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The Collected Works of Alex Elmsley, Volume 2 by Stephen Minch

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii October, 1994)


There is no doubt that this collection, the first volume of which was published in 1991, ranks as one of the most substantive works on card magic in the history of the field. It will stand on the shelves for centuries, alongside the royalty of card conjuring.

Alex Elmsley's influence on the card magic of the latter half of this century is considerably more pervasive than the ubiquitous counting maneuver that bears his name. This is even more remarkable when one realizes that Mr. Elmsley all but gave up magic for the better part of several decades. Yet a number of his original effects have become staples in the modern cardician's repertoire. Mr. Elmsley was also one of the earliest proponents of the principles and use of the Faro Shuffle.

L&L Publishing has done conjuring a great service by producing this work, an achievement enhanced by retaining noted author Stephen Minch. He has amassed this collection from various and disparate sources including obscure journals and pamphlets, correspondence, private notes, personal recollections and, splendidly, Mr. Elmsley himself, who initially demurred from actively cooperating in the project, but later became convinced of its worthiness.

Where Volume One whetted our appetites with a variety of high quality material (and two exquisite essays), this second volume delivers on the promise of its predecessor, and does so in spades, with over a hundred entries. The book begins with a brief essay Mr. Elmsley wrote about the culture of magicians when he was but twenty-three, yet remains perfectly apt today. A short chapter of flourishes with cards, coins, and billiard balls follows. Then the book slams into gear with a chapter of mental effects bearing Mr. Elmsley's indelible stamp of maximum effect achieved by methods not only inordinately clever, but often relying on surprisingly minimal technical requirements. This is practical and amazing magic well within the reach of the average enthusiast.

The next chapter is entitled Exotica, and includes a selection of novel plots; here are some of Mr. Elmsley's modern classics, like Point of Departure and Diamond Cut Diamond. A routine entitled Half Packed is just one delightful new trick amongst many in this section, in which half of the deck visibly vanishes from the performer's hands, whereupon a single card visibly reappears, which turns out to be the spectator's previous selection.

The next chapter will no doubt be a favorite amongst those cardicians who favor the joys and mysteries of palming cards. Entitled "Marsupial Favorites," it includes eleven widely-divergent variants on the card to pocket theme. Included here is En Voyage, long an underground favorite, which has previously only seen print in the adaptations of other tinkerers. Now the original is revealed in all its clever glory, a trick that certainly was a conceptual precursor to another modern classic, Larry Jennings' Ambidextrous Travellers. This section also includes the original description of Between Your Palms, a feat which is scintillating in its magic purity and inventive genius. Take note: this version can be done with a borrowed pack, the first two selections travel to your pockets, and you end clean. Compare that with other variations.

This would be a "must have" book if it ended there, but we are only halfway through. The next chapter concerns coin magic, including some unique ideas with the Chinatown Coin and the Okito Coin Box. A rich chapter of Faro Shuffle material follows, and anyone who uses a Faro Shuffle today unquestionably owes some debt to Mr. Elmsley. This section opens with a tip on how to best prepare decks for foolproof Faro shuffling, a secret that was closely guarded for many years. Following this is a reprint of a landmark technical essay first published in 1957, in which Mr. Elmsley examined the basic conjuring applications of the Faro, considered many of its fundamental and more exotic mathematical principles, and along the way managed to coin the now standard terminology of the "in" and "out" shuffles. Most of this section is actually quite clear and accessible, despite the inclusion of a few pages of formulae that may frighten the mathematically phobic. The remainder of this chapter provides some eighteen potent mysteries, including a noteworthy Rising Card method and the renowned Brainwave. Also included in this section is a surprisingly entertaining and magical presentation for Bill Simon's "Call to the Colors," no mean feat in itself. And the penultimate chapter explores the use of the Stay Stack, a type of full deck stack, and applies this principle in a variety of innovative and compelling ways.

The final chapter is, dare I say it, worth the proverbial price of admission. Entitled "The Dazzle Act," it is the first complete written account of Mr. Elmsley's historic 1975 lecture tour. The Dazzle Act and its accompanying lecture still produces breathless sighs of amazement from anyone who was fortunate enough to witness it. I remember Scott York telling me that it was the greatest single performance with a deck of cards he had ever witnessed, and this was a full decade later. Mr. York's comments merely echo those of countless experts who were truly "dazzled" by this legendary event. Why? In 18 minutes, Mr. Elmsley performed an entire act with playing cards that encompassed a stunning array of effects, seamlessly woven into a masterful piece of mystery and entertainment meant to bring an audience to its mental knees and to its literal feet. As an exercise in technical and theatrical construction, it has no equal in the annals of card conjuring. Included here is a diabolical version of the datebook effect, wherein a spectator's freely- selected card is found entered in a pocket calendar on the same date as the spectator's birthday; a card stab location; a rapid location of the jacks, queens, kings and then aces; "Dazzle," a multi-climax packet trick (that was the basis for Derek Dingle's "Poor Charlie"); and finally a stunning sequence in which five selections are rapidly located, followed by the location of every significant card used throughout the preceding performance.

These final pages will expose readers to an advanced course in analytical thinking, in misdirection, and in theatrical and technical construction. As well, anyone who has ever felt the need to secretly switch decks, not as a gambling demonstration but as an effective conjuring maneuver, simply must consult these pages. Mr. Minch was fortunate to receive the assistance of a number of people in his effort to reconstruct this will o' the wisp, most notably from Milt Kort, who provided an audiotape of Elmsley's lecture; Ron Bauer, who provided personal notes; and Gene Matsuura, who not only made extensive notations at the time in his attempt to recall the details of the act, but supplemented his efforts with extensive research. This chapter is clearly the triumphant result of what was in many ways a collaborative effort, and a single reading coupled with a bit of imagination may well make your breath come fast and deep as you reflect on the genius it represents.

The volume, variety and consistently high quality of Mr. Elmsley's material is mind- boggling. Mr. Minch is at the top of his form, showcasing his superlative ability to describe sophisticated material with style, insight, and clarity. The illustrations, by Amado Narvaez, ably assist Mr. Minch's text with simplicity and precision. L&L Publishing has delivered the final product in an extremely well-designed package that befits the quality of its contents. The editors and other supporting cast have all clearly excelled at their jobs as well. Now it is up to us to reap the rewards of their fine service.

"I consider myself to be a very good programmer of the second class. I keep inventing wonderful techniques, and then discover that someone else has already invented them (but I'm catching up with him)." Alex Elmsley

7" X 10-1/4" hardbound; gold foil film-laminated dust jacket; 512 pages on acid-free paper; 298 line drawings; Publisher: L&L Publishing.