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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.

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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.

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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.

The close-up prelims would be staged in a 280-seat Vernon Room, named after the most influential sleight-of-hand expert of the 20th century, The Man Who Fooled Houdini. The story is legend. At the height of his career, Houdini boasted that no man could fool him three times with the same trick. Magic, of course, relies heavily on the element of surprise, and even the greenest conjuror knows never to repeat an effect for the same audience. ("Once is a trick, twice is a lesson," goes an old saying.)

Years passed, and the challenge went unmet. Then, one night in 1922, during a SAM dinner held in Houdini's honour in Chicago, Dai Vernon, at the time a complete unknown, drew a pack of Aristocrats from his coat pocket and executed a deceptively simple version of the Ambitious Card routine, in which a signed card returns to the top of the deck after being placed in the middle.

Ringed by his disciples in the mirrored banquet hall, the man who had proclaimed himself the greatest magician in the world blanched in disbelief. Houdini was stumped.

Vernon repeated the effect no fewer than seven times before Houdini and his wife walked out in defeat. Ever since that night, the Professor, as Vernon came to be known, has held an exalted place in the foolers' pantheon, and the Ambitious Card, often called the perfect trick, remains a staple of virtually every magician's repertoire, including my own.

The fortune of a Magic Olympics hopeful rises or falls on the strength of his routine, a five-to-10-minute act performed before a panel of eight judges. It's a lot like figure skating. Marks are handed out for technical skill, originality, showmanship, entertainment value, artistic impression and magic atmosphere, on a scale of zero to 100. If an entrant fails to meet the minimum skill level required, a red lamp is illuminated, signalling instant disqualification. Curtains are drawn and the contestant is sent packing.

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The foreman of my close-up jury was to be none other than Obie O'Brien, leader of the ultrasecretive Fechter's Finger Flicking Frolic, the Knights Templar of magic. Also on the judging panel was Roberto Giobbi, whose five-volume Card College had replaced The Royal Road to Card Magic as the standard elementary text. When the time came, I'd have to perform for the guy who'd literally written the book on card magic – and from whose book I'd learned most of what I knew.

Not only that: I'd have to fool him. As I entered the dressing room to prepare for my act, I saw Canadian cruise ship wizard Shawn Farquhar, up first, and just about the last guy I wanted to follow. A fourth-generation magician, he had notched 47 international victories and was the only person in history to win the International Brotherhood of Magicians competition both in stage and close-up. He took home a pair of silvers at the last Olympics, but was now after bigger quarry: "Grand Prix or gold," he told me as we chatted for a moment, "then I'm done."

Before each act, the challenger is announced. His country, magic society and the president who consecrated him are named. More than just a formality, this custom is meant to establish accountability between the Fédération and its numeraries, for FISM statutes expressly forbid a president from approving anyone who is "under FISM level," and societies deemed in breach of this rule face suspension from future games.

Farquhar marched onstage brimming with confidence in his lavender suit and caution-yellow tie. He'd been doing his act since 1997, a gloss on two classics, both scorchers. First was his signature Ambitious Card routine, in which the signed card winds up inside a new cellophane-sealed deck in its correct location.

I had no clue how he did it. Judging by its sigh of wonder, the audience, mostly magicians, didn't either. His closer was a version of the cups and balls, the oldest recorded magic trick, which started off normally enough but ended with the cups revealed to be solid slabs of steel. The guy was a master.

I was waiting in the wings when I heard the announcer call out my name. Fighting a rising panic, I almost fled. But something stopped me. I thought of my parents, who had flown in from Spain to watch me perform. I thought of my SAM brethren, their honour in my charge. I thought of the guys rooting for me at a neighbourhood bar back home, my favourite place to practise. I thought of Richard M. Dooley, who'd placed his trust in me, commended me to his peers, and asked nothing in return. I thought of my girlfriend Rachel's good-luck card with the coven of barefoot warlocks drawn beneath the heading "Knock their socks off!"

I stepped out into the light.

"Ladies and gentlemen," I began, "back in the Renaissance, magic and what we now call science were one and the same. Today, we view the two disciplines as separate, but I know a little something about physics, and I can tell you that the laws of magic and the laws of physics are but two sides of the same coin." As I said this, I gestured at a small blackboard behind me, on which I'd scrawled some formulas, and produced a silver dollar from thin air.

I rolled the silver dollar in my fingers and tossed it into my left hand. Just then I heard a loud "clink," and I felt as if all the air had been sucked out of my lungs. A drop! Mortified, I knelt down to pick up the coin, and some sympathy applause followed as I vanished it with a retention pass – a false transfer that exploits an intrinsic lag in the brain's visual frame rate.

