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Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind Hardcover – June 19, 2012

4.2 out of 5 stars 233 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, June 2012: Before reading this book, I thought magic was a little inane. The magicians of my memory wore capes and makeup. They pulled doves from their hats and deployed a lot of smoke. But in Fooling Houdini, Alex Stone reveals a world far deeper and fascinating than I ever imagined. After failing at the Magic Olympics in Stockholm, Stone gets serious about the art of illusion. He attends magic schools and seeks out one of the best "card mechanics" in the world. Along the way, he learns how criminal empires were built on age-old magic scams. He studies the art of mind-reading. And he explains how magicians exploit cognitive blind spots to make the impossible happen in public. He pursues every dark nook of the magic world in pursuit of the ultimate goal – a routine so mindboggling that it would fool other master magicians. Does he succeed? I'd tell you the answer, but that would ruin the magic. --Benjamin Moebius


“An enthralling journey into the inner world of magic. Alex Stone writes with a winning voice that you’ll want to follow anywhere.” (Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein)

“Alex Stone’s Fooling Houdini is a delight. In the physics Ph.D program at Columbia, he drops everything to pursue the murky world of magic. He writes with wit and scientific sharpness and grand humor. He immerses us in a fascinating world few have ever entered.” (Buzz Bissinger, author of Father's Day and Friday Night Lights)

“What I loved most about Fooling Houdini is the world it takes us into: these huddled cliques of obsessed magicians reinventing their art. . . . This book makes you want to do magic tricks, and convinces you just how hard it is to do them well.” (Ira Glass, host of "This American Life")

Fooling Houdini is a totally smart and engrossing study of one of America’s most misunderstood sub-cultures, and at the same time the story of one man’s quest to probe the mysteries of magic, science, and where the two meet.” (John Hodgman, author of The Areas of My Expertise)

Fooling Houdini is an eye-opening, irresistible journey into the world of magic. Stone has written a masterful story that is bursting with energy, inventiveness, and a sense of wonder on every page. I couldn’t put it down!” (Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics)

“In a memoir studded with historical factoids, charming anecdotes and a variety of behind-the-curtain insider secrets to classic magic tricks, stone serves as a winsome tour guide. . . . There’s plenty of eye-opening knowledge on display. . . . Magically engrossing.” (Kirkus)

“Part insider’s look at the high-stakes world of casinos and cardsharps, part scientific examination of deception, this page-turner gives an intriguing peek behind the magician’s curtain.” (Discover)

“A hilarious and illuminating memoir. . . . Less a how-to guide, and more about the bizarre-personalities, the infighting and the jaw-dropping dedication and dexterity required to be a truly great magician.” (The New York Post)

“A cheery, inquisitive book about a world where math, physics, cognitive science and pure geeky fanaticism intersect. . . . This book is more than a series of anecdotes. It’s an effort to explore the colorful subculture of magic devotees and the serious, theoretical basis for the tricks they do.” (Janet Maslin, The New York Times)

“The narrative is compelling because it comes veined with a very human question: What is truth? That may sound too philosophical for such a fun memoir, but when Stone invokes this question it comes across as pitch perfect.” (The Boston Globe)

Fooling Houdini is not only informative, but highly entertaining. Stone has pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the hat.” (USA Today)

“I’ve always been intrigued by secret societies and artistic subcultures. Stone opens up the obsessive and hidden world of magicians with intelligence and sly humor.” (Molly Ringwald, The New York Post)

“An affable new book. . . . What differentiates Fooling Houdini is Stone’s determination to understand the science behind his craft.” (The Daily Beast)

“This book is clever and winning—and well written, too. In turning our attention away from the magic and towards the magicians, Stone has pulled off an excellent trick.” (The Sunday Times (London))

“The book treats magic more as science than superstition, and here Stone’s point is well made. . . . As he shows us the limits of our logic, Stone’s enthusiasm rubs off.” (The Financial Times)

“A fascinating ramble around a subject that, Stone convincingly argues, raises all sorts of big questions about how our brains interpret the world.” (Reader's Digest (UK))

“The funniest book I read all year.” (Bob Schieffer)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (June 19, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061766216
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061766213
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (233 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #284,668 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Related Media

