Fooling Houdini by Alex Stone
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 2012)
At the 2006 FISM close-up magic competition in Stockholm, Alex Stone, an ambitious journalist and amateur magician (who had gained entry to the competition thanks to an endorsement by the President of the Society of American Magicians), was "red-lighted" meaning that he was stopped before completing his performance. Most red-lighting at FISM takes place because a performer runs over the allotted time, but Mr. Stone was the only act in the close-up com-petition (and one of few ever) to be "given the hook" because his performance was so utterly execrable and below par.
In some dimension of time and space, a man might, in the face of such public humiliation, retire to private self-contemplation, lick his wounds, and perhaps venture forth gingerly to beg forgiveness from those whose life's work and art he had so publicly sullied. But to quote Richard Kaufman, who offered this comment on the Genii Forum in the wake of Mr. Stone's next public step, "People like to fail in public these days. A good wallow in your own failure is sometimes the road to success."
That next public step of Mr. Stone's, proving Mr. Kaufman's prescience, was to write a 13-page feature article about his FISM experience in the July 2008 issue of Harper's magazine. Far from appearing embarrassed much less contrite, he took the opportunity to brag about his hard work and magic expertise, strutting his personal sense of intellectual and moral superiority over his fellow competitors and the larger community of magic, while posing as a working pro. Although in possession of an undergraduate degree in English from Harvard, Mr. Stone had apparently been absent the day his class learned the meaning of "hubris."
The title of the piece that Harper's blared across the cover of the magazine was "The Magic Olympics with Tricks Explained!" And explain them Mr. Stone did, with gusto, illustrations, and in great quantity. Harper's editors, perhaps desperate to find an audience for a piece that risked being of interest only to the magic community (not exactly the magazine's core readership), appear to have pressed the author to litter his article with abundant if meaningless explanations of magic methods, while they would advertise those contents right in the headline. "Tricks explained!" would doubtless sell more copies than "Loser Loses."
To this reader it was difficult to decide which was more offensive: the writer's preposterous conceit, or the whole-sale quantity of gratuitous exposure (including the Muscle Pass, the Topit, the one-ahead principle, Retention Vanish, classic palm, Spellbound change, Tenkai Palm, Pickup Move, and believe it or not, much more). In the closing paragraphs of the piece, Stone managed to proudly display both facets in close proximity: first by exposing the method of an extraordinary signature illusion currently in use by a prominent creator and performer; then, in his final judgmental paragraph, promptly declaring it "something brilliant, yes, but also sad." Was the illusion sad? The illusionist? The method? Or was it just the writer?
With his article as a springboard, the dauntless Mr. Stone now continues his pursuit of magic-based income with a new book, Fooling Houdini. The book opens with a 19-page reprise of "The Magic Olympics." While Stone still can't resist mentioning a Topit or pointing out that Jeff McBride carries a thumbtip in his fanny pack, he now sings a different song about his experience at FISM—doubtless having been schooled by an editor or publisher in the notion that while a testament to the naked arrogance of youth might serve America (or at least the subset of us that subscribes to Harper's) for 13 pages, it was not likely to sustain consumers for a book-length read. Hence the author now claims that, "... nothing compares to the disgrace of being red-lighted in the middle of your act.... I hadn't just lost, I'd been humiliated.... I'd been eliminated because I was genuinely bad. I had no business trying to pass myself off as a world-class magician. A world-class hack was more like it. A champion loser." Mr. Stone is apparently capable of turning the occasional accurate sentence about himself, if nothing else in order to appear appealingly vulnerable to his readership, at least for awhile. But he cannot completely conceal his true self for the duration of the ride.
According to the press materials, "Fooling Houdini recounts Stone's quest to join the ranks of master magicians." Along the way, the author manages to: attend Mystery School (which he learns about, sometime after his FISM escapade, via an internet search!); attach himself to a mentor (namely Wesley James, whom he profiles respect-fully); meet Richard Turner; take the School for Scoundrels class on street scams; execute a false shuffle and cut in a social poker game without getting caught, and wonders if he will be able to "resist the temptation to cheat in future games"; take part in a small sample neuroscience experiment in New York City based on his ability to steal watches (one wonders what the results would be with a larger sample not only of subjects but of watch stealers of variant skill levels); attend Mindvention (and flatly asserts that the current interest in mentalism is "in part due to the sluggish economy;" no reference is provided.); attends clown school (your joke here); learns the Faro Shuffle; meets Dave Bayer, who co-authored with Persi Diaconis their famous 1992 paper, "Tracking the Dovetail Shuffle to its Lair"; and eventually enters the 2010 I.B.M. Gold Cups competition. And loses, You were expecting miracles?
