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An Early Look: Two Reviews

Double-Product pReview by Jamy Ian Swiss

Less Is More & Real Ace Cutting by Ben Earl

In Take Two #12 this past January, I wrote about Ben Earl, whom I had just met and seen perform and lecture at The Session convention in London. That piece focused in general on the notion of magicians fooling magicians, and in particular on Earl’s Ace cutting routine with which he fooled Penn & Teller on Fool Us.

At The Session, Earl spent a portion of his lecture discussing what he has dubbed his Real Ace Cutting. The title carries with it an inescapable element of irony, in that the routine imitates the legendary John Scarne feat, which Earl acknowledges has long inspired and obsessed him, of cutting to the Aces from a shuffled deck. But while Earl is the rare technician who actually can accomplish the genuine item—and this, as I discussed in the aforementioned Take Two, is in fact what he utilized to fool Penn & Teller—Earl has said that, in the final analysis, perfecting the real thing is not worth the effort, at least when it comes to putting an equivalent of the effect into one’s repertoire as a performance piece. (I’m sure that mastering the ability to accomplish the real thing is quite satisfying, however, to say the least.) But creating the convincing illusion of the real thing is what Real Ace Cutting is all about—and about the nature of what “real” might really mean.

To that end, Ben Earl has now written a new book, a hardbound 142-page thoroughly illustrated volume, entitled Less is More, devoted to describing a variety of Ace-locating routines, and concluding with an attempt to explain his Real Ace Cutting. Further to that end, he has also created a two-hour video, entitled Real Ace Cutting, even more narrowly focused on techniques related to this plot and its achievement. Be forewarned: I am fortunate enough to have been given an advance look at both of these items, to enable me to write about them together. The good news is: They make a terrific instructional pairing, as I am about to explore for your consideration. The bad news is: It’s going to be at least a few months before they are commercially available. But make a note: If you are at all serious about sleight-of-hand with playing cards, I recommend that when the ads break (and it is likely these two items will not be out at the same time, for various production reasons), you follow the links, enter your purchase info, and promptly hit “CLICK TO COMPLETE ORDER” without a moment’s hesitation.

Trying to explain what Ben Earl is trying to explain is not easy to, well, explain. In the concluding chapter of Less is More, which builds on all of the preceding material in the book in order to fully present his thesis, he writes: “‘Real Ace Cutting’ is an internally motivated method of organic card manipulations designed to make your technique and performances more believable, nuanced, and entertaining. … ‘Real Ace Cutting’ allows you to reliably and authentically cut/locate/produce any four of a kind from any deck of cards, in any environment.”

That’s about as cogent an explanation as one can find. Since the book explores other routines and only presents Real Ace Cutting (or, if you will forgive my shorthand, RAC from here on) as a climax to that material, Earl’s thoughts on what he is seeking in this routine are never quite fully elucidated there; the video presents further contemplations on the subject, in the course of which he reaches repeatedly into performance theory and other rather ephemeral language and in order to try to make clear what is ultimately intended to be a spontaneous and somewhat unpredictable set of outcomes. There are some viewers who may find these elements of the discussion repetitive or even tedious; I am not one of them. And I suspect that Mr. Earl might himself believe that these portions of the instruction comprise the most important content of all, more so than all of the accompanying technical descriptions.

But let’s focus on the book first, which begins with Mr. Earl’s perspective on a true classic of card magic, namely Henry Christ’s Fabulous Ace Routine, often known commonly as the Christ Aces, originally published in 1961 in Professional Card Magic by Cliff Green, one of the most distinctive books of sleight-of-hand card magic of the era. In this, the four Aces are deliberately lost in the pack by the performer, and then each Ace is located in a different fashion: in turn by counting, spelling, a reversal, and a change. The unarguably appealing plot has been a staple of cardicians for more than half a century.

Mr. Earl declares that. “Christ’s routine is usually purported to be a masterpiece … I disagree. … In fact, I think it’s a rather dull trick lacking in punch or methodological beauty.”

Take that, Henry.

