Semi-Automatic Card Tricks: Volume 4 by Steve Beam
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 2002)
Steve Beam is a very talented guy, a part-time pro who is one of the funniest and most original magicians I know, a fine writer and publisher, and a delightful lecturer. He is a rare example of a part-timer with a "real" job who could not only go pro any time he wished, but is a use better performer than many, many professionals in the business.
Despite these many traits, I consider myself a fan of Mr. Beam's, and I love watching him perform. He's published some fine magic that I have studied and enjoyed.
And then then there are these books of Semi-Automatic God Tricks. These are, well, something of another matter.
Mr. Beam's original term, that of the "semi-automatic" card tricks, loosely seems to mean tricks that are more or less sleight-free (to use Ken Krenzel's terminology), but not necessarily entirely. So, the occasional Milk-Build Shuffle or Double Undercut is generally acceptable. The author does a fine job of articulating what he means by "semi-automatic" in his introduction; in short, he means procedures that "are not physically challenging." He also does a fine job of defending this kind of material, and of explaining what is valuable about it and what about it interests him so much so that I completed the introduction certain that I was going to find a way to fall in love with the material that followed.
Well, it didn't quite work. Now, that doesn't mean that there's not a tremendous amount of material here that many readers will doubt-less find useful, interesting, fun, instructive, or even inspiring. But no matter how clever Mr. Beam's accompanying presentations (and often they are extremely clever!) and how amusing his descriptions (and often they are very amusing!) and how finny the nonsense he uses to fill in what would otherwise be blank pages (and, well, some of that nonsense is funny no matter all of these many features,) when I see the words "Reverse Faro" and "Down-and-Under Deal" in a magic book, despite my best efforts to the contrary I have an over-whelming tendency to take a nap.
Now. I don't mean to be flippant about this. There is an audience out there that not only could benefit from this book, but indeed should make the effort to do so. Mr. Beam talks about the fact that "your job is to disguise the method for all tricks wherever it pokes out," and I agree but when I read a trick that contains the instruction, "begin a second Reverse Faro," well, I no longer want that job. In one routine in these pages, you are required to do no less than five Reverse Faros. In another, you deal piles of 12 cards, then 3, 6, and 5 cards, then you must deal 31 cards and you're not done dealing yet. In another trick that depends on the Down-and-Under Deal, the accompanying (rather witty!) script is about suicide and I couldn't think of a better link between method and presentation.
So, despite my best attempts, I simply cannot fall in love with this material and, given Mr. Beam's engaging style of writing about it, and his depth of expertise and extremely smart approaches to it, I am humbled and ashamed. But I can't deny it this kind of material will never be my first choice off the shelf.
In my defense, I will quote the author's own words: "Semi-automatic card magic is generally less visual than sleight-of-hand magic. Because it is usually more process oriented, especially when it is often based upon mathematics, the performer has to go to extra effort to disguise the process and therefore the method."
Exactly. But I already invest a great deal of effort in disguising process and method no matter what process and method I use, and what I use most often is sleight of hand, in which I must also invest a great deal of effort. Mr. Beam continues from the above remarks as follows: "My view has always been that the time saved learning sleights should be spent structuring, scripting, and routining the semi-automatic material to get the most from it." Well, no one could argue with that but left to my own devices, I would rather spend what's left of my time perfecting sleight of hand, and the unique effects and possibilities it offers.
So, after all that, perhaps all I have established is that "to each, his own," and that tastes differ. But having said that, I come not to bury Mr. Beam, but to praise him because there's much to say in defense of these books. Mr. Beam performed a number of items from Volume 3 for me at the time that book was about to be released, and he fooled me repeatedly so if you're interested in fooling your fellow magi, and being able to do it with a minimum of technique, a careful search of this volume may deliver just the thing. I also learned a killer sleight in Volume 3! And in the final analysis, there are some fine tricks to be dug out of this volume as well. A few of these include "Prime Cut" by Magic Christian, in which a spectator, via a random selection process, arrives at a short sequence of cards which turn out to reveal that spectator's own birth date. (A switch and some advance prep are necessary, which may weaken the semi-automatic claim, but frankly if you took the basic idea of this trick and discarded the semi-automatic nature of it using, for example, a Spectator Cuts to the Aces approach this already fine premise could become a blockbuster.) I've always been fascinated by the All Backs" plot, and Mr. Beam has a fine sleight-free version here that would definitely make for a performance piece.
Another item of Mr. Beam's, "The Human Transmitter," is a comedy-rich premise in which the audience divines the spectator's card, much to their amusement and his amazement. Mr. Beam's "The Widow Maker" is a multiple color change of several cards isolated in the card box; this is a utility idea with potential for wide application. In "Boxing Triumph," Mr. Beam adapts a clever sight gag from the Cups and Balls to a playing card box really and then follows in logical fashion with a great presentation and a simplified handling of "Triumph." Spanish magician Gianfranco Preverino contributes "A Perfect Bridge Partner," which will be of particular interest to Memorized Deck aficionados; in this, the spectator cuts and then deals four hands of Bridge, and freely chooses one of the hands with-out the performer's knowledge. Nevertheless the magician manages to identify all 13 cards, without any fishing. This is very clever.
So there, now, you see that wasn't so bad after all! I actually enjoyed reading the book, and how could you not, considering not only Mr. Beam's signature style, but the clarity of his descriptions, the quality of production (including a thorough index and his usual "routine builder" chart that readily enables you to assemble tricks into logical routines), and the sheer volume and variety of material.
There are more than 90 tricks here, from 30 contributors besides Mr. Beam him-self, representing an array of some of card magic's finest contemporary thinkers, including R. Paul Wilson, Dave Solomon, Bob Farmer, Bill Goodwin, Lee Asher, Simon Aronson, and many more. There are 14 chapters, including chapters of tricks you can do over the telephone, predictions, a chapter of mathematical tricks that are, well, even more mathematical than the other mathematical tricks, impossible locations, gambling tricks, tricks "without playing cards" (meaning tricks with business cards, alphabet cards, blank cards and the like), magic squares, card boxes, a chapter of moves and a small section of errata concerning the three preceding volumes in the series. The content is a giant example of how to make this kind of material indeed, any kind of material interesting to your audience, and few individuals are as adept at meeting that challenge as Mr. Beam. So for goodness sake, spare your-self being victimized by my own narrow biases, and go out and be inspired by this book. Just please don't ask me to do any Down-and-Under Deals or Reverse Faros. That's fair isn't it?