Memorandum by Woody Aragón
Book Review by Jamy Ian Swiss
When it comes to card magic at the dawn of the twenty-first century, it’s the Spaniards’ world, and we just live in it. The first time I lectured in Spain, in 1991, I was astonished by the quantity and quality of young, studious, skilled card workers there were. Bouncing around the tapas bars in the alleys off the Ramblas in Barcelona in the late hours of the night, in each new locale a phone call would be made, and more young men with cards in their hands would show up to join in the conversation—and a well-informed and spirited conversation it invariably was. This is when I first met some of the as yet unknown younger generation of Spanish cardicians, such as Gabi Pareras, who were just beginning to follow in the wake of their mentors, Arturo de Ascanio and Juan Tamariz.
Twenty years later, in 2011, I lectured at the Neuromagic 2011 Conference on San Simón island in the north of Spain, along with Spanish magicians Luis Piedrahita, Miguel Ángel Gea, and Kiko Pastur. I then went on to lecture at a convention of the magicians of Galicia, attended by Miguel, Kiko, and a long list of other Spanish conjurors, and where I was reunited with my friend Gabi, now a highly regarded and influential conjuring artist in his own right.
There are reasons for the place of western international prominence that has been assumed by the Spanish School in the past quarter century, foremost the leadership and influence of aforementioned innovators and teachers like Ascanio and Tamariz (and others in South America, most prominently the late René Lavand). Why the U.S. and the rest of Western Europe have taken a back seat in creativity and influence is a more complicated question best left for another day. But it seems to me that the fact of Spain’s status is unarguable, and sleight-of-hand close-up magic in general, and card magic in particular, has gained dramatically from the influence of the Spanish School. This is not to suggest that the Spaniards arose from nothing; quite the contrary, as reflected extensively in the writings and teachings of Ascanio, Tamariz, and Giobbi, the creation of their artistic vision owes much to the previous influence and leadership of Dai Vernon and the Vernon school, if you will. It was Vernon who brought a revolutionary close analysis approach to sleight-of-hand close-up magic, which his own acolytes expanded upon and carried forward, as the Spanish school did and built upon as a foundation.
But now that the next generation behind Tamariz has matured, and begun to assume the Spanish mantle, the reach and spread of that influence becomes ever more apparent. A few decades ago it was invariably pointless to talk about who the next Vernon was going to be; a conversation, if it could be called that, that was mostly limited to ego thrashing among his most ambitious acolytes. But if one name has come to the fore as worthy of at least present day comparison, it would be Tamariz. Not because there will ever be another Vernon, not necessarily in the same breadth of range and reach—genius like that does not come along on a regular schedule—but nevertheless I think apt in light of one particular measure: namely, influence. There is no doubt that Tamariz has had a profound impact on the world of card magic in his own lifetime, and I don’t think we have anyone with whom to compare that depth of influence (if not necessarily breadth) except for Vernon before him.
And truly I find it remarkable to see the growing evidence of Tamariz’s impact, particularly of course when it comes to the memorized deck. While Simon Aronson’s output and influence is unarguable on this side of the Atlantic, followed by Michael Close who early on spread Aronson’s work further, Tamariz’s work has extended far and wide, and we see it increasingly reflected in the publication of serious and substantial books by those he has influenced, not only in Spain, but for example in German works by the likes of Pit Hartling and Denis Behr.
From Spain we see it in books like Thinking the Impossible by Ramón Riobóo (published in Spanish in 2002 and in English by Hermetic Press in 2012), along with numerous and varied works in Spanish and also on video by Dani DaOrtiz, along with Giobbi, Piedrahita, Gea, Pareras and others. And now in Woody Aragón’s latest book, Memorandum, following his outstanding 2011 volume, A Book in English.
Woody Aragón is an innovative thinker about card magic, deeply influenced by his mentor Tamariz, but like a number of these creative acolytes, he has developed a substantial body of original work, and is an accomplished performer in live venues and on television in his native Spain. Memorandum is Aragón’s label for his own personal stack, derived after years of experience with stacks and systems including Tamariz’s mnemonica, Aronson, Si Stebbins, mirror/stay stack, and so forth. Although the Tamariz and Aronson stacks have been overwhelmingly popular, with Tamariz clearly in the lead beyond American shores, increasingly, memdeck practitioners are being presented with a range of other options as creators present their personal deck arrangements to us, from David Berglas to Dani DaOrtiz among others. Indeed, in the September 2004 issue of Genii, where I reviewed the then newly released English edition of Mnemonica by Tamariz, I compared the two popular stacks, along with the features of a third stack that has still yet to be released, but which I spoke of there publicly for the first time (with the permission of its creator), namely the Tim Conover stack (which will be released likely in the next few years, whether as part of or separate from the massive Conover book being written by Eric Mead).
