Try the Impossible by Simon Aronson
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 2001)
In the author's preface, Simon Aronson claims that Try the Impossible "isn't really a book. It's more like three separate books." Well, I liked all three—and added together, the result is probably Mr. Aronson's best single volume to date, perhaps matched only by his 1994 compendium, Bound to Please.
This is in fact the author's eighth published volume, and to his great credit, Mr. Aronson's style of thinking has evolved to the point that experienced readers can reasonably anticipate what to expect from one of his distinctive texts. Hence it should come as little surprise to learn that this book contains a mix of intelligently conceived mathematical methods, assorted card tricks with an emphasis on fooling your brother mage, a substantial quantity of tricks relying upon A Stark to Remember (known colloquially these days as "the Aronson Stack"), a light dose of sleight-of-hand thrown in for good measure and compiled with a well-informed, carefully credited, and slightly Marlovian view of the literature, all communicated with what can safely be described as a painstaking (but a few might regard as painful) degree of detail.
Of course, when a creator develops a distinctive voice, that means that it's not going to meet with everyone's tastes. As Mr. Aronson comments in his preface, "There's something for everybody (or conversely, there's at least something you may not care for)." (And in my case, that latter kind of something—heaven help us—would be "Rap-Acc-ious," an Ace routine with a pseudo-rap-music presentation, regrettably found in the book's second section. The author says Bill Malone liked it. Well, maybe Bill Malone can pull it off—but you are not Bill Malone. Save yourselves and spare your audience.)
In the first section, entitled "UnDo Influence," Mr. Aronson examines what appears to be a new mathematically based card handling procedure (based upon an Alex Elmsley idea), which essentially presents "a way of simultaneously controlling two selected cards to two pre-determined positions within the deck." That rather dry description fails to address the interesting range of applications the author catalogs in this 90-page segment, including seven routines and more than 30 pages of additional "theory and practice."
The segment opens with the simplest and most direct application of the idea, entitled "Prior Commitment," a trick that can be easily learned and requires nothing that would readily be described as sleight-of-hand. Two spectators cut packets from a shuffled deck in order to select cards; the deck is reassembled and then promptly spread, at which time two Jokers are seen to be reversed. Claiming that the Jokers have whispered the numbers 18 and 43 to him, the magician counts down to the 18th card and then the 43rd card, setting each aside. Although both selections were made without the magician handling the deck, the two cards turn out to be the selections; what's more, the two Jokers are turned over to reveal the numbers 18 and 43 having been previously inscribed on their backs, effectively predicting the apparently random locations of the selections. While not the most direct of effects, the handling is transparent; nothing suspicious occurs and there are no sleights to conceal.
In the next variant, "Queenspell," a similar selection procedure is followed by the magician removing the two red Queens, and using the names of these two cards to spell to the two selections. In the most elaborate routine in this section, "Twice as Hard," a stack is combined with the UnDo Principle, along with some on-the-spot mental calculations, to achieve a two-selection version of the Named Card at Named Number plot. Although this is a venerable and effective premise when accomplished with a single card and number, I wonder if doubling the effect enhances or diminishes its effectiveness for laymen; but for those more inclined toward sleight-of-mind than sleight-of-hand, the effort required should leave most of your magic colleagues mystified. Most of the tricks in this section are readily mastered without immersing oneself in the lengthy theoretical chapter, but I found this latter section quite readable, and it gives one a better than reasonable chance of actually understanding the mathematical functions at work beneath the principle, along with some superb finessed approaches, such as a fine idea for combining the principle with the Faro Shuffle. All in all, this first "book" is a rewarding read presenting new ideas for deceptive effects of the hands-off and essentially sleight-free variety.
