Magicians strive to control every detail of a performance, yet the more you control, the weaker the magic becomes. What happens when you let more chaos into your presentations? How can you make your process feel more random?

Here is episode three of the Theory & Thoughts for Magicians podcast:

Episode Transcript

Magical effects are either impossible or improbable. They either break the physical laws of the universe, or bend them against the odds. We tend to think of magic tricks as always being impossible, but a good amount of them are just varying degrees of improbable.

Most card tricks, where a chosen card is found on top, or on bottom, or anywhere else in the deck, basically boil down to a 1 in 52 chance. One of the cards had to be in that spot, and it just happens to be yours.

Finding 1 out of 52 is a long enough long shot to entertain audiences. However, there are many magic tricks, particularly in mentalism, which have successful odds of 1 in 6, determined by a roll of a die, 1 in 5, a chosen ESP symbol, or even 1 in 3 chances of getting it right.

If you take an objective step back, it’s not particularly impressive.

And yet, the subjective evidence, audiences who gasp and scream when the one-in-three chosen envelope is opened to reveal the $100 bill, suggests it is, in fact, both impressive and magical despite the numbers. But… why?

Welcome to Theory & Thoughts for Magicians. I’m Ryan Pilling. In this episode I’m talking about creating chaos and how it can shift audience reactions from “OK” to “OMG!”

Imagine you and I meet in the hallway of a magic convention. I ask to borrow a quarter, you oblige, and I say “I predict this will land heads side up.” I flip the coin in the air, catch it and slap it onto the back of my hand. I slowly lift my fingers to reveal… heads!

Okay, not particularly amazing.

However, I offer to repeat the trick. “I predict this coin will land heads up!” I pronounce as I whip the coin towards the wall with all my might.

However, the coin bounces off the wall and lands in a water jug on its way into the lecture hall where it’s poured into a glass and drank by a magician in the third row. As he feels the coin hit his tongue he coughs in surprise, propelling the coin upwards where the shine attracts a nearby parrot, having recently appeared from under a bundle of silk.

The parrot snatches the coin and takes off towards the dealers room where your quarter slips through its claws and falls into a coin ladder – tink, tink, tink, tink, tink, tink, tink annnnd tink into a chop cup which had been placed there momentarily while it was paid for, then carried away, along with the coin clinging to the inside. (it was a Canadian quarter, of course)

As the excited magician was showing off his purchase, demonstrating how he could reveal the final lemon with a dramatic flick of the wrist our coin dislodged sending it, once again, tumbling skywards, arcing towards the corridor, where it hit upon a paddle move in progress, bouncing again, rolling along the crown molding for a time until it fell towards an older gentleman snoozing in a chair, hitting his reclined name badge and rolling across the floor back towards us where it slowed, curling around our feet and landing… heads side up.

Wow! What are the odds of that!?!

Taken individually I had the same chance of predicting the outcome of either coin toss; fifty-fifty odds. In terms of the practical magic trick, everything was the same except the second toss, with all its twists and turns, seemed more chaotic.

The chaos was irrelevant to my prediction, yet, my ability to predict the outcome of the second toss feels more impressive than the toss under my own control. The chaos made it feel more magical.

We could imagine that same one-in-two chance in another, more dramatic, situation.

You are standing beside a spike, driven deep into the ground. There are two ropes tied off around this spike. Both ropes are stretched tight leading towards the same pulley, which hangs out over the edge of a canyon cliff. One of those two ropes is weighed down by an anvil. The other is weighed down by me, dangling over the precipice.

Then you’re given scissors, and I ask you to cut one rope. I’ve committed to my prediction, with a fifty-fifty chance of being right.

This stunt is no different than calling the outcome of a coin toss, yet the dramatic impact is amplified by the looming sense of a spectacularly chaotic failure.

Magic, from the perspective of the magician, is about control. We talk about card control, audience control, controlling your angles, remote controls, and controlled outcomes.

We spend an unreasonable amount of time creating, engineering, and practicing magic in order to remove variables and increase control. We obsess over the finish on playing cards, and ridges on the edge of a coin.

In some cases, being off by a single millimeter may be the difference between a perfect illusion and a botched trick.

Any illusion depends on some degree of precise control to pull it off. The magic performed by amateurs is often more forgiving in its precision, to account for the skills of a casual magician. However, our history is full of people like Dr. Hooker and famous rising cards, magicians who dedicate their life to creating the ultimate illusion. Working to control every possible variable.

The chaos must be wrangled for a magic trick to work. Like skipping stones across a pond, the magic depends on a lot of elements being within an acceptable range of “just right” to prevent an unpleasant sploosh!

The water’s surface must be still, a smooth, flat stone carefully selected. You get your grip just right, lean down low, wind up, and release. Oooh, 9 skips, not bad.

If I watch you do this, and observe your attentiveness to each step, I see the process. I see how every bit of it matters to the outcome. I perceive a practiced skill.

Yet, we could turn this process into a sort of magic trick by removing that attention to detail. Or, making it seem that way.

Say we’re walking alongside a fast moving river. You ask me to pick up any small rock. I hand it to you. Without breaking your stride, or even turning your head, you fling it towards the river and it effortlessly skips across to the other side.
Now that feels oddly magical. Same stunt, same technique, but it just happened. All the technique was hidden from me. You controlled all the variables, yet it felt like randomness to me.