Now Sr. Aragón steps into the fray with his own offering, and it is indeed a substantial and compelling option. He has devised a stack that embraces many of the features of Tamariz’s mnemonica, including constructing the stack from new deck order and the ability to move from the stack into new deck order as a theatrical climax. But above and beyond such similarities, Aragón particularly focuses and expands on Tamariz’s groundbreaking work with the half-stack. Hence, within just the first 26 cards of memorandum can be found multiple poker deals; any hand called for (as per the Rusduck “Zens” stack); a Stay-Stack group of 15 cards; self-contained setups for routines including Matching the Cards, the Ten-Card Poker Deal, and more; spelling to a group of seven cards plus several more frequently named cards; and much more. The notion of including most frequently named cards, along with the four Aces and other advantageous cards all within the first 26 of the stack yields some valuable outcomes, including the fact that a tabled pack in memorandum half stack can be used to locate most named cards without ever touching the deck (experts may wish to consider the implications for Tamariz’s Mnemonicosis, a plot to which I will return).
Any student of memdeck work in general and particularly Tamariz’s mnemonica in particular will be familiar with the maestro’s ideas and approaches to managing and exploiting the half stack. Among many other benefits, it’s much easier to arrange 26 cards out in front of an audience, in the course of casual handling and performance, than it is to arrange 52. Also, you can genuinely shuffle, or hand out to shuffle, half the pack. You can, as Tamariz notoriously loves to do, engineer apparent accidents—dropping a few cards or as much as half the pack—in order to lead the audience to confident certainty that the entire deck is in random order. These benefits and more lay at the heart of Aragón’s explorations, but he has taken it further, and the results are excellent and at times utterly remarkable.
When it comes to devising tricks and routines with the half stack, Aragón is prolific. After providing some excellent tools and guidance for memorizing the stack in Chapter One (and along with Tamariz’s guidance in Mnemonica, I would encourage any memdeck beginner to look closely at Aragón’s training tips), Chapter 2 provides about 70 pages describing more than 14 routines. Many of these are gambling themed, that use gambling as plot devices rather than duplicating technical feats like demonstrations of specific skills of false dealing and such that are often part of the hard core gambling demo oeuvre. There are far more gambling themed routines here than any one performer would ever use, much less in a single performance, but the choices are interesting and varied, and some of the routines are simply outstanding. Difficult as it is to find clear and compelling gambling routines that feature Texas Hold ’em, for example, Sr. Aragón provides a killer performance piece on that theme, in which three cards are selected and lost in the pack, then the deck is shuffled and a game of Hold ’em is dealt. Explaining that the three community cards that comprising “the flop” are key to winning at Hold ’em and hence it is valuable to be able to control those cards, the performer deals four hands, and then when the flop comes, it consists of the three selections. This is a strong climax that would seem to end matters there. However the routine continues as the game unfolds; when “the turn” card is dealt and hands are turned up, it appears that the magician’s pocket Aces are now in trouble. But the magician makes good on “the river” with the help of a climactic magical transformation. This is an astonishingly simple routine to execute but it is a theatrical winner in my book. And yet there are many, many more such outstanding commercial mysteries to be found in the pages of Memorandum.
If you, like so many readers, were knocked out by “The Human Scale,” Aragón’s routine for Weighing the Cards in his previous book, A Book in English, you will likely be interested in his “Weighing the Cards Express” in Memorandum, a shorter routine but one that solves the problem of restoring the pack to order without forcing the spectator to deal and count the cards face-up.
The author spends five excellent and expert pages discussing an extremely useful and clever facet of the memorandum order, namely “Three Card Group Fishing.” This is almost too good to give away here, but this is something that appeals to me greatly because a routine along these lines has been a staple of my repertoire for many years. Baldly stated: “If you take three consecutive cards at any point in the stack, two of them will have the same color, and third will be the opposite color.” And in addition, there are only four possible orders of the two similar cards. (Much like the typical audience listening to a presentation at the Gathering For Gardner conference, a lot of you are in this moment disinterestedly skipping ahead, while a small handful of you have jumped out of your seat while issuing a spontaneous audible exclamation.) The author further explores this principle as it applies to the full-deck stack, along with a nicely visual presentation for standup and platform conditions.
