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Setting Up Exercises by Karl Fulves

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 1996)


Karl Fulves has produced some famous works in the literature of conjuring, not the least of which are his journals, the Pallbearer's Review and Epilogue, now easily available as reprints but for many years treasured by those who held copies in the original state. Mr. Fulves has also produced a wealth of material focusing on rather esoteric cardmanship, including some definitive volumes concerning riffle shuffle work, most notably the Riffle Shuffle Technique series, produced in the early 1970s, consisting of two sets of "Preliminary Notes" and three major volumes that are now considered standard texts. (I don't know if these are still available, but I highly recommend them.)

Mr. Fulves seems content to quietly continue to produce his journals and manuscripts for a presumably small but loyal audience. While in decades past he was often notorious embroiled in feuds and political battles (ironically, he produced the single most rational remark about all such battles in the last lines of the next-to-last issue of Epilogue ), he seems to have outlived many of his enemies and he now swims in apparently calmer waters. Much of his material is rich with historical detail; Mr. Fulves has a talent for digging out nuggets from mines that others long ago abandoned as depleted. Elsewhere one can often find an offbeat method or an unusual idea not previously considered. Much as with dedicated Marlophiles who poured through the pages of the Marlo Magazine, one tends to read such work because one enjoys prospecting, and the process becomes the pleasure. Nobody ever said that such manuscripts were overflowing with "commercial" magic plots and ploys, but that doesn't render the exercise unrewarding.

I decided to investigate some of the latest examples of Mr. Fulves' fare, and obtained these two manuscripts concerning riffle shuffle work, a subject of some interest to me. Fundamentally, this manuscript is a primer on riffle stacking, that is, a basic teaching guide to learning to stack cards in the course of one or more riffle shuffles. The basic concept can be found, for example, in Jack Merlin's 1928 booklet, Merlin at the Card Table, wherein the author describes how to drop four aces on top of the deck, and in the course of four riffle shuffles (which can be optionally followed by additional false shuffles and/or cuts), distribute the aces into the fourth, eighth, 12th and 16th positions, for dealing to the last of four hands of draw poker. This is not an easy thing to do, but it is far from impossible, and eminently useful and impressive if one is inclined toward gambling demonstrations. (Darwin Ortiz, as just one contemporary example, includes a variety of such material in his work, and samples can be found in both of his books of card material.)

Such skills can also in theory be of value in the arsenal of the professional hustler, but the skills must be mastered at an extraordinarily high level to be used effectively in such a setting; one might well have to devote one's life to such mastery and its application, and little else.

After watching such a demonstration many years ago I sat at a table and tried to figure out which cards had to go where and how they might get there in order to achieve such remarkable results—which brings us to this first volume, which I would have dearly appreciated having at the time. Mr. Fulves has provided a detailed, step-by-step instruction manual to teach basic riffle shuffle run-up work to the student. He has devised a catalog of practice techniques which allow the student to build upon his or her skills gradually, working one's way up the ladder of difficulty toward eventual mastery. The goal is ultimately to perform these shuffles effortlessly, quickly, and, most notably, without looking. Some of these ideas are plainly logical, such as gradually practicing the holding back of increasing numbers of cards at the top of each packet; other ideas are far from obvious but seem potentially useful, like substituting a card box (sans flap) for one of the packets, for use in learning to shuffle a controlled stock of cards on top of it at a relaxed and constant speed.

If you are already an accomplished riffle stacker you may find a few useful ideas in this book, but much of the material will be old news. As is often his wont, despite the focused nature of the topic the author does wander a bit here and there, offering up an interesting if unrelated trick or two, and some conjuring methods for duplicating the "real work" methods generally emphasized. Nevertheless, even an experienced shuffler may find new ideas in the more exotic entries addressing such matters as "even" shuffles, "perfect" riffle shuffles, and a combined tabled Zarrow-Faro shuffle. But the chief value of the first volume in my judgment seems to lie in the basic instructional work, and not in the later exotica or in many of the effects.

While it is not necessary to consider these two books jointly, the material is certainly related. In essence, I would suggest that volume one will be useful for intermediate cardicians but not challenging for advanced workers, whereas I confess volume two will be extremely challenging for intermediate students and likely unsatisfying for the advanced.

In the second volume the author continues on his path of, among other things, extolling the virtues of John Scarne at ever greater length. The text begins with a description of an encounter between Mr. Scarne and famed gambler and underworld kingpin Arnold Rothstein, in which Mr. Scarne repeatedly cut to high card from a new, borrowed, genuinely shuffled deck. (I admit that while I have no specific reason to disbelieve the account, I am suspicious of the author's motives in his relentless glorification of his hero's legend; methinks he cheerleadeth too much.) This extraordinary feat, along the lines of that referred to by Dai Vernon in Revelations when discussing the work of the "Mysterious Kid," is achieved by sighting desired cards during the course of a riffle shuffle, isolating such cards by "blocking off with groups of cards immediately above and/or below, and then using these blocks for further control via cuts, shuffles, dealing, or what have you. This is not unrelated to the ("Dad") Stevens control, also written about notably by Vernon and Fulves, as well as by Martin Nash and others, although the two approaches yield different methods of control (as the Stevens produces jogs that can locate or lead to breaks, for example, whereas the blocking-off techniques produce steps and other means of location and/or gaining breaks).

Now, I realize that by now I've already risked losing a sizeable portion of my readership in the bowels of such arcana, and no wonder—but this second manuscript is far, far more abstruse than anything I have even begun to touch upon here. Mr. Fulves often seems to be speaking up where only dogs can hear; and, frankly, I find myself unable to get into the mind of that dog or any other audience for that matter to determine if they would find such material satiating. I have my doubts. While the technique is interesting, there is a lot of theory here that would require inordinate practice to master. If one intends to become a truly master cheat, then perhaps the investment might be worthwhile, but even then, the level of mastery required to make this stuff fly under fire is nothing short of extraordinary. There are, quite simply, much easier ways to cheat at cards, and many if not most are probably superior to and certainly more practical than those profiled here. As to conjuring applications, I find it hard to justify such Herculean efforts in the cause of such a paucity of meaningful effects. Don't misunderstand me: I am an energetic and committed proponent of high-tech technique enlisted in the cause of producing commercial and entertaining magic. But I confess that while my knowledge of esoteric card conjuring is sufficient to enable me to read and understand this material, I could rarely get excited about much in the way of the proposed and provided effects. Really, whom can we get to care about the ability to take a shuffled deck and, after several more shuffles, manage to deal a pair of Jacks to a chosen recipient? Mr. Fulves seems to understand the problem, for he acknowledges and constantly addresses the issue throughout, repeatedly defending his methods and material. But even he points out that the average audience already believes that a card expert should be able to do such things, and hence will likely remain relatively unimpressed at the outcome. And again, while I am sympathetic to the need to work effectively for a smart, thinking audience, it seems to me that the only audience that will understand or care about these effects is a gambling opponent—one likely to acknowledge your effort upon recognizing it, and then to simply shoot you in appreciation.

"When I began demonstrating the blocking off principle for laymen... the reaction was not what I anticipated. Some people assumed that since I knew sleight of hand, I should be able to cut to any card seen during the shuffle. Others thought I was merely cutting to top or bottom card and made it look like the card was coming out of the middle of the pack... I took a while to realize the obvious point—pure technique is of interest only to a few."—Karl Fulves, Blocking Off

8 - 1/2" X 11" comb bound; 204 pages; illustrated with line drawings by Joseph K. Schmidt and diagrams; 1996; Published by: Karl Fulves