Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Irishman's Impossible Card Effect

The 1920s was an era of impossibilities, at least if you go by the advertising in magic magazines. One of my favourite ads appeared in The Sphinx (May, 1928). It said that an ‘Irishman’ wanted to sell you an impossible card effect. Failure is impossible. So is detection. Everything else is ‘dead easy. No sleights or palming. Use your own deck. This effect has fooled every Magician who has seen it.’

The Irishman did not elaborate on the effect but one of the magicians who had seen this one dollar miracle was Max Holden. In his column in The Sphinx (June, 1928) he wrote about John Scarne who had impressed him with a four ace trick, Annemann and an envelope reading mystery and Dave Vernon who had a trick so good he wouldn’t sell it. The Irishman found himself listed in this illustrious company when Willie Meyenberg performed the Impossible card trick for Max Holden. ‘I want to say,’ said Holden,’ that this trick is very clever. A card chosen, now a card is removed but is not the card, so it is initialed and placed inside pocket. Chosen card is now named and removed from pocket and the card which was initialed is back in the back.’

Not the clearest of descriptions but it sounds like a card transposition. Thanks to Ask Alexander I found some information on the trick and it is kind of unusual. The solution to the trick was outlined in a letter from Tom Bowyer to an unnamed friend. To be fair the handling seems a little odd but maybe Bowyer left out some details. However, I think the method is interesting and I’ll comment more on that later.

To clarify, the effect is that a card is selected and lost in the deck. The performer attempts to find the card but produces the wrong one. Someone calls out their initials, the performer writes them on the card and places it in his pocket. The deck is placed into the card case. In a moment of inspiration the performer suddenly names the selection. He’s correct. He then reaches into his pocket and pulls out the card he placed there. But on turning it around it is not the initialled card, it is the selection. The initialled card is now back in the cased deck.

The method involves a Si Stebbins stack, a duplicate card, a little bit of wax and a card case with a large square hole cut in the back. You’ll also need a Sharpie. Not quite the impromptu miracle we'd been hoping for.

The duplicate is a wide card so it can easily be located but I suppose any other method of locating it would suffice. The handling Tom Bowyer describes is a little awkward, or perhaps incomplete, so I’ve cleaned it up a little as follows.

There is a set up for the trick. The wide duplicate card, let’s assume it is the five of clubs, is on top of the deck. It has a smear of wax on the back. You can use any modern substitute such as a Glue Pen. The real five of clubs is in the card case, its face against the cut out window.

Begin the trick by spreading the deck face-down between the hands and having a card selected. Square up the deck but take a little finger break at the point from which the card was removed. The spectator looks at and remembers his selection.

Now give the deck a spin cut at the break. This results in the former upper half of the deck being in the palm up left hand, the bottom half in the right hand. Have the spectator drop his noted card on the left hand packet. It’s going on top of the sticky duplicate. Drop the upper half of the deck on top of all and square everything up, giving the cards a little squeeze so the selection sticks to the duplicate.

Hand the deck to the spectator but as you do so glimpse the bottom card. Because of the Si Stebbins stack you now know the identity of the selection. Ask the spectator to give the deck a shuffle. This shouldn’t separate the selection from the duplicate but if you’re nervous about it just ask him to give the cards a few cuts. I do like the idea that the spectator shuffles the deck. It seems very fair.

Take back the deck, maybe give it a shuffle or two and in a suitably impressive manner produce the sticky double from the deck as if it is the selection. It shows as the five of clubs and the spectator tells you it isn’t the selected card. Feign defeat, pick up the card case and rest the five of clubs on the window side. Don't expose the window. Pick up the Sharpie and ask the spectator for his initials. Write the initials on the face of the visible five of clubs. You also write the initials on the five of clubs that is in the card case. You do this by writing through the window cut into the case and directly on the card inside. Sounds tricky and it probably is. Maybe this is the impossible element referred to in the title.

Show the initials on the face of the double card and then put the card(s) into your pocket. Drop the deck into the case manoeuvring it so that the duplicate already in the case is forced into the middle of the deck. Place the cased deck on the table and you’re almost done.

You can now reveal the name of the chosen card. You reach inside your pocket, separate the double and pull out the selection. Take the deck from the case, spread it face-up on the table, locate the five of clubs and push it out of the spread to reveal the initials. An impossible transposition. Or at least that’s what the Irishman would have said.

NOTES: I’m not sure you really need a wide card for this trick. The fact that the two cards are stuck together makes them easy to locate. I don’t think you need the stacked deck either. You can probably work out a way of glimpsing the selection that is stuck to the back of the five of clubs. I haven’t found it easy to write through the window in the card case onto the card inside. Maybe the deck could be placed inside the card case first. The deck presses the five of clubs inside against the window. Now you rest the sticky double on the cased deck. This makes it easier to write on the card. But to finish you’re going to have the remove the deck from the case and execute a pass or give it a cut to centre the signed five of clubs.

Max Holden says he saw the trick performed. But I wouldn’t describe it as easy as the advertisement made out. F Jackson, of Belfast, the originator of the trick, contributed many different ideas to the magazines of the day including Restless Colours which appeared in The Jinx (Issue 48, 1938) and is an early version of Follow The Leader. Another notable item was his Eff Jay telephone test published in The Sphinx (November 1929). Because of the coding method it could only be performed in the evening.

Having proposed a psychic test, you have a card selected and placed face up on the table. Everyone looks at it and concentrates on it. You turn the lights off and everyone sends their thought waves out into the universe. Nothing happens. So you turn the lights back on and begin to talk about some other psychic matter. Suddenly, the phone rings. Scary eh? Someone in the room picks it up and a voice on the other hand tells them the name of the card they’ve been concentrating on.

The method is clever. You and your secret assistant, who back then would be standing outside the building, trying not to look shifty, have synchronised your watches. He is also not far from a public phone box. Switching the lights on and off codes the name of the card to him. First you code the suit by switching the lights off as the second hand of your watch hits a certain quarter of the dial. Later you code the number by switching the lights on. You can code twelve possible cards if you allocate 5 second intervals for each of them. Jackson suggested not using the kings.

Jackson wore his wristwatch with the dial on the inside of his wrist and held a crystal ball to cover his looking at it. I also assume that there was some light to see by and that he wasn’t sat in the pitch dark. Oh, and the business of the experiment not working and the phone call coming unexpectedly is something I’ve added. I think it might feel more authentic and offers a stranger experience than playing it as a standard telepathy test.

The synchronised watches idea was later rediscovered by Graham Reed and described in Step Ten of Corinda’s Thirteen Steps to Mentalism where using a pack of ESP cards (not invented at the time Jackson wrote up his trick) considerably simplified matters.