I am compelled to acknowledge that this statement is reflective of one of two general areas in which I occasionally find myself somewhat at odds with Mr. Earl, and which I will address now to get them out of the way before getting to all the fun parts. By this I do not mean to imply that I outright dispute his particular critique of the original Christ routine. My problem with his pronouncement about the Christ routine, and occasionally other statements of a theoretical or artistic nature, is a tendency toward “presentism,” namely an inclination toward judging the past by the tastes and artistic values of the present. (My other area of objection concerns an occasional tilt toward hyperbole with regard to his own work, be it self-describing elements as “revolutionary,” or claims as to the unprecedented nature of some idea or other. I’ve never been inclined toward invoking such language about oneself, in frankly any context, and I invariably find it discomfiting when others do so. Then again, I don’t like bat-flips in baseball. Call me old school.)

It is one thing to say that by contemporary standards, it is appropriate for, perhaps even incumbent upon, current day performers to consider moving beyond the constraints of the original Christ routine. It seems perfectly reasonable to me to point out that the process by which the Aces are “lost” in the pack in the original routine is somewhat contrived, notably in the insertion of the first card into a fan; albeit after that, if the remaining procedures are executed smoothly and briskly, they still seem reasonably fair and convincing to me.

But this is largely a matter of taste, and tastes change, and the habit of confusing tastes with facts can, among other hazards, lead to confusion about the nature and value of the past. Vernon, in creating Triumph, the Travelers, the Vernon Cups and Balls or the Symphony of the Rings, did not spend a lot of time focusing on what he may well have seen as the flaws of his predecessors. Rather, he often celebrated those on whose shoulders he climbed, in order to see further beyond previous horizons. (We would not be nearly as aware or appreciative of Malini and Leipzig, for example, were it not for Vernon’s appreciations of their contributions.) And while I believe Salvadore Dali said that it is the right of every artist to hate every other artist, and in that context I am sympathetic to younger artists overturning the old in their pursuit of the new, there is a difference between standing on shoulders, as opposed to grinding the cadavers of previous explorers beneath our boots. While some may suspect me of simply defending my own mentors and influences here, perhaps on nostalgic or personal grounds, that is not the basis of my caution at all (and truly, I mention all of this merely by way of cautionary counsel, not a prosecution for high crimes and misdemeanors). The issue is how one comes to understand—or misunderstand—the role and place of history and evolution in one’s art. Put simply: Artistic progress is not a zero sum game.

Mentioning Vernon is particularly relevant in this brief digression, as when for example, in his manuscript, Neo-Movement, Mr. Earl identifies what he dubs “The Vernon Trap,” a supposed risk that lies ahead if one is to adopt Vernon’s ideas, because “if observed too dogmatically, they will create a mechanical trap which is robotic, unnatural and ‘non-living’. Vernon’s ideas are rational and logical but they are also limited.” Certainly such risks emerge if any proscriptions for art are taken too rigidly—“the only rule in art is that there are no rules”—but while Mr. Earl has somehow managed to escape this self-identified trap, and in Neo-Movement and elsewhere, hopes to save us all from its clutches, he is far from alone in that escape. Along the way, he often insists that Mr. Vernon “never truly defined what natural meant or how to apply it beyond vague generalizations or specific technical sequences,” and applies similar critiques to other Vernon cornerstone principles such as “using your head.” 

I really do not wish to belabor this issue; I consider myself an appreciative supporter of Mr. Earl’s work, and it’s possible this is an area of occasional disagreement that may have as much to do with style of expression as anything else. But, this isn’t the place for an extended review of Dai Vernon’s contribution to and lasting influence on the art of magic; neither is it a review of Mr. Earl’s Neo-Movement, a work I certainly find interesting and thought provoking. But I do think it worth mentioning that even the very act of description has progressed and dramatically altered since the great works of conjuring literature of the late nineteenth century, and throughout the expanse of the twentieth, and it is misleading, at very least, to judge the totality of artists’ skills and ideas simply by how their work was recorded at the time. After all, early descriptions of the Second Deal sometimes offered little more than an instruction to pull back the first card and deal the second one in its stead. Are we to believe that no one at the time was able to achieve an execution of the sleight that was vastly superior to such descriptions? A thoughtful reading of The Notebook, an anonymously written manuscript about card magic from the eighteenth century, discovered in the Magic Circle’s library and subsequently transcribed and annotated by Will Houstoun, will rapidly serve to humble modern enthusiasts who think that everything worthwhile in magic was only recently figured out within their own lifetimes or a mere generation prior.

