Versatile Card Magic Revisited by Frank Simon
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2003)
By the time Versatile Card Magic came out in 1983, the Spread Cull Controls were all the rage. I had first seen Daryl Martinez do a version, which turned out to be a handling of Frank Simon's, around 1977 or 1978, and that's how I first learned it. A century before, Hofzinser had culled cards from a fact-up spread to the bottom that is, the top, once the deck was turned face down. In the 1960s, Larry Jennings made a conceptual leap, allowing the spectator to touch a card, breaking the spread to display the selection, then not only controlling the card as the spread was reassembled, but also switching in an outjogged indifferent card in its place, while the actual selection slipped unobtrusively to the bottom of the deck. Subsequently, Ed Marlo published a seminal handling in Jon Racherbaumer's Heirophant, No.3. (And if you're nor convinced that the later hardbound reissue of Heirophant is a disaster, go try to find Marlo's Convincing Control. In my research for this review, I found myself forced to locate it in my falling apart 1976 Tannen's reprints.)
But, in 1988, Marlo, in Marlo Magazine Volume 6, would relate a 1960s encounter between Alton Sharpe and Larry Jennings, in which Jennings demonstrated his Cull Control with the outjogged card switch. Marlo admits this encounter, but claims Jennings was doing a different move, merely a version of the original Hofzinser Cull. However, both John Thompson and Alton Sharpe later avowed having witnessed Jennings Immediate Bottom Placement at the meeting. Marlo's handling, dubbed The Convincing Control and apparently derived from Sharpe's description of the external appearance of the Jennings technique, was by comparison ungainly and inelegant. Interestingly, the basic concept preceded them both. As Richard Kaufman points out in Jennings '67, Edward Victor stopped only a hair's breadth short of the Jennings innovation when in 1952 he devised what must be seen as an intermediate step in the evolution of the Spread Cull Controls for a trick called "Card in the Aces." (This volume also provides the complete derails of the Jennings handling, which is in fact my own personal preference albeit without the outing.) Whether Jennings had come across this himself, or was pointed to it by his mentor, Dai Vernon, or simply reinvented the notion, we will probably never know.
Regardless, The Convincing Control took hold along with Marlo's title, echoing the history of the Marlo retitling Vernon's Depth Illusion as "Tilt" and Frank Simon, among others (notably including Alan Ackerman), advanced the idea in the 1970s. Ackerman began with an early variant in his Magic Mafia Effects, subsequently reprinted and also added to in his wonderful Here's My Card circa 1978 (which included his marvelous Hofzinser Cull to Full Bottom Palm, the inspiration for my own Under-the-Spread Fold from my 1986 Thoughts).
Daryl eventually published a description in his second book, For Your Entertainment Pleasure, in 1982, written by Stephen Minch. This move turned out to be the same Frank Simon handling of the Convincing Control that appeared in Earl Nelson's Variations in 1978 and then in the more widely circulated edition, published by Mark Wilson in 1979.
I trace this brief history of the Spread Cull Controls because it reflects how much this branch of cardician technology was present in the conjuring zeitgeist of the late 1970s. Most younger magicians today have probably seen few if any of the tides I've mentioned. But many magicians in the late 1970s and early '80s first learned the Frank Simon version with the outjogged card more properly, The Versatile Outing Control from the Earl Nelson and Daryl descriptions. Everyone was doing these sleights, it seemed, because when well executed, they were seamless and invisible. A card was touched, shown to the audience, the deck was then reassembled and squared and that was all there was to it, or so it seemed. In actuality, the selection was secretly controlled to the bottom (or, if desirable, second from the bottom). The move was imperceptible, and while the apparent action did not disturb the deck in any fashion like the Pass or the Side Steal, the order of the deck remained unchanged the Spread Cull Controls, while not easy, were far more within reach of mastery than these other demanding and more traditional alternatives.
Then it was 1983 and a book called Versatile Card Magic hit the scene by a virtually unknown author by the name of Frank Simon. We might not have known who this filmmaker/photographer/conjuror was, but he had managed to write one hell of a book. The Versatile Outing Control was the book's opening salvo we really didn't know the name until then but that was just the beginning. Those of us who had already been spreading and culling cards to the bottom of the deck were fascinated with all the new work. This guy not only provided exquisite details that no one had explained before important details about how to conceal the action and the movement of the selection from flashing at the front edge of the deck or the inner end or how to avoid all manner of small catastrophes that could occur, but he also had mind-blowing variations. He could spread and cull a card that would end up reversed on the bottom of the pack, and he could even spread and cull a card that wound up in full right hand palm! Some of these ideas seemed ambitious, to put it mildly, unless or until you had the chance to see Frank Simon's pal, Earl Nelson, execute them flawlessly.
The book was a hit and it was just short of revolutionary. It was well produced, wonderfully photographed, written with great clarity, and full of terrific material both sleights and tricks. And it had some other very cool stuff that was hot at the time like the first definitive English description of the Pier Forton Pop-out Move. How could you not love this book? The thousand copies that were printed were sold, and then the title slipped from the shelves but not into obscurity. Rather, for all these reasons, it became what can only be properly called a cult classic.
