Psychological Subtleties 2 by Banachek
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2007)
When the history of the current explosive interest in mentalism is written, two of the names that will be most frequently referenced and footnoted will be those of Max Maven and Banachek (aka Steve Shaw). Maven has been quietly and gracefully performing mentalism in the guise of psychological influence for decades, an idea that has now become all the rage among the current crop of instant mentalists. Banachek, who made his bones as an undercover pseudo-psychic in James Randi's famous Project Alpha, has contributed a number of neo-classical tricks to the repertoire of contemporary mentalists, including "Psychokinetic Touches" and "Psychokinetic Time," and has long demonstrated that, despite assumptions and insistence to the contrary among the "fundamentalists," there most certainly is a market for a "fake mentalist" i.e., one who routinely declaims psychic abilities in his performances.
When Banachek's Psychological Subtleties was first released (reviewed in June 1999 Genii], it created a wave of interest and acclaim. Despite sometimes skimpy crediting, it should be clear to readers of that landmark work that Banachek is by no means the first to utilize psychological tools and informed guesswork in order to enhance the performance of mentalism after all, that is a perfectly good shorthand description of cold reading, isn't it? But few if any had ever tried to gather such a dense accumulation of this methodology into one substantial volume, the result of which was to seemingly create not merely a manual of these techniques, but perhaps even more significantly, to present a compel-ling case for their effectiveness.
What's more, Banachek made it clear what workers like himself and Maven have long known: that these tools can be made to actually work. They were not the rambling overpriced pipe dreams, padded with authoritative references to nonsense pseudo-sciences, of an over-aged hippie burnout case in a ragged velvet bathrobe. Psychological Subtleties was a real worker talking about the real work.
The role of risk in magic and mentalism is an interesting subject. The majority of magicians tend to eschew the use of risk in magic, and conjuring is often about surefire results. Mentalism can also be effectively and professionally performed without embracing risk, as countless corporate workers routinely demonstrate. But the best mentalism often embraces risk and if you've ever had the chance to see Maven or David Berglas perform for the public, you've probably been fooled by this very facet of their work. And, despite the empty snobbery of what I think of as the "funds-mentalists" smugly assured of the supposed superiority of mentalism over magic—the fact is that the best magic is also achieved with skillful risk management, as can be seen in the work of conjuring greats like Tamariz and John Thompson.
Because of the role of risk in psychological methodology, however, many performers magicians and mentalists alike looked askance at the nature of Banachek's Psychological Subtleties content. The question invariably arises: What do you do if it doesn't work? Part of the answer is that, well, it will work. Another part of the answer is that if you really understand how to perform this kind of work, it won't matter if some of it fails. But this is all very difficult to grasp, and explaining these aspects comprises yet another great value of these eminently valuable books by Banachek.
There are some differences between the two volumes. Much of the work in the previous book was somewhat ephemeral a thought here, an idea there, various touches and improvements and insights that were perhaps of greatest use to experienced workers already versed in the use of similar techniques. The material in this volume, however much of which is contributed by others but then commented on and placed in context by Banachek tends to be more complete (and even, ironically, more certain of outcome in many cases). There are many full routines here from which you can select elements to apply to your own work, rather than fragments from which the reader is left to assemble routines. If I were to recommend these works to intermediate mentalists and I certainly would I might suggest this second volume be studied first, since I think it might serve as a more readily grasped introduction to the concepts.
Rest assured, however, that this book is rich with ideas for any mentalist. Take this brief commentary from Banachek: "In the beginning of a mentalism show, people tend to answer questions with the quickest and easiest answer. As the show progresses, they tend to answer with more obscure choices, because they anticipate that the mentalist might guess the simpler answers."
The book is chock full of such insights and ideas. Leonardo Silverio contributes improved alternatives to merely instructing a spectator to "concentrate" on a word. Greg Arce provides some ideas to justify your lousy handwriting when using a nail writer. Banachek provides extensive and detailed scripting for what to say to a spectator when managing pre-show work. There are plenty of ideas of how to fit classical mentalism effects into the "body language" style of presentation, including Banachek's insights about how to let an audience "feel like they are being brought into a secret world that they were not aware of before they came to your show."
What's more, Banachek provides several complete routines that remarkably are taken directly from his professional show (and as I write this, I saw him perform these routines for a lay audience less than a week ago). These include a stage version of the Geller circle/triangle probability force in which the performer explains some of the psychological elements of the method to the audience (some genuine, some not) in order to add conviction to the notion of reading body language; and a telephone book test that in my opinion is strong enough with which to conclude a mentalist stage show.
Readers of this column are accustomed to my occasional bemoaning of the fact that the literature of mentalism is so often priced in inverse proportion to the quality and substance of the content. I can give Banachek's Psychological Subtleties 2 no stronger review than this: At $55, it's a bargain.