So the question I would pose is this: If Vernon’s thinking was limited by the entirety of his published record—and keeping in mind that he wrote almost none of that record himself, as the recording of his work was not his passion or focus—how then did he manage to seemingly avoid such limitations in his own work, and indeed, how did so many of his students and acolytes manage to extract from his work the deeper meanings he intended and that were embedded in its very nature? I would say that much of what Mr. Earl identifies as hazards may, when we see them, have more to do with, in the hands of some practitioners, poor understanding or execution, rather than limits of the creators and originators themselves. Just because you have drawn up a list of twenty itemized facets of practice (as Mr. Earl does in Neo-Movement), does not automatically mean you are the first to be aware of such elements or even to practice in such a manner. You may, however, be the first to catalog it. And yet, that having been said, it’s important to recognize that that accomplishment should not be minimized.

Because in fact, the work of theorists often lies in the acts of identification and amplification. I have noted elsewhere that theorists name things, and that this is no small contribution, but it also does not occur in a creative or evolutionary vacuum. There are a number of contemporary theorists, myself included, who have, for example, reconsidered and expanded upon Vernon’s theories. But rarely if ever am I inclined toward crediting myself with achieving insights that Vernon lacked, but rather with identifying ideas that were implied or even fully contained, but perhaps not entirely identified or articulated, within his published record.

Similarly, when Arturo d’Ascanio named, for example, the “In Transit Action,” it would be foolish to claim that no magician ever practiced this misdirective principle before him. But Ascanio’s important contribution, and one that should in no way be minimized, is that by naming and exemplifying the principle, it becomes more serviceable and useful to future generations.

And so, whether or not Henry Christ’s Fabulous Four Ace Routine is a masterpiece by contemporary standards, it sure was one hell of a goddamn creation at the time, and there is little to be gained, in my view, by cutting it down in order to build upon it—even as one marches along a path of progression and improvement that I find nothing less than excellent. The time I have taken for this digression is not to defend the Christ Aces. That would be silly, it’s just one card trick, and as Mr. Earl points out, his starting point could have been one of many other Ace routines. And neither is it my intention to undermine any of his thinking and analysis of the trick, much less his results. Rather, I think there are deeper implications that lie not in his observations of how and why to try to improve on the original routine, but rather in the historical context in which he frames those judgments, and his own judgments of his predecessors and their works.

And so to return to Mr. Earl’s introductory statement about the Christ Aces, he goes on to explain that his approach likes in “challenging myself to improve the original without the need to add additional kickers or extra moments of magic. Instead I want to focus on stripping away all unnecessary clutter and making it simpler to show that less is more.”

And then, he does so, in rather stellar and fascinating fashion for the next 120 or so pages. He attacks both the procedures for apparently losing while actually controlling the Aces, making them more consistent, as well as “more casual and natural.” And he focuses his attention on the revelations, because as he sees it, “The revelations in Christ’s original felt small, cute, mildly amusing, mathematical, and ultimately disappointing.” Now this may come as a surprise to readers considering my previous comments, but I agree with these assessments, particularly if one’s intentions lie not in trying to suit the revelations to the portrayal of a clever or even masterful magician, but rather, to the appearance that one is doing the work of an expert card handler with deep knowledge and experience at the contemporary gaming table. Counting and spelling and reversing and changing cards is and can be clever magic, but fast company, if you will, or experienced card players, will not really mistake it for the doings of a card table hustler who is finding cards under fire, on the fly, in what seems like some version of real world conditions. These are different effects entirely, and Mr. Earl is seeking the latter, and his approach to it is fascinating and powerful.

