Gary Plants on the Zarrow Shuffle by Stephen Minch
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii November, 2004)
One used to be able to describe Gary Plants as an underground figure in the world of magic, but bit by bit, over the years, his name has leaked to the borders of the outer circles of magicdom. Most magi will at least be aware of Mr. Plant’s superb gaffed cards, including his popular item, the "Magnetized Cards." Some magi will also know Mr. Plants as the fine cardician that he is, highly regarded for his exacting approach to sleight-of-hand and his precision technique. Several years ago Mr. Plants began to show around his approach to the Zarrow Shuffle and it probably fair to say that few who have seen it have failed to be impressed, this writer included, As noted in this manuscript, the Zarrow Shuffle is probably the most dramatic example of the rare sleight that has migrated from the close-up pad to the gambling table, rather than the far more traditional other way 'round. Despite its popularity in conjuring circles, however, the Zarrow Shuffle perhaps the single most important breakthrough card sleight of the 20th century, when it comes right down to it is a move that is easy to do badly, and difficult to do well. The tell-tale signs of the sleight can often be spotted from across the room, and this manuscript identifies the four most telling such faults. For many years there was very little in the way of detailed or advanced instruction to help students overcome these problems and master the sleight at an expert level. Herb Zarrow's commercial videotape was a major, and highly recommended, advance in that regard.
By the same token, the general handling of card con-jurors is often different from that of gamblers or laymen, and while that can sometimes be an awful thing producing contrived and unnatural handling styles that are neither convincing nor deceptive in any setting oftentimes, if the handling is consistent, the differences between these worlds is perfectly acceptable. For example, the techniques many magicians use for the Second Deal and Bottom Deal are consistent with how they handle a pack of cards, in that the deck is always held in what we term Mechanic's Grip. Given that consistency, such deals can be deceptive and not unnatural. However, were you to wish to become a professional card cheat, the Mechanic's Grip is in fact itself an unnatural and suspicious "tell," and you would need to change to something that duplicated the more casual "full" grip of the layman.
The same holds true for riffle shuffling. There's a difference between how a skilled blackjack dealer handles a riffle shuffle or a dealing action and the way the average layman handles such maneuvers, and there's a difference between these approaches and how the average conjuror executes such actions. A skillful tabled riffle shuffle can also be a tell of sorts, but if it your consistent handling, it should pass muster if your false shuffle duplicates it. Let's face it the fact that you can even riffle shuffle on the table is often the mark of unusual and potentially suspicious skill, as many people, even social card players, cannot accomplish the feat. So if you want to use a tabled riffle shuffle much less a false one and still manage to look like the guy on the street, you're going to have to change how you do things.
That is where Mr. Plants's interesting and accomplished approach comes into play. As Steve Forte says in his introduction, "There is a huge difference between 'he does a pretty good Zarrow shuffle' and 'I'm not sure if he shuffled them or not'." For most of us, a good Zarrow Shuffle or, let's say, a very good Zarrow Shuffle should be sufficient to deceive the laity. But Mr. Plants has tried to go beyond that by devising a shuffle that not only overcomes the four traditional tells, but also occurs in the context of a handling that, while frankly eccentric for magicians, can really be made to look like an Average Joe's version of a riffle shuffle. And that last point is worthy of notice, because in order to achieve all of this, Mc. Plants has, one could say in a manner of speaking, introduced a tell of his own. In his case, as the squaring actions are completed (following the unweave), the hands change position and sort of stand up on fingertip, the tips of eight fingers more or less touching the table surface and lining up along the outer edges of the cards, with the palms somewhat high over the pack. This is frankly an eccentric handling for most magicians, but one that is not uncommon among laymen. The upside is that the outer view of the action, which is often flashed by inferior handlers, is completely concealed. The downside, if you will, is that in order to master this version you may well have to completely relearn the way you riffle shuffle cards. For veterans this might be too high a price to pay for the benefits accrued—but if you're a serious handler, you'll want to explore this and experiment, and perhaps adapt it to your own handling and vice versa. For newer students, this might well be the road to the perfectly deceptive shuffle—for some of you.
I say for "some of you" because it is well to keep in mind that Herb Zarrow has long managed to avoid the tradition-al tells without introducing this kind of altered appearance. Thus Mr. Zarrow offers a typically circumspect prologue to this manuscript, offering that it "looks very good"—to which I can also firmly attest)—while adding that the essence of the Zarrow mechanics is such that "the techniques of (the) shuffle should be applied to the shuffle method employed by each individual ...."
While slender in size the work is substantial in content and in production values, given that it is expertly written by Stephen Minch and illustrated by Tom Gagnon (and it's nice to see Mr. Gagnon at the pen-and-ink stand again). Of the 28 pages of this manuscript, about 17 actually concern themselves with the pertinent details of Mr. Plants's handling, and with that in mind the price may put off the casually curious. I'm sure that's fine with the author, who can be confident that experts will want to see what he has to say—and you know who you are.