Moving on from Chapter 2 and the half stack, in Chapter 3 the author gives the arrangement of cards from number 26 through 52, thus completing his stack, and provides 40 more pages of routines, more than half a dozen, including another bounty of gambling themed material. Chapter 4 describes several routines that are not “stack dependent”—meaning they can be achieved with any stack—including one of Sr. Aragón’s pet effects, an impromptu—or perhaps semi-impromptu is more accurate—version of the story deck routine (in the tradition of Sam the Bellhop). This challenging idea is not new, but Sr. Aragón is genuinely accomplished in this feat, and has a great deal of real world guidance to offer to those interested in tacking up the challenge of mastering this tricky performance piece.
We are now more than 200 pages into the book, and some would say that the best is yet to come. And that best, it seems to me, is arrived at in Chapter 4, and dubbed by Sr. Aragón: The Siamese Deck.’
An idea often associated with Eddie Joseph as the method for the trick, “Premonition” (a version of the plot in which a named card is discovered to be the only card missing from the deck), the principle behind the Siamese Deck actually dates back to Hofzsiner, in which the deck consists of two duplicate stacks of 26 cards; in other words, 1 through 26 followed by a second set of 1 through 26 in the same order.
The implications are profound, and Sr. Aragón’s explorations are fascinating and inspired. By having instantaneous access to a duplicate, approaches to plots from Ambitious Card to Card to Wallet to Torn and Restored Card and more can be looked at in fresh new ways. There are divinations, locations, forces, and much more. After a section of principles, management tools, and general applications, there follow more than ten tricks exploiting the principle, and this brief overview does little justice to the power of some of these routines, the final two of which are worthy of any expert professional use. “Entry Phone” describes an approach to Tamariz’s Mnemonicosis Over the Phone, an expert level routine to be sure, and those few who perform the piece professionally may well find Sr. Aragón’s version a viable alternative, one that presents two possible outcomes, both of which are extremely strong: the first in which a card included in 1 through 26 is named, which is then arrived at via Tamariz’s improvisational approach (and it’s worth mentioning that of course Tamariz has previously discussed half-stack approaches to this iconic plot); and the second in which a card that falls within 26 through 52 is named, in which case the effect changes—in equally miraculous and assuredly practical manner—that puts to use a diabolical but rarely noticed tool of Adrian Guerra (aka Ramblar). (I’m a longtime fan of this technique and its creator.)
This is followed by “Tele-Triumph,” which the author used for some years as a closing routine, including for a competition act in 2002, and could well serve as a powerful closer for any close-up card act. This is a two-part routine consisting of an extremely convincing multi-step sequence in which the cards are repeatedly shuffled and clearly displayed as a mix of face-up and face-down cards (and they are!), and then, after restoring the pack a la Triumph for the first climax, you then reveal that despite all the apparently random shuffling, the pack is now completely arranged in new-deck order. This is a feature of the memorandum stack (as well as of mnemonica of course), but this routine is a fabulous way to exploit that aspect and utilize it as a theatrical and impossibly magical climax.
But our delightfully obsessive and creative guide is not quite done. Chapter 5 discusses how to utilize aspects of both the Tamariz and Aronson stacks within the frame of Aragón’s memorandum. In short, both mnemonica and memorandum are based on the fourth in-faro from new deck order, and the only significant difference is an exchange of the two black suits between the two stacks. So virtually any stack-specific trick described for mnemonica can be readily accomplished with memorandum.
But that’s not all. Sr. Aragón is also a student and fan of the Aronson stack. And so he has seen fit to include similar versions of Aronson’s three poker routines (Draw, Stud, and Ten Card) in memorandum, along with a similar section of spelling revelations, a version of the (previously mentioned) Any Hand Called For, and a no-trump Bridge deal (which is trivial of course since you can readily get to new deck order).
The final chapter, Chapter 6, provides a number of technical tools and techniques for working with the memdeck. The author’s “My Favourite False Shuffle” is in fact a small variant on a shuffle that has been kicked around both below and above ground for years, attached to a somewhat disputed credit history that is varyingly associated with the names of Dai Vernon, Persi Diaconis, and Gordon Bruce. For credit buffs, in short, Sr. Aragón’s researches lead him to attribute the technique (a false overhand shuffle of sorts) to Gordon Bruce.
