Thursday, 31 October 2013

A Deck of Cards: Part I

The summer between finishing my degree and starting a PhD left me with a whole lot of time with nothing to do.  The last time this happened (the summer four years prior between A-Levels and University) I invested the time in "learning" to program (this was a time when I thought Java In A Nutshell (3rd Edition!) and  Borland JBuilder were the best thing since sliced bread), ready for a new hobby, course and ultimately my "inevitable" (hah!) career four years hence.
Second time around, and I wanted to spend the time learning something radically different that might be useful when interacting with people, and so decided that this would be the summer that I learned all about card magic.  In retrospect, any sensible person in my position would have gone backpacking round South America, but (as I'm sure I rationalised it away at the time) at least when I decide to go take my backpack and "find myself" in an Inca ruin, I'll be able to entertain any fellow travellers with some half forgotten slights, ill timed patter and misjudged misdirections.

So, learning card magic, where to begin?  Well you need something to learn from - back then it was a book, something to practice with - a deck of cards, and some people to practice learned tricks on - family, friends, and a mirror.  Note the singular, a book, a deck of cards (a mirror...).  The point was to learn tricks and to entertain others.  You can do all this with any standard deck of 52 cards* and one book (The Royal Road To Card Magic).  Unfortunately, I got a bit obsessed with card magic books and, separately, collecting decks of cards.

Card magic books are fascinating -

A spring flourish, beautifully illustrated in Royal Road, brought to life by yours truly.

- the really good ones I own (Royal Road mentioned above and The Expert At The Card Table) are written in an olde-world english with charming hand-drawn illustrations of the slights.  To read them is to be drawn into a secret world of misdirection, manoeuvres, patter and handed-down practice.  The author of the Expert At The Card Table had written a book of so closely guarded secrets that the identity behind his pseudonym - S.W. Erdnase - is still a mystery.  Many look to it's mirrored form, E.S. Andrews, as a clue.
Regardless, Erdnase gathers you round, as though you were a small child, and in hushed tones patiently explains his treasures, one step at a time.  The slights and techniques needed to manipulate the cards are explained first, and then, once you have practised hard enough, you can advance to the second half - the tricks - and glue together hard earned muscle-memory manipulations with patter (what you say), and timings, off-beats, smiles and laughs in order to build up a wonderful effect - the impossible event you hope to build for your participants and audience.

Olives to start, Fresh Lemonade and
Skinny with Cheese as main,
and then Mint Tea for dessert.
Many of the mechanical techniques I still play with, and have a few favoured mini training routines of false shuffles, cuts, deals, lifts and shifts (moving entire blocks of the deck across each other) that I'll find myself doing whenever a deck of cards is in my hands.  Actually just a single card sets this behaviour off, as anyone who has ever been to Byron's Burgers with me will know.  A nervous habit I picked up from passing the time on long daily train journeys to and from Uni during my early PhD years.
Aside from the physical mastery, there are also many other mental skills to be learned.  Rote memorization of 52 cards in order can set up some very powerful magic, as-well as peg and linking memory tricks used by the Nikola card system to quickly do location maths in a stacked deck.  To this day I still imagine the Jack Of Clubs as a Bartender holding a Mug (M = 3, g = 9, position 39), or the Six of Diamonds as some Doped  (D6 = Dp = Dope) Ale (l=1, position 1).
Around the same time, I was also a bit of a Derren Brown fan (I'm sure the two interests played off each other), and I managed to get hold of his books aimed at the magical fraternity.  The card tricks contained therein were way beyond my ability, but his essays on performance technique were incredibly useful (to this day I partially judge the interest in my lectures by the amount of coughing that can be heard.  If it's a lot, then I either need to slow down and start again, ask a question, or take a break, as people are getting bored), and on building an effect that connects with the participant as opposed to leaving them wondering "how did you do that?".  The answer is carefully, with a caveat of it's very hard to do.

