How does a magician trick other magicians? We went to find out.

Estimated read time 9 min read

QUÉBEC CITYWhen Simon Coronel—a jigsaw puzzle designer and former IT consultant—stepped on stage to perform his magic trick, he looked out onto the most intimidating audience a magician can face: hundreds of other magicians. For five days, the crowd had sat through dozens of magic acts, one after another. The stage where Coronel stood could launch a career or kill it. “This is like going into the Colosseum with the gladiators,” said one magician in the audience.

But over the next few minutes, Coronel did something that left the magicians in stunned silence: He sliced a hole into reality.

With a craft knife, he cut off the outermost edge off a playing card in one piece, as if removing the frame from a picture. Then he did it again, forming a second unbroken rectangular frame. Coronel held one frame in each hand and moved them toward each other.

Suddenly they were hooked together, two links on a chain.

He unlinked them. He linked them again. Then he linked a solid metal ring to the end, hung the impossible chain of card pieces on a stand, and handed it to a volunteer (one of National Geographic’s correspondents). On stadium seating in the packed auditorium, magicians leapt to their feet and roared in delight. A few dozen rushed forward, their phone flashlights ablaze to search for hidden cuts on the linked pieces of playing card. Their efforts were in vain.

Coronel had just blown the roof off the 2022 World Championship of Magic—also known as the “magic Olympics”—a six-day magic marathon that drew 2,000 magicians last summer to Québec City. Competitors came from as far away as Argentina and South Korea, all vying for a chance at the title of world’s best with acts that were seamless, shocking, artistic, and inventive. The winning act would have to do more: something no one else knew how to do.

Every three years the International Federation of Magic Societies (FISM) hosts the contest, which “fits somewhere between the Harry Potter Goblet of Fire competition and the Westminster Dog Show,” one magician jested. Official events run from 8 a.m. until 2 a.m., with magic vendors hawking their latest inventions and magicians swapping secrets late into the night. If you haven’t seen much magic since David Copperfield’s TV specials, FISM might surprise you. There were a few doves, but no rabbits, just a handful of clowns, only one person sawn in half, and many, many playing cards: flying across the stage, thrown from feet into mouths, and rattling inside a condom inflated over a magician’s head.

Very few of FISM’s attendees earn a full-time income from magic: There are nuclear physicists, chess players, gastroenterologists. Years ago, Allison Shelley became a flight attendant to pay her way to FISM and now she visits her fellow magicians on layovers. On long hauls, she practices her own flight attendant-themed act. “What else is there to do when the passengers are sleeping?” she said. “I use the mask and seatbelt as props and the window as a mirror.”

The pressure-cooker contest can supercharge a magic career. A trick that impresses FISM’s 10-judge panels opens doors with retailers, TV show scouts, and theatrical bookers. It can even spark new trends in the magic world. But it’s also a place where a lifetime’s worth of sweat and practice might only receive curt applause.

FISM got its start in 1948, and nearly 100 magic societies from 50 countries participate today, representing around 70,000 magicians. Developing an act for the world championship is nothing like performing for a typical audience. Most people don’t see magic that often, so even basic effects astound them. Among veteran conjurers, though, tricks are almost always decipherable—if not in precise mechanics, then in theory and technique. “These guys see hundreds of magicians all the time,” said Bertil Fredstrom, a Swedish magician who has attended every FISM since 1973. “To impress the room, you have to do something different.”

Winning FISM requires more than merely fooling other magicians: It demands a new technique, a compelling story, a hilarious twist. And so some performers wove narratives at times surreal and poetic. One Japanese magician romanced an empty shirt that somehow wrapped her in its arms. A 15-year-old German student who goes by the name Magic Maxl dueled with a soft-boiled egg that seemed to come alive while he pretended to get ready for school. Others opted for simple, self-deprecating humor. “I spent two thousand dollars to be here,” one French competitor deadpanned, munching fistfuls of potato chips while pulling the four queens from a messy pile of facedown cards with inexplicable ease.

This appearance of effortlessness comes only after years of grueling practice. For four months before FISM, a 34-year-old Chinese magician and former acrobat named Ding Yang had holed up in a dinner theater in Niagara Falls, Canada, to practice her routine with Canadian magician Greg Frewin. Because of China’s COVID-19 quarantine requirements, she hadn’t traveled back to see her husband and son. They would catch up on FaceTime as she practiced maintaining her handstand.

Her many rehearsals paid off. When the curtain rose on Ding, she danced inside a circular frame of intertwined vines and leaves, conjuring live doves from handkerchiefs, balloons, and her bare hands. Then she stood on her hands and bent one leg. A dove burst forth from a bundle of silk handkerchiefs on her foot. She lowered onto her back, the dove still perched on her heel, and kicked up her other heel—another bird emerged from that foot. The crowd went ballistic.

The lights faded, and when they came up, Ding delivered her grand finale: She waved two silk handkerchiefs, and two full-size birdcages containing fake doves suddenly appeared in her hands. “As a vegan I’m not into animal magic, but that was absolutely ridiculous,” said British magician Ben Daggers, one of the onlookers.

In the pursuit of perfection there’s never enough rehearsal time. For years, Anca and Lucca Lucian had been practicing the complex techniques needed to pull off their mind-reading routine while doing the dishes, driving, and raising two sons. It also had meant enlisting as volunteers a family of Ukrainian refugees they were housing in their home in Vienna, Austria.

The evening before their performance, the Lucians rehearsed with three volunteers snatched from the convention center’s lobby. Lucca passed out pens and slips of paper and asked each to write down a wish and personal details. He collected them in a dish (in the performance, he’d light them on fire). A blindfolded Anca then addressed each spectator, calmly stating their unspoken answers: a dream vacation destination, a birthday, the name of one volunteer’s wife. “Any feedback or critiques?” she asked. There was none—the trio sat with their mouths agape.

Even though FISM is a contest at its core, the onstage tricks are only a fraction of the allure: It’s the secrets attendees are after. Every evening until 2 a.m., dozens of magicians gathered in the basement of the convention center, which transformed into a freewheeling “jam session” where magicians swapped tips and tried out their latest tricks.

One night, as a Bangladeshi magician pulled cards from his mouth and an Iranian-Italian magician in a long linen robe waxed poetic on “psycho magic,” a 19-year-old Argentinian named Carola Scialabba performed an immaculate card routine, winning the approval of the jam’s elder statesmen: a Scot in oversized, purple-tinted glasses and a Midwesterner with forearms like tree trunks, both experts at the card table. Scialabba and her magic partner, Alejandro Bonasera, spent four years raising the $5,000 needed for their registration fee, flights, and hotel to perform at FISM. The chance to compete in the close-up category, where zoomed-in cameras scrutinize every move, was worth it. “It’s a way to show the big magicians you can do it,” Scialabba said.

Some nights, magicians fraternized until the sun rose. One night at 3 a.m., FISM competitor Shane Cobalt gathered some friends in his hotel room. Cobalt, a professional Canadian magician, showed off a small paper cutter with a hefty swinging blade: a rare purpose-built device to trim playing cards for certain kinds of magic tricks. Its cuts are so precise—yielding nothing but white powder along the blade’s edge—that only the most highly trained fingertips can find the trimmed cards within a deck. “You get to a certain point where you get so, so fine, you have to trust the card,” Cobalt told the room.

Socializing aside, what keeps magicians coming to FISM is the hunt for a feeling they had as a kid when they first saw a magic trick: when their minds bent to accommodate an impossibility, a break in the everyday world’s physical laws.

So by the time FISM’s winning acts were announced, they came as little surprise. Each of them had triggered the sensation of seeing something magical for the first time.

Even Coronel, who took home one of two Grand Prix prizes for his linking-card trick, understood why he’d won, despite not expecting it. It was because his trick—which he’d been developing for more than 10 years—was one he wished he could have watched as an unwitting audience member. For decades, Coronel has been searching for what he describes as the promised land: a moment of awe so inexplicable, it hints at a universe where magic really exists.

It’s a hit magicians seek like junkies. Unfortunately, to give that feeling to an audience, he had to sacrifice his own experience of it. “It’s one of the tragedies of magic,” he said bittersweetly. “You make a Faustian pact. By learning to do it, you give up experiencing it.”

On the final evening of the World Championship of Magic, Coronel sat perched on the auditorium’s stage steps, holding a glass trophy engraved with FISM’s logo of a hand levitating a globe. His fellow winners, including the dove magician Ding Yang, who won Most Original Act, and first-place mentalists Anca and Lucca Lucian, crowded around him. Coronel’s face was wet from tears of joy. It took nearly an hour for the well-wishers and selfie-takers to thin.

Coronel didn’t feel the power of his trick, but he felt the power of what it achieved. That night, as the last magicians dispersed from a celebration at a nearby hotel bar, a Finnish competitor approached Coronel with a fist bump.

“Thank you,” he said. “I felt like a little kid again.”

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