And so our Odysseus at the Card Table sets out on his journey and, as it unfolds, describes and instructs us in his achievements of the following “list of structural and theatrical developments”:

  • No set-up is required
  • The Aces are lost in a more congruent and natural way.
  • The revelations build; each one is progressively stronger and more distinctive.
  • No tabled spreads are used.
  • No estimation, glimpses or key cards are used.
  • There are no anti-climactic moments.
  • No kicker or surprise endings are used.
  • It is very simple to perform and execute.

That’s quite a shopping list, but I assure you that Mr. Earl comes home with all the groceries in the bag. All of those features are genuine. I would only caution that, as many will already be aware, “simple” does not always mean “easy,” and it will take some effort to make these handlings look smooth and effortless. But the reader reaches the final chapter of the book, it is true that in fact, most of what is simple in the book really is also very doable, and within the reach of intermediate-level card workers.

Up until now, I have only summarized the opening segment of the book, entitled “Evolving with Simplicity,” consisting of a mere twenty-five pages. This section offers four approaches to the Ace location routine, and they are very good indeed, and meet the requirements listed above. In the leadoff routine, “Thanks to Henry,” the first Ace is skillfully cut to; the second is found via the psychological Stop Trick; the third is produced from the performer’s pocket; and the fourth Ace magically transforms. This set and style of locations will be further explored and expanded upon as the book unfolds. But I do think it’s interesting to think about whether a production from the pocket is truly “congruent” with the rest of these locations, which keep the other cards in visible play throughout. Is it effective? No doubt. Is it artistically consistent? Perhaps that is a matter of taste, rather than an observable fact.

That routine is followed by “Henry in Isolation” which provides a sequence for apparently losing the Aces that is outstanding in both its simplicity—one of Mr. Earl’s stated goals—and in its convincing deceptiveness. The superiority of this procedure to the original Christ approach may indeed amount to an observable fact; if not, it’s damnably close. Such is art. The section concludes with “Henry Topped,” which reflects a distinct methodological improvement over the preceding versions.

The next segment, “Technical Simplicity,” comprises nine technical items in about forty pages, including false cuts, false shuffle techniques, and clever strategies for creating a convincing but casual impression of cards being thoroughly mixed in apparently natural or at least justified ways. Enthusiasts will recognize some of Mr. Earl’s building blocks, for which he presents a number of useful personal variations, including his “Finessed Frank Thompson Cut,” “Real Optical Shuffle,” and “Shuffled Ose Control,” the latter being a clever addition of shuffles to the well known Ose Cut. Some of these procedures are a matter of, once again, taste; Mr. Earl’s approach to the Optical Shuffle is virtually identical to that which I have used for many years, except that he repeatedly tips the receiving packet back and forth in the receiving hand, toward the palm, then toward the fingers, and back, a procedure that in Mr. Earl’s hands seems reasonably casual, but to my eye and in my hands seems the opposite. There is no one solution to such tools, and it is for the student to decide what best suits his tastes and style, which is, I believe, very much the author’s intent. One of my favorite elements in this section is the “Any Card Game Control”—which is also demonstrated and explained on the RAC video—a procedure that seems conversational and casual and yet controls cards during a seemingly random demonstration of how card games work in a general, conceptual sense. This is both clever and convincing, and really rather ingenious when you consider that it is entirely procedural and performative, and requires virtually no sleight of hand whatsoever beyond holding a break.

In the third section, “Versatile Simplicity,” Mr. Earl next presents six routines for losing and locating the Aces, which by this point in his discussion and evolution bear little resemblance to his original source of inspiration, the Christ Aces. The second routine in this section, “Wide Awake Scream,” has indeed taken a long ride from its Henry Christ origins, and has arrived at a marvelous place, in which “Two Aces instantly travel to the performer's pockets, one Ace appears in the spectator’s hands and finally the deck vanishes to leave nothing but the last Ace!”

