The spectator’s intellect feels the ground of logic
drop from under it and he falls into the rabbit’s hole to arrive in Wonderland.
When this happens, the most amazing emotions can be set free inside the spectators’
minds and souls …
– Roberto Giobbi
Card College, Volume 4
If you’ve been lucky enough to attend a top-flight magic show lately
– not a walk-around or corporate event, but a structured, theatrical show
with a venue and audience small enough so that everyone can see the miracles
being turned – you can probably recognize a certain sound that’s
typical of these gatherings.
It’s an evocative sound, a sound from nature really, like the wind through the trees or rain on the roof. It’s that collective sigh that rushes through the spectators when the performer – and we’re considering only advanced sleight-of-hand magic here – startles them for the first time in the evening and breaks through their reserve.
The sound is usually followed by silence, a silence that is partly stunned, but is mostly the result of intense concentration as the audience, suddenly focused now, leans in, looking expectantly for further beauty and improbabilities. If the show is truly great, not to mention paced correctly, that sound can be heard again and again throughout, growing in intensity and abandon each time until it culminates in hearty applause.
While that sound is relatively rare for the average theatergoer – as rare, indeed, these days as close-up sleight-of-hand magic in intimate theatrical settings – it is not, in fact, unknown to the most accomplished performers of this style of magic. They know it well, and they may even count on it as a reliable gauge to measure the personality, the temperament, so to speak, of their audience.
But as rare as that sound is, there is a second sound that is even scarcer. It’s a similar sound to the first one, certainly. It, too, is a collective exhalation of breath. But it’s deeper, huskier even – it’s more of a rumble. It’s a sound that, for the performers able to evoke it, may be – depending on their ultimate goals in magic – the most gratifying sound of all. Certainly, to the close observer of magic, it’s the most impressive of all. For this second sound is the one made by an audience of magicians.
It’s not, necessarily, like the first sound, evoked only when they are fooled, though it may be then, too. No, it’s usually a little more complicated than that. It’s more knowing than the first sound, certainly, which is as it should be. It spreads quickly through a group of those who know, or should know, exactly what it takes to accomplish what they are witnessing. Sometimes, in its most refined version, when the magicians have been told exactly what’s coming next and yet they … just … can’t … see … it … the sound comes out as more a resigned murmur, a soft declaration of disbelief. They seem to saying, Ah, so that’s that move, trick, sequence, whatever, we’ve heard of or read about, or more likely seen on video – so that’s what it’s supposed to look like. It can’t be. It just can’t look so good. Nobody can do it that well. That sound – it’s the sound of the cognoscenti, well and truly stunned, well and truly impressed.
That sound, that admiring sound, was the dominant noise, the soundtrack, the theme music, if you will, of Card Clinic, a unique three-day gathering of card magicians in mid-September (Sept. 13-15) at the Beacon Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in New York City.
It came, to cite just one instance, on the second day of the event, a long, packed Saturday when Roberto Giobbi, the Swiss author of the famed “Card College” series of instructional texts and the featured guest lecturer at the gathering, demonstrated a magician’s table deck switch for the 18 students ringing the main meeting room. Most of them were lightly fingering packs of their own while he sat and detailed the mechanics of the move.
“The important thing is to keep the gestalt of the hand,” Giobbi announced, using the German word for “shape” or “form,” not the once-trendy therapy system. Then he did the switch at normal, performing speed … and the cooler was in his hand. It was quick and clean – and invisible. The sound could be heard making its way around the room. The audience, magicians all, knew what they were seeing. He had just told them what he was going to do. But they didn’t see it.
Giobbi, exhibiting the exacting focus on detail that has made his books so successful, then advised two different grips for the hand holding the cold deck at the ready, one for a table with a thick border and one for a thin. Then, he went into the switch again, this time … in … slow … motion … and … they still couldn’t see it. The sound again, a little louder this time. Giobbi reset and prepared to run through the switch one more time.
Conceived by veteran New York sleight-of-hand artist Jamy Ian Swiss –
familiar to readers as the astute, long-time book reviewer for Genii and to
magic fans for his acclaimed shows with Monday Night Magic in the Big Apple
and frequent television appearances (“The Art of Magic,” “The
Today Show”) – Card Clinic was certainly a departure from the typical
magic conference or lecture format. Magic conferences and seminars today rarely
afford students the opportunity for extended, detailed instruction. Swiss first
dreamed up Card Clinic, which he called “an exercise in immersion,”
to address that lack. But as it played out, Card Clinic turned out to be much
more for the group of card workers who attended – mostly amateurs but
a smattering of pros and semi-pros, too – than just a series of intense
lectures. It was a mosaic affair – part session, part lecture, part performance,
part networking opportunity, part revival meeting – very much in keeping
with Swiss’ rather split personality of traditionalist meets iconoclast.
