Cardshark by Darwin Ortiz

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii December, 1995)


Most readers of this column will be familiar with the name and work of Darwin Ortiz. A successful full-time closeup magician, Mr. Ortiz has established himself as being among the handful of the most visible exponents of gambling expertise and demonstrations on the magic scene today. He is also an author of no little significance; he has written two books for the public, concerning con games and gambling respectively, two invaluable books on magic— The Annotated Erdnase and Darwin Ortiz at the Card Table— and 1994's controversial book about performance theory, Strong Magic (reviewed in Genii , July 1994).

Some people might criticize Mr. Ortiz for his low-key performance style. But it is never an easy matter to succeed as a full-time professional in show business, and a key requirement for any commercially successful entertainer is to maximize and exploit their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Certainly Mr. Ortiz has done this, and his success is simple testimony to the effectiveness of his approach. We can't all be Juan Tamariz or David Williamson—whom I cite here not because they are the only great magicians in the world, but because of their distinctively manic and entertaining styles— and who would want us all to be, anyway?

Others would criticize Mr. Ortiz's work because of the often extreme technical demands of his published material. This issue is addressed in both Paul Gertner's introduction to Cardshark, and in the author's own foreword. Mr. Gertner writes, "The assumption that magic which involves advanced skill is only for magicians is just as misguided as performers who assume all you need is a thumbtip and an invisible deck to entertain a lay audience." Mr. Ortiz, in an interesting take on these issues, posits that "if.. a magician comes across a great trick that is beyond his technical capabilities and he has to pass that great trick by, he should recognize that the failing lies with him, not with the trick. Imagine if, in the field of classical music, someone were to disparage a sonata or other composition, not because of any musical flaw, but simply because it's difficult to play. That sort of thinking, which would be considered ludicrous in any other performing art, is commonplace in magic."

So much for the more obvious complaints. In fact, while there is no shortage of technically demanding material in this book, there are several items that are extremely simple, and one that is entirely self-working. Hence, the book deserves a look by card workers of virtually any skill level—the material you cannot yet do, or perhaps even find difficult to understand, might well motivate your further study.

Finally, some—including this writer-have criticized Mr. Ortiz's tastes and theoretical approaches to the performance of magic. He takes a rather hard-line view of what constitutes good and bad approaches to conjuring presentation and performance. He focuses relentlessly upon the effect, and this attitude appears to stem from an a priori belief that "magic [can], in itself, be highly entertaining," as he stated in Strong Magic. I tend to disagree with this philosophy myself, and despite Mr. Ortiz's admonitions in Strong Magic that those of my persuasion should "give up magic," I have nonetheless chosen thus far to persevere as best I can. His philosophy can lead to a rather conservative, perhaps even reactionary set of tastes, especially when reinforced by an equally narrow view of the value and definition of "commercial" appeal, as reflected in the oppressively didactic tone of Strong Magic (and of his often similarly-flavored series in Magic magazine). However, his beliefs are certainly informed by a significant degree of conjuring expertise, along with his own experience—at least in the venues he is accustomed to working. Just as his compulsive concern with effect lent the greatest value to the section of Strong Magic that addressed this very subject, so too is it reflected in the power and clarity of the effects he provides us with, both in Darwin Ortiz at the Card Table, and now in this newly released work. As well, performance is an interpretive act, and students may as well start with strong material, which they are then free to adapt to their own artistic style and vision—one hopes.

But enough of preliminaries; having cleared the caveats from the path, let us rush pell- mell into the feast Mr. Ortiz presents us with in Cardshark. This is, quite simply, a book of great card tricks. Not just good tricks, not okay tricks, not curiosities and variations to bring to the weekly magic club session and then allow to die on the vine—or on the shelf. There are thirty routines provided in three sections often items each, under the chapter headings of Impromptu Miracles, Presentational Showpieces, and, of course, Gambling Routines. Every routine is worthy of publication, whether this be for reasons of routining, method, effect (be they significant variations of existing effects or, in at least a few cases, essentially original effects), or even, believe it or not, presentation. In the latter case, while Mr. Ortiz wisely chooses not to provide the student with fully scripted presentations throughout, in the instances in which the unity of effect and presentation is of paramount importance, he does provide several quite competent scripts which, although it is always preferable to create your own, can serve as very good examples of what issues and moments your own script might best address.