More About the Author

Alex Stone has written for The New York Times, Harper's, Discover, and The Wall Street Journal. He graduated from Harvard University and has a master's degree in physics from Columbia University. He grew up in Wisconsin, Texas, and Spain. He currently lives in New York City.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Like almost everyone, I've always had a somewhat casual admiration for magicians and their ability to make us believe things that we know can't be so--and yet we're seeing them without own eyes (or so we think). I love to see a good trick and I love to be fooled. And I've always believed that most magic tricks work largely because of the good hand skills of the magician and/or a clever amount of misdirection--and both of those are true. Until I read this book, however, I had no idea just how much of the misdirection and trickery was coming from my own mind. Alex Stone has written a fascinating book about just how much of the power of magic--whether it's a close-up coin trick or an ambitious illusion--relies on our own psychological/neurological foibles. We trick ourselves as much or more so than the magician does.

Stone starts off the book by telling the tale of his attempt to win honor and glory at the Magic Olympics (the pinnacle of magic competitions) and the various changes in his personal life that, along with a lifelong infatuation with magic (blame his father) eventually led him to all but abandon his "normal" life and pursue a strange and somewhat obsessed journey to the center of the magic mind. Along the way he spends time with some of the great legends of magic (a lot of them regularly hanging out in a pizza joint in NYC on Saturday afternoons), a handful of grifters, three-card monte ne'er-do-wells, a stellar and legally blind card mechanic (Richard Turner--whose abilities are legendary and will absolutely challenge your thoughts about blindness) and psychologists. Each of these characters helps add to his growing understanding of just how much the person being fooled is as much a part of the fooling as the magician.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Before I read this book, I had absolutely no idea that there was an entire "world of magic" that I didn't know about. My knowledge of magicians was pretty much limited to what I had seen at children's birthday parties and talent shows. Alex Stone shows you how there is so much more than that - there are schools, societies, meeting spots, ceremonies, competitions, and an entire segment of the population that is completely devoted to magic.

Stone makes the reader like him right away, as he describes the embarrassment of completely failing a competition. From there, we see him rebound as he comes back to the magic world, while pursuing an advanced degree at Columbia, and dedicate himself to improving his magic skills. He's able to describe different tricks to us without giving away secrets and impress up on the reader just how difficult it can be to learn some of these tricks. Stone also describes some of the ways that magicians use their skills in the business world, such as the magician who is almost entirely blind but whose sense of touch is so highly developed that he works as a "touch consultant" for a major card company.

More than just describing magic tricks, however, Stone also writes about how the human brain/psychology works and can be manipulated. We see how con games are so successful and why people are fascinated by magic. Additionally, Stone's writing style is excellent - the book is perfectly paced and the personal stories are woven in wonderfully with the history and technical descriptions. Highly recommended for just about anybody.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Alex Stone is a former Discover magazine editor, a former Columbia Physics PhD student and a nut for the world of magic. This memoir recounts his experiences in the magic world, including his humiliating 'red light' performance at the Magic Olympics, his discipleship with Wes James (himself a disciple of the legendary Dai Vernon), encounters with Three Card Monte gangs in New York, the furor over an article he published in Harper's which exposed the secrets behind some tricks, and his journey from close-up trickster to mentalist to master.

The title, "Fooling Houdini" comes from an anecdote about Dai Vernon, who managed to fool Houdini eight times with a trick called The Ambitious Card. Now the trick is standard, and every magician has their own personalized version of it.

Stone writes with clarity, drawing connections between magic, psychology, neuroscience and even economics, arguing that the greatest eras of innovation in magic tricks were the eras when the tricks were regularly exposed, forcing the constant invention of new tricks and sparking clever variations from other magicians once they knew the secrets.


Anyone interested in the backstage world of magic, their societies and the secret clavens within those societies. Magician's magicians. People who are interested in the intersection of science and the techniques of magicians.


People who already know everything there is to know about magic, or who feel they enjoy magic the less they know about the art. People hoping to learn specific tricks.


I enjoyed it all the way through. Stone draws back the curtain on the magic world, revealing colorful characters and throwing in anecdotes from the history of conjuring as well as related scientific research. Highly recommended.
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