Swiss, who plans to establish Card Clinic as a regular event around the country (the next one is scheduled for April 4-6 in Santa Barbara, Calif.), may have set the bar absurdly high for himself with this inaugural version. For a fee of $695 (a few early registrants received a one-time-only discount), he laid out a groaning buffet board of technical sessions, legends, talks, performances, ghosts, parties and scoops. And he made sure that everything – from the venue down to the loose-leaf notebooks for the handouts – was top-shelf. To handle lighting and logistics, he brought in Karen St. Pierre of Event Spinners (www.eventspinners.com), who has long experience as a top production manager, including a lengthy run as producer and publicist for Jeff McBride’s Mystery School. Swiss even threw in, as part of the admission price, an opening-night feast at Ruby Foo’s, an Upper West Side Asian fusion favorite and long a hot ticket. Quite a bargain.
But the main draw was the chance to work up close with Swiss and Giobbi (whose ethnic-linguistic harmonic convergence prompted one wag to ask at the end of the conference, “Which one of you is Swiss again?”). Swiss has long experience as a teacher and lecturer, but given his extra duties as organizer and overseer of the event, he knew he needed a big draw to join him as co-anchor of the event.
Getting the 43-year-old Giobbi to join him was an inspired choice and something
of a coup for Swiss. Despite the iconic status of his name and books, which,
since their appearance in English beginning in the early 1990s have become the
modern standard texts for American students of card magic, Giobbi the man is
not all that well known to magicians in the U.S. He doesn’t perform or
lecture widely in the States and, aside from the significant contribution of
the “Card College” series, only a small sampling of his other work
has been commercially available here. He’s an excellent lecturer, charming,
patient and scrupulously polite, who’s fluent in several languages, which
he draws on frequently in his lectures. He also puts heavy and repeated emphasis
on the philosophical underpinnings of magic and makes frequent, ready reference
to Juan Tamariz and Arturo de Ascanio, who have deeply influenced his approach.
Card Clinic also provided the inherently fascinating opportunity to compare and contrast two great artists’ styles. Giobbi and Swiss have much in common, and they’ve forged a close bond in the last few years based on admiration for each other’s work and the discovery of sympathetic philosophies demanding rigorously high artistic standards for card magic. Both are hardworking pros with full schedules who believe that the main goal of the study of card magic is not the collection of sleights but the performance of entertaining, mystifying effects for real audiences. Both have encyclopedic minds, firing off references to works both popular and obscure (books, that is, not videos – unless you count Swiss urging students to seek out copies of Dai Vernon’s performances on the old “Tonight” and “Dick Cavett” shows). Both have hands as soft as a Carvel sundae and chops as sharp and wicked as a straight razor left out on the dining-room table. They both clearly relish their roles as accomplished mystifiers and they also proved once again that our finest artists – whether they be novelists, guitarists, painters or magicians – are those who are thinking constantly and deeply about their art.
But the roads diverge when it comes to performing style. Swiss is edgy, with a hint of Brooklyn intensity in his presentation and a streak of flash lacing his card routines. Giobbi is continental, with an easygoing, light-on-his-feet elegance and mirthful bonhomie that, when he works up to the crescendo of a trick, can even suggest elfin glee. The effect was something like getting to see Steve Earle host Django Reinhardt for an extended gig. They can both take your breath away, but in different ways. It made for a potent combination.
After an informal night-before, get-acquainted session at the hotel, the two
magicians set the pattern quickly on Friday, the opening day of the three-day
conclave. They rarely let a minute of presentation time go by without filling
it with material. As soon as Swiss finished welcoming the group, he launched
into his Ambitious Card routine, which used to be a mainstay of his work as
a magic bartender in Maryland in the 1980s and which he has recently revived
for his current show at New York’s fabled Rainbow Room (once home to a
scaled-down version of Vernon’s hallowed Harlequin Act). Giobbi, too,
launched into performance right away, opening with several strong tricks, including
a killer stranger-card brainwave effect that fooled the group badly and which
he deviously did not tip until Sunday, the final day of Card Clinic. He then
went on to lecture on his “Magic Pyramid” approach to choosing card
effects, which is outlined in the fourth volume of “Card College”
(Giobbi let it drop during Card Clinic that a fifth volume of “Card College”
will be released next year, welcome news for the many fans of the series). Swiss
then returned with a lengthy lecture on effects with a card-to-impossible-location
Friday night featured full-fledged performances by Swiss and Giobbi – several guests and lay people supplemented the core Card Clinic group – which was notable because both injected non-card effects into the program. Swiss opened with his stunning and beautiful fingertip coins-across routine and then featured several card effects, including his handling of Dr. Daley’s “Cavorting Aces.” For his part, Giobbi opened with a funny and delightful cut-and-restored rope routine before moving to card effects, which included a devastating thought-of-card-to-cigarette trick and a distinctive take on the card-stab routine.