Those familiar with Darwin Ortiz at the Card Table will note that while that volume was divided simply between "Card Table Artifice" and "Legerdemain" (i.e., gambling routines and conjuring), the present text is organized differently. Since much of Mr. Ortiz's work requires advanced preparation—largely in the form of deck setups but also in the form of additional props and the occasional and judicious use of gaffs—the reader's curiosity will no doubt be immediately drawn to the first section often impromptu routines which require no additional properties beyond one or sometimes two ordinary decks of cards. Beginning with the Psychotronic Card, based upon a number of intriguing plots including Brother Hamman's Mystery Card and featuring the vanish of a selected card, this section also includes: Signature Effect, in which the spectator signs the back of an unknown card which turns out to possess the face of a card the spectator merely names, and which subsequently climaxes with a convincing transposition; Nulda's Revenge, a clean, two-card transposition which, like the previous routine, can be performed in professional walkaround magic conditions (provided you can handle the technical requirements, of course); and a neat sandwich routine entitled Beyond Sleight of Hand, in which the spectator returns his selection to the deck and shuffles it himself, whereupon the performer buries a face-up pair in the deck which suddenly and mysteriously entrap the selection. Six more routines, all distinctive and interesting, complete the impromptu section.

The second section, the aforementioned "Presentational Showpieces," comprises ten routines, most of which require some additional props beyond one or two decks of cards, and all of which tend to involve more elaborate theatrical presentations and/or staging than the material of the previous section. Three of these routines utilize wallets, and Mr. Ortiz seems to have a knack for unique thinking in this department. His Dream Card, from Darwin Ortiz at the Card Table, is without doubt one of the most distinctive card-to-wallet routines in the literature, yet here again he brings us some fresh new ideas on the subject, including Pickup on South Street, in which a signed, selected card vanishes from amidst a small packet of cards placed in a spectator's wallet, only to reappear in the performer's wallet while it is apparently in a second spectator's possession; also in this vein is the Phantom Card, which begins when a spectator's signed selection is openly placed in the magician's wallet, whereupon the spectator is allegedly hypnotized to believe that she manages to freely select the same card from the deck yet again, whereupon the card vanishes from a packet only to be retrieved from the wallet. Other routines in this section include The Marker, a test-condition, signed, torn- and-restored card routine; Time and Again, a novel showpiece where the magic takes everyone back in time, concluding with the logical but startling creation of an "impossible object," namely a factory-sealed yet empty card box; Blind Aces, one of my favorite routines in the book, wherein the magician, after the deck is shuffled by a spectator, cuts to four aces while his eyes are temporarily covered by the spectator's own hands; Museum Piece, a small packet "printing" effect; Harry In Your Pocket, a nifty item in which a selection is returned to a deck which is then boxed and sealed with an initialed sticker. The deck is then placed in a spectator's pocket, and the magician, his hand clearly empty, dips into the pocket and immediately locates the selection, despite the fact that the box remains fully sealed; Bold Fusion, Mr. Ortiz's parallel invention but differing approach to the marketed trick, The Anniversary Waltz; and the two performance blockbusters of this section (and perhaps the entire book), Time Piece and The Showdown.

Time Piece is a decidedly non-standard routine for the now-standard clock trick. I confess that I have always had problems with this trick similar to those objections raised by Mr. Ortiz; I have rarely if ever seen the clock trick performed as little more than a puzzle. He has taken the premise and enlarged it to a full-dress performance item, to wit: a pocketwatch is introduced which bears the engraved inscription, "Time is an illusion." A spectator thinks of any hour, and uses this thought to select a card from a clockface formed of playing cards. Using the watch as a pendulum, the performer locates the selected card. He then reveals that the watch has now mysteriously set itself to the hour of which the spectator thought; turning the watch over, the spectator discovers that the inscription has now magically altered itself to reveal the name of the selected card. If you're not previously familiar with the elements of this trick, that must read pretty fabulously. If you are familiar with them, you may be even more impressed by the ideas brought to bear on some old principles.

The other over-the-top showcase routine here is The Showdown, perhaps the ultimate version of the Magician Versus Gambler plot. In Mr. Ortiz's approach, four queens are signed by a spectator and lost in the deck. The performer's wallet and keycase are logically introduced via the presentation and given to two audience members to hold. After cutting to three of the signed cards—yes, the signature is verified each time—the performer misses on the fourth card. The three previously cut-to queens are now transformed to match the fourth card, making four of a kind, whereupon two of the signed queens are withdrawn from the performer's pockets, the third signed queen is produced from the previously tabled wallet, and the final signed queen is discovered folded in quarters within the confines of the keycase. This routine may well be the final word on this now classic effect.

