The Problem Facing Chinese Magicians

Learn a Trick: The Coin Date Force

👋 Hello, I’m Rory and welcome to a ✨ once-a-month-free-edition ✨ of the Only Ideas newsletter. Each week I humbly tackle magicians' topics based on my experience writing for shows like Netflix’s Magic For Humans, Dynamo, Troy, Neil Patrick Harris, and my five-year-old neighbour’s school talent show.

If you’re not a paid subscriber, here’s what you missed this month:

  1. Six Pocket-Money Methods for Colour Match

  2. Make A Web Search Trick in 15 Mins

  3. Learn a Trick: Any Card Found by Two Queens

In 2016, a magician friend asked to meet for a meal while he was visiting London.

I picked a half-decent restaurant and didn’t think much of it.

When I rocked up, I was met by my friend and also six important business people from a large Chinese TV network. I was not expecting important business people, and it was as I shook each of their important business people hands, I began to regret my choice of restaurant.

And so the eight of us perched on our bar seating, and they pitched me their big television show on their extra-large iPad, while I tried ever so carefully to eat my burger without making a mess. I was 21, and I wondered what on earth they thought of me and my baby face and my terrible dining decisions.

The show was ridiculously ambitious—too ambitious. It was a worldwide talent competition of sorts, but for magicians. I had just finished my role as lead consultant on The Next Great Magician for ITV, which was way smaller but similar and full of unexpected challenges. This Chinese show, dubbed “The Olympics of Magic,” sounded gigantic and totally impossible—it wouldn’t even fit on an iPad mini.

I offered polite advice, jotted a few notes down on a napkin, gently pointed them in the direction of my agent and departed the restaurant fully convinced the show was far too ambitions to ever actually be made.

A year later, I’m in Melbourne, Australia, and my agent calls to tell me the Chinese magic show is, in fact, happening and if I can get a work visa in the next 48 hours, I’ll be ending my Australia trip early and flying to Nanjing on Monday. And so I got the visa, and I flew to China, and am forever thankful and lucky to do the things I do.

I learned a lot about writing on the ambitions Chinese television show. I met incredible people and worked within a great magic team who led the way and carried the magic over the finish line long after I left. My role was solely writing, as it often is. It was an immense experience, in and outside of the offices. Today, I’m going to discuss the biggest problem we faced as a team…

“Must be Stooge”

We protested, “no, no no no, there’s no stooge. We assure you, there’s no stooge. We’ll perform the trick right now, in this room.” But protesting didn’t help. It felt like the entire room rolled their eyes, and then all those eyes moved down the line towards a translator, perched at the very front of the room, who turned to us and reiterated…

Must be stooge.

We’d just pitched what we felt was the best magic trick imaginable. After two days of hard work, combining all our magical brainpower—and there was a lot of magical brainpower. We pulled together drawings, video references and each memorised a section of the pitch for the slightly intimidating executive producer and his team of creative directors.

The trick was a miracle, the cleanest and most impossible prediction effect I’d certainly ever seen. It got halted in its tracks.

This happened again, and again.

Until, eventually, the translator wasn’t needed for the room to tell us in unison,

Must be stooge.

I arrived in China very much prepared for some interesting editorial challenges, already aware of how closely their government regulates television. We weren’t allowed to damage money on TV, or set anything on fire, or pretend to contact the dead, or gamble, or suggest sexuality is a thing. Some of those rules were harder than others to follow.

In my third week in China, a television host on a different network was banned from television for life for joking about his sexuality. The Chinese team around me were relieved he was not sent to prison—apparently, that was a real possibility. I found it hard to grapple with the rules. It also highlighted issues I’d felt but hadn’t placed with western television—where similar rules definitely exist but are all unwritten. When I worked at one British channel, there were often editorial decisions based on race, gender and sexuality that I disagreed with. Producers always justified the decisions based on what “Linda from Leeds” (a fictional target viewer) would want to see on her television in her home. Producers pretend variations of the rules I experienced in China do not exist in the U.K., but they do.

