The 2012 World Championship of Magic opens Monday in the famed British resort of Blackpool. Held every three years, it is a secretive affair that attracts, as one novice discovered, a very tough crowd.
In the foyer of a hotel in downtown Stockholm, a stunning 22-year-old Belgian girl with dark brown eyes and long chestnut curls had attracted a small crowd. She held an ace in each hand, and as she twirled her arms through the air, the cards transformed into kings.
The audience had seen this sort of thing before – but then, in one fluid sequence, she coiled her wrists again and the kings became queens. The energy in the room quickened as her arms snaked through the air like a flamenco dancer’s – once, twice – and the queens faded into jacks, then tens. The people around her began to cheer. Another whirl and the tens turned into jokers. She is one of a few magicians in the world who can pull off five transformations in a row, and the audience was now crazy for her.
Toward the back of the lobby, a florid man in a black pork-pie hat demoed a shell game – that age-old swindle with three hollowed-out shells and a pea. In the corner by the entrance, a gaggle of teenagers in red lounge chairs were performing an acrobatic kung-fu of card stunts known as “extreme card manipulation” – a flurry of cuts, spins and flourishes. In the hands of these kids, the cards became pyramids and snowflakes, whorled mollusk spirals, mandalas of cycling angels. There were the mentalists – mind readers, spoon benders, second-sight acts. Everywhere you looked men and women were sharing secrets, trading moves. I clutched a worn deck of blue Bicycle cards in my fist and drank in the scene.
We were all in Stockholm for the 2006 World Championships of Magic, otherwise known as the Magic Olympics. Every three years, the greatest conjurors from around the globe descend on a chosen city, armed with their most jealously guarded secrets, and duke it out, trick for trick, to see who among them is most powerful.
The 23rd Olympics in Stockholm were the biggest in history, with nearly 3,000 attendees from 66 countries and 146 competitors vying for medals in eight events. This year, I was one of the challengers.
Given that the Olympics is by far the toughest magic competition in the world, getting into the Games at all was something of a miracle. To be eligible, you must belong to one of the 87 magic societies sanctioned by the Fédération internationale des sociétés magiques, or FISM, the world’s largest and most prestigious magic alliance. The United States has three, including the Society of American Magicians, or the SAM (“Magic, Unity, Might!”), of which I am a card-carrying member.
The entrant must also obtain written authorization from the president of his or her society, and having never competed in an international tournament – or any tournament, for that matter– I had been all but certain that SAM president Richard M. Dooley would reject me outright. I was stunned when he wrote back a week after I sent in my request wishing me luck.
I would need it.
Events at the Magic Olympics fall into two main categories: stage magic and close-up magic, reflecting a long-standing division within the art. A Grand Prix medal is awarded at the conclusion of the week-long games to the top performer in each category, upon whom is bestowed the title “World Champion of Magic,” along with membership in the elite World Champions Club and career-making contracts at such venues as the Greek Isles Hotel in Las Vegas, the Palladium in London and the Crazy Horse in Paris.
My specialty is close-up, or what Europeans call micro magic, a school of conjuring that dispenses with the bisected showgirls and materializing fowl of stage illusions in favour of intimate effects using small, unassuming props: cards, coins, cups, balls, rings, ropes, rubber bands, thimbles, and cutlery – the kind of magic that happens right under your nose.