In point of fact, this approach seems to me very much an updating of the Christ routine, in that the revelations are magical but they certainly do not seem the work of a bona fide card sharp using the skills of card table artifice in order to locate cards on the fly. But that effect and impression will not come until we reach the land of Real Ace Cutting; for now, these are progressive updates to the Christ evolutionary tree, and they are damnably good ones. In another even better variant of this particular version, the first Ace appears in the performer’s pocket, the second is revealed beneath a glass on the table, the third Ace appears in the spectator’s hand (actually a change from an indifferent card), and the fourth Ace resides in the performer’s hand, from which the balance of the pack has vanished. This is a relentlessly surprising and potent sequence.

Two subsequent routines, “Clean Cutter” and “Clean Cutter 2” provide some flashy revelation sequences that can be performed in the hands rather than on the table. Then several variants on “Flow Productions” present a series of quick tabled productions that possess a distinctly different physical impression, seeming to happen almost by themselves in a manner that, while progressive, does not seek distinct moments between each revelation, but rather allow the four revelations to flow seamlessly from one to another.

In the penultimate section, Part 4, “Classic Simplicity,” several routines are described that go above and beyond mere Ace locations, and step into the arena of gambling routines and demonstrations. This material is smartly conceived to create maximum impression of skill with remarkably minimal technical demands. Smooth and effortless execution, along with the right attitude, will go far in making these routines serve to present their performer as a master at the card table. While the first routine here, “Stem Cell,” incorporate magic-friendly plots like the Monte and Magician versus Gambler (Matching the Cards), the next piece, “The Resourceful Professional,” manages to demonstrate Shuffle Location and Culling, False Dealing, Stacking, Card Mucking, Shuffle Tracking, and climaxes in a very surprising four-of-a-kind revelation. Despite that impressive list of feats, the technical requirements are so minimal for this routine that it’s difficult to believe so much can be done with so little. The mucking idea in this is particularly clever, by the way, being as it is entirely a pseudo-demo accomplished by way of two cleverly orchestrated common card sleights.

The final routine in this section is an Ace Assembly that begins with the author’s thought that “most ungimmicked versions of the Ace Assembly are in fact subtle testimonies of a magician’s desire to appear clever…” and that the resulting “kaleidoscope of dexterity is born from ego and naivety…” Here, given the opportunity, Mr. Earl and I might need to take time to ponder the meaning of the word “most,” since I would have to agree that most published variants on the Assembly plot do seem to me not so much motivated by ego, but rather by an intellectual desire to seek clever variant solutions, instead of trying to uphold the potential magical beauty of a masterpiece like Mike Skinner’s Serendipity Aces (Skinner’s take on Vernon’s Slow Motion Assembly). But then again, this observation might well apply to as much as 90% or more of variants on such classic plots, which often have more to do with solving problems and puzzles than improving on the innate magical effect, which often dies on the vine in the process.

In Mr. Earl’s case, mystery is kept at the forefront, with a handling for a direct assembly, not a slow-motion one. The routine relies on a very good initial switch, dubbed the Unconsidered Switch, which many will doubtless find to be vastly superior to the contrivance of the traditional Braue Addition. The routine represents a very thoughtful approach to the Ace Assembly plot that lends it a very different feel than most such routines, in this case including elements of fairness and surprise that are often absent from many traditional versions.

And now, finally, we reach Part 5, as we mount the summit of our adventures and, scanning a newly revealed horizon, gaze on high at the Real Ace Cutting. The author begins this segment by stating what I have previously alluded to, namely that he possesses “genuine methods for producing four of a kind from a borrowed, shuffled deck, so [he knows] how it feels and how technically demanding it is. … [He] invested a lot of time in many sophisticated methods, both magic and genuine cheating methods, for culling desirable cards from a shuffled deck. ” And then he adds: “However, in my opinion, ‘Real Ace Cutting’ is a far superior approach to anything else I have experimented with; it is within the reach of any intelligent performer, and unlike other approaches, it truly allows you to concentrate on and connect with the performance itself (without sacrificing any realism or reliability). For this reason I consider it to be as superior approach.” 

