84 of 87 people found the following review helpful
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.
Stone has a terrific writing style (I write for a living myself and I'm in awe of his easy and fun writing skill) and while the book drags a tiny bit here and there, I kept turning the pages to see what happened next. The book reads like a kind of Hunter S. Thompson road trip that, not coincidentally, involves quite a bit of time spent in Las Vegas. At one point you'll read how the author is ousted from his beloved magic community (and you'll learn just how inbred and dark that odd little world can be) and quite nearly has his life threatened for revealing some of the secrets of magic in a magazine article. You'll also learn why revealing things about how magic tricks work seems to only foster more fascination with magic--not less. (And personally, I've had magicians show me the rudiments of some card tricks and five minutes later I forget what they've told me and only remember being fooled.) And you'll learn just how easy it is to steal someone's watch right off of their wrist.
My only criticism (very mild) of the book is that Stone mentions many psychological research studies and similar background information without actually citing them by name, year, etc. The book would have more authority if he included citations. In other words, I think the book could have used a lot of footnotes that were not included. It's boring to read a book that is full of of footnotes and this is more a journey of personal discovery than a scientific overview, of course, but I still would have liked a few pages at the end that listed the various studies so that I could have read more about them.
As I said, Stone is a very gifted writer with a very colorful and fun writing style and he exposes a lot of the weaknesses of his own personality (only a very confident nonfiction writer will do that so readily) and this is a terrifically fun book. Even if you have never wondered much about magic or illusions, you'll never watch a magic act with the same innocent eyes again. And one thing is for certain: if you read this book you'll never lose a cent at three-card monte (and you'll keep your eye on your wristwatch any time you're near a magician).
67 of 71 people found the following review helpful
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.
32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
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.
WHO THE BOOK IS FOR:
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.
WHO THE BOOK IS NOT FOR:
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.
76 of 92 people found the following review helpful
This is a book that can't decide what it wants to be. Is it an autobiography? A history of magic? A peek into the lives of magicians and their world? A textbook on street scams? Pop psychology? What?
The book is a little bit of all of those things, but not in a satisfying way. An early chapter starts off with an interesting scenario (the author is taking a "master class" in magic) and devolves into an excruciatingly detailed and boring description of the house, the teacher and the fellow students, none of whom you will ever encounter again. By the time the description is done, so is the chapter. At one point the author promises to tell us about a trip to Vegas. I thought "Now it should get good." No luck, three pages later the trip was over and done and nothing much happened.
The author specializes in close-up magic, which uses cards, coins, cups, ropes and is done, as the author puts it, "right under your nose." The book therefore focuses on this genre, and there is comparatively little time spent on stage magic. If you are looking for backstage gossip or interesting facts about stage magicians, famous or otherwise, there's not much of it.
There is more than you'll ever need to know on scams, specifically three card monte and the shell game. If you're like most people, you've heard of these and know basically how they work. The author also mentioned something called the "fast and loose" which I had never heard of. I was looking forward to an explanation, but the author merely said it "survives only in print." I had to Google the term to find out any more about it.
The author spent some time, as basically an onlooker, with an professor involved in research on human cognition. What you get, sprinkled throughout the book, is an overview of the field from the point of view of an amateur. If you've read any books by Oliver Sacks or Steven Pinker, you've read most of this, better and more entertainingly told by a true expert.
In summary, the book was not terrible, but it was ultimately disappointing. I had hoped to devour every word, but found myself skimming chapters quite often.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
I am an amateur magician, the word amateur means that I love the art of magic however it is not how I make my living. I began studying magic at age 46, nearly twenty years ago. I have made friends with several hundred magicians in the last twenty years. Many of the performers Alex Stone writes about are people I know personally, others are folks I know about. The magic fraternity, and it is mostly a boys club, is small. Everyone gets to know about everyone else. I enjoyed reading about Alex Stone's journey in magic. It is clear that he is still a person at the first level that is called a Trickster by one of Stone's favorite teachers. Stone shows you a glimse of what it is like in the world of magic without revealing any of the secrets magicians protect. The only way for you to enjoy magic is because a master or sage in the art of magic has taught young up and coming performers how to become a master performer. I could not tell whether Alex Stone wants to be a magician or a writer. The magicians he studied with Richard Turner, Eugene Burger, Whit "Pop" Haydn, and The Magus, Jeff McBride have reached the sage level, they perform but more important they show those who desire to become magicians what it means to be in the top ranks of this art. This book will probably not be enjoyed by other magicians, they will see Stone as a magic wannabe; however laypeople will enjoy Stone's artful story telling. Stone tells a good story and he has a wicked sense of humor. I will talk to my magician friends about this book, but I suspect they will use their reading time to study master magicians theory of magic rather than a gossipy story about some of their magician friends.
