koran used to fool Einstein (much as Out of this World is the trick Harry Green fooled Winston Churchill with), then you have yourself a nice story for what is essentially a mathematical puzzle.


Jackpot Coins has its origins in an old card effect that will be familiar to many. In this trick the performer and spectator both cut packets of cards and count them. The performer then makes a statement along the lines of, ‘I have as many cards as you plus three more and enough to make yours up to fifteen.” It’s a mathematical sounding trick that makes a good bar bet.

It's a good trick to perform across a table. Both you and the spectator can count their cards below the table. This prevents you counting each other's cards but also facilitates some of the trickery I'll describe later.

Al Koran’s Lecture Notes talked in terms of the number of coins but in his performances he actually talked about the amount of money. A spectator did not hold 15 pennies. She held one shilling and three pence (old English money). If you used cents and the spectator held 120 of them you would say she had one dollar and twenty cents. Not realising how Al Koran originally performed Jackpot Coins Jon Racherbaumer unknowingly reinvented it when he described his Correct Change routine in At The Card Table (1984).

Koran’s Lecture Notes credit the idea to a card routine called A Matter of Debit and Credit (Greater Magic, 1938). No originator is named there in connection with the trick. Later Jack Avis contributed a note to Martin Breese’s The Magic of Al Koran (1983) tracing the trick to Paul Stadelmen’s booklet Sandu Writes Again (1934). But again Stadelmen doesn’t claim the trick as his. He simply says that it’s an old trick.

I’ve found an earlier reference in The Magic World (November 1920). It contains a trick contributed by Howard L. Grant (Howard the Great) called A Novel Card Effect. Here it says, “While it is by no means new, it has never appeared in print.” As to who Howard L Grant was, well, that seems to be another mystery. Here is Howard L Grant’s original description of the effect as published in The Magic World magazine:

A neat little conception, notable for its simplicity, is the following. While it is by no means new, it has never appeared in print; and as it completely bewilders the unsophisticated observer, I know it will be appreciated.

A spectator is requested to take a number of cards from the pack. The magician also removes a bunch of cards, making sure that he has more than the spectator. The spectator is told to secretly count his cards, the magician doing  the same with his. Then, for example, the performer says: " I have as many cards as you, three more, and enough to make you twenty-four." The spectator says that he has fifteen cards. "Very well," remarks the performer, and he counts off fifteen cards from his heap, three more, and then counts the remaining cards, which prove to be nine, making the total twenty-four.

The secret is absurdly simple. When the performer counts his pile, he disregards a small number of cards, being sure however, that those remaining are still more than those held by spectator. Then we will suppose, as In the aforementioned example, he has twenty-four cards left, and he has disregarded three, making a total of twenty-seven cards. He then proceeds as above and the result is a completely baffled spectator.

This is a rather difficult feat to explain in print, but if the reader will experiment, following the above directions closely, he will find that it works identically as stated. In addition it is one of the few effects that will stand repetition, the magician being careful to change the number of cards in his discard each time.

As Howard Grant pointed out the trick can be repeated as long as you vary the numbers. When Paul Stadelman republished the trick, So Simple, in The Sphinx (Vol 48, No 5, July 1949), he mentioned an idea of Ralph Hull’s. This enables the performer to genuinely tell the spectator exactly how many cards he has in his packet. Here is the Hull repeat described by Paul Stadelman and entitled Still Simpler:

As a follow-up for “So Simple,” start off by offering to “explain” how it works. The apparent explanation seems so reasonable as you proceed with it, and casually mention that since you knew the number of cards they cut off (and mention the number), you simply took the difference between that number and the number you took and fifty-two and then knew the number of cards left on the table.

Someone is bound to ask how you knew how many cards were cut off before the spectator announced it. At this point tell him that you are gifted with “third sight,” and tell him to count his cards again to see if you were right.

