Yup, the emperor definitely doesn’t have any clothes.

Here’s a long essay about how Tommy Wonder’s ideas of misdirection are bad.


Ok, let’s break this down. First, we’re not going to join in on this game of semantical manipulation surrounding the word “misdirection”. There’s very little point. Tommy Wonder wants to call it “direction” because he doesn’t like the idea of people looking away from something, but rather towards something. In The Secret Art of Magic Eric Evans wants to redefine “misdirection” so that it encapsulates everything that brings the spectator away from the method and towards the effect. The Jerx wants to redefine “misdirection” so that it’s all about directing their suspicion, rather than their attention. And we’ve got further confusion with terms like “time misdirection” to get away with something like the Cross Cut force, and perhaps even something like “psychological misdirection” where a mentalist shuffles the cards sloppily in order to make people think he couldn’t possibly use sleight-of-hand because he’s so inept at it.

Let’s assume terms like “time misdirection” and “psychological misdirection” are harmless because it’s pretty obvious that what they’re talking about is outside the bounds of regular “misdirection”, and so they can be left aside for this discussion. The problem with Evans’s idea is that it basically takes an industry term and tries to redefine it to talk about a broader strategical approach to deception. When I read Evans’s book, the broader strategy didn’t bother me at all, and my only concern was that it felt a bit cute to try to appropriate an existing word with an understood meaning for something else. Still, it was easy enough to accept it as a guy just playing with ideas.

That overrated hack who writes the Jerx blog is trying to do the same thing, and his efforts could be seen as similarly cute if he didn’t feel obliged to jump up and down on Tommy Wonder’s work in order to help support his point.

When you get right down to it, I mean really, we all know what misdirection is about. It’s about making sure that they’re not looking at a place where we’re doing something sneaky that we can’t otherwise cover. That’s it. There are good ways and bad ways of going about that.

The problem with trying to broaden “misdirection” as being something more than this, the way that Evans and Andy are, is that all of a sudden you’re basically talking about deception and suspicion management on a grand scale, a topic so ridiculously broad, where there are going to be many different subsets of techniques one can use, including the manipulation of what the audience is looking at. I get it, “misdirection” is a neat word, but it’s silly to look at it as being mired in the slums of “look here but not there” and in desperate need of ascension to a higher plane. That whole “look here but not there” situation is fascinating and deep and totally worthy of having its own damned word.

So, with that, we’re not going to spend too much time on what Andy’s propagandizing with regards to this: “Don’t think about misdirection as being about the direction of someone’s focus or interest. Instead, think about it as the direction of someone’s suspicion.” Magicians who aim high already know that the direction of suspicions is the name of the game, and that misdirection of attention is one of the tools we can use to win that game. There are other tools available (such as cover, patter, presentation, conditioning actions, motivated actions, feints, memory manipulation, camouflage, outs, etc.) and yet nobody’s clamoring for “cover” to be called anything other than “cover”, and so on. All this semantical diddling is answering a question that nobody posed. It’s like Hollywood putting out their Justice League movies — unnecessary nonsense that nobody really asked for.

Now, the question that magicians have long been posing is how to handle basic misdirection well. Tommy Wonder offers up some good answers, and if it’s too difficult to see how they are good answers, then a study of his routines that employ his ideas is in order. Let’s get to something that the Jerx seems to be having trouble with. He offers a hypothesis where something is written down on a card, you pull out a crystal and claim that it can be used to read minds, the crystal is held away from the card and while they’re looking at the crystal, you get a peek of the card.

This is not the sort of thing Tommy Wonder is advocating, at all. First, peeks are a bold method. You wouldn’t want to use the crystal for misdirecting the peek that directly. Rather, you’d want to use the crystal for something like misdirecting a shuttle pass of the card for a dummy, which you set off to the side, and then secretly getting the peek after. Why is this an important distinction? Because the card is still an obvious point of interest, and having it out of play means that they can relax and focus on the crystal when the performer brings their attention to it. Obviously this means that everything else in the effect has to stand up to scrutiny as well, and the cleaner the switch-out, the better.

Second, this is a mentalism routine. That might seem like an unimportant point, but a magician’s relationship to his props is different than a mentalist’s. In magic, there’s heat of the props, because that’s where magic’s going to happen. In mentalism, the props need to be psychologically invisible to give credence to the mind-reading (or whatever) to come.