The problem with magic, and the reason I never really stuck to it, is that deep down it is incredibly deceitful.  A some point, you start lying to and misleading the person you are entertaining.  You deliberately leave clues to throw them off the scent.  When dealing with a magician you have to believe that everything - every word, every motion, every joke, every look, every shrug - has been rehearsed, scripted and put into place.  They'll build up a world where the only obvious solution is so complicated that it's impossible (the card must be heat sensitive!) and you'll miss the fact that, actually, it has to be done simply, and so simply that you won't see it.  In fact, you don't see the simple solution because if it was done that way, you would feel cheated - and that is a feeling you want to avoid, so you don't even consider it.

Magic and mirrors, me and myself as my beautiful assistant.
The (lovely/gorgeous/stunning/artistic/narcissistic) picture of me left is (perhaps?) a(n attempt at a) great example.  It's impossible right?  It's not photo-shopped (it really isn't), and yet there's me, holding a 5 of spades, looking at me in a mirror, also holding a 5 of spades.  Yet both cards are facing the right way.  I must have used a second mirror? or a sticker on the glass? or maybe the real me is the one in the background and the foreground is a trick with a glass plane? Think of the feeling you're experiencing right now.  Curiosity? Wonder? Frustration?  Intrigue?  The next sentence will grant you deflated irritation and you won't believe that you felt what you're feeling right now.

Or, maybe, I'm just holding two cards back to back, and one of them is a 5 of spades printed in reverse?  (You can just see the card in the picture below).

How do you feel?

Knowing how a trick works sucks.

One other thing I got from Mr Brown's words was that I wasn't alone in wanting to be a "pure" card manipulator.  While I did spend some small amount of time and money on trick decks and apparatus, for the most part I hated them - preferring to invest my skills into techniques that would work on only normal cards, and not needing to mark or cut or shorten or treat the decks.  What I found easy to forget is that genuinely no-one cares about how you do a trick, they only care about the perceived effect.  (Fair warning, I'm setting up a rather tenuous analogy with writing computer software and users here...).  Getting obsessed with being able to fake shuffle a deck while keeping 5 cards in known locations and using that skill isn't necessarily all that useful if the trick only needs one card moving to the top of the deck.  (In software, you don't need to break out Factories and Dependency Inversion just because you've read a book).  There are some magical effects that are very easy, powerful and quick using specially rigged decks of cards (and there are situations where having  the user able to see or do or test something tomorrow by writing a hack is much more important that spending two months creating the worlds most beautiful code that no-one will ever touch again).
Of course being puritanical with cards (and thus writing nice clean, well designed and abstracted software) has its benefits too. You can easily make magic with anyone's deck of cards, and after a trick is done, you don't have to messily hide short cards (or worry about copy-pasted code).  There are trade-offs, but it is important to remember there is a participant (or user) in the equation who is not supposed to know you just used a Vernon Multiple Shift which took a month to learn (or that their app is based on an Actor Framework because it took a month to learn), they just want to be amazed before they get bored (ditto). (End analogy).

This isn't even close to the
whole collection!
So, away from the lies and deceit there's the decks of cards.  Oh so many beautiful decks, in so many different designs and styles and finishes and sizes and smells.  I ended up collecting these - anywhere I went that sold a custom deck I'd pick up, or any kind of beautiful deck I could import from the 'states I'd clock up ridiculous amounts of import tax on.  And I'd have to have a few of each, one to stay pristine, and one to use.  And a spare 'lest I destroy any cards in a trick.  That after a week of shuffling drills a deck would be destroyed always filled me with a feeling of dread - I just couldn't (actually, still can't) throw any of these cards away.  And so they piled up.  I'm still drawn to them, perfect boxes of light clean rectangles of card, four symbols, two sharp, two soft, two black, two red (or inverted or faded or gilded).

Two new gorgeous decks arrive -
Black and White Artisans by theory11
Case in point, if you were wondering about the random '*' in the second paragraph at the top of this (now ridiculously long) post, the Amazon search to find the link to a Red Bicycle deck came up with a lot of very, very tempting new designs of cards that I don't own, and two of the most gorgeous card designs I've ever seen, that I now do.  Oops.  Even worse, a wider google has made me angry for missing out on this Kickstarter for a stunning Typographic Deck.

I could write more, but my hands really want to play with my new cards, which makes typing challenging!