After the vanish, I ditched the coin in a secret pouch (a "topit") sewn into the lining of my coat – a kind of magical colostomy bag. Actually, the topit is an old pickpocketing tool (the "poacher's pouch") repurposed to great effect by mid-20th-century magicians. It is sometimes said that the magician's best friend is a good tailor.

Unable to find the right fit in New York, I had mailed my coat to a seamstress in Vegas who specialized in fabric manipulation for magicians. I thought for certain her topit would bring me luck. Wishful thinking.

Directly in front of me was a table covered with green felt, where my two volunteers – a well-dressed man with an ambitious comb-over and a matronly woman of about 50 – were seated, regarding me with confusion and pity. Clearly they weren't impressed.

Behind them, in the front row, sat the judges, four to one side of the centre aisle and four to the other, all of them looking very stern. Staring at them, I could feel my nerves going into overdrive. My face was flushed, my vision blurry. I could hear myself speaking at warp speed, but was powerless to slow down. My hands trembled and were slick with sweat, which made holding on to the coins all the more precarious. Nor did it help that there were nearly 1,000 people in the crowd, including my parents, TV crews, and reporters from all over the world, cameras bearing down on me from every angle.

I managed to eke out the next phase of my routine – another series of coin tricks – without too much grief, but things got scary when I pulled out a deck of cards for the finale. First, I was supposed to give the deck a blind shuffle – a false shuffle that leaves the order of the cards unchanged – but my hands dipped below the table, violating a rule as old as card cheats. (This is not unlike letting your guard down during a prizefight.) The audience snickered, and I could all but see the judges shaving points off their scorecards.

Much to the crowd's dismay, my hands stole beneath the table again a few beats later, this time to grab a secret duplicate card on my chair. More withering laughter. What's going on? I thought, This wasn't what I'd anticipated. Their patience exhausted, the audience began to turn on me. Scattered heckles congealed into an uproar.

I fought to remain calm as I asked my female volunteer to pick a card, my hair damp with sweat, my hands trembling. I felt as if I were performing magic for the first time in my life. I cut the deck, all tremors, struggling to remember my patter, and dropped the cards into my lap. Supposed to be a sneaky deck switch, it fooled no one.

I was so panicked I didn't even see the devilish glare of the red lamp. Next thing I knew, the Spanish judge was waving for me to stop.

"That will be all," he said flatly.

What?

"It's over."

There are many ways to lose at the Magic Olympics. You can fail to qualify, run out of time, get 86'd on any number of technicalities – but nothing compares to the disgrace of being red-lighted in the middle of your act. This indignity befell only one competitor at this year's close-up competition: me.

I hadn't just lost; I'd been humiliated. Oozing shame, I scooped up my tackle and dashed offstage. Scrambling upstairs, I ditched the chalkboard behind a curtain in the dressing room and hurled the rest of my props into the nearest trash bin. I wanted to disappear, and in a moment of anguish, I vowed never to do magic again.

From Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks and the Hidden Powers of the Mind. © 2012 Alex Stone. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House Canada Ltd. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Secrets revealed

How to disappear a coin

The trick: Pinch a coin at its edge between the thumb and first fingers of your right hand and begin to place it in your left palm, without letting go. Begin to close the fingers of the left hand. The instant the coin is out of sight, extend the last three digits of your right hand and secretly retract the coin. Make a fist with your left – as if holding the coin – as your right hand palms the coin and drops to the side.

The secret: This is what magicians call a retention vanish: a false transfer that exploits a lag in the brain's perception of motion, called persistence of vision. When done properly, the spectator will actually see the coin in the left palm for a split second after the hands separate.

This bizarre afterimage results from the fact that visual neurons don't stop firing once a given stimulus (here, the coin) is no longer present. As a result, our perception of reality lags behind reality by about one one-hundredth of a second.

How to steal a watch

The trick: Make a C with your hand and press your thumb against the watch's face while your middle finger curls around the person's wrist. The tip of the middle finger should align with the tip of the tongue.

Most watches have a little loop for the tongue, so free the tongue by curling your middle finger inward, easing it out. Then your finger goes under the tongue and bends it back until the prong comes out of the hole freeing the tongue. Finally, in a quick, fluid motion, you pull your hand away while palming the watch.

The secret: You need some excuse to grab your mark's wrist because, if you yank the watch for no reason, he'll almost certainly notice. Then I press down on the watch so that his touch receptors adapt to the sensation. The resulting sensory after-impression – literally, neurons still firing – makes it harder to feel the absence of the watch after it comes off.

As I unbuckle the strap, I may move his arms back and forth in short straight lines – to break his focus. Neuroscientists think short linear bursts trigger saccadic eye movements – rapid but discontinuous focusing of the eyes, during which visual awareness is suppressed. And say his name aloud a few times. It's like a tractor beam for attention.

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