It's an engaging outline for a book pitch, but our tour guide has precious little to offer in the way of genuine expertise or visionary insights discovered along his path. Alex Stone seems simultaneously a BS artist and a born mark; he believes the outlandish PR claims of others as readily as he hopes others believe his own. To declare authoritatively that a New York City Monte mob can pick up $10,000 in an afternoon is just laughable. Mr. Stone should check the mirror and wipe that chalk mark off his jacket (after he looks up what that means). Perhaps he might also check into the veracity of the anecdote he repeats about a flock of magician's doves flying across the Mexican border to find their owner (hint: wrong kinda doves). And when you start repeating the claims of Uri Geller as journalism, it's time to hire a new fact checker.
Here's a partial sampling of more facts that Mr. Stone fails to check: He insists that magicians believe that it is actually a rule to never repeat a trick, as if he is the first to discover otherwise (when in actuality it is simply a safe guideline for beginners). He claims that Dai Vernon's fooling of Houdini was what won Vernon his legendary standing in the magic world, and simultaneously rendered the "Ambitious Card" a standard. (I'm not kidding, and neither is he.) He claims that the phrase "'Show me your Ambitious Card' is a common greeting among conjurors." (Maybe we hang out in different circles.) He is apparently entirely unaware of John Thompson's standing in the magic community, and is equally oblivious to the fact that "The Great Tomsoni" is a deliberately ironic take on a stage name. Near as I can tell, he appears to describe Vernon's New Theory Second Deal as the "Sure Theory" deal, without knowing its origin. He believes a Monte operator, with a single sleight, single trick repertoire, is "an excellent magician." (In the interests of full disclosure, some statements about this writer are seriously in error as well (albeit those details may be corrected in the final publication).) And although he lives in New York City, he apparently doesn't know where its "garment district" is (he could have tried Wikipedia).
But perhaps the most fundamental gap in Mr. Stone's limited grasp of magic, which he repeatedly displayed in his Harpers piece and continues to maintain in this book, is his insistence that magic begins and ends with the ability to fool people. This notion of course marks him as a neophyte (he's certainly not alone in the assumption, it's just remarkable that he's still stuck there after all this time and effort), but he still declares that magic competitions are based almost entirely on the ability of "competitive magicians ... to fool other magicians," and that "The social order of this rapidly growing subculture is based largely on who fools whom." I'm no fan of magic contests and indeed have been a frequent critic over the years, and it is certainly true that some contest successes are due to the audience and judges having been fooled, but really, just a glance from Mr. Stone's silly vantage would lead one to wonder how Lance Burton managed to win the Grand Prix with his exquisitely executed act of classical material, or for that matter how Shawn Farquhar took the close-up Grand Prix by closing on an "Ambitious Card" routine. Is it possible there were some other qualities being rewarded?
His inability to progress beyond this narrow viewpoint however is partly due to the fact that he possesses no broader aesthetic vision than this of the core artistic nature of magic. He quotes Tamariz: "Magic is an art that has two characteristics that separate if from other arts ... It should be impossible and it should be fascinating." But Stone demonstrates no comprehension of what this means, nor of the nature of the why and how and what the experience of mystery means to magic, magicians, and our audiences. Fascinating? Tamariz is speaking a language Stone is incapable of understanding and I don't mean Spanish.
But Stone also insists on exaggerating the importance of secrets so that he can then pretend to be an upstart challenger to the status quo. On the one hand he says that magicians value fooling one another over all else (an idea he clearly adhered to himself in the Harper's piece); in the next breath he huffs and puffs and blows down his straw man. "Are secrets really the sole source of a magician's power?" Stone asks—as if no one has ever posed the question before (and apparently having never read David Devant's response when he was ousted by the Magic Circle). But like most who use magic for self-promotion above all else, the only real value he sees in secrets lies in exposing methods for his own profit.
As compared with the Harper's article, exposure is the least of the book's flaws and there is far less of it by volume, but Stone still chooses to fill a great deal of space presenting lengthy, convoluted, and self-contradictory defenses about his use of it. He compares magic secrets to baseball color commentary, impervious to any difference between art and sport. He apologizes to Wes James for the Harper's exposures, but when the S.A.M. threatens to expel him he tries to challenge the attempt in a fit of pouty indignation. Stone dismisses the value of secrecy at every turn and never acknowledges any understanding of the special role it plays in magic. "If I'd published my article in MAGIC magazine or Genii, no one would have complained," he observes, simultaneously outraged and mystified. "The scandal came about because I wrote the article for Harper's, a mainstream magazine for laypeople." That he fails see the difference simply confirms a callow perspective. No matter how desperately you may desire peer recognition in the magic world, you have to earn it from within that world; no quantity of public articles and books will buy it for you. I once watched Alan "Ace" Greenberg perform a copper/silver routine at an afternoon show at the Fechter's convention. Nobody cared that he was a billionaire. They would only judge him on the performance—and he knew it, and embraced the fact. This is the nature of meritocracy.
