Review by Jamy Ian Swiss
In my many years as an amateur magician, from my seventh year to my twenty-ninth, I had long thought that talent was a relative rarity—a special gift of sorts. But early in my dawning career as a mid-life professional, in a seminal conversation over a meal, Teller offered a then surprising observation, the truth of which I have returned to countless times over the years.
Talent is commonplace: taste is rare.
And this thought comes to mind yet again today as I sit down to write this review. Because …
Denis Behr has taste.
Since I read his first book Handcrafted Card Magic (reviewed in Genii, September 2007), I’ve gradually become a genuine fan of this soft-spoken, sly, smart, expert sleight-of-hand artist from Germany. A cardician to the core, he is also a scholar of the literature, an IT professional in web development, and an accomplished part-time professional performer who has created not one, but two remarkable online resources for the world of magic. One of those is the Conjuring Archive, which offers a completely searchable archive of the contents of (at this writing) 1,618 publications, indexed with 73,993 entries. The other is Conjuring Credits, wherein “the history and origins of magical sleights, plots and concepts are examined and traced back to their known origins.” For authors and historians of the published record like myself, Behr’s resources provide priceless value in time, effort, and access to a range of knowledge and expertise previously stored in the brains of a small coterie of hard-core enthusiasts. Performing artists can now research any plot—major or minor—and glean the benefits of studying the work of their predecessors, before they set out to develop their own approach. And creators, writers and publishers can check the record more easily to make certain that they are not mistakenly claiming, or granting, credit for creative work belonging to others. (Of course, this won’t stop the lazy from continuing to do just that, and in an ever-increasing flood. But we can always hope.)
If you haven’t yet consulted these two amazing websites, I encourage you to go and browse them. I think it a rare student who might wade around in the shallows there and resist getting swept away into such glorious currents. The cleanliness and simplicity of the design is a distinct feature, as is the automatic linking from Conjuring Credits citations to the Ask Alexander site, the digital archives of the Conjuring Arts Research Center, representing a library of 11,000 book and magazine titles, including works from the 15th century to the present.
And, if nothing else, every time you go to the home page of the Conjuring Archive, you are likely to discover an ever-changing guffaw-producing quote from the literature—carefully mined by Behr himself, who has an eye for such finds—both intentionally and unintentionally risible, an abundance of which come from what may amount to the world’s closest reading of the published record of Karl Fulves. And not all of these well-chosen epigrams are humorous; many amount to cleverly selected, artistically provocative thought bombs.
Which brings me back to where I began, because these sites, those epigrams, that design, all reflect not only talent, intelligence, and a remarkable work ethic, but perhaps above all—taste. Denis Behr is a man possessed of exceedingly good taste. And we get to be the beneficiaries. (He also an accomplished amateur pâtissière, as his appetizing Instagram account attests.)
Handcrafted Card Magic, Volume 3
Handcrafted Card Magic, Volume 3 is the third volume in a trilogy of books that perfectly reflect the author’s particular taste in card magic. Each compact and cleanly designed volume—written and illustrated with clear line drawings by the author, ever reminding me of the invariable superiority of good drawings over photographs—consists of six or seven routines, along with a chapter or two of technical tools. The material ranges from commercial card discoveries, to sleight-free mathematical mysteries, to knuckle-busting sleight-of-hand wonders, to extended and entertaining gambling-themed routines, to state-of-the-art memorized deck methods and effects. Every routine in these books has a clear raison d'être. This is not yet another dreary, flavorless mush of minor variations and untested novelties spewed upon the universe for the self-aggrandizement of the author. Rather, every entry in this volume, along with its progenitors, serves a valid purpose, be it to find a home in a wide range of potential repertoires, instruct and educate attentive students, inspire new and varied applications of the tools provided—or simply to engage and entertain attentive readers with the fascinating revelations found in the footnoted credits. The truth is, when I open these books, I read those credits first, because with Behr’s work, I am virtually assured the pleasant experience of discovering something I didn’t know.
