Handcrafted Card Magic by Denis Behr
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 2007)
Handcrafted Card Magic is the perfectly apt title for this debut book by German cardician Denis Behr. While the marketplace piles up with instantly downloadable e-books that seem to take longer to download than they do to write and are forgotten in even less time than that Mr. Behr presents us with some-thing very different. This is a book that not only justifies its existence by means of innovative material and original thinking, but which represents the mind of a thoughtful and tasteful creator who pays attention to myriad tiny details that can make all the difference between mediocre magic and beautiful illusions.
The tastefully restrained and precisely designed package contains nine chapters, eight of which constitute tricks or routines. "Brute Force Opening" is one of those deceptively simple and direct openers that experienced performers love and invariably develop for themselves through years of experience. Such tricks always pale in description, but Mr. Behr provides the details that come of experience and also points out—a detail that some will particularly appreciate that this is a trick that preserves stack order.
"Plop" provides a culling system and procedure by which four-of-a-kind can be quickly culled from a face-down memorized deck. The simple and direct accompany-ing effect is startling and impressive a spectator names any value, the magician hands the deck to the spectator, who boxes it, and when the magician retrieves it, the named four-of-a-kind instantly penetrate the box and drop into the spectator's hands.
"A Trick for Allen Kennedy" is a faux Center Deal demo with some nice features. In the first phase, the spectator goes through the deck and reverses the Aces, whereupon the magician takes the deck and immediately deals out four hands, apparently Center-Dealing the reversed Aces to himself. In the second phase, the magician inserts the face-up Aces at unarguably random positions in the face-up spread, yet still manages to immediately deal the Aces in a two-handed head-to-head deal. This routine combines the use of the Second Deal, the Faro Shuffle, and a standard but cleverly applied gaffed card principle to produce a very deceptive and convincing result.
The author introduces "Magic Monthly" with a droll description, to wit: "There are countless four-of-a-kind productions out there. Here's another one." But this restrained prose vastly undersells a simply terrific two-part routine that will require some subtle performance skills to put across to full effect. In essence, a spectator is asked to name the month of his birth, and the month is converted to an appropriate number i.e., April equals four where-upon the magician promptly produces the appropriate four-of-a-kind in a pleasing manner. The magician now asks another spectator for her birth month, whereupon the four-of-a-kind are instantly transformed into the value of her month. This is what the spectators will see and remember, and this is a routine with far more impact than your standard flourishy four-Ace production. This is a fine example of how to utilize sophisticated sleight of hand and subtle psychological management to achieve extremely memorable and, indeed, commercial results.
"Finding the Way Home" is a different sort of chapter, which discusses a number of approaches for either apparently disordering a deck while actually maintaining memorized deck order, or secretly and systematically rearranging a memorized deck such that it can then be secretly restored to order. Mr. Behr begins by examining a trick called "The Tantalizer" from Hugard and Braue's Royal Road to Card Magic, offering approaches to performing this self-work-ing trick while secretly constructing any desired deck order, including, for example Si Stebbins, as well as how to maintain memorized deck order before and after the trick. A number of other such approaches to creating order out of apparent disorder are provided, which can be adapted to any memdeck but are provided by example with the author's preferred stack, Tamariz's Mnemonica. This is the kind of useful arcana that Eric Mead provided in Tangled Web in the chapter, "Disorderly Conduct," and you know who you are if you appreciate such material and will put it to use.
"A Gambling Demonstration" is an extremely easy example of the genre which fulfills the conventions of the famous Daryl joke, but continues to an additional climax of dealing out the remaining cards (a la Bridge), so that the four hands turn out to contain all four suits in numerical order. If you can do a convincing false shuffle this routine will have an impact wildly beyond the minimal skills it requires. (As a small point of personal taste, I would suggest altering the initial Ace productions so that they occur with the pack on the table, keeping the appearance of the routine stylistically consistent with card table artifice; the well-known Benzais revelation or similar would serve nicely.)
"Oil and Water" is a very clean and convincing three-phase routine done with six cards, capped with a kicker climax in which the entire deck becomes divided into two colors. Although there are countless Oil-and-Water routines in the literature, I consider Mr. Behr's selections to be excellent and potentially commercial choices. In his thorough footnotes he also references no less than 11 other recommended routines, which in and of itself would serve to provide any reader with an effective and well-selected course in the subject. If you're thinking about Oil and Water as a performance piece, I recommend you consider Mr. Behr's thoughts.
This is a good opportunity to mention the consistent quality of Mr. Behr's crediting, albeit along with one unfortunate and unintentional flaw. Within the 94 pages of this graceful little book there are no less than 78 footnotes, along with a three-page bibliography. The care and detail of these elements provide a good sense of the author's scholarship, his knowledge of the literature, and his respect for his predecessors as well as for his readers. A footnote concerning the sleight-of-hand production of a card from an empty card case includes no less than five sources! This is the way magic books should be written.
