Marked for Lifts Tips, Tricks and Tactics for Any Marked Deck by Kirk Charles
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 2002)
Kirk Charles has been writing interesting works about magic for 25 years. I first discovered him in 1977 via an unusual text about improvisational magic, which has unfortunately never been reprinted. A 1981 manuscript on restaurant magic, along with a later booklet about walk-around work, were eventually combined into a hardbound volume, The Complete Guide to Restaurant & Walk-Around Magic, likely the most practical and complete single volume on the subject. I was unable to review that title when it was released in 1999, so I will take this opportunity to mention that if you're tired of the same people traipsing over the same tired territory concerning the practicalities of allegedly professional close-up magic, this is the volume you need and you can dispense with most others.
In 1998, Mr. Charles wrote an interesting set of notes about marked cards entitled Read 'em and Reap: Tips. Tricks and Tactics with a Marked Deck. I enjoyed that slim text but did not review it at the time; that manuscript has now been expanded into this compact and reasonably priced volume. As Mr. Charles points out, marked cards—"readers" in magi parlance, "paper" in the gambler's jargon—are doubtless one of the most widely known yet under-utilized methodological tools in all of magic. It's curious why this might be so. Certainly a significant reason may be the respectable "purist" tendency away from gaffed cards in general among expert sleight-of-hand circles; resorting to the use of marked cards seems like cheating of sorts, akin to using a stooge for Slydini's "Paper Balls Over the Head" and who would stoop to that?
Of course, it's not just some abstract idea about "purity" that keeps many away. There is simplicity and practicality in being able to use an ordinary deck, from which cards can be torn or signed, in a deck that can be given or thrown away at will. But there are other reasons magi resist this technology, including the effort in preparing marked decks by hand, and learning to read the systems quickly and easily. Perhaps the greatest resistance, however, may rest on a general unfamiliarity with subtle application. After all, if you simply have someone select a card from a marked deck and you then announce its identity forthwith, not only will most magicians instantly recognize the method, but the overwhelming majority of laymen will do so as well. How many of us have heard the words "marked cards" out of a layman's mouth even in response to a Color Change!
However, attitudes toward prepared cards have changed mightily in recent years. While the packet-trick syndrome of bringing forth a parade of decks, one for each trick, is surely ludicrous, experts seem more willing of late to consider effect over method, combined with subtle management of a prepared deck; David Regal, for one example. has presented us with some rough-and-smooth ideas that have certainly found their way into professional repertoires of late. Then again, aficionados of the Memorized Deck tend to believe that, once you've gone to the trouble of using a stack, you might as well get your money's worth and prepare a few of the cards in the deck as well, as long as such preparation will escape scrutiny by the laity.
Which seems to bring us logically to the marked deck and this excellent book on the subject. In a hundred pages Mr. Charles begins with a review of "history and background," then discusses "printed decks" and finally "hand marking," providing a useful overview of the general principles. The chapter on "Readers" will be of the greatest interest to those wishing to put theory into practice, and the author explores recent advances likely influenced by a concept outlined by Al Baker in his seminal text, Pet Secrets notably the systems of Ted Lesley; Harry Riser (an approach overlooked by many in his superb book, The Feints and Temps of Harry Riser by Ed Brown); and Bob Farmer. Mr. Farmer's "Farmarx" is given a detailed treatment here, and appropriately so, further expanded by Mr. Charles "Farmchas" system, which enables the card's complete identity to be read merely by a slight fanning of the cards. These systems are completely described and totally practical, enabling the reader to put them promptly to use.
A chapter on other systems includes description of yet another Farmer technique, dubbed "Blob-o-vision" (the guy has a way with titles not necessarily a good way, but a way nonetheless). This interesting system provides "visibility at a distance," however being based on a binary coding system, it will require some practice to be able to decode the marks quickly. Another chapter briefly addresses luminous readers and the so-called "Juice Deck;" anyone looking for the real work on this latter item, bathed in mythology as it is, will not find it here, as the reader is basically referred to the controversial description in Jon Racherbaumer's Card Finesse.
An important chapter on misdirection will help to avoid the pit-falls of marked card use that can inadvertently tip the method to a thinking spectator; subtlety of application is one key to avoiding these traps, but the psychological principles identified in this chapter comprise the other critically important component. And speaking of subtle application, the next chapter addresses the combination of readers with stacked and memorized decks; some of us will be very interested in this, and you know who you are, since some of the leading practitioners of memorized deck work have long been interested in this kind of synthesis.
The balance of the book, more than half in fact, provides a variety of tricks using marked cards, organized by application of the method. Thus there are tricks which combine readers with such principles as the key card, estimation, blindfolds, mathematical principles, forcing, one ahead, miscalling, mnemonics, one way marked cards, nail writers, and more. Some of these tricks are simple models to demonstrate the principle at work; others are full-fledged routines that you might well lift directly from the pages and put to work. One routine that may appeal to experts applies the marked card principle to Vernon's "Trick That Cannot Be Explained."
In a chapter segment entitled "Labeling and Pseudo-phenomena," marked cards are used to create the appearance that some particular process is at work a skill or ability that in actuality merely serves as camouflage for the actual method. A multi-phase routine entitled "Thanks for the Memories," based upon a trick of Rich Bloch's, is an outstanding example; in this case the readers are subtly used to demonstrate some apparently extraordinary memorization skills.
This book is not intended as an encyclopedia; it is not a volume of material that has been collected and reprinted. Rather, the author provides here an excellent guide that will send the reader to many useful sources. In the appropriate sections Mr. Charles not only provides his own routines and variations, but recommends many other tricks that use principles in similar ways to those under discussion. A seven-page bibliography offers additional categorized resources, although it quickly becomes clear that in addition to this book, any student of the subject will immediately wish to get his hands on Sam Dalal's Magic with it Marked Deck; Ted Lesly’s Working performers Marked Deck Manual; and The Complete Boris Wild Marked Deck, and along with Mr. Charles's text you will have amassed the fundamental library, save only the search for further tricks. These last two items are the manuals which accompany commercially marketed systems.
The fact that marked cards seem so uncommon in actual usage seems less a matter of "familiarity breeds contempt" than "unfamiliarity breed confusion." The familiar ways in which we tend to think about marked cards may suggest that the principle is a poor one, when in fact it is the application, an area in which we could all stand a better education. Mr. Charles has now provided us the textbook in that course of study, and I highly recommend you sign up immediately.