How to Tell the Difference Between a Card Trick and a Con Job

Beware the soothsayers and charlatans. Magic tricks are called “tricks” for a very good reason.

(photo: Caravaggio, “The Fortune Teller”, ca. 1596)

I enjoy telling people, both magicians and lay people alike, of how I passed the entrance exam for the Society of American Magicians―a prestigious organization of stage and close-up magicians―many years ago.

The New York City chapter of the SAM required two performances―one close-up and the other on-stage. As I’m a mentalist, a stage performer who specializes in stage tricks—emulating what non-magicians would call telekinesis, telepathy, ESP and precognition—I concentrated only on those tricks.

Mentalism is a trick, or should I say, a set of 40 tricks, designed to fool an audience into thinking the performer has mental powers, in the same way stage magic is designed to make people think the performer has “great powers of the mind.”

As mentalist Mark Salem put it: “Ventriloquism fools the ear, magic fools the eye, and mentalism fools the mind.”

But my greatest trick is a stage art called “cold reading.” It’s exceptionally difficult and practiced only by mentalists, charlatans and police interrogators. This is the art of accessing an individual by considering his appearance, gait, handshake, bearing, vocabulary usage and so in determining his past experiences, hopes and desires, personal interests and state of mind. There’s no magic to it and even less deviltry. If the undereducated can accuse me of wielding “dark forces” then the same can be said of every police officer, bartender and, indeed, best friend, because all of us are equally guilty.

For my finale, I handed each of the five judges on the panel a sealed envelope. The men nodded and thanked me and then looked up quizzically as to what they are for.

“These are sealed predictions,” I explained. “Go home. Put the envelope in a safe place. Go to sleep. Wake up. Go out to your favorite café with the envelope. Buy a copy of the New York Times, order coffee and sit down.”

The five men looked at me suspiciously.

“…And then what?” asked one of the men cautiously.

“Then you can welcome me into SAM,” I smiled.

They all laughed at my cheeky presumptuousness.

“And why would we do that?” asked one of the oldest and wisest magicians in our club who later become my mentor in the Society.

“Because,” I said, “you hold in your hand the headline of tomorrow’s New York Times. Have a good night, gentlemen.”

I bowed to rapturous applause and bewildered looks and exited stage right.

Why was this stately and prestigious bunch of magicians shocked at me not performing a trick? (A group of magic performers is called a “misdirection” of magicians.) Because, as a stage magician who does a predictive trick like I’ve just explained, it’s imperative never to let the envelope out of your grasp. Otherwise the trick is doomed to failure and the performer to ridicule.

The magicians were shocked at either my audacity or stupidity. No one can predict a newspaper headline if he willingly gives up the envelope containing the prediction―every magician knows that. I gave five copies of the prediction to five men who lived in five different places scattered around New York City and its environs.


The next morning, I got five calls from five astonished stage performers who didn’t even bother to greet me properly with a “Good Morning!” Instead, all of them said, “Wow! You’re in!”

I managed to do the, seemingly, impossible.

But, like all impossible tricks, the secret to my success is ridiculous simple. Even painfully simple. Shockingly simple. But, it’s a dirty, rotten low-down trick nonetheless. One of which I’m proud and hold dear to my heart.

And to be frank, it’s wasn’t my greatest trick. But, be assured, it’s only a trick. That is to say, it’s an illusion.

I wish I could say to my detractors―those who wring their hands and fret over whether or not I’m sinning—that I’m constantly assailed by questions from concerned audience members as to the apparent “sinful” nature of my performances. But, frankly, only those who believe in luck and other related nonsense would believe balderdash like that.

Once, and for all time, I swear and affirm to those too ignorant to reason it out themselves: I am a stage magician. I am, in the words of the great 19th century French magician, Robert Houdin, I’m a “stage actor playing the part of a magician.” And, I do it quite well.

Please rest assured that I am indeed the greatest of sinners—but none of my sins have anything to do with mentalist or stage magic. There’s no sin, because I do not cavort with dark forces to make cards appear at my fingertips or find a selected card in a well-shuffled deck of cards.

I can’t tell you the secrets to my tricks because it’s more fun not knowing, and because I’ve sworn great oaths never to intentionally reveal a secret. (I’ve also sworn never to harm an animal as part of a magic performance, among other things.)

