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the truth about lying

The Truth about Lying

“Magic consists mostly of bald-faced lies. I think if you don’t lie like a bandit,
you don’t have the remotest chance of entertaining and fooling your audience.”

– Geoff Latta, The Long Goodbye

My friend Peter Samelson posted the above quote on his Facebook page; it stimulated some discussion. Lies (and the ability to tell them convincingly) are part of the conjurer’s toolbox. A magician who chooses not to lie eschews an important layer of deception.

Jerry Andrus famously declared he never told his audience any lies during a performance. He accomplished this by the shrewd placement of “strategic truths” – statements that either failed to impart all the necessary information or that emphasized a condition of no actual importance or one that was about to be altered without the spectators being aware of the alteration.

For example, Jerry would insert a chosen card into the center of the deck, stating, “Your card goes somewhere in the middle of the pack,” which, at the moment of utterance is absolutely true. However, a few seconds later, as the pack is squared, the card is secretly moved to the top via the Panoramic Shift, an action that Jerry refrained from commenting on. Although I don’t recall his ever saying the following, he could then dribble the cards from hand to hand and comment, “Your card is in here somewhere” – another truthful statement.

Dai Vernon’s effect Triumph allows for a valuable moment of truthfulness; it occurs during the cutting display just before the final revelation. The status of the squared deck at this point is: face-down selection, face-up cards (about half the deck), and then face-down cards (about half the deck). During the cutting display the deck with be reoriented so all the cards are face down with the selection face up in the middle. The patter is, “So now we have a mess. Some cards are face up; some cards are face down. Some cards are back to back; some cards are face to face.” This is all true, even though it does not describe the exact condition of the deck. It is a brilliant piece of scripting because it convinces while it accomplishes the dirty work.

The takeaway from this: if you are in a position to say something truthful, then by all means, tell the truth. However, telling the truth is not going to be our go-to strategy.

One way we can deceive is by withholding from the audience one or more important pieces of information; in effect, we lie by omission. The Twenty-one Card Trick conceals a mathematical placement within its dealing procedure. But we don’t inform the spectators of this fact. Memdeck magic works because we withhold two important pieces of information: the deck is stacked, and we have memorized the order of those cards. Lies of omission are easy to script, easy to position properly within the script, and easy to delivery convincingly. The key rule: don’t say any more than you have to.

We can also let our props do the lying for us. Well-manufactured gaffed cards and coins simulate the genuine articles. As long as they are handled nonchalantly and intelligently, our spectators will assume “those are the real deal” and will thus lie to themselves. (There is much more to be said on this subject, which borders on the idea of “how do you get into and out of a routine that uses gaffs.” The lie the spectators tell themselves may hold up during the body of the trick, but when the climax comes, the heat on the props may be more than the lie can sustain.)

Expertly performed sleight of hand also puts the spectators in the position of lying to themselves. They take in visual information, but that information does not convey the truth of the situation, and so they lie to themselves (the deck has been shuffled, the ball is in the left hand, the top card has been placed into the middle, etc.).

The key rule here: When possible, allow the spectators to lie to themselves.

A lie is also useful to distort the spectators’ memory of events; this can be particularly effective during a recap just before the denouement. Juan Tamariz is a master of this. For example, near the end of a card effect, Juan might say to an assisting spectator, “You remember – we shuffled and cut. You remember?” The reality is that Juan shuffled (false) and the spectator cut (genuine). But phrased in that way, combining the two actions and the two participants (Juan and the spectator), the lie slides under the radar. And if the lie sticks and the spectator remembers it, he will recall shuffling the deck, even though he never did that.

The lie of distortion is one I use all the time. You can find examples in many of my published routines. But, you have to be careful how much you distort the truth and where you place this lie within your script.

This now brings us to Geoff Latta’s bald-faced lie – the big lie – el grande whopper. This is the equivalent of looking the customs officer in the eye and stating, “I have nothing to declare,” when you have ten thousand dollars’ worth of souvenirs in your luggage. To work, the big lie has to be strategically placed and convincingly delivered. Timed incorrectly or poorly delivered, the lie easily collapses.

For that reason, I rarely use a big lie. However, I do have one example in which the big lie elevated an effect to legendary status. This occurred during my 1998 lecture tour (sixty cities in ninety days). One of the featured effects was You Hue (Workers 5). The routine used a gaffed set of marking pens and was a variation of the Takagi Wild Card routine. In this case, the name of a randomly selected spectator was duplicated on five business cards using the color marker he selected. The climax of the routine involved a huge distortion of the truth. But the lie was designed so it happened at a critical moment; the lie slid past System 2 and its analytic resources and lodged itself into memory. If you happened to see that lecture, I’m sure you remember the impact it had on the attendees. 

Unfortunately, that complete story is too long for this blog. However, I will be holding a webinar on this subject in January. Check back for the exact date and time. Until then, tell the truth as much as you can, and lie your ass off the rest of time.

July 21, 2019 4PM Webinar The Truth About Lying

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Pete McCabe - January 6, 2020

At some point I asked Jerry Andrus if it was true, he never lied. He said that it was generally true, but he also said that if someone asked him if those safety pins were ordinary, he would say yes.

I remember talking about this with Rafael Benatar. He spoke of it not as a matter of honor, which is how it seemed to be for Jerry, but as a matter of spectator psychology. Say I show you the queen of hearts, turn it down, and put it on the table, and at this point I lie, saying “Your queen of hearts is on the table.” The spectator can’t see the card and so this statement might arouse suspicion. Instead: I show you the queen of hearts. I say, “The queen of hearts…” I turn it down and table it, and say “…on the table.” The second version is almost exactly the same, but there is no lie. The spectator’s mindset is subtly different: He says Queen of hearts, right, that’s the queen of hearts, he says on the table, that’s also right, it’s on the table.

Notice that Rafael breaks the lie into two parts, so he can show the audience the first part is true, then secretly make that not true while showing that the second part is also true. This doesn’t just help the trick be deceptive, it also helps the audience understand the conditions by letting them focus on them one at a time.

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