Twenty years later the book is virtually unobtainable. I have seen copies sold for $200, and I wouldn't be surprised if someone paid more than that. This unassuming book produced by Mike Caveney's then fledgling publishing company had slipped into the marketplace like a lamb but had gone our (of print, that is) like a lion. I would be willing to make a wager that the publisher has heard the question, "When are you going to reprint it?" far, far more often about Versatile Card Magic than about any other single title in his catalog. (Although I'd venture that Peter Samelson's Theatrical Close-Up would probably be second, and while I'm in a gambling mood, I'd also bet that no one ever asked at all about Lamont Ream's Coin Creations but these are perhaps stories for another time.)
Well, after all those years and all those questions, and after the Spread Cull Controls have fallen out of favor among those young practitioners who often seem to prefer a lousy Classic Shift to a deceptive Spread Cull Control, at long last, help is on the way. Mike Caveney's Magic Words, now a major force in the world of magic publishing albeit perhaps more strongly identified with its more recent historical and biographical works than for trick and technique titles has republished Frank Simon's Versatile Card Magic, and they have taken a careful and respectful approach. The result is a superb edition that should be required reading for any cardician. If you consider yourself seriously interested in close-up sleight-of-hand with playing cards, then you have no excuse for failing to obtain this book. Studying it from cover to cover will not only bring you great and practical rewards, but the book is an absolute pleasure to view and handle, to read and study. It is, in its way, a model of what a good magic book should be.
And while some of the more exotic techniques described are, as mentioned, rather challenging, much of this work is within the reach of any intermediate student. It is indeed not only far better to do an imperceptible Spread Cull Control than a wildly perceptible (that is, utterly unconceivable) Classic Shift. Happily, it is all far easier to master such imperceptibility with this family of sleights. I have fooled countless magicians in recent years with these kinds of moves, and I am always struck by the fact that these are magicians who should know better. Quite simply, they should be doing these moves themselves.
There is not much more that need be said. The publisher recounts an interesting anecdote in his opening entry concerning the fact that apparently he among others on the West Coast thought that Frank Simon had died long before he actually did, when in fact he had suffered a severely debilitating stroke and was confined for many years to a nursing home. (Genii publisher Richard Kaufman knew Simon in these years and visited him repeatedly for a time.) Sadly, when these new editions were finally completed and sent off to Simon, they barely failed to reach him before his recent death.
Although the emphasis of this book is on sleights and carefully constructed technique described with absolute precision and attention to detail, nevertheless these sleights were intended as practical tools, and therefore there is a substantial quantity of excellent tricks included as examples of how these tools could be put to use. As mentioned, the, is also a description of Piet Entraps Pop-Out Move, now a standard in the revelation repertory, along with his rather daunting Ultimate, Pop-out. The Spread Cull how to secretly cull multiple cards from a face-up spread is a useful contribution, in an area where few thorough descriptions are available.
On a theoretical note, it was Mike Skinner who patiently pointed out to me, many years ago, that the outjog controls were illogical. "You outjog a card so that you can square it back in again. Why not just square it and be done with it?" I was stunned as I often was by the simple elegance of his thinking. When I subsequently had the chance to witness the exquisite "touch" that Larry Jennings had will these moves, especially doing the cull control without the outing, I was sold on that approach, and it remains my favorite to this day However, I have come to believe that the outjog can be justified it there is some further action that involves the outjogged card. If there is a way to make some reference to the outjogged card, without the fact that the face is concealed becoming a source of suspicion, then the outjog can serve as a kind of time misdirection, delaying the moment of the squaring of the apparent selection well beyond the moment of the actual control. However, if there is not some extra plot or misdirection element introduced, and if the only purpose is to control die card, I believe the Spread Cull Control is most effectively used with-out the outing.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Frank Simon was inordinately proud of the photographs that graced the original edition of Versatile Cad Magic. It took approximately a year to take those III photos, because he would only shoot in a very particular quality of available light, and the pictures were taken on Earl Nelson's outdoor patio. This new edition is expanded with 283 new photos in place of the originals, for which Earl Nelson has once again posed. There seems link doubt that the quantity of photos is an improvement (as is the editorial clarity achieved by correcting numerous technical errors in the original descriptive text) over the original. But the real reason the, new photos were taken by Bill Taylor is because the original Frank Simon photographs have been lost, and shooting from a printed copy of the original book would have resulted in an intolerably poor quality. But Frank Simon's spirit is maintained, both in the quality of these new photographs, and in the now hard-to-obtain but then virtually unknown, incomparably hip, Jerry's Nugget playing cards present in every photo. Jerry's Nugget cards are now extinct, and Frank Simon is gone, but his ideas and great passion and care live on in this marvelous book. I was lucky to get my original copy, and now you're lucky enough to have one of your own. Don't miss the opportunity.