The second day of Card Clinic was a loaded, 16-hour marathon of card material.
It opened with a lecture by Giobbi at 10 o’clock in the morning and didn’t
end until early the next morning upstairs in the hospitality suite with informal
sessioning after a midnight presentation by Richard Hatch, who provided a detailed
and entertaining overview on the latest Erdnase suspects. (Swiss supplemented
Hatch’s talk by passing out his rare first edition of “The Expert
at the Card Table,” which was in amazingly excellent condition). In between,
Giobbi offered up two lengthy performance-lectures dissecting several categories
of method and effect – deck switching, think-a-card, pre-arrangements,
card-to-wallet – and Swiss presented a multi-faceted lecture on palming,
variations of the side steal, and the color change. While student performances
were purely voluntary, several brave souls did step up with tricks, which were
then critiqued by Giobbi and Swiss. And several legends – and the ghosts
of the greats with whom they continue to associate – paid visits to the
For the Card Clinic participants, Saturday was also the day they forged their own bonds with Giobbi. Swiss wasn’t just presenting great magicians and material, he was connecting people, letting them get to know each other and start, or deepen, friendships. Giobbi dispensed a raft of general wisdom and specific performing advice that day, and he constantly hammered at one of his – and Swiss’ – main themes, that card magic is for performing. Giobbi’s deck switch, for instance, was not presented to illustrate prowess or magic’s debt to gambling, but to provide, in his words, a “practical, technical” sleight “for our work as magicians.” As high-flown as he can sound, with his references to “positive and negative insertions” and “retrograde conditioning,” Giobbi is actually quite hard-nosed in his choice of effects and the sleights needed to present them entertainingly.
One effect in particular illuminated his approach and style. Giobbi doesn’t consider himself much of an inventor – a highly debatable point – but more of a synthesizer, drawing together diverse elements to make something new. Amid his discourse on think-a-card effects, he performed a delightful trick in which he first laid aside a single card from the deck without comment and then asked someone to name any card. Then, he apparently took the joker from the pack and used it to turn over the card on the table, which was the named card.
The trick turned out to be an old chestnut, “Crystal Thought” from “Expert Card Technique.” But Giobbi strengthened it with some creative ideas of his own and Tamariz’ (from “Sonata”). He used the joker as a built-in duplicate, of sorts, rather than the duplicate seven of hearts Hugard and Braue call for, and turned the Mexican Turnover revelation at the end of the trick into a giddy, misdirecting bit of magical by-play that worked off his own apparent joy and bafflement at the possibility that the card on the table could really be the thought-of card. He didn’t even want to touch the card, he said, acting out the trick, it was just too incredible. So, instead, he took the joker off the top of the deck to use to handle the card. The card skittered about on the table as if being playfully chased by the joker in his hand. Only after building to a crescendo of sheer amusement – and amazement – at the possibility confronting him, did Giobbi then turn over the card, executing the Mexican Turnover in the process. The move was perfectly, naturally covered by the magician’s highly entertaining actions and by the time the card was turned the spectator was so caught up in the magician’s infectious riff to notice any sleight of hand. The by-play leading to the turnover added beautifully to a good, dependable trick, transforming it into an entertaining miracle. Standard text plus Tamariz equals pure Giobbi.
Swiss openly featured Giobbi as his main guest in the weeks leading up to Card
Clinic. But he also tantalized participants with the promise of a mystery guest
and, despite a pool among the group trying to guess the identity, he successfully
kept it under wraps until the lunch session on the second day. After an amusing
“triple lift” of false introductions brought out Meir Yedid and
Ron Wohl (AKA Ravelli) – both renowned magicians in their own right –
the mystery man turned out to be none other than Herb Zarrow.
Zarrow, 77 now, has been in magic for more than 60 years. Clad in a sweater vest and offering up avuncular common sense along with soft-spoken self-deprecation – “the biggest trick here is if I can remember stuff” – Zarrow came across as thoroughly content and disarming, the happily married, soft-spoken amateur who’s been lucky enough to rub shoulders with some of the greats over the years. He won’t say it, but he himself is one of those greats – the creator of one of the thundering moves of card magic. “It’s been a fun thing,” was as sweeping as Zarrow would get by way of summarizing his long involvement in magic.