This opens up new opportunities. For instance, Michael Ammar’s Cups and Balls. He produces a ball at his fingertips, and then another. For the third ball, attention is brought to his hands again, and this allows him to accomplish an open load of that final ball. His hand is an obvious point of natural interest because it’s where he was able to produce two balls already. The place where it ends up is not a point of interest because nobody sees it coming. Does the audience feel cheated by this? I can’t imagine so, unless it were rubbed in their face. Open loads tend to be powerful because they’re so bold and such an intuitive solution that most people wouldn’t think a magician would stoop so low, especially in Ammar’s case where he’s preceded that effect with two others that don’t even exist in that same playground. (It’s worth mentioning that Michael Ammar credits Wonder specifically on that sequence, and the entire thing relies on attention manipulation.)

One could argue that open loads are cheating in a way. I can understand that. You can’t compare the appearance of Michael Ammar’s third ball with something like the appearance of a signed card inside a sealed envelope inside a wallet, as the latter is undoubtedly stronger if the core technique is solid. That said, the sort of surprises you get from an open load are welcome in a magic show, and you don’t see stand-up comics dropping tags out of their initial jokes just because their closing punchline is where the “real laughs” are.

Another example might include something like Tommy Wonder’s Tamed Cards. There’s a great initial display of the Four of Clubs cards, so that when the Jack of Diamonds cards start to appear, each successive revelation is a new point of interest. If the magician doesn’t put attention on each of the Jack of Diamonds cards as they appear, then the audience misses the magic. And assuming the method’s solid, if there’s strong attention on each revelation, you now have a sort of one-ahead thing going on where each appearance can be used as misdirection away from a get-ready in the other hand.

This is another instance that shows the foolishness of the Jerx’s example. Tommy Wonder loved to talk about misdirection, but he wasn’t constantly advocating heavy misdirection such as what’s seen in the crystal-and-card-peek example. Yeah, he had some bold stuff like in his own Cups and Balls routine, but we’re also talking about making sure the audience misses you performing a thumb count, or flopping a faced deck, or repositioning a coin from a thumb palm to a finger palm, or whatnot. These minor tells can have a negative impact on the cleanliness of one’s magic, and it makes sense to find ways to misdirect away from them.

Approaching magic from this standpoint also allow you to set things up so that you can have essentially burnable magic. For instance, you misdirect during a shuttle-pass where you switch one coin for another that’s on a pull, setting you up for a vanish that’s far cleaner and more startling than most conventional methods.

Later, Andy writes… “If your attention is shifted away and then something changes: the magician knows the word you wrote down, the ball has disappeared, the card is in the magician’s pocket. Well… that’s all the explanation you need.” This presumes that Tommy Wonder is advocating having the entirety of the method be at the moment the audience isn’t looking. Again, you’re missing the point if you divorce the ideas completely from the context of the magic that he puts together and offers as examples of those ideas, especially when it’s a situation of misdirection being used in conjunction with other principles.

In the Tamed Cards, he points to his watch in order to avoid a possible discrepant moment in the count. How is that moment ever going to explain the effect of cards changing to a regular audience? Early in Deja Reverse, he produces cards from the spectator’s ear in order to face the deck. How is that moment ever going to explain how the first spectator’s card keeps turning face up later on? In the Ambitious Card, he leaves a few cards on the table as misdirection for something secret he does while squaring the deck. How is that moment ever going to explain how their card ended up in the ringbox? I’m all for giving spectators the benefit of the doubt for not being as stupid as most magicians think they are, but there’s a difference between saying spectators are smart, and giving them credit for being able to see through that level of deep deception.

Part of this misunderstanding caused by Andy’s mission to make a point seems to stem from the fact that while he was busy cherry-picking one chapter in Wonder’s book, he missed another chapter on the Three Pillars, which talks at some length about the larger issues of manipulating an audience’s psychology. The Three Pillars are manipulation, mechanics, and psychology, and it should be plainly obvious that what we’ve always called “misdirection” is essentially a subcomponent of manipulation. Wonder was never arguing that it should be the entire basis for a strategy in the way that Andy seems to think that he is. On the contrary, he made the case that often the strongest magic uses all three.

Both volumes of the Books of Wonder are great, Andy. You should try reading them all the way through sometime.