In the first page of his book, the author clearly states that “This isn’t a book about the mem deck, bur rather it is about my work on the mem deck.” [Emphasis per original.] In this manner he distinguishes Memorandum from Tamariz’s Mnemonica, which is borderline encyclopedic in scope, venturing above and beyond the wealth of stack-specific and original material that volume contains. It’s a well-advised proviso, yet I believe Memorandum will be useful to many memdeck practitioners regardless of whatever stack they happen to use, not only because so much of the contents is not stack specific, but because there is such a wealth of material based on the half stack and the Siamese stack.
What’s more, the experienced and attentive reader will doubtless benefit from the useful tidbits, tools, finesses, and utility strategies strewn throughout its pages. A subtle technique drawn from Hoffman’s Modern Magic turns out to be a superb finesse for the thought-of card force in which the cards are presented by being spread with the faces in the spectator’s view. A technique for crimping a key card openly in front of the audience for use as a stack key is ingeniously utilitarian. And the book is illustrated throughout with clever images and phrases to facilitate memorizing the stack, a particularly helpful element to any memdeck beginner. Each is illustrated with an appropriate cartoon images; here’s a sample of the text for #50, the Queen of Clubs (emphasis per original):
“Queenie, the Queen of Clubs, can’t drive faster than 50 miles per hour, because she’s 50 years old and has bad eyesight because she did too much clubbing when she was younger.”
Some of these will garner a laugh even from readers who don’t need them or don’t intend to memorize the memorandum order.
I’ve used the memorized deck in much of my work, both in close-up and on platform and stage, for many years now, and I tend to use it in some form or another almost every time I have a deck of cards in my hands. I’ve improvised with it on national television, I’ve held three-day seminars, given lectures, and published original material. When I opened the first session of the three-day “Stack Clinic” seminar I held in Las Vegas in 2004 with Michael Close as my co-presenter, I began by saying that “Memorized deck work lets you use everything you know.” This is an important aspect of this kind of magic, and one of its pleasures and powers. If you are given toward mathematical methods with a minimum of technical demands, you can find plenty of fodder with a memorized deck. If you like to practice and have a large repertoire of sleights, you can find an abundance of ways to put those skills to use with a stack in your hand. If you are a creative scriptwriter and performer, you can find a deep array of interesting and varied material upon which to build creative presentations.
I say this because I am not fascinated by every aspect of memorized deck work. There is much in the literature that does not particularly interest me. I don’t much care for coincidence effects or Stay Stack methods. I don’t much like routines in which you have to deal a lot of cards. I mostly avoid routines that destroy the stack. I am allergic to the words “reverse Faro.”
But there is plenty that I love, plenty that fascinates me, plenty that I put to use on a regular basis, plenty that I enjoy putting to use in order to routinely fry the brains of smart and attentive audiences.
And given that perspective, given my interests and disinterests alike, I thoroughly enjoyed studying Memorandum by Woody Aragón. Within its pages there are ideas and elements that I can readily apply to my own existing work. There’s still more I would be inclined to study and consider adding in the future. And at the same time, there’s also plenty of material that falls within the areas of memdeck work that I personally may not care much for or about—which means that since your tastes may vary from mine, one way or another most any reader is likely to enjoy and garner substantial benefit from this work.
Also, if I was considering selecting a first-time stack, or a new upgrade, I would, in all sincerity, seriously consider memorandum as my choice, thanks to the many practical and significant features and advantages it has to offer. (Then again, I would also consider the Conover stack, which also echoes features of mnemonica, but includes the distinctly valuable ability to convert to Si Stebbins!) And while I don’t think I need to change stacks from the one I’ve been using for close to twenty years, I’ll repeat that, without doubt, there are ideas presented that I can use to expand and improve on my own longstanding work and experience. That, too, doesn’t come along every day.
The memorized deck is a powerful and endlessly fascinating tool, with a tradition of use that goes back centuries. But we live in the greatest times in the history of magic for exploiting its opportunities. Please maintain and respect its secrecy and power, and do not let your familiarity with it breed contempt or encourage its casual abuse. The tools you need are being handed to you on the proverbial platter. Treat them respectfully, and use them well. Commit to studying a book like Memorandum in earnest, and if you learn its lessons well, then go forth and demolish minds.
Memorandum by Woody Aragón - 10” x 7” laminated hardcover; 383 pages; illustrated with photographs; published by the author; 2017; Price: $59.95