But none of us knows everything, and even the most careful efforts can sometimes go awry. In the penultimate chapter, "Oil and Water Finale," Mr. Behr provides a very commercial climax for an Oil and Water routine, in which the magician punches a hole in one end of the six cards, inserts a brass fastener to permanently attach the cards in alternating order, and then somehow manages to achieve the magical separation anyway, leaving the cards still pinned together and in the spectator's possession at the climax. This is a memorable finale, and the author credits a marketed trick that he saw in 1997 as his inspiration, in which four jumbo cards, permanently riveted together in numerical order, were magically taken out of order while remaining permanently attached.
Unfortunately, Mr. Behr was unaware that the item he credits was in fact an unauthorized copy of a 1994 item created and marketed by the ingenious magic inventor, Angelo Carbone. Mr. Carbone's original trick was entitled "Out of Control," which remains available from Practical Magic in the U.K. The current version consists of four cards of alternating colors (both faces and backs), and in numerical order of Ace through Four, magically become out of order, separating the two colors again, face and back in the process.
Mr. Behr's routine is a decided improvement. This is unarguable, because the cards are (apparently) punched and then actually attached in front of the audience, and the separation of six cards into two colors is a far more effective presentation of the Oil-and-Water plot than the separation of four. (Mr. Behr is not the only one to work out an approach along these pseudo-impromptu lines; Asi Wind has more recently devised something similar, in which the cards are actually punched in real time.)
Taken in the context of the rest of the work, one must give this author the benefit of the doubt, and accept that, given his extreme efforts at crediting that are far above and beyond the minimum, he provided a credit which he thought was both sufficient and accurate. Anyone can make such a mis-take, and it is a far cry from the careless work one often sees in which little if any effort is made, and the author shrugs it off with something between "Who knows?" and "Who cares?" Mr. Behr is clearly not of that school.
What also comes to the fore here, however, is that commercial magic trick knock-offs do many kinds of dam-age—not only robbing creators of their financial due, but also sometimes rendering it almost impossible to track the correct credit. Mr. Carbone's creation was knocked off so many times—Tim Ellis's "Magic Fakers" site (www. magicunlirnited.com/NewvsOriginal.htm1 lists not only the version that Mr. Behr inadvertently credits, but another eight additional knock-offs!—that Mr. Carbone's credit is extremely difficult to track. Thus someone like Mr. Behr, with the best of intentions, ends up citing a source that turns out to be an un-credited knock-off.
These events also brush up against the fact that Mr. Carbone's item is marketed. The tradition among responsible authors is to refrain, at least for a reasonable time, from publishing the methods of marketed items, even in the course of describing innovated additions and improvements. For quite some years, for just one example, the method of Roy Walton's "Card Warp" was not re-described in detail by others. But, eventually, ideas (and "Card Warp") drift into the artistic and intellectual culture, as others increasingly build on them, so that creativity advances and moves forward. No finger can be kept in the dyke of ideas indefinitely, no idea can be infinitely frozen in time which is precisely why even patents and copyrights have time limitations, so that they do not end up quelling creativity in the course of trying to protect it.
Mr. Carbone first created and marketed "Out of Order" in 1994. It's reprehensible that he was knocked off so many times, but that has nothing to do with the fact that his item has been on the market for 13 years (and he probably drew far better return on it than Billy McComb ever did for the fire book or "McCombical Deck"). It is not unreasonable for someone with a legitimately significant improvement to eventually expect to be allowed to publish his idea lest he also be robbed of credit for his own innovation. Unfortunately, there is no official statute of limitations, and this becomes a judgment call that not all the parties will always agree with. But time, and progress, marches on whether we like it or not. Mr. Behr devised his improvements in 1997, a decade ago. I'm glad it now sees the light of day, as it is a clever and effective routine that can be used in a way that the marketed prop simply would not serve. When I apprised Mr. Behr of the credit error, he was extremely regretful and contrite, and in addition to contacting Mr. Carbone, intends to provide an errata with the missing credit on his website, doubtless by the time this review reaches print.
While on the subject of Mr. Behr's scholastic interests, I should mention his remarkable project, The Magic Book Archive. This is a searchable database of the complete contents of magic books (so far, approximately 170), including not only individual tricks, but also sleights, principles, and plots. The emphasis is on the literature of close-up card magic, but it is not limited exclusively to this field of study. One can search by plot, by sleight, or any number of key word elements; you can bring up all tricks related to The Collectors plot, or all predictions, or all references concerning the Strip-Out Shuffle, and so on. This is different from simply searching on every mention; imagine searching on "palm" in a database of scanned pages, for example. But here you can follow a search string that takes you through cards sleights palming lateral palm, and you will not merely find references, but will narrow down to locate actual descriptions of the sleight. It's also an excellent tool for finding sources, whether by trick, for example, or by inventor. This is an ambitious project he has entered all six volumes of the Marlo Magazine and 15 volumes of Apocalypse and he is to be commended for his efforts.
The final entry in the book is "Gray Matters," an effect in which the magician divines three cards taken from the deck while the magician is out of the room, without "marks, questions, or gaffs." What is at work behind this apparently simple and direct effect is an extremely subtle application of the One-Way Deck principle combined with the mathematical principle known as a Gray Code. As President Lincoln said after witnessing a séance that his wife had convinced him to attend, "It's the kind of thing you'll like if you like that kind of thing." Remember when Presidents had better than rudimentary command of the language?
I enjoyed Handcrafted Card Tricks. It's the kind of thing I like.