This third volume opens with a foreword by none other than David Williamson, who points out that while Behr is not a full-time pro, he “performs close-up magic for the lay public on a regular basis. He has clocked hundreds if not thousands of hours actually performing for real people.” Full evidence of this is further provided in the DVD set I’ll discuss later in this review.
The reader then proceeds to Routined Arith-Mate-ic, a mystifying, multi-phase, sleight-free routine based on a clever prearrangement from Alex Elmsley, in which a significant amount of cutting and dealing, some of which is genuinely random and the rest of which appears to be, results in an impenetrable sequence of outcomes. And, what’s more is that Behr, along with his frequent cohort Pit Hartling, have devised a way to get into the requisite preset directly from Tamariz’s Mnemonica stack—in essence, rendering the routine practically impromptu for Mnemonica users.
Behr’s Extended Gambling Demonstration builds further on a routine from his first book, which in turn was built on Darwin Ortiz’s Ultimate Card Shark, one of the premiere multi-phase gambling routines in the contemporary literature (and for completion, the Ortiz routine, which first appeared in 1988 in Darwin Ortiz at the Card Table, was based on Marlo’s Power Poker routines). Behr’s current routine consists of three progressive stages, all of which are logical and readily understandable, even by non-gamblers. While the work is far from easy, the clever combination of method and routining will go far in establishing any performer as a bona fide cheating expert. The three phases consist of apparently Riffle Culling to a freely named four-of-a-kind, followed by stacking a freely chosen Royal Flush and dealing it to a selected hand. Then, upon further shuffling, the performer deals the remainder of the suit into the same pile, whereupon three bridge hands are revealed to have been stacked and dealt in numerical order.
Those familiar with the original Ortiz routine will recognize that the middle phase—using the future bridge deal for the separate preceding effect of apparently stacking a named Royal Flush into a chosen hand—amounts to an exceedingly clever performance addition requiring little or no additional effort. The routine also features a presentational touch of José Carroll’s that makes the Riffle Stacking demo even more engaging, and clear, to a lay audience. But what I find particularly thought-provoking about Behr’s performance of this routine (as seen in the DVD set) is that, while he uses a great deal of expert level gambling material in his work, he never adopts the pretense of a character who lives amid a culture of potentially criminal card cheats—much less someone who might ever utilize such skills to his own advantage in a real game. Rather, the material is presented in a good-humored, expert, but almost academic fashion, as if to say, “Here’s something I’ve learned because it’s interesting and fun, and I’d like to share it with you because you may also find it interesting and fun.” And that, quite simply, is about that—and my goodness, he wears this eminently tasteful approach quite well. There is none of the underlying arrogance that one often comes across with gambling specialists, nor is there the admittedly interesting note of someone who lives amid a mysterious subculture. Instead, here’s a nice guy who wants to show you something awfully neat, which is fabulously clever and clearly difficult. Performers interested in this kind of material might want to consider this aspect of Behr’s work closely.
Next comes Mating Season, a multi-phase matching routine producing effects of utterly masterful card control; this incorporates groundbreaking ideas from Ed Marlo and includes a clever final phase element from Harry Riser. The routine exploits a stacked deck that the author refers to as the Power Stack, related to a Mirror Stack but different in that the second set of twenty-six mates is in duplicate, rather than reverse order. Behr also provides an efficient way to reach Power Stack from Mnemonica.
The Dark Force is a test-condition force in which the selection process is made in the spectator’s hands with the deck out of view, either beneath the table or behind his back, but that does not rely on better-known, recent solutions for such a procedure. If you witness this without being privy to the secret, it will fool you badly.
The force is followed by a chapter on the Bottom Deal that relies upon my own longtime, favorite handling, based on Ed Marlo’s Block Control Bottom Deal, and for which the author has devised another way to deceptively get into position. Please now forget I mentioned any of this.
Mr. Luckiest is a terrific, extended routine of Mr. Lucky, which comes from Darwin Ortiz’s second book Cardshark. This is a perfect—and I do mean utterly perfect—impromptu gambling demo where, after the spectator shuffles the deck, the performer deals a freely named number of hands, with the Aces falling to himself. Then the spectator shuffles again, and this time the performer deals himself a Royal Flush. The first phase has always been a pet effect of mine—a fairly obvious and simple idea—for use in impromptu circumstances. But I kick myself for never having thought of combining it with this second phase. This is a killer, real-world gambling quickie. (Of countless impromptu gambling routines, one unheralded treasure, in my opinion, is J.C. Wagner's Sweepstack from The Commercial Magic of J.C. Wagner.)