I arrived in China totally unprepared for the “Must be stooge” problem. The producers informed us every Chinese viewer at home quite literally believes with 100% confidence that every spectator they ever see on telly is a stooge. They believe this for a variety of deep routed reasons, like a few magicians being caught with stooges along with the core knowledge of how strictly regulated anyone and everyone on TV can be.

We couldn’t do any mentalism (without adding visual magic elements) and, simply put, we couldn’t do impossible tricks.

Imagine you have the most incredible way of secretly swapping a prediction during a performance, to match a completely freely named country. Well, that wouldn’t make the air. What you need to do instead was basically over-prove the lack of stooge—to ensure the thing predicted was entirely selected by chance, and not by a spectator (who could be a stooge).

In China, we found that predicting a freely named number was far less impressive than predicting the outcome of a fair dice roll.

At first, we fought this. But then, over time, we learned to embrace it. For example, we started to inflate selection processes, and weirdly… things became far more entertaining. And doing so opened us up to inventive and completely unique ways to “force” outcomes.

Let’s say you want a country name selected for a trick: I might suggest wheeling out a massive four-metre high world globe, and spinning it 20mph on stage, handing a paintball gun to the spectator and asking them to aim and shoot at a random country and hope for the best.

Imagine you want a spectator to mix a Rubik’s cube randomly: I might suggest getting the entire audience to mix cubes and put hundreds of them into a massive drum that mixed all of them and spat one out at random.

It was sort of weirdly freeing.

As magicians, we always push each other to develop the most impossible and cleanest tricks imaginable. In China, I learned that sometimes, going after the most entertaining and playful routine is a much better end goal. To stop stressing about the impossibility and foolworthyness, and to focus on telling a great story.

You might not fool Penn and Teller, but who cares about fooling Penn and Teller…

A Coin Trick

The Magician dumps a handful of coins onto the table and sets aside the crumped receipt that found its way into the mix.

Magician: “Here’s the plan, choose heads or tails.”

Spectator: “Tails”

Magician: “OK, Pick up all of the coins and drop them onto the table, and we’ll eliminate all of the coins that land tails up.”

The spectator does this, and together they eliminate the tails up coins.

And again.

And again.

And again.

Until one coin remains.

Magician: “The coin you randomly chose, it has a date engraved upon it, what is it?”

Spectator: “2003.”

They say, after donning their reading glasses to be sure.

Magician: “See that crumpled-up receipt?”

Spectator: “Uhuh”

Magician: “Uncrumple it.”

They do.

Written upon the receipt is a lovely prediction…

You will choose a ten pence piece, and its date shall be 2003.

What’s the Secret?

Like all good tricks, there’s equivoke, and a simple gaff and a lovely little callback:

Equivoke is employed when they choose between heads or tails. If they say tails, you say let’s eliminate the tails up coins. If they say heads, you say let’s keep the heads up coins. You’re giving them the illusion of choice.

The Simple Gaff is a double-headed coin, or double-tailed—it’s up to the performer and dependent on which side has the date inscribed on your local currency. If you correctly follow the process of dropping the coins on the table and eliminating coins, you’ll always end up with one coin left—the “force” coin.

The little callback is to the receipt paper, which happened to come out of your pocket with the coins. It was always supposed to be there, and upon it, you wrote your prediction earlier to match the date and value of your force coin.

I first came across a version of this trick with shapes drawn on coins, as a young kid—comment below if you also learned this trick as a kid. The perk with the original is that you could easily and immediately hand out the force coin for examination—something you cannot do with this double-sided coin version. Hopefully, someone lovely can comment on the source below so that interested people can learn the original.

Challenge for ya!

Be inventive and come up with some better ways to reveal your prediction! Perhaps it’s inside a money envelope, or on a bill, or written across the table with chapstick and only revealed when you pour and spread sugar over it. Comment your ideas below…

You might even employ “multiple-outs,” with two “force” coins in the mix. In this ending, the spectator gets to pick freely between the final two coins… and then you point them in the direction of the precision that matches perfectly. Maybe one prediction is written on a bank bill, and another on a receipt! Now I’m getting carried away—let’s explore some great non-coin related “multiple-outs” ideas in a future post.

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