The second segment, entitled "Eccen-tricks," includes 13 items. The first is a rather easy new sleight, the "Head Over Heels" move, which controls a free selection to second from top while reversing it in the process; several simple applications are provided. The next two items require gaffed cards that are available from the author as well as from A-1 Multimedia and dealers (a special deal for these can be obtained from the author's Website). These gaffs, with antecedents in Hofzinser, are based upon the Hamman "Final Aces" gaffs; Mr. Aronson has however constructed them as half-width cards, enabling the cards to be widely spread, hence his dubbing of them as "wide-spread" gaffs. For all the visual benefit this may present, the author repeatedly cautions the readers that the cards must therefore be spread in a straight line rather than in the more natural and intuitive fan configuration to which the original Hamman gaffs lend them-selves; I am not at all certain this is, in the final analysis, an improvement. The applications are interesting, the first consisting of a version of the "O' Henry Aces" plot (an Ace Assembly with a kicker ending, generally attributed to Wesley James) combined with Marlo's idea for a poker deal presentation; the second to the "Reverse Assembly" plot (popularly associated with Aronson colleague David Solomon, with historical precedents due Marlo and Phil Goldstein).
Between the two I find the first rather more likely to be useful for laymen, since the climax leaves you almost clean, the gaffs almost out of play and readily excised entirely, while in the "Reverse Assembly" everything is out on the table at the finale, at which point one quick grab by a curious layman—and is there any other kind?—risks ending the game entirely. For all of this, my actual preference in this arena would be for Scott York's and Tim Conover's collaborative "Revolutionary Routines With Aces," which also combines the Hamman gaffs and poker presentation, with extremely commercial and practical results. Mr. Aronson concludes his "Reverse Assembly" with a very good essay on the methodological role of "discrepancies."
There is plenty more of even greater interest in this segment, including two fine and very entertaining tricks, which I first encountered in his 1999 lecture notes, Memories are Made of This, and which rely upon the Aronson Stack. In the first, "Two Beginnings," one spectator names a card and the second simply touches one; framed within a simple and effective presentation, it turns out that the second spectator has chosen the named card. In the second, "The Invisible Card," a named card instantly vanishes from the deck, then reappears reversed; this remarkably easy trick is very effective, and students may wish to compare it to (and perhaps combine it with) Roberto Giobbi's "A Case for Premonition" in the recent Concertos for Pasteboard. For those inclined toward improvisational work, "Simon's Flash Speller" may well be worth the price of this segment. This latest attempt at deriving generalized formulae by which one can determine how to spell to any card provides a host of interesting possibilities, both with and without a memorized deck; in the former case (although nor explicitly described in this manner), the magician can, with a single cur, instantly spell to any named card.
Given the growing interest in memorized deck work, generally attributed to Juan Tamariz, enormously contributed to by Mr. Aronson, and further popularized by Rene Lavand, Michael Close, and others, stack addicts will hungrily turn to the third section, "Unpacking the Aronson Stack." Here he discusses the difference between magic that depends upon a stack that does not need to be memorized, versus material in which the fact that the stack is memorized serves as the fundamental methodology. Implied throughout his discussion are some further distinctions (which I will attempt to briefly clarify for readers) concerning four kinds of tricks that con-verge with memorized deck methodology. These are tricks in which (1) the stack is destroyed in the course of performance, generally for the purpose of achieving an impossible location; (2) the stack is maintained or readily restored at the conclusion; (3) the stack is used to improvise various locations (or "jazz," in Michael Close's popular terminology), either with built-in features or other procedures developed for the purpose; and (4) tricks that do not rely upon memorized deck methodology, but also do not disturb the stack order.
Mr. Aronson, in his discussion of "Stalking the Stack," explains that he has long focused on "stack independent" material, meaning tricks that will work with any stack, not merely his own (the aforementioned "Two Beginnings" and "Invisible Card" fall into this category), and that his priority has been in the area of "one-shot" effects that are extremely deceptive but may well destroy the stack in the course of execution (per Type 1 above). But to those most interested in work that maintains the stack while improvising or per-forming other tricks that are in fact unrelated to the stack while merely keeping it intact, these are the least interesting kinds of tricks. While a few such effects have become popular with stack aficionados (Mr. Aronson's "Everybody's Lazy" serving as one notable example), it can be far more effective to master a repertoire of strong material that preserves the stack (a problem each magician must really work out independently for his own individualized repertoire), combined with tricks that either rely upon built-in stack features, along with some material that is improvised within the specific characteristics of the stack in use. This approach is complex and challenging, but can also achieve results that are elegant and extremely effective, and much of the recent work in these areas currently remains unpublished and closely guarded.