And now comes the key to his premise: “Finding four Aces isn’t good enough; it must be believable and entertaining. Not limited by style or procedure, this is a flexible approach with very few rules; it cannot be rivaled for deceptiveness or realism and will fool the most educated observer.”

My opinion is that these intentions are realized, and these claims are true. But—and it is no small “but”—it will require not only a significant amount of technical mastery to achieve, but above all, a significant alteration in the mindset of performers attempting to duplicate Mr. Earl’s approach.

And this is where those ephemeral, potentially repetitive discussions and descriptions enter the process, as Mr. Earl attempts to describe what he is really getting at. You can see it in his aforementioned appearance on Fool Us, even though he is doing the real thing there rather than the trick described in this book. We all have Ace revelations in our repertoire, but few of them feel, for lack of a better expression, “real,” and neither are they generally intended to be. Consider the typical “multiple selections” routine; rarely if ever is it presented as the performer utilizing all of his substantial skills to somehow, some way, desperately try to find the cards that are randomly distributed throughout the pack. That may be the superficial conceit, but that’s not really the way the feat is approached, and neither is it the typical approach to a four Ace location.

Admittedly there have been a few exceptions, at least to some degree. The Marlo Miracle Aces, since it relies on a combination of principle that includes estimation, is often presented with a sense of reality, not only because it is so clean and convincing, but particularly because the performer can convincingly imply some sense of uncertainty to the process because, well, that uncertainty is genuinely present!

One of Scotty York’s openers when he was performing as a Magic Bartender was to cop the Aces and hand the deck out for shuffling (typically while he would take orders and make and serve the first round of drinks), then secretly add the Aces to the deck upon retrieval (a tactic Mr. Earl uses and discusses). Scotty would then simply perform the Frank Thompson False Cut in the hands three times, revealing an Ace each time after the swing cut to completion. For the final Ace, he would execute a straight cut to the table, then execute a Double-Lift showing an indifferent card, and finally transform this card into the final Ace. This may seem terribly pedestrian in comparison to popular flashy revelations like Daryl’s Hot Shot Cut or Lennert Green’s Top Shot, but that was the point, and in the realm of seeking something simple but convincing, Scotty’s routine was more effective than you might think at first glance. By having the deck shuffled, and by simply doing a sequence of cuts, in Scotty’s hands the routine seemed to possess an element of genuine skill that impressed the hell out of a bunch of guys who sit down at a bar thinking the bartender is some guy who knows a card trick or two, and they would sit up straight and quickly realize that something truly impressive was going on—with the final magical change providing a moment of surprised laughter at the finale.

In such examples you can find elements of Mr. Earl’s approach, but he has taken these notions far beyond the usual. In essence, and on the performance side, he is trying to make the entire process feel real, and while doing so, creating a sense of heightened tension and real drama—mostly without saying much of anything, using silence as another weapon in his performance arsenal. Meanwhile, on the technical side, he is doing something very, very different from the norm: he is improvising. By having a substantial repertoire of technical choices and options at his command, he can proceed through the routine without knowing at any given moment what he intends to do next. This lends the entire routine an air of immediacy and reality that in Mr. Earl’s estimation cannot be achieved by simply trying to act it into existence.

This is the opposite of equivoque, for example, wherein the performer actually is improvising but must completely conceal his thinking, and make it appear as if the procedure is routine, customary, and never changing. In Mr. Earl’s Real Ace Cutting, not only are you allowed to show your thinking, but showing your thinking becomes a feature, rather than a bug. Being unsure about how you’re going to reveal the next Ace comes across as being unsure of how you’re going to locate the next Ace. Thus: Show your work!

If these elements are successfully incorporated, you can achieve and communicate a number of ideas as you prepare to locate the Aces (following whatever shuffle procedures and initial presentation you choose), that Mr. Earl itemizes as follows:

  • What you are about to see is very difficult.
  • This may not work.
  • This is something that you shouldn’t see as it is a secret skill.
  • This idea is very valuable.
  • This is not a trick.
  • This is amazing.
  • I am nervous/excited.

