One hundred and seventeen years ago today, a guy named Orlando Carmelo Scarnecchia was born in Steubenville, Ohio. You won’t recognize that name. Seeing as how he died in 1985, you might not recognize the name he became famous under. But if you’ve ever enjoyed a magician doing card tricks, played pretty much any card or dice game, or counted cards in blackjack (at least, if you did it his way) then you know the name John Scarne.
Now why is a magician, card manipulator, and author of books on gambling showing up on a Wednesday Wonder post? Because there’s a corollary to Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The corollary is “Any sufficiently advanced magic is the product of technology.”
Magic tricks have always been based on scientific principles. They are a combination of mathematics, physics, and psychology, and sometimes throw in chemistry, geometry, and topography, for good measure. Of course, the best magicians wrap all of that science in the arts, so that the perfect illusion (“Illusion, Michael. A trick is something a whore does for money.”) is a full-on performance wrapped up in a story, supported by stagecraft, acting, music, and the whole nine yards.
Of course, note that the word “stagecraft” is kind of meta, because what we in theatre call stagecraft is often what illusionists call magic, so it’s an infinite loop there. A magic trick is stagecraft. Stagecraft is a magic trick. Lather, rinse, repeat.
But what Scarne did goes even beyond all of that, and one look at this card manipulation film of his from the 50s should convince you of that. Yes, I’ve studied magic enough to know that he’s using all kinds of tricks, like false deals and double lifts and so on to do what he’s doing but… at the same time, while the trick seems focused on the Aces, he’s not manipulating four cards at once here. He’s controlling eight — and all of them in a specific order, full speed ahead.
One of his more famous appearances was as Paul Newman’s hands in the movie The Sting. Newman’s character shows some pretty impressive card manipulating skills, all done by Scarne, but if you watch that video clip take special note. At the beginning, we cut to the hands with the cards. Then, at 0:36, the filmmakers pull their magic. The hands move out of frame at the top just long enough for Newman to put his own hands back, then pull off a not so fluid full-flip of the fanned deck, as the camera casually tilts up to make us think that those were his hands all the time. Ironically, I think that the insert shot of the flubbed attempt to bow shuffle was actually Scarne and not Newman.
But knowing that part of the trick brings up an even bigger issue. The only way they could have shot this was with Scarne behind Newman and reaching around, meaning that he had to do all of that manipulation of the cards totally blind.
Let that register, then go watch that clip again as he keeps the Ace of Spades right where he wants it. And nice symbolism on the part of the filmmakers, since that card is traditionally symbolic of death, and death both real and imagined play a big part in the film.
So how does magic trick us?
A lot of the time, it uses psychology and subverts our expectations. An obvious move to do something innocuous, like pull a wand out of our coat pocket, might in fact hide one or more surreptitious moves, like grabbing an object to be produced or ditching an object to be vanished, or both, or something else. One of the best demonstrations of how this works was given by Teller, of Penn & Teller fame, on their show Fool Us.
Anyway… that video will teach you almost everything you need to know about sleight-of-hand.
Another way that magic fools us is to play with our perceptions of space, and as mentioned in the link above, the Zig Zag Illusion is one of the best examples of making the audience think that something is impossible while hiding the secret right in front of them. I happen to own several pocket versions of this trick, one involving a rope and the other a pencil, and the principle is always the same. The Zig Zag Trick involves deceptive optics, psychology, and misdirection.
Of course, one other big trick in magic, especially in card tricks, is math, and I’m going to give away one that I love to do to make friends go “WTF?” Here’s the effect: I deal out 21 cards, then ask then to mentally pick a card, not tell me, but only tell me which one of three piles of seven cards it’s in. I gather up the cards and then deal them out again, and ask which column their card is in.
This is where I pull the stagecraft, playing up the idea that I have psychic abilities while dealing out the cards, Here’s the trick. When you hit the eleventh card, set it aside, face down, then deal out the rest. This sets you up for the ultimate brain scorch as you casually turn up that eleventh card and ask, “Is this the one you chose?”
And of course it is, and your victim squees in amazement. And how does it work? Simple. It’s all math. Each step of the way, you take the pile of seven cards with your spectator’s chosen card and put it in the middle. Since your piles are 3 by 7, the end result is that the first pass will force the chosen card to turn up somewhere between 8 and 14 in the pile. Next time around, it gets jammed to being either 10th, 11th, or 12th, and the last deal nails it. Although, pro tip, after the second deal, the chosen card will be the fourth one in the chosen column, and the 11th one you deal out. So… much opportunity for building up the reveal while reminding your mark and audience that they chose the card freely, and never told you which one it was and, bam! Is this your card?
And, if you followed the instructions, it absolutely will be. Bonus points: Once you understand the math behind it, you can vary it on the fly, so that it’s not always the 11th card — 4th or 18th will work as well. You can even change the total number of cards, provided that you’ve memorized where the target card will finally be forced to.
Scarne totally got all of this, but it really feels like his insights have been forgotten 35 years after his death. ‘Tis pity… Now pick a card.