Do “So Simple” again, as an example. This time the spectator cuts ten cards and you take fifteen. At the end of the trick, calculate mentally that ten plus fifteen equals twenty-five and throw them back on top of the deck, but note the bottom card of the packet of twenty-five, which we will assume is the ace of hearts.

Have the spectator cut off another bunch of cards, “To prove that I know how many you take,” let us say he takes seven. Now you cut off a bunch, but be sure you cut past the twenty-fifth card. For example, you took twenty-eight. As he counts his cards, you begin to count yours face up but what you actually do is pass them from hand to hand until you come to the ace of hearts. Call that card one mentally and count the cards from then on and you will find you have eighteen cards, which you subtract from twenty-five. This tells you he cut seven, as the ace was originally twenty-five cards deep.

Now for your explanation. “You see the way I do this trick is that I first count my cards. In this case I happen to have thirty. (You mention any number here, for you really do not know how many cards you have, due to the fact that you only counted part of them, just guess at what you think you have.) Since I know I have thirthy, and I know you have seven, then I know I have as many as you and twenty-three more.” Then make the remark about “third sight.”

Now proceed again with the original method of “So Simple” and you will have them believing you each time.

The idea for this second version was suggested by the late R. W. Hull, who was the inventor of many clever card tricks.


It requires considerable mental work but if you count the cards in your hands you can also know the number of cards not only in the spectator’s packet but also the packet left on the table. There are various ways of making this calculation. One is to take the position of the key card from the top of the deck and deduct it from 52 (the number of cards in play).

If the key card is 20th then 52 – 20 = 32. That’s the number of cards below the key card and you memorise this key number.

When you spread through the cards in your packet, mentally you count the number of cards that are above your key card starting at 32 (your new key number), counting backwards: 32, 32, 30, 29 etc. When you hit the key card the number you reach in your counting is the number of cards in the tabled packet.

Now continue counting, starting on your key card (20), and again counting backwards: 20, 19, 18, 17 etc. When you run out of cards you know the next number represents the number of cards the spectator holds. Sounds complicated on paper. Makes sense when you try it. But you still need to keep your wits about you to pull off.

One way to ease the task is to place your key card at an easy to remember and predetermined number like 20. You can do this just by moving a few cards from the top to bottom of the deck, or vice versa, while setting up your key. That way your key numbers are always the same, 20 and 32. The only new item you are memorising is the key card itself.


Ed Marlo had a wonderful bit of business that turned the tables on anyone who performed the  “I have as many cards as you” routine. He described it in Ibidem (No 17, July 1959). When someone says, “I have as many cards as you, four more, and enough to make your cards seventeen” you are able to immediately say, “I can do better than that. I can tell you exactly how many cards you have. You have twenty-one.” And you'll be right.

All you do is total the two numbers they give you. As Marlo says, it really takes people off guard.

Ed Marlo dated his note November 9, 1958, which is just a year or two after Martin Gardner’s Mathematics, Magic and Mystery was published. Gardner’s book describes the trick under the title The Estimated Cut. It’s possible Gardner’s book brought the trick back into popularity. As part of the book’s promotion Estimated Cut was reprinted in The Magic Wand (Vol 46, No 254).


John Bannon came up with an unexpected finale for the routine in his Einstein Overkill (Bullets After Dark DVD, 2009) in which four aces are produced. It’s an odd idea but an interesting one and it occurs to me that if you tell the story of the Trick That Fooled Einstein then you might add an equally fictitious finale in which the great Einstein fools Koran.

The version described here is different from Bannon’s original. Now the beauty of the original card trick is that it can be done impromptu and with a shuffled deck. However, to produce four aces you need to set the cards up.

As mentioned earlier the trick is performed across the table with the assisting spectator seated on the opposite side. The aces need to be positioned as follows: one on top of the deck. Two together somewhere in the middle. And one on the face of the deck. A smart culler could do this relatively quickly. But you could also do it quite more simply as you pick up the cards and talk to the spectators about how Einstein, having been baffled by Koran, examined the cards closely for marks.

