Fully Booked - The Essential Stewart James
By Harapan Ong - Sunday, February 17, 2019
Whenever people ask me to name my favourite magic creator, Stewart James' name inevitably comes up. He truly is someone I am intrigued by, and his unparalleled ingenuity with magic is something I highly admire and respect.
I find him to be one of magic’s most enigmatic characters and creators, because despite the sheer volume of work credited to him, I don’t think he is as well-known as he should be. There are many other creators who have published only a fraction of his work (and often with a fraction of the originality and quality as well) but have somehow become known as creative geniuses, when in reality, Stewart James is one of Canada’s best magic exports in history (besides Dai Vernon, of course).
The book I’d like to shine a spotlight on today is called The Essential Stewart James, which is a book containing of over fifty of Stewart James’ best creations. These were selected by various well-known magicians (Max Maven, Bill Goodwin and Stephen Minch, just to name a few) from an impressive collection of over a thousand original tricks by Stewart himself.
As I looked through the tricks in this book, there were a few things that made a big impression on me:
I was surprised by how many tricks I recognised, but never knew that it belonged to Stewart. When I was young, I used to go to the local library and borrowed any magic book I could find. There were a lot of self-working magic tricks in these magic books (obviously written for kids), and reading through Stewart’s material made me realise that a lot of these self-working tricks are actually Stewart’s creations that were included in these kids’ magic books, uncredited. For example, I learnt The Knot of Enchantment and A Match For Gravity first from a random kids’ magic book many years ago, without knowing that these were Stewart’s idea.
I was very impressed with how ingenious every item was! Almost every item in this book is based on some clever principle that I’ve never encountered. This book is really every creator’s dream book – it is a goldmine for interesting methods and concepts that you can take and apply to your own creations.
While quite a number of the tricks in here are card tricks, there is a wide variety of items in the book that uses many different types of props – balls, boxes, cups, slates, slips of paper, ropes, rings and even silks. I love that the book gives a card magician like myself a chance to explore other genres of magic, and the tricks inside using these miscellaneous props are just fantastic.
Interspersed throughout the book are short little essays and articles written about Stewart’s life, his upbringing and his creative process. It shocked me that he had a pretty sad upbringing, with what I would consider an abusive family lacking in love and family bonding. He seemed to have also lived the life of a hermit, only finding pleasure in inventing new magic tricks while caring for his ailing mother. His creative process (which involves talking to imaginary friends) is also intriguing, to say the least.
Now, I would say that almost all (if not all) the items in the book are self-working. Stewart prefers to rely on clever methods, hidden mathematical principles and good routine structure to put a trick together. In fact, off the top of my head, the only card sleight in the book is a Glide, found in the trick “Gobak Card Mystery”. Instead, Stewart James tends to create the majority of his card material based on intricate stack work. While that implies that a lot of his card tricks will require a lot of setup, I believe the strength of the routines are worth the work. Some of his most intricate stack work can be exemplified in routines like his Robot Deck routine, and his Ten Nights in a Cardroom, in which a single stack allows you to do ten different card effects in succession. It’s like an entire magic show packed into a single deck of cards!
Some of the highlights for me were:
Pocket of Persistence: What a brilliant routine. The completely blindfolded magician is able to pull out winning poker hands from a deck of cards hidden in the spectator’s jacket pocket. He is even able to divine the identity of a previously freely selected playing card, and as well as find its mate, all without seeing the single face of a card! The stack involved is easy to remember and utterly ingenious.
Jamesway Poker Deal: A routine that I actually use in my own repertoire. From a packet of twenty five cards, the spectator denotes how many times the packet should be shuffled, and as well as which player should get the winning hand. The magician complies and when dealt out for five hands of poker, the winning poker hand (a Royal Flush) can be dealt to the chosen player. It makes you look like a master poker cheat without the hard work!
Falling Card: Another brilliant item. A random card is freely selected and lost back into four other cards. The five cards are then individually clipped onto five clips attached to a piece of rope. With some concentration, the chosen card mysteriously falls off the clip, while the others stay on the rope.
There are of course many other Stewart James classics in this book, such as Miraskill (an absolute classic of card magic), Sefalaljia (his brilliant take on a one-man spirit cabinet routine) and Further Than That (another great card item with a spectacular finale). However, I am choosing to highlight my favourites that are perhaps often overlooked by others.
Are there things I don’t like about the material in this book? Honestly, yes. There are a lot of routines in here where due to its reliance on self-working principles can seem very convoluted and procedural. This is especially true, in my opinion, with the tricks that rely heavily on mathematical methods. They are incredibly clever and is a testament to Stewart’s genius, but if you are someone trying to look for tricks to slip into your working repertoire, I sincerely doubt these tricks will suit your tastes.
However, there is still a whole bunch of tricks in these books that can be presented in a direct and commercial manner that is both magical and entertaining. It is no wonder that this is one of my favourite magic books in my own collection. If you are someone looking to get inspired, look no further than the material of this unsung genius of magic, Stewart James.
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