One of the most important principles of the performance of magic that I learned from Eugene Burger when he first arrived on the scene in the early 1980s was the notion that if you want the audience to treat your work as important, you must first treat it as important yourself; and that if you do not treat your work as important, the audience will not.

Ben Earl is doing this is in spades in Real Ace Cutting. “Every single action, reaction, technique, revelation, facial expression, thought and feeling must be improvised or discovered in the moment. … One must take on the role of someone who is doing this for real (from a genuinely shuffled deck) so that in your mind it is real.”

And to be clear: I think this is absolutely terrific. I loved reading it. I loved watching it. I loved thinking about it. Hell, I’m still thinking about it. I may even start working on doing it.

To me, this approach is downright fun. It’s challenging both technically and theatrically, and it’s not for everyone. On the technical side, Mr. Earl’s emphasis on simplicity, a point he returns to time and time again throughout Less is More, is well taken and accurate. By striving for simple approaches to technique, the performance actually becomes more elegant, more convincing, and the performer can concentrate his or her efforts on performing rather than moves. But that having been said, let’s not kid ourselves. Mr. Earl mentions at one point on the RAC video that he draws on a repertoire of about twenty controls, and another twenty revelations, in order to reach his goal of being able to perform the routine with genuine in-the-moment spontaneity. If you lack that large a repertoire of options, and if you do not master those options to the point of completely effortless execution, you will automatically tilt toward restricting your choices, and increasing the formulaic regimen of predictability, which in turn will fundamentally alter the appearance and impression of the performance. It is all, truly, of a piece.

And this is about where the video comes into play most importantly, as it builds significantly on the catalog of techniques Mr. Earl describes in the book but routinely draws on in his performances. In the video he details how he approaches his initial handling of the Aces, whether the are culled or copped out, for example, and then how he presents the apparent process of the routine; for example, he often begins by looking over a fan of the cards in an apparent act of memorizing the locations of the cards. He also has some wonderful touches on making this starting element more believable, both in the moment and in the subsequent revelations, including the idea of revealing an indifferent card, only to announce where that card apparently resides in relation to the next revealed Ace, a killer idea. He provides excellent technical details in the realm of finesses to conceal what Harry Riser always said was the most important card sleight of all: the break. He offers a variety of ways to apparently cut to cards, including what are dubbed “rolling revelations,” and many fine points for making simple and direct revelations (like a straight cut, or apparent straight cut) even more convincing as real-time locations.

And then the video kicks into high gear with a section on “Tabled Real Ace Cutting.” This segment discusses: Basic Top Stock Ploys; Advanced Top Stock Controls; Bottom Stock Controls; Strip Cuts; the Scrape Cut; the Sting Cut and Stutter Step; and tabled Slip Shuffles. Some of this material reflects the real work on contemporary tabled card handling. Several of these techniques have been devised and popularized by Steve Forte; some have slipped out into the card-handling zeitgeist through a small handful of instructional videos, generally produced by friends of Forte’s or, at least, people who know him and his work. The rapid running tabled undercuts were first noticed by many in Forte’s astonishing gambling demo on the NBC special, “Hidden Secrets of Magic,” in 1995.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that on the same television special, Bill Malone performed a diabolical version of what he presented as the John Scarne Ace Cutting. While in fact the methods of Mr. Malone’s presentation were different than the real Scarne routine, they were nevertheless highly deceptive, and have left some guessing to this day as to the complete details, since he has never revealed them.

While on that subject, some of the most in-depth work on the Scarne type of approach to locating cards from a shuffled pack was explored by Jerry Sadowitz in his rarely seen manuscript about riffle culling, Thanks to Zarrow, circa 1997/1998, which includes and builds on a Derek Dingle idea briefly described in The Complete Works of Derek Dingle by Richard Kaufman. Foundational work can be found in the two landmark Riffle Shuffle Control manuscripts of the era by Karl Fulves, circa 1995 and 1996; Part Two: Blocking Off includes some of the Scarne work. Good luck.