Photographic Memory is a pseudo deck-memorization routine with three increasingly impressive phases, requiring a gimmicked memdeck that produces extremely convincing results.
The More the Merrier is yet another version of the Multiple Selection plot. And yes, it’s another version of a well-worn plot, but in my opinion, it is also among the two or three best that I’ve come across. This routine features an extremely fair losing of the initial selections, based on an approach that was independently devised by the late Tim Conover (which thus far remains unpublished) and by Helder Guimarães, who published it in a small book offered at a price I swiftly declined to pay. Each of these three versions approach the selection process a bit differently and the revelations are entirely up to the individual performer, but I think Behr’s handling is particularly fair and mystifying. This routine is worth more than the price of the book alone to performers who put it in their repertoire, and the skills required are not overly demanding.
The book concludes with its most elaborate mechanical methodology, and likely strongest commercial effect: Haunted Herbert, a terrific handling of the Haunted Pack, based on a method by Edward Victor from the Forties, and coupled with Behr’s hands and a charming presentation involving his imaginary performing partner, Herbert the Trained Rubber Band (who, by the way, has his own Facebook page. Full disclosure: I’m a fan and a friend). There’s some effort required for this, but any professional worker who understands the power of Al Baker’s Pack that Cuts Itself will be more than willing to undertake it. The handling Behr has worked out provides a superbly clean and extremely deceptive effect, where the deck animates not once, but three times, in order to reveal four different cards—in this case, a selection and its three mates. This multiple cutting sequence goes back to a routine first created and marketed by Louis Tannen, and then later made famous by Finn Jon in his neoclassic routine marketed by Ken Brooke called Esoteric.
In September 2007, I began my review of the first volume Denis Behr’s trilogy thusly:
Handcrafted Card Magic is the perfectly apt title for this debut book by German cardician Denis Behr. While the marketplace piles up with instantly downloadable e-books that seem to take longer to download than they do to write—and are forgotten in even less time than that—Mr. Behr presents us with something very different. This is a book that not only justifies its existence by means of innovative material and original thinking, but which represents the mind of a thoughtful and tasteful creator who pays attention to myriad tiny details that can make all the difference between mediocre magic and beautiful illusions.
I notice now my own invocation of the word “taste” in those words, and I can pay little greater compliment to the book at hand other than to say it continues, in every respect, in the model so admirably established in the author’s preceding two volumes of the trilogy. I recommend them all highly to anyone interested in the study of, quite simply, excellent and significant card magic.
Magic On Tap
I don’t really know who has time to routinely watch three- and four-disc DVD instructional magic sets. I seem to not be one of those people. Instructional magic videos mostly continue to frustrate me, decades after their introduction as a magic teaching medium. Those that are badly produced, featuring poor material by lousy instructors entirely aside, the time it takes to plod through video instruction, even when presented by strong creators and performers, still pales in comparison to the detail that can be found in quality, written descriptions. Despite the improvements made in video production quality seen in recent years, I would much rather read a good magic book than watch a good instructional video, and limit my viewing of magic video to the appreciation and enjoyment of good and interesting performances.
Thus, most such discs pile up on my shelves, unopened, despite them being sent by friends and colleagues, provided for review, or even ordered and purchased by me out of genuine desire and interest. But, because Mr. Behr writes the kind of magic books I love to read—well-written, well-illustrated with line drawings, detailing highly select choices of extremely useable material—I was curious to see what his four-disc DVD set, Magic on Tap, would be like. And somehow, I managed to sit down and watch the entirety over the course of one week.