For those who thought that Zarrow is only his shuffle, his appearance at Card Clinic was a revelation. After acknowledging his deep debt to Vernon, whom he first saw lecture in 1946, Zarrow stood at a table before the closely gathered group for about 40 minutes and showed how broad and diverse his own skills are. He tipped his double lift and lift-to-switch-to-table, and demonstrated his famed “Revolving Aces” routine that has been a classic since its inclusion in Harry Lorayne’s 1962 book “Close-Up Card Magic.” That sound – the magicians’ sigh – rippled among the Card Clinicians. Among other effects, he revealed, apparently for the first time, the work behind “The Baseball Trick,” a favorite of his and a unique handling and presentation of an assembly that has been a closely guarded secret for decades. He also demonstrated an exquisite and supremely deceptive and practical fingertip handling of the Jordan Count that he had worked out over the years.
In a magical weekend, perhaps the most magical moment of all came when Zarrow said, quietly, almost to himself, “I need a chair.” The expectant card magicians leaned in, knowing that the moment had come to see its inventor demonstrate the legendary Zarrow Shuffle. The room grew still. He began to work the cards.
“Are you familiar with the shuffle?” he asked, disarming again. And then he was off. He patiently demonstrated his great masterpiece, which he said he had originally been spurred to create out of frustration with existing false-riffle-shuffle methods. The shuffle was actually created, he said, over several years, from the late ’40s to the early ’50s – “It wasn’t just ‘Boom!’ and there it was.” Then, calling it “a very flexible shuffle,” he deftly worked through several alternate variations and handlings, even offering advice on doing it without a tablecloth or pad (come in with a heavier bottom packet). His nimble fingers peeled back the years as he shuffled over and over again, and you could almost start to see the young Herb Zarrow, out of Paterson, New Jersey, the mild-mannered accountant, smiling as he demonstrated his revolutionary invention to the probing eyes of Vernon, Charlie Miller and the other heavy hitters all those years ago. He recalled with perhaps just a touch of pride in his voice how his shuffle had indeed answered his own rigorous magical requirements of simplicity and pure deceptiveness. “You could go right through, like the BMT,” he said approvingly, dating the sleight with the old, long-gone name of one of New York City’s subway lines.
If one legend wasn’t enough, in ambled Ken Krenzel during Swiss’ Saturday afternoon lecture. The tall and rangy Krenzel, who looks like he could be a cousin to both Abe Lincoln and Harpo Marx, had come to the opening-night performance and was something of an unbilled star at Card Clinic. He came to lecture on the pass, which he demonstrated in seemingly infinite varieties with his impossibly long, limber fingers. But his talk, given in his completely unperturbed, almost soothing style, was much more than demonstration. Instead, he gave savvy advice on the pass, stressing the motivation and philosophy behind the move more than finger positioning or how to hold the deck. “Don’t do moves,” he stressed. “Do a routine and embed the move in a routine.” With that in mind, he performed his own handling of the “Cavorting Aces” routine that Swiss had featured the night before. Krenzel’s version was different, incorporating a thoroughly disarming sequence in which he offered the pack to a spectator to place the aces and then tabled the deck between transpositions. The overall effect was that the aces were indeed cavorting even while the deck was out of Krenzel’s hands.
As rich as the official Card Clinic program was – the third and final
day featured several more lectures by Giobbi and Swiss – perhaps its ultimate
richness was in the unofficial moments. The tyros mingled freely with the titans,
showing once again that magic is probably our most democratic of arts. Swiss
and Giobbi staying up until all hours to answer students’ technical questions
about sleights … High-schooler Noah Levine, the youngest participant,
getting to meet Herb Zarrow … Krenzel standing on the corner of Houston
Street and Sixth Avenue after dinner taking advantage of the wait for a cab
to demonstrate a few more controls from his apparently endless supply.
These were all moments – artistic moments, New York moments – that Swiss couldn’t have scripted, but he did create. They revealed themselves slowly, of course, over three busy days. That’s longer than it takes, say, for Giobbi to step lightly across the room to reveal a thought-of card, or Herb Zarrow to keep the reds and blacks separate with his elegant shuffle. But it’s just as magical.
Writer Karl Johnson’s last article for Genii, about Dai Vernon’s
quest for the center deal, appeared in the December 2001 issue. He would like
to thank Card Clinic participant Richard Hatch for his gracious assistance in
the preparation of this report. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.