Returning to the advanced table work on the RAC video, Mr. Earl’s crediting of these ideas is mostly thorough, and Mr. Forte’s name, among others, is invoked on several occasions. And while these techniques have come increasingly to the fore in current card handling circles, even to be stylistically seen in the hands of casino dealers—because we are not just talking bout false techniques here, but simply about a style of genuine handling—they have rarely been explained as clearly as they are by Mr. Earl. While all of the techniques in Less is More and on Real Ace Cutting can be usefully and invaluably applied to any general tool kit of card technique, if you want to look like The Badass at the Card Table, live with this video for half a year of your life, and it might transform the look and feel of your work, whether or not you ever progress to the point of doing genuinely sophisticated shuffle work. And if you want to eventually do that work and make it look right, the techniques Mr. Earl describes will provide an excellent foundation. Above all, thoroughly studying and mastering these techniques comprise the pathway to achieving the ultimate intent of Ben Earl’s Real Ace Cutting.

The next video chapter is similarly useful, describing a variety of tabled revelations, but also delving into some sophisticated finesse, particularly with regard to “Cutting to a Step,” along with Tabled Double Undercuts, and some useful ideas for Bottom Card Revelations.

In considering the contents of Less is More, the book represents four manuscripts that were originally released over a period of several years, and that have been gathered, updated and expanded in this volume, along with ideas about Real Ace Cutting that Mr. Earl first publicly presented at The Session in 2009. These sections teach strong technical tools that are useful in the performance of the RAC, along with other commercial and practical routines. The ten pages of the concluding section that describes the RAC provide detailed thoughts on the rationale behind the routine and on Mr. Earl’s internal process in performing it. However, there is no detailed description of an actual complete execution of the routine.

Whereas all of that content is invaluable to any productive study of RAC, only in the video will you get to see five complete versions of the actual routine, in studio performance (solely for the camera). This, along with other content that is not included in the book, serves to make the video an invaluable companion to the text.

In my Take Two about Ben Earl, I referred to my appreciation for “his distinctive style of card handling. This is difficult to articulate in specific terms, but he combines a soft touch and expert precision with a note of muscular casualness—for lack of a better description—that yields a distinctive, individualized style.” Mr. Earl’s discussion of the role of physicality in his Neo-Movement manuscript, along with his detailed insights about the sensation of different styles of handling and revelations, indicates conclusively that what he has achieved in this area is no accident, and is the result of quite deliberate thought and determination over many years of effort. In fact, he opens Less is More with these words: “Magic performances have three major channels of expression: the technical act itself, the verbal presentation, and the physicality of the performer.”

These features and facets are thoroughly on display throughout the RAC video, and they are a pleasure to watch, consider, and attempt. I enjoyed reading the book and working through the material, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the video—an experience that for me at least rarely lasts the entire length of such productions. Both are filled with ideas that are creative, thoughtful, and provocative. Both are filled with techniques that are sophisticated, utilitarian, and well described, while being executed by an accomplished expert. And perhaps above all, the entire project is, at least for me, a truly fun one. The ideas are fun to think about, the techniques and effects are fun to practice. Whether or not one ends up in the same place as the author, there are plenty of marvelous and useful stops along the way, offering building blocks to better work, better magic, better performance. And that, in sum, amounts to what should truly be considered the real work—on the Real Ace Cutting, and much more.

Less is More by Benjamin Earl; 6" x 8" hardbound; 142 pages;  illustrated with more than seventy black and white photographs; 2017; forthcoming release. Real Ace Cutting DVD by Benjamin Earl; 2 hours, 10 minutes; forthcoming release. Both published by Vanishing Inc.


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The Lyons Den

Jamy Ian Swiss is a magician, performer, author and consultant. In the Lyons Den he offers honest, frank and insightful commentary on magic.

More about Jamy Ian Swiss. To submit material for review, or to send comments/feedback about the Lyons Den, contact lyonsden@magicana.com

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