I confess that while it was challenging to set the time aside—I don’t know how video reviewers manage it!—I enjoyed the experience. Not long ago, Denis explained to me that he performs regularly at the lovely, eighty-seat Alexander Krist Theater in Munich, a venue that features formal close-up magic. In these performances he presents a two-hour (with intermission) show comprised entirely of card magic. What’s more, due to the continuing success of these shows and in order to accommodate return patrons, he recently created a second, entirely different set, which he also performs regularly at the same venue. I was very curious to get a taste of just what these shows might be like. I’ve been doing formal performances consisting mostly, but not entirely, of card magic since the mid-Eighties, and while I’ve seen such performances by others, including Juan Tamariz and Ricky Jay, David Ben and Asi Wind, I think it’s a rare individual who can truly sustain audience engagement for such a long duration, with a sufficient variety and texture of both material and persona, along with some sense of structure and pacing.
Denis Behr is clearly one of those rare individuals. But he achieves his success with a character and performing style that is far less eccentric and energetic than the handful of significant peers and predecessors. He is, one might say, a “magic first” kind of magician; persona and presentation are always present, but never in the way of the focus on and impact of the magic, which is always held front and center.
One of his most potent tools in this achievement, I dare say, is taste. You can learn skill, you can learn the craft of performance, you can (with greater difficulty, perhaps) learn to write, but taste is extremely difficult to learn, or to teach. Such a task requires a degree of genuine open-mindedness and curiosity that few among those in need of such schooling actually possess—being armored against any invasions of better taste by a wealth of ego, defensiveness, self confidence and bravado that keep their own bad taste firmly entrenched and preserved.
But somewhere along the way, Denis Behr developed quite a good sense of taste, and this is reflected in every aspect of his performance. From his soft-spoken, sincerely humble and ever good-humored persona, to his utterly expert choices and execution of sleight-of-hand technique, to his smart selection of material, to his wide range of presentational themes. He’s a pleasure to watch, both to learn from, and to celebrate. His consistently superb choices, in every one of these aspects, contribute to building a complete performance. Between the polar extremes we all too often see in magic—banal cooking show exposition at one end, turgid story narrative at the other—Denis Behr has found an elegant center, demonstrating the power of good magic, tastefully presented.
Disc One of the set consists of a seventy-minute show recorded at the Krist Theater. While Behr typically performs there in German, everything in this set is presented in his excellent English. It should be noted, however, that the show is not one he regularly performs at the Krist. Rather, it is a show he constructed specially for the purpose of this video set, showcasing a range of material drawn from all three of his books.
The show begins with the Brute Force Opening from the first book. This is the kind of commercial opener that most pros develop, and stick with, throughout their careers—routines that are surprising, and that quickly establish the performer’s credentials with the audience. Brute Force is quite simply a terrific routine that any performer could depend on in making a living. It also sets the stage with its rich range of expert sleight-of-hand choices and finesses, one of the greatest benefits that this video set offers to serious students. His choice of and notes on classic elements like the Downs/Marlo Deliberate Side Steal; the Cy Endfield psychological touch on the Peek selection process; the Marlo Card-from-Box production (along with a brilliant touch of Behr’s); along with modern additions like the Asher Twist as a cleanup; the Ernest Earick Convincing Control—are all choices and details that add up to what expert card magic is really about.
The King Thing is one of the few routines that does not appear in any of the books but is thoroughly explained on Disc Two, which, along with Disc Three, provides explanations for nine out of the eleven routines presented in the show. King Thing is a multi-phase routine that involves a Twisting the Aces sequence with four-of-a-kind, a transformation of the four-of-a-kind to four identical matches of a previously selected card, and finally a surprising transposition between the four cards and an unidentified previously isolated (in the card box) card.