Rarely do I take the time to catalog most or all of the routines in a given book, but I have taken the space here to demonstrate how little there is in the way of minor variants, puzzles, or other wasted pages within the covers of this volume. There is no padding. The third section, of gambling material, is also full of interesting and widely varied material. While it would probably be impossible for Mr. Ortiz to match the wealth of powerhouse gambling material he released in his previous magic book, gambling aficionados will still find some solid ideas here. Several routines pit the performer directly against the spectator in actual play, always a compelling plot: In Beat the Dealer, the performer places a wager on his blackjack hand when the spectator knows he has a sure thing, but the performer still wins via an essentially magical transformation; in The One-Handed Poker Deal, the performer manages to shuffle and deal himself a Royal Flush, all with one hand (this is a terrific quickie that, if you can do a one-handed weave shuffle, is eminently practical and can be performed in walkaround conditions); and in Mr. Lucky, the spectator freely chooses all the cards in play, and can even exchange hands with the dealer, but still loses. The author resurrects (and reworks, to some degree) two of my favorite gambling demonstrations from his 1979 lecture notes, Darwin's Deceits, including Face-Up Centers (with an added display convincer but now without the original kicker ending), and From the Cellar, a clever bottom-deal demonstration. There are several poker-deal routines herein, each with a distinctive sub-theme, including Darwin's Poker Deal, and Pick-A-Card Poker. The Cross is inspired by Jim Swain's influential Poker Interchange routine; in Mr. Ortiz's version, what begins as a riffle stacking demonstration ends with some startling transformations. There is a system provided for bottom run-ups—in essence, riffle stacking from the bottom of the deck rather than from the top—which is actually somewhat easier than traditional top-down systems. Although one would be hard-pressed to find a poker deal routine to beat The Ultimate Card Shark from Mr. Ortiz's previous book, that routine required a full-deck set-up. The final routine here, entitled The Sting, is another killer gambling routine which has the additional benefit of beginning impromptu from a deck shuffled by the spectator. While only the most expert of technicians will be able to accomplish the demands of this item, such skills will be amply rewarded with this performance piece.

"Many magicians like to point out that an audience doesn't care how difficult a trick is, they just want to be entertained. That's true. They then, however, draw a strange conclusion from this observation. They conclude that this means you should always use the easiest method. How difficult a trick is becomes the most important factor in determining whether they'll perform it. In other words, the one factor that is the least important to the audience becomes the most important to the magician." —Darwin Ortiz, Cardshark

Obviously, there is a wealth of material here for the serious cardician. The descriptions are thorough and highly readable. Each routine is followed by the author's generally instructive comments (although I confess that the preening that shows up in some of these remarks sometimes appears as if the author were trying to resell the book to someone who presumably has already purchased it) and valuable performance notes, along with credits, which are concise but careful and at times revelatory. (Witness the author's crediting of the Mercury Card Fold to John Scarne, the Flushtration Count to Norman Houghton, and several other interesting historical revisions.) The illustrations, by Ton Onosaka, serve to verify this artist's stature as probably the finest working illustrator in magic today (and are a vast improvement over the bizarrely reversed photographs in Darwin Ortiz at the Card Table). As an illustrator, he sets a standard by which all others should be measured; next time you think you like the drawings in a conjuring text, crack open this volume, or Paul Gertner's Steel and Silver [page 66], and compare.

There are fine technical finesses and refinements to be found throughout the text, including the author's handling of John Carney's Versa-Switch, an interesting touch on loading a Mullica Wallet, and many other such examples. There is a definitive description of the one-handed (faro) shuffle, which many will appreciate. (Do I wish I had had this 17 years ago when I suffered through puzzling out the workings myself? Nah.) The Stuart Cordon double lift, long an insider's move, also makes a rare appearance here. While this expert lift briefly poked aboveground in Larry Jennings' The Cardwright, most readers doubtless overlooked it since it was buried in an elegant application wherein three cards were displayed as two as part of a lay-down procedure for an Ace Assembly. Mr. Ortiz's description is also brief, and Mr. Gordon's original handling in fact continues to remain unpublished, but the cognoscenti will no doubt take note of this mention, as it is in fact the one staple of the author's technical repertoire that was absent from Darwin Ortiz at the Card Table.

One small caution: There are several proofreading lapses, including the occasional dropped word, and also some inadvertent mix-ups between "right" and "left" references. This is doubtless related to the fact that Mr. Ortiz is left-handed but, thankfully, writes for the right-handed student. All in all, consider this book an appropriate addition to my Winter Solstice Wrap-Up of favorite 1994/95 titles in last month's column. This is not a book for dilettantes and snackers; if you want a real meal of cardmanship, curl up with this and prepare to be absorbed. My compliments to the chef.

8-1/2" x 11" hardcover w/dustjacket; 189 pages; illustrated with 200 line drawings by Ton Onosaka; 1995; Publisher: Kaufman and Greenberg

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