I enjoyed the story telling. I wish he had written more about science, mathematics, and physics. The marriage of science and magic is a driving force in this book. I hoped for more stories about this marriage, especially the pyschology of "misdirection." Thank you Alex Stone for sharing your story.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on July 22, 2012
Let me begin by addressing some of the other reviews here on Amazon. "Magicians are appalled by this book," one of them says. Some magicians hold a grudge against Stone because, several years ago, he published an essay in Harpers in which he revealed how several magic tricks work. All of the `secrets' he revealed could have been found through a few Google searches. Others are just jealous because Stone has the platform, and the talent, for explaining magic to a wider public. Many magicians, however, have embraced Stone and this book. Stone himself addresses this `controversy,' and defends his decision to disclose 'secrets,' in chapter six. And Stone reveals the way his own signature trick works near the end of the book.
For the general reader, though, none of this really matters. This is a fantastic book that I think a lot of readers will enjoy. It is and informative and entertaining, a combination that many writers attempt but few pull off. Stone succeeds at both. Stone writes with a self-effacing wit that will keep you turning the pages. He is a dork about magic, and he knows it. His stories about spending hours and hours mastering tricks, skipping classes at Columbia to attend magic classes, and using magic to meet (and, as often as not, alienate) women are frequently hilarious. You'll also learn a lot, about the history of magic, the psychology of perception, and some nifty mathematics as well. I really enjoyed reading this book, and I think you will too.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 3, 2012
Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the MindThis is the first time in many reads that I have taken "pen to paper" to share a review. I've been sitting on a beach reading Fooling Houdini and am struck by all that one does not know and have marveled at the lengths to which the impassioned go to flesh out knowledge. Alex Stone's passion seemingly stems from a public humiliation. While unfortunate for him, we benefit from his sharing the knowledge gained from his passion. While perhaps I found myself wondering whether Stone would "get a life" I was also struck by his intellect, curiosity, humility and honesty. These traits were revealed through an open voice that was not only entertaining but articulated complex principles in a way one could understand without the distraction of wondering "what did he say?". Stone enriched his story with relevant and fascinating detours through a surprisingly documented history of the skills he was honing. Who knew that the $20 I lost in NYC while "playing" three card monte didn't just make me a sucker but placed me in a long, unbroken line of historical pawns upon which America was built. Along the way we meet neat characters of a rich and, to one another, well known world of card mechanics and other conjurers. In short, were this simply a book about a guy trying to become a magician, it might be lacking. This was a fascinating exploration of the historic underpinning, psychological and scientific bases for what I for one had viewed solely as entertainment. Moreover, Stone knows how to learn and provides a crash course in education; research, experimentation, mentorship and plain old tenacity all come into play in his effort.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Author Stone's 'Fooling Houdini' recounts his toying with the limits of perception in a sort of suspended adulthood while trying to fool other magicians. However, it is not clear what he ends up accomplishing.
Stone begins his story as an amateur performing in the Magic Olympics where he is unceremoniously red-lighted off the stage for flubbing his performance. Withdrawing from the field that has fascinated him since age five, Alex then pursues a PhD in physics at Columbia, only to eventually drop out due to missing too many classes there learning magic tricks across the country.
Advised to find a mentor, he attaches himself to Wes James, a former Times Square fixture who has a PhD in information technology. Stone learns various false cuts, rigged shuffles, crooked deals, how to secretly view cards, switching cards, recycling folded hands, etc. He began doing daily finger fitness exercises to increase strength, dexterity, finger independence, as well as improved palming coin skills. Then it was off toe the L.A. area to learn street scams such as the shell game and three-card monte at the Magic Castle.
Readers learn that street scams involve taking advantage of players who think they're taking advantage of a slow-witted dealer. turns out its all part of a carefully scripted play that starts with letting shills win a few and bent card corners.
Watch-stealing is practiced with watches attached to a broom-handle fattened to wrist size with rags, etc. We also learn that magic relies on the fact that the brain can only do one thing at a time and has various means of 'filling in the blanks' the con artists/magicians utilize.
Finally, Stone gets to mentalism - eg. spoon-bending, and we get a small sense of how that 'trick' is accomplished.
Bottom-Line: Readers end up tricked out of their money - we learn no tricks, and Stone doesn't even reveal how he supports himself after his quest.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Fooling Houdini is a terrific book, detailing, as it does, many common mysteries behind the success of great magicians, mentalists, and math geeks. It helps to illuminate the deep-seated connections between mathematics and the more arcane ways in which math forms the foundation for everything from puzzles to magicians' feats. The connections are more than subtle but the exploration of math as a foundation for many mental challenges will be quite a revelation for the reader. In illuminating these details, the author is witty, a good storyteller, and capable of explaining connections that few would see on their own. More than interesting, this book was a fascinating read, and one that I highly recommend.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
I enjoyed this account of a physics major who developed a passion for magic from a young age.
It surprisingly doesn't matter to me that he divulges a few magic secrets. The tricks still inspire awe when executed well. I especially was intrigued by the section on mentalists. I'm grateful to have the understanding and answers to the question, How do they do that? I had recently bid & won the only interesting item at a fundraiser: a session with a well-known psychic. The guy had skills. Some explained in this book. Others not so much.