“My mind,” Harry Houdini liked to say, “is the key which sets me free.” The remark was typical of him, at once arrogant and enigmatic, giving nothing away even as it encapsulated his belief in an unknown power of the brain that he alone possessed.
The legendary escape artist would likely have been intrigued by magician Alex Stone’s absorbing if uneven new book, “Fooling Houdini.” Though he would have been affronted by the title — it refers to a famous episode in which he was baffled by numerous repetitions of a card trick — Houdini would surely have admired the scientific rigor that Stone brings to the elusive art of magic.
Stone, a “high-functioning magicaholic” who holds a master’s degree in physics, sets out to explore the world of conjurers and cardsharps through the lens of neuroscience, psychology and advanced mathematics. “Magic, at its core, is about toying with the limits of perception,” he writes. “And as any neuroscientist will tell you, one can learn a lot about the brain by studying those bizarre moments wherein it succumbs to illusion. Magic lives in these moments.”
The book begins with an account of Stone’s quixotic attempt to make a name for himself at the 2006 World Championship of Magic in Stockholm, the magic community’s equivalent of the Olympics. Overmatched and underprepared, Stone commits a series of technical gaffes and suffers an embarrassing disqualification. “There are many ways to lose,” he tells us, “but nothing compares to the disgrace of being red-lighted in the middle of your act. . . . I hadn’t just lost; I’d been humiliated.”
Humbled, Stone sets off on a path of deeper immersion in the craft and culture of magic. Back home in New York, he falls in with “an underground community of like-minded obsessives” and becomes an apprentice to various Yoda-like masters, including a blind card manipulator whose “caliper-like fingers,” able to “sense the thickness of paper stock to within a thousandth of an inch,” won him a job as a “Touch Analyst” for a playing card manufacturer. Soon, Stone is doing “Finger Fitness” exercises to whip his hands into shape for tricky sleights and manipulations. “Next to the brain,” he says, “the hand is the most important evolutionary adaptation in human history, our main interface with the world.”
Though Stone’s rigorous training comes at the expense of his graduate studies, he comes to learn that “the world of magic is filled with scientists and the world of science is filled with magicians,” and he finds compelling material in the intersection of the two spheres. His work with the blind cardsharp, for instance, yields meaty insights into the “cross-modal plasticity” of the brain, which allows one region to take over the functions of another. Similarly, Stone’s effort to learn the classic three-card monte street hustle (“Keep your eye on the Queen”) leads him to a meditation on the psychology of scams, touching on riverboat gamblers, Bernie Madoff and thermodynamics. “Understand the monte,” Stone tells us, “and you’ll understand not just a great trick, but also the basic architecture of every hustle.”
Stone’s gee-whiz enthusiasm occasionally leads him astray. He seems genuinely baffled when he gets tossed out of a bar for refusing to put away his card tricks, and he’s similarly nonplussed when a girlfriend asks for a reprieve from his endless sleight-of-hand drills. “It’s annoying,” she says, “and I asked you to stop.”
This particular skill — knowing when to rein it in — is one that Stone seems unable to master. A few years ago, he achieved a measure of infamy in the magic community when he published a magazine article that exposed the secrets of fellow performers. He sets aside a lengthy chapter in “Fooling Houdini” to mount a defense of his actions, which he characterizes as a celebration of magic rather than an assault. “Most people have no clue how much skill and creativity and hard work goes into it, because magic is all about art concealing art,” he writes. “As a result, magic exists in a kind of vacuum.” His goal, he insists, was to “pump some life into this vacuum.”
Few of his critics will be won over by this logic, and it is worth mentioning — as Stone himself does earlier in the book — that he swore an oath of secrecy when he joined the Society of American Magicians.
I should confess that I signed this same oath when I was a teenage magician churning out balloon poodles in Cleveland. Personally, I don’t believe that an occasional tip of the gaff does any lasting harm, and Stone is correct when he points out that most of magic’s secrets are just “a mouse click away.” In days of yore I was often asked for the secret of a particular “Four Aces” routine, and I would provide the title and Dewey decimal number of the library book from which I learned it. So far as I know, no one ever looked it up.
But in the end, Stone calls his own bluff. After fulminating at length on the manner in which “exposure compels magicians to modernize their acts” and taking some pot shots at the “ancien régime,” he abruptly breaks off the charge and seeks absolution from one of his mentors: “I told him I felt awful about the incident and regretted the article.” And with a snap of his fingers, the soapbox vanishes.
Stone’s personal travails are far less interesting than his scientific insights, but the digressions of this type are thankfully brief. He’s at his best in a lab coat and goggles, looking at magic from a physicist’s point of view. “Like physics,” he tells us, “magic is all about nerds playing god with the universe.”
Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks
& the Hidden Powers of the Mind
By Alex Stone
Harper. 301 pp. $26.99