This is the type of routine that requires a particular kind of performer to present with conviction, much less make it entertaining. I am not that performer—but you might be, and Behr certainly is. He manages to keep the lengthy routine interesting, engaging, and entertaining, all the while thoroughly mystifying—a list of facets that applies more or less to his entire repertoire. Although it’s doubtless I would ever utilize a routine like this, which can too readily become all about the props and not at all about the audience, I nevertheless completely enjoyed Behr’s thorough explanation. Since the routine involves a whole range of technical choices—the kind of choices that most cardicians need but the specifics of which vary from individual to individual—I was both interested and gratified by Behr’s choices. For example, he introduces a Norm Houghton Diminishing Lift sequence and a follow-up display sequence that are different than those I use myself, yet interesting and unarguably useful—and, well, tasteful—options, that could readily find valuable use in any serious card worker’s technical repertoire. In this routine and throughout the four discs, I found his touches on false counts, displays, controls, palms, packet switches, false cuts, false deals, false shuffles and other utility moves to be invariably expert and interesting. While current trends in publications and downloads drown us in novelty-before-function moves, I strongly believe that card workers aiming to up their game can do nothing but improve by studying the tools inherent in Behr’s well thought-out choices.
In the Disc One show, Behr also performs: Shuffled ACAAN from Handcrafted Card Magic, Volume Two; Herbert—the Trained Rubber Band (a version of Hiro Sakai’s Band On the Run card revelation with a rubber-banded deck); Mating Season from Volume Three as described earlier; Magic Monthly from the first Handcrafted Card Magic, a two-phase production of a four-of-a-kind that, unlike most such productions, is accompanied by an effective presentation with a nicely personalized emotional hook; and a superb multi-phase six-card and full-deck Oil & Water routine, incorporating an excellent handling of Angelo Carbone’s novel climax in which the six cards are riveted together—in Behr’s version, done in real time in front of the audience—and yet still manage to separate. (If you seek an Oil & Water routine with real audience appeal, this might be the one.)
This is followed by a performance-only series of effects: Photographic Memory, as described above from Volume Three; The Tantalizer, a self-working trick from the first book (based on a routine from Hugard and Braue’s The Royal Road to Card Magic) that Behr puts to double use for memdeck applications; the Extended Gambling Routine from Volume Three as discussed previously; and finally, Stop It, which is not explained in the videos but is described in Handcrafted Card Magic, Volume Two.
Since, as I have previously confessed, I enjoy video particularly for the purpose of watching performers, this first disc is my personal favorite of the set. Behr makes his work look disarmingly simple, while in reality it is anything but. And I find his performing choices thought-provoking to say the least, thanks to his ability to create shows with such a wide range of material type and presentational strategies. Consider the entire repertoire in this sequence of brief summaries: Brute Force Opening is classical interactive card magic with quick and direct effects, the kind of magic Eddie Fechter did and loved. The King Thing is a complex, multi-layered routine filled with little plot turns and a bucket-load of false counts, displays, and palms. Shuffled ACAAN is, by definition, an intellectual plot (long identified with Al Baker, but for which Behr has located a surprising earlier credit)—a favorite of Juan Tamariz’s and other memdeck masters, which, in Behr’s presentation, is rendered into a deceptive and entertaining mystery. This classic of memdeck work is then followed by the complete theatrical opposite, namely the Herbert routine, a fanciful bit of deadpan humor that raises a clever single-card revelation to a memorable and delightful performance piece—something few individuals can pull off. Mating Season is a multi-phase matching routine; Magic Monthly is a well presented four-of-a-kind production; Oil & Water is an appealing and mysterious multi-phase routine; Tantalizer is a self-worker that serves invaluable service to a careful memdeck and stacked-deck routiner like Behr; the Expanded Gambling Demonstration is an astounding demonstration of other-worldly cheating skills; and Stop It, presented as an encore, will just plain fool you.
The challenge that all this presents me with is this: while it is one thing to say that this kind of range of material and presentation is exactly what makes it possible for Behr to effectively perform long shows constructed entirely of card magic, is it not potentially jarring and disorderly to shift from training a personified rubber band to demonstrating masterly feats of card cheating? For me, I have always tended to keep gambling material, much as I enjoy practicing and performing it, far apart from conjuring material, rarely mixing the two in the same program—a reflection of my belief that explicit display and discussion of skill distract from and diminish the audience's experience of magic. But Behr routinely combines the two, effectively and successfully. And there is nothing better than watching a talented artist challenge one’s own longstanding assumptions and beliefs.