And though I cannot break my vows, I’m allowed to say that I do not have any special abilities―mental, magic or otherwise―except for an irrepressible sense of humor, a deep-rooted desire to make people laugh and overwhelming wish to stun, shock and surprise my audience members when I do the impossible. I only pretend to have “magic powers.” In fact, I start off all of my shows by explain that I do not have any special powers other than to stun and amaze. I remind my audiences of the same when I end my shows.

The Patron Saints of Stage Magicians are St. Don Bosco and St. Nicholas Owen. Why? Because Don Bosco would use magic to teach the Catechism to the kids under his care. St. Nicholas Owen was a Jesuit cabinet maker charged with building “priest holes” throughout England to hide clerics escaping Protestant authorities set on killing them. It was to these two holy men that I dedicated my book, The Catechist’s Magic Kit (Crossroad). It was the first book on close-up magic to receive an imprimatur and nihil obstat from the Catholic Church.

Both saints used illusions in furtherance of the Faith. Both used deception for holy purposes. If anyone cares to tilt at the Church’s windmills on that regard, I say “Bon chance!” because that’s not a battle they will ever win. Let us all rest assured that my bishop and his diocesan censor didn’t err in determining the difference between the kind of magic I do, which is frankly delightful, and the dark sinister kind one sees on scary movies. Those who think they’ve come up with a “better answer” than my bishop are in over their heads.

I’m Catholic. I believe that true prophets have a precognitive sense, but only in order to fulfill God’s plan.

I believe Padre Pio could truly read the hearts of penitents when he was hearing their confessions.

I believe St. Anthony of Padua bilocated.

I believe St. Richard of Richard of Chichester once stopped the Blessed Sacrament from spilling onto the altar.

I believe St. Francis of Assisi could communicate with animals.

I believe St. Clare of Assisi was blessed to see a vision of Christmas Mass as she lay on her sickbed as if projected on the wall of her cell. (That’s why she’s the Patron Saint of Television: She enjoyed the world’s first flat screen TV.)

I believe St. Joseph of Cupertino levitated.

And I believe St. Dominic de Guzman emanated a bright light that chased away demons.

But all of these saintly men and women were given their abilities as a sign of their spiritual intimacy of God. I, on the other hand, know how to make an Ace rise from a bowered deck because of excellent lighting, and because a magician taught me the trick. Neither my closeness with God nor my sins had anything to do with it.

And, in order to unnecessarily belabor this unnecessary point: It’s called a “trick” for a very good reason. I’m intentionally tricking those who are eager to part with their cash for the opportunity of allowing me to trick them.

Further, dark wizards have covens. Stage magicians have audiences.

Dark wizards say, “I call upon the spirits of…” to preface their wizardry. Stage magicians say, “Take a card… any card.”

Dark wizards have delusions of grandeur. Stage magicians have grand illusions.

I am a stage magician. Illusions are my medium and subterfuge is my palette. And that’s why people pay me to show up at parties. If I really had such preternatural powers, I would be working for the Department of Defense as “America’s Last Line of Defense” or on Wall Street as “the World’s Greatest Investor.”

The truth is, I’m not allowed to tell you the truth as the secret to the tricks of my trade are, indeed secrets. I’ve sworn oaths never to intentionally reveal the secret to a trick. And if people choose to mistake me for a being some “dark sorcerer,” then so be it. I can’t be held responsible for what Martin Luther King, Jr. called their “intentional ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

But, all this having been said, there are unscrupulous charlatans and confused pagans who have no qualms about pretending to be “psychics,” “witches” and “wizards,” convincing themselves they have such powers or eager to convince the world they possess them.

The first way you know you’re dealing with one of these charlatans is that the “psychic” never says anything directly, but rather waits for you to reveal the truth about yourself, to which he or she will then say, “Ah! Yes. I knew that was why you came here.”

The second way you know you’re dealing with a charlatan is because they are charging you exorbitant sums of money. My performance fees and tickets are moderately priced.

To pagans who claim “great powers,” I say, “Show me one of your tricks, and I’ll show you a better one.” Because I worship only Jesus Christ, the true Lord of the Universe—not the false “Lord of the World.”

And for those too afraid to whistle in a graveyard, the truth is by far worse than you might think―the truth is you’ve bamboozled yourself better than I could have, even had you booked me for one of your parties.