The river is mostly rough water, but you knew we were coming up to a smooth spot on a wide bend. You were carrying the perfect pre-selected skipping stone in your right pocket, which you palmed while I was picking up a random rock. You were walking on my right side, so I had to place the rock in your left hand. You’re a right-handed thrower, so you needed to transfer the rock just before throwing, and you timed your speech to be at the right spot on the path to make the perfect throw.

All these things which just so happened to be just what you needed. I never had a feeling you were in control. You’re a sneaky wizard!

You’ve created a sense of magic not by eliminating chaos, but by finding small pockets of control within it, like a calm spot on a raging river. This is the way. A performance which is made for the moment, or perhaps a moment which was crafted for the performance. It seems like it could never be repeated the same way twice, for it’s not the same river, and you’re not the same person.

Most magic performances are not impromptu, organic, happenings. Rather, the audience just so happens to be sitting down to watch a magic show, and you just so happen to be the magician on stage. The whole experience is contrived, and plays out according to a schedule.

There is not a whole lot of natural chaos in this situation, so I take it upon myself to stir the pot. I want more madness to go with my method. My goal is to bury any sense of control under a mountain of chaos.

Imagine: you pick a card, put it back on the deck. I lift it up again. Ta Da! There’s no magic there. It’s all control, no chaos.
Try this: You pick a card, put it back, the cards are cut. Ah, now it’s a little tougher to find your card. I seem to be losing control. I shuffle the cards. Better. Now you shuffle the cards. Each step adds more chaos, and chips away at any sense of control.
But, just like the famous card trick… let’s go further than that.

I stuff the deck inside a balloon, blow it up, we toss it around the room, you shake it up, and toss it back, I burst the balloon with a fork and leaping through the cloud of cards I find one stuck to the duct tape attached to my elbow and, would you look at that… it’s your card!

This chaotic adventure was part of my show for many years. It was a deliberate exercise in how far I can lean over the edge towards chaos without breaking my safety line of control.

While it did nothing to change the odds of finding your card, it sure seemed more difficult, and more amazing, to pull off this stunt.

The wider the gap between your perceived control, and the apparent chaos makes for more impressive magic.

This is what makes Simon Aronson’s Shuffle-Bored such a tremendously strong effect. Not only is the entire sequence of random shuffling performed by the audience, but the resulting prediction is made to appear significantly more specific than it truly is. The chaos feels more chaotic, and the final order more ordered.

If you want your arrival to appear more miraculous, you must make the path more treacherous.

As opposed to the improbable, truly impossible magic effects do not rely on audience interaction to mix things up. Nobody needs to name a number, point to an object, or influence the process in any way. For the most part, the routine proceeds exactly as rehearsed, the same way every time.

Instilling a sense of chaos makes all the difference between the audience watching a cold, robotic automaton or a real live magician.

We spend a great deal of effort to make very precise actions appear casual. Haphazard. A touch of chaos. When a stack of coins vanish, it seems more real if the stack is slightly askew rather than perfectly aligned.

In the ABC Blocks, why is there a dowel rod running up through the middle of the blocks? I’ve never seen a real toy like that. It’s obviously a magic prop. The pole is there for the magician to better control the blocks, to remove any disorder, to make the method a little easier. Would the vanishing block feel more magical if it was just three ordinary blocks stacked casually?

The best DeKolta Chair illusion I ever saw was built by John Gaughn. The chair looked like any other wooden chair, sitting on top of a beaten-up wooden pallet, on a platform stretched across two sawhorses, as if the entire thing was assembled from found objects. Every piece was akimbo, and they all moved freely. It was a tremendous amount of effort invested to appear as no effort whatsoever.

The pursuit of disguising magical props as unassuming objects is meant to introduce a feeling of randomness to the proceedings. An effect presented with “any old” cardboard box lands very differently than the same effect with a “magic” box covered in mylar and sparkles. The more ordinary the props, the more special the effect.

You can increase the appearance of chaos by avoiding right angles, use ragged tears instead of clean cuts, perform precise actions without needing to look at your hands, as if it doesn’t matter at all. Take your magic and kick it down the metaphorical alley. Rough it up a bit.

Take any trick in your repertoire and ask, how can I make this feel more random? How can I make it seem less rehearsed. Make your magic perfectly imperfect.

I am a proponent of chaos in the world. I find things which run according to plan rather dull. I much prefer the excitement of raw improvisational theatre to the polish of a rehearsed play. I measure the quality of a performance by how much it seems as though it’s all happening for the first time.

The opposite of “phoning it in,” I want a performer who is listening, and responding, to the audience, creating a performance tailored for this moment, in this space. Spontaneously delivering something never to be seen again. This is the spark of live performance. An experience for which you had to be there.

For magicians, it is an illusion on top of illusions, that the entire show is just working out by chance, that all the chaos is effortlessly moving in formation, with no coercion. This is the ultimate suspension of disbelief. Not that the fictional magic is real, but that the fictional magician is not making any particular effort. That it all just… happens.

The ultimate control over chaos is to make the chaos think it is in control.

I’m happy that, in this moment, my podcast just so happened to meet your ears, and hopefully this random collection of sounds just so happened to be arranged in order to make words, and those words flapped their wings just right that across the ocean of your mind an idea sparked into existence.

This is Theory & Thoughts for Magicians, my goal is to get you thinking, and you can find more magical randomness from me at Thank you for listening.

May the odds be forever overwhelmingly against you.

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