Given this brief background, the reader may now more readily understand what's meant when one says that the third section of Try the Impossible concerns itself with tricks that are dependent upon specific characteristics of the Aronson Stack (hence are "stack specific"), and which maintain the order of the stack upon completion (that is, do not destroy that order, as in Type 2 above). And so, much of the material in this segment falls into several categories, namely four-of-a-kind revelations that are primarily dependent upon spelling procedures; "Lie Detector" plots (also dependent upon spelling); and new approaches to the poker deals already built into the Aronson stack, but which now allow the performer to restore the stack upon completion (whereas previously these routines, notably the excellent "Draw Poker" demo, destroyed the stack in the course of performance). Thus the author is now exploring areas that are new for him, and which bridge the territory between his previously favored "one-shot" locations (Type I effects) and true improvisational work, which a careful reading of this new material will reveal remains an area not very much to the author's taste. I say this not as criticism but rather by way of clarification; many of these effects require so much minor variation—spelling "of" with one card, "the" with another, neither with yet other identities—it is impossible to memorize all of them for use in genuine improvisational work. Hence the student will more likely wish to commit to, for example, one of each of these plots, the better to gain facility with their use, an approach the author himself suggests.
I will add that while Mr. Aronson goes to great lengths to point out that one needn't memorize the stack in order to use these non-improvisational tricks that depend on it, I must confess that I find this thinking rather spurious. Face it: Few if any of the kinds of tricks described in this segment are by themselves worth the price of a full-deck stack preparation. That is, not only are there better tricks to be done with such a stack, but frankly there are better tricks to be had that require no preset stack at all! The value of these routines is presented when the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, which is to say when many of these tricks are mastered while still secretly retaining the fundamental power of the stack for even further applications, like improvisation. And in many cases, such as the Kings location about to be described, you needn't memorize every exact detail of the procedure if you already know the stack, as once you recall the fundamental idea, knowledge of the stack will help you to intuitively determine the details in the course of performance.
So to address a few specific examples, in "Fit Four a King," a card is selected, and the magician determines that it is a King. Spelling the King of Diamonds, he discovers that very card, although the spectator then denies that it his. This turn of events is subsequently repeated for the Kings of Hearts and Spades, resulting in the locating of each card but still not the spectator's selection. Finally the magician spells to the King of Clubs, which exhausts the deck, this actual selection falling on the final, 52nd card of the dealt deck. This is a fine trick, with the use of every card down to the last providing a pleasant element of theatrical completeness.
Variations on this plot are then provided that can serve to locate the Aces, Fours, Jacks, Sims, Nines, Sevens, Deuces, and Treys, along with the already mentioned "Lie Detector" approaches and the poker deals. There is no way you will want to use all of this material, but stack masters will be hard pressed to read through this material and not find at least one or two items to immediately add to their repertoire. Along the way are countless additional ideas and fine points, embracing forcing techniques (the author prefers the Riffle Force, but there are other options readers may wish to explore), subtle deck switches, easy but offbeat procedures for apparently mixing a stacked deck, even a free premium of a Bicycle-backed prompter card with the stack printed on the face, and much more. I turned to this section first, and then read it again after reading the remainder of the book, and I have no doubt I will return to it further. What's more, Mr. Aronson has done a fine job of designing and producing this volume, with amusing and charming photographs from his younger days in magic used effectively in the end papers and chapter breaks.
The book concludes with an affectionate and informative interview by John Bannon, and both here and throughout the book the creative interplay that is borne of the author's relationship with Mr. Bannon and David Solomon is mentioned fondly, a tribute to the value of creative collaboration and constructive criticism. Try the impossible will provide many readers with countless hours of thought-provoking entertainment; that one will likely find in its pages a few effective mysteries bound to meet with one's performing tastes is doubtless all to the better.