The allure of magic

I am a sucker of magic, mentalist tricks, and illusions. Here is a video of Harry Milas doing some of his stuff on an Australian TV show.

You can read more about Milas here.

So good is Milas at his job that he now specialises in a unique line of work: he’s enlisted by casinos around the world, from Las Vegas to the Middle East, to catch people cheating. It is this work that inspired his latest show, The Unfair Advantage, in which he goes against convention and shows his audience how to cheat in any way they want – while also demonstrating all the ways they will be caught.

Milas calls the show “a pretty frank warning”, though many people still think they’ll be able to get away with it.

Milas is known as a “mechanical expert”, or someone who knows all the ways to get an unfair advantage in cards. When he offers to demonstrate dealing seconds for me, I try desperately not to look too excited – until he casually shuffles his deck in a spectacular way, which provokes an odd, happy noise out of me. Kindly, he doesn’t make fun of it. “Magic is a very optimistic art form,” he’ll tell me later. “It brings out the inner child. It’s a gentle reminder that you’re never going to know everything.”

He shows me the ace of spades on top of the deck then starts dealing, discreetly keeping the ace on top with his thumb as he fluidly deals out the cards underneath it. “This is probably the most prevalent card cheating move,” he explains. “It should look like nothing at all.” And it does.

“Truth is, it’s incredibly common for people to try to cheat,” he says. “Most of my work in casinos is confirming suspicions. And most of the time, it’s the dealer. Sometimes, it is someone who is winning really well and consistently – it doesn’t matter how fair your play is, the casinos are going to be interested in you.”

A lot of the work involves studying video footage to see if he can spot a mechanic, watching the movement of their thumbs, the bevel of the deck in their hand. “Most people are really fucking bad at these moves and it’s very obvious,” he says. “You can only start even thinking about trying to cheat once there is no question about being able to deliver 100% of the time. If it’s any less than that, you are going to be caught.”

“I think it’s a genuine disservice to reveal how magic tricks are done,” he adds. “I realise that that might sound hypocritical, but I personally see a distinction between revealing gambling techniques and magic secrets: one is something created for ulterior personal gain, and the other is used to elicit something really special and wonderful.”

I try to figure out how people like Milas do it but it is hopeless. I am one of those people who like to look behind the curtain see how things are done but when I learn about how magic is done, it does leave me with a let-down feeling.

I enjoy being fooled by these people and knowing the basis of the trick does remove some of the enjoyment.


  1. Trickster Goddess says

    Tricks are amusing but for me l am not satisfied until I know how they did it. I don’t like being mystified, I always want to know how things work.

  2. outis says

    Nah, I do like watching this sort of trickery, but I also enjoy the knowledge that comes from learning them. It’s almost always something you don’t expect.
    I recently learnt one (just one) easy card trick, and it’s pretty amusing. Looks impressive if you don’t know it, and when you do know you are all “why ya sneaky sonuvagun, how did you ever come up with that…”.

  3. says

    James Randi told a story about Richard Feynman -- he’d show him a trick and Feynman would walk away thinking. On and off he’d get emails with a question or a hypothesis, “was it in your nose?” Etc. Sometimes it took months but eventually he’d figure it out.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    There’s a lovely clip somewhere of Teller talking about a world tour he did with Penn, and specifically about a street magician somewhere or other (can’t remember where) doing the cups and balls for him. But there’s a twist -- the guy knows perfectly well who Teller is, of course. So he does the trick, hides a ball under a cup, swaps the cups round and so on, and indicates that Teller should point to the cup where the ball is hidden. And Teller points to a cup. And the magician lifts the cup… and there’s a ball there. And Teller is amazed, and touched -- because there wasn’t supposed to be a ball under there. He indicated the cup a civilian spectator would pick, the cup the magician would expect them to pick, the cup the magician would have removed the ball from. And the guy doing the trick for him had removed the ball, and Teller knew that because he saw him do the sleight. What he didn’t see was that he’d faked the sleight and left the ball in place. He was impressed and said something like “That’s the greatest gift you can give to a magician, to amaze him with a trick he knows by using his knowledge against him”.

    There are, I think, three stages in appreciating a magic performance. Stage one is simply accepting the illusion and being amazed. Stage two is when you find out how it’s done, and that’s the worst stage to be at, because universally the experience consists of something like “is that IT??”. Stage 3 requires an appreciation of presentation, once you know the effect. Some tricks are great because of the charisma of the performer. Your mileage may vary, but Derren Brown hits the spot for me. I don’t like David Copperfield’s persona and presentation, but the technical aspects of his tricks are pretty good. And then there are people like Ryan Hyashi, who has the charisma but backs it up with a level of technical proficiency that even if you know how he’s doing it is astonishing, like watching an Olympic athlete performing at their peak. See also Michael Vincent with a pack of cards.

  5. says

    Learning how a trick is done doesn’t bother me because I appreciate the skill in creating it and carrying it off and can still enjoy watching it being performed, but I know it’s not the case for everyone. There used to be a magic shop near where I live so I got into it a little bit and did a trick for a co-worker. Because it was a cheap store-bought illusion I didn’t think twice about showing her how it was done and she was just disappointed. “That’s not magic.” Of course it’s not! Magic isn’t real! But this led to me thinking there’s a bit of a disconnect where intellectually, people know it’s not real, but emotionally though there’s still that bit of hope.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    “That’s not magic.” Of course it’s not! Magic isn’t real! But this led to me thinking there’s a bit of a disconnect where intellectually, people know it’s not real, but emotionally though there’s still that bit of hope.

    I think the disconnect comes from people’s massive overestimation of how difficult it would be to fool them. They consider themselves so smart and observant that, by definition, they could only possibly be fooled by something incredibly clever and difficult. And when you fool them, they’re looking for something incredibly clever and difficult. They’re looking for something that would take you months or years of practice and incredible skill and dexterity… and then you wave the fake thumb tip, the one that isn’t even the same colour as your skin, the one they didn’t see the first four times you did the trick, until you literally waved it directly in front of their face and pointed at it… and they feel foolish. They realise that you’re not some master prestidigitator, you’re a nerd who spent three quid on a plastic novelty from a magic shop and spent literally five minutes practicing the trick you just completely convinced them with. They realise they’re not the genius observer they thought they were, but YOU are in fact a lying liar who lied to them.

    My approach has always been to have four or five tricks ready to go. And when you’ve finished, and people want to know how it’s done, do the thumb tip silk vanish. If they’ve not seen it before, it’s depressingly reliable, and if they HAVE seen it before that’s even better, because they’ll get the point -- which is “don’t ask. You won’t like the answer.”

    There are exceptions to this. There’s a great trick where a performer gets a person to pick a card, then they put it back in the deck and shuffle it… Then they just shower the deck onto the table, and as it’s falling, they reach into the falling shower of cards and pluck out the chosen card. And I can tell you how it’s done -- he just DOES it. Sure, there are methods by which he knows pretty well where the card is in the deck… but when it comes to snatching it out of a falling shower of cards, he really does just DO it. That, for me, really is magic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *