The Mystery of Magic’s Greatest Card Trick

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Forty. Forty-one. Forty-two. I turned over the 43rd card.

It was the seven of diamonds. I stared at it, both gobsmacked and baffled. Gobsmacked because it seemed wildly improbable that he’d come so close. Baffled because it wasn’t spot on.

“One off,” Mr. Berglas said, evenly.

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He didn’t try to sell 43 as a triumph. On the contrary, he said that in lectures to magicians he has always told his audience that one off isn’t close enough.

I left his house in a muddle, and I have returned to that muddle every time I think of this performance. Off by one seems, on some level, more perplexing than nailing it. Off by one implies that there is nothing automatic about this ACAAN, that it isn’t a contraption that simply works when deployed. It’s more like archery, which requires practice and concentration and can end with something other than a bull’s-eye.

I ran these ideas by Aaron Fisher, a highly regarded American magician who did a commentary in July on his YouTube channel of an old live show by Mr. Berglas. Mr. Fisher said he didn’t know what to make of 43 either. But he noted that Mr. Berglas is not renowned for dazzling sleight of hand.

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“He messes with minds,” Mr. Fisher said, “not decks.”

None of this resolved the stooge question. Mr. Berglas may have a number of different methods, depending on the circumstances. “He never knows what he’s going to do before he does it,” Richard Kaufman writes in “The Berglas Effects” — note the plural — a lengthy book for magicians that explains every card trick in the Berglas canon, with one very notable exception.

The book suggests that Mr. Berglas is nothing if not a masterful improviser and a born gambler. What seems like a cohesive performance is actually a high-wire display of spontaneity with a heavy overlay of psychological manipulation. In hindsight, it seems likely that his anger was part of the show, a framing device. “I don’t need to prove myself” is just a different, more contentious version of “You’ll never forget what is going to happen next.”

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Once you’ve been told that a demonstration is “out of the question,” you’re ready to leave empty-handed. Compared to nothing, off by one isn’t just thrillingly close. It’s amazing.

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