You know what they say, ”a magician never reveals his secrets.” It’s an understandable statement to make, since magicians probably don’t want more competition or to lose audience members. Still, the questions about how they do what they do gnaw at us as we try to convince ourselves that magic isn’t real and that there must be a trick up their sleeves.
Thankfully, a real magician named David Kwong has spilled some of the secrets of the trade, and what he reveals might surprise you.
David Kwong is known as being a jack-of-all-trades.
He’s a noteworthy magician, crossword puzzle expert, and avid traveler. Oh, and you’ll always see him traveling with a red toolbox that houses everything he’ll need for the tricks he performs most often. Of course, he doesn’t really show off everything the box—just what his audience needs to see to get things rolling.
So, what happens when the show begins and Kwong is at the center of it all? There are a few principles he follows, and he recently broke them all down in a video from WIRED.
Mind the gap.
At the start of any performance, Kwong tells his audience that magic just comes down to tricks. “Most magicians pretend, in some way or another, to have superpowers,” he said. “But I don’t.” In fact, he’ll tell you right up front that it’s your brain that’s lying when you watch a magic trick being performed.
Take the old spoon-bending trick that most of us have probably seen sometime in our lives. It’s easy to take what we see at face value because it’s hard to comprehend what else might be happening—we see the magician put an intact spoon between his fingers, he focuses on it, and it bends.
It’s doesn’t, though. That spoon we see is actually made of two pieces, which connect where the magician’s fingers come together. “Your brain sees point A and point B, and concludes that a single spoon in running through it,” Kwong said.
It even has a scientific name—amodal completion. It’s a type of perceptual phenomenon in which one takes in the entirety of a physical structure or object, even if our senses can only truly take in part of it. Essentially, it’s your brain filling in the gaps for you.
Write the script.
Take another fairly standard magic trick—bringing an audience member’s card out of the center of the deck without knowing which card was theirs. The magician runs through the deck, asking you when to stop, and you remember the card they show you. They then shuffle the cards and magically pull yours out. Right?
Actually, Kwong says that part of making this trick believable is all about using the right language. He also gives the audience a visual confirmation that the card did in fact go into the middle of the deck so they have that image in their memory. However, the card that he actually pulls truly comes from the top of the deck at the end of the trick.
This is because it never went into the center—he just needs to make the audience think it did. “Magicians manipulate your memory of what happened,” Kwong said.
But if people actually saw him put that very card he pulled out into the middle of the deck, how could he get it to the top without it being noticeable? He loads up. “‘Load up’ is a magician’s term for doing all the prep work ahead of time,” Kwong said.
For a card trick like this one, loading up means removing the same card from 52 other decks of cards so it’s basically impossible for him to pick the wrong one during a trick.
The audience never actually sees the faces of the cards during the performance, so they’re none the wiser.
Design free choice.
The illusion that an audience member is doing something by choice is also an important aspect of magic tricks, especially ones that include selecting anything themselves, like a card. The idea is to make the audience member think they picked a certain card freely, even though the magician truly knows that it was pretty much the only choice they had.
“If you as the audience member believe that you are in control, that you are dictating how the trick goes, you will buy into the illusion more,” Kwong said.
Employ the familiar.
We know what you’re thinking—how is a magician able to keep the fact that he has a stacked deck concealed, especially if he gives them a peek at the cards before the trick begins? Well, because those cards he showed them were normal.
Kwong said that the brain tends to respond best to patterns, so he leaves a few of the original cards in the deck to “prove” to the audience that it hasn’t been stacked, even though it has. Of course, though, if there are other cards in the deck that don’t match the ones the magician has stacked the deck with, what are they supposed to do if an audience member doesn’t pick one of the cards that match the majority of the deck?
Conjure an out.
That’s where conjuring an out comes in. It’s essentially the magician’s version of having a cheat sheet during a hard test. For every card in the deck that doesn’t match the one they want you to pull, they have an extra of that card hidden somewhere on their body, like in their back pocket or up their sleeve.
The card they need might even be hiding somewhere else on the stage where they can grab it quickly without the audience seeing. “Magicians have, for every trick, three or four backup plans ready to go,” Kwong said.
Control the frame.
You might be thinking that it’d be pretty obvious if a magician was fumbling with a trick on stage and, in some cases, you might be right. After all, you’re watching the show and staring right at them—how could they truly get away with doing something that none of their audience members would catch?
The answer for this is pretty simple, too, and you might not even realize it’s happening at the time—the magician redirects your attention so they can do what they need to do to wrap up the trick.
Kwong calls this “controlling the frame.” To understand it, just think about watching a movie. You know that the movie was filmed on a set much larger than what you’re seeing on the screen, but the camera controlled what made it into the frame. Magicians can do the same thing by directing your attention elsewhere while performing a trick, which is how they get away with grabbing their backup items when they need to. You don’t see it because they got you to focus on something else during those few seconds.
Kwong says these principles aren’t just for aspiring magicians, either.
Take a job interview, for example. To impress someone at the company you’d like to work for, you might choose to research it online ahead of time so you sound like you know your stuff when your interview comes around. Believe it or not, magicians do this, too.
“There’s a lot of information out there on the internet that [people] don’t even realize they’ve shared and magicians take advantage of that all the time,” Kwong said in an interview with Market Watch.
According to him, being prepared is one of the biggest aspects of being a magician, and it’s something that can go a long way in real life, as well.