Discs Two and Three provide explanations of most of the Disc One show, with two exceptions, both of which can be found elsewhere in Behr’s books. Disc Three adds a performance and explanation of Messy, indeed an extremely messy Triumph-type routine created by Behr and Hartling, and previously described in Volume Two of the Handcrafted trilogy. His crediting throughout is as thorough and interesting as it is in his books, and I am repeatedly delighted by his holding up source publications for display, as often as not some casually displayed first-edition Marlo manuscript or other such oddball rarity.
Also on Disc Three, Behr provides a detailed explanation of the Strip Out Shuffle, which will be invaluable to those trying to improve such work beyond the Zarrow Shuffle and Push Through Shuffle, the latter being a technique he also briefly discusses. A second encore piece from the show, partly involving the vanish of a large quantity of beer, is not explained (but I think I figured out most of it: he drinks it).
These explanations are competent and detailed, but suffer from the restrictions of most commercial magic DVDs, in that the explanations, while accurate, are rarely thorough, given the pressures of time, and perhaps the interest level of the viewing audience, the majority of which quite possibly being more interested in collecting secrets than actually learning how to expertly perform sleight-of-hand magic. I say this not as criticism of Behr, who is a far more articulate and precise explainer than most, but rather as a comment on the form. I defy anyone to become an expert master of sophisticated sleights like Vernon’s Topping the Deck or the Erdnase Top Palm, based merely on studying such limited video descriptions. Expert sleight of hand is harder than that. The details one can discover about Vernon’s Top Palm—one of the single greatest sleights in all of card magic—can only be thoroughly parsed out by studying a variety of the key written descriptions, beginning with Vernon’s own in Select Secrets, along with those by Lewis Ganson, Stephen Minch, and Roberto Giobbi. Yet no instructor will look into the camera and say, “You cannot master this sleight from this all-too-brief description!”
None of which is intended to deny the invaluable benefit of being able to watch sleights expertly executed, a goal students used to have to seek out in magic shops, live lectures (the ones where you get to ask a question), and conventions. And when an instructor drills down on particular techniques and invests sufficient time and an adequate number of camera angles—as Behr does in the case of the Strip Out Shuffle—there can be much value. However, I am reminded by this viewing that while video instruction can play a valuable role, it will never be an effective substitute for those who wish not to become merely passable, but rather, truly expert. In short, in my requisite old-man-yells-at-passing-cloud installment of the day: Nobody ever became a concert violinist by watching TV.
Finally, Disc Four records a more casual and impromptu performance, over beers in the restaurant at the Beer and Oktoberfest Museum in Munich, in which we get to watch Behr perform eight routines for an intimate audience of three bystanders sitting at a table with the magician—and without even so much as a close-up pad. It’s enjoyable and useful to see that Behr does not require the formality of the Krist Theater in order to put some of his material to use and to make it effective in casual circumstances—a demonstration that some students will, doubtlessly, find instructive. Three of these routines are explained on Discs Two or Three, and the remaining five, all of which appear amid his three books, are explained in the course of the fourth DVD.
And so, there you have it.
Five hours and forty-six minutes of watching four DVDs, along with reading a ninety-two page book equipped with fifty-five fabulous footnotes. (Did I mention the footnotes? I loved the footnotes!) I enthusiastically recommend all three volumes of Handcrafted Card Magic by Denis Behr, and, as an entertaining and instructional accompaniment, the four-volume DVD set, Magic on Tap.
It may be damnably difficult to learn what good taste is, but there’s a chance that the time you spend with Denis Behr might well lend an open-minded and curious student a very helpful hand.
Handcrafted Card Magic, Volume 3—by Denis Behr. Hardbound with dustjacket, 5.8 x 8.3 inches, 92 pages, illustrated with 85 line drawings, 2018; published by the author. Price: $45
Magic on Tap—Denis Behr. Four DVDs or as a download, 17 routines, 5 hours 46 minutes, English, German subtitles available, 2018, produced by Vanishing Inc. Price: $75
Both available from Denis Behr, or your favorite dealer.
Some Magic on Tap
Here are two video trailers for Magic on Tap, in the second of which you can see a full performance of and by Herbert the Trained Rubber Band.
Magic on Tap Trailer
Magic on Tap (4 DVD set) by Denis Behr