Stone even asks, regarding the difference between publishing for the artistic community versus for the public, "And by publishing your material, don't you renounce all claims to secrecy?" Actually, Mr. Stone: we don't. We might do so in the legal sense; but if the only thing you have is the courts to determine your sense of right and wrong, you're living a questionable moral life. Like so many artistic communities, magicians do not rely on mere legalities to determine our artistic and moral choices. There are more things in art and magic than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
I myself have written that exposure is not very important, certainly not a moral issue, and that magic has sometimes benefited from it and will always survive it. But significantly, I also wrote On "Decent Exposure" from Shattering Illusions [Hermetic Press, 20021), "If you have a sincere artistic motive, then do whatever you want and I will sup-port you."
And that's the problem. Search Stone's article, search the book, and I can't find an idea behind his use of expo-sure. That's a far cry from the work of Penn & Teller, whom he tries to invoke in his defense. So while it could take another thousand words to address every fatuous defense Stone offers concerning the subject, I will simply leave it at this: his dependence on exposure is no moral crime. Rather it is merely like so much bad art: short on both taste and substance alike.
Mr. Stone touches on a variety of interesting subjects in his book—subjects he begins by knowing nothing about and ends by knowing ... a little more But are there beautiful ideas, incisive leaps, maybe just some fine examples of the craft of the essay, or even an elegant turn of phrase to enjoy? Not so much. Mr. Stone is a confirmed dilettante—be it as magician, physicist, or literary stylist. And as for journalism, there is no subject here about which you cannot find far superior sources from which to learn.
Consider Stone's discovery of the iconic Diaconis and Bayer paper, which determined that seven Riffle Shuffles are required to achieve a threshold of what we will simply refer to here as a random mix (without further defining that threshold). When Mr. Stone attempts to explain this to his readership, he then, in a fit of Nicholson Bakeresque deep footnotery, provides a footnote of approximately three-quarters of a page of reasons why the number seven is ... what? "There are seven days in a week, seven primary colors, seven seas, seven phases of the moon, seven dwarves ." This appears to be Mr. Stone's notion of what constitutes an idea (or a sophomoric joke): to type "number seven" into Wikipedia and then use the results to add to his page count.
Thanks to Professor Bayer, Stone then comes upon a mysterious Diaconis card routine based on a mathematical principle known as the De Brujin sequence. The trick and its method are discussed in the recently published Magical Mathematics by Diaconis and Graham [reviewed in September 2011 Genii). Stone then adopts this trick for his own use in competition, claiming to improve upon it; he neglects to recognize that the smaller packet version that Diaconis chose to use was a deliberate choice in order to clearly illustrate a point in his lectures. That Stone imagines he solved a problem that was in fact already long solved, much less that he saw something in it that the MacArthur Award-winning Diaconis had missed, reveals Stone for his true self. This is a man who takes an eight-hour workshop at The Magic Castle and pronounces, "by the end of the workshop I felt like an expert." And later: "I was an ace at the Three-Card Monte and could have started my own mob if I'd wanted to." His capacity for bravado is apparently limitless, while he reaches the end of his "quest" as jejune as he began. When he enters the I.B.M. competition and loses, he pats himself on the back and pronounces himself redeemed when, in a moment suited for the Oxygen channel, he smiles at Obie O'Brien—who was a judge at Stone's FISM ejection and sits in judgment again at the I.B.M. contest—and Obie smiles back at him. Cue strings! You go, girl!
Stone's absurdly inflated sense of self is frequently rendered as transparent as his sleight-of-hand technique, putting the lie to his attempts at false modesty. "So, while I regretted having offended the people who'd devoted their lives to magic, as time went by I also felt a renewed commitment to rethink the traditions many of them espoused." And this: "Magic exists in a kind of vacuum. My goal in writing the Harper's article was to pump some life into this vacuum." And there it is! Where oh where would we be without Alex Stone?
And that, in sum, seems the story of the man, the magician, the writer. In a magazine piece, a man who claims to be an expert offering insights into an artistic pursuit and community in fact reveals himself to be a novice who doesn't understand what he's trying to explain. Seeing the errors of his ways, he writes a book about his new path toward true mastery, guiding the readership through a yet more sophisticated tour. But in fact he remains at his core a perpetual naïf, attacking a broader catalog of subjects but delivering no more than a superficial gloss of each. He ends as he begins, pumped with all the puerile grandiosity of a high school student, leaving himself and his reader little better off than whence they began.
Want to learn about Three-Card Monte? Read Whit Haydn or a dozen other standard sources, many avail-able to the public. Interested in neuroscience and magic? Consider Sleights of Mind by Macknick and Martinezconde. Interested in math and magic? Try Magical Mathematics by Diaconis and Graham. Want to learn about magic? Read a book written by a real magician.
In 2006, the actor Jason Alexander performed an original act for a week at The Magic Castle and went on to win Parlour Magician of the Year from the Academy of Magical Arts. In a subsequent on-stage interview with John Lovick at the Magic Live! conference, an audience member asked if Alexander had been at all nervous in any of his shows. He explained that despite his extensive experience in live theater, in fact he had been extremely nervous in every one of his 21 Castle performances. Why? As closely as I can recall, he said, "I didn't want to be the asshole celebrity who came to mess with your art and then (screwed) it up." With tears in my eyes, I leapt to join the standing ovation.