Now you do have a couple of advantages. The first is that the deck is already in three packets. Yours, the spectator’s and what’s left. That gives you a lot of opportunities to pick up each packet separately, casually spread through them, secretly find the aces and put them into the right positions as you assemble the deck.

The other advantage is that you already had a chance to look through your cards when you counted them. You’ll know if it contains aces and you can arrange them accordingly.

With the aces in position tell the spectators that Einstein asked to try to the trick himself. Pick out someone else to play the part of Koran. Now repeat the first part of the trick. The spectator cuts some cards but don’t have him count them yet.

You now cut a packet of cards ensuring that you cut deeper than the two adjacent aces which are in the middle of the deck. Hold the cards face-up under the table and count them as before. You also spot the two aces and cut the packet, bringing one to the top and one to the face. Turn the packet face-down and bring it from under the table.

You know how many cards are in your packet and can now make your three statements about how many cards you have.

When you’ve done that ask the spectator to count his cards one at a time face-down onto the table. This will place an ace at the face of his packet.

As per the original routine you now count exactly the same number of cards into a separate packet on the table. “To Koran’s amazement Einstein was right. He had exactly the same number of cards.”

Three aces are already in position on the table. But there is one ace at the face of the packet in your hand. There are various ways of getting it into position for the finale.

A simple way is to pass the packet to the right hand and fan it. Now when you deal the “and three more,” or whatever number you named to the table, you take cards from the bottom of the spread not the top. It’s reasonably natural to do this. Deal these cards into a packet on the table. The ace is now the face card of that packet.

Alternatively do a bottom deal as you count the cards to the table. It’s not that difficult. No one is even looking for it.

Finish the last of your statements, “and enough to make your packet up to twelve” or whatever. And deal these cards onto the spectator’s packet.

You are now set for the finale. There are four packets of cards face-down on the table. And at the face of each packet is an ace.

“Koran was amazed. How did you do that?” Finish with a little misquote from Einstein. “I do not believe that God plays dice. But sometimes he gets lucky with cards.”

Turn over the packets to reveal the four aces.


Michael Weber published a very clever presentation for Jackpot Coins called Picking on Rainman. The trick uses cocktail sticks/toothpicks instead of coins which are more practical props for impromptu work. It further develops the “trickery with words” of the Koran routine too. You’ll find it in M.U.M magazine (Vol 98, No 8, January 2009).

Earlier Karl Fulves had used matchsticks in his version of the trick. See Matching Matches in Self-Working Table Magic (1981) Bill Mullins emailed and advised that he had tracked down an even earlier version the trick to Will Blyth's book Match-Stick Magic (1921). The publication date also makes it one of the earliest references to this effect. Bill has posted his quest for the origin of The Trick That Fooled Einstein on the Genii Forum and you can read it here.

The Will Blyth trick is called Matchstick Divination and you can download a copy of Match-Stick Magic from

Al Koran’s Bring Out The Magic In Your Mind must be one of the most successful self-help books ever written perhaps in part due to the mystical sounding name of its author. You can find it all over the world. Far from getting rich on this it is more than likely that the book was ghost-written. There is a claim in the Review section of the Amazon site that the author was June Hope Kynaston, who also authored The Mind That Works Miracles, a book that seems as hard to find as Koran’s book is ubiquitous.


I've found a few more references that might be of interest. The first is Harry Franke's handling of The Trick That Fooled Einstein. See Bill Miesel's Precursor magazine (LV, August 1996).

The second is also in Precursor (LXXIX, August 2001). It is Al Thatcher's Climax Estimation which produces four of a kind at the end of the "as many as you" routine.

In Precursor editor Bill Miesel mentions that he learned the trick from Scarne on Card Tricks (1950). Scarne calls the trick The Quickie Card Trick. Given the 1950 publication date it is interesting to wonder whether Al Koran read this book and it inspired Jackpot Coins because not only is The Quickie Card Trick there but also a story about a magician and Einstein. See Einstein and the Magician in which the great scientist baffles a conjuror.