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The Devious Art of Improvising, Lesson One

Notes on a Strange World

Massimo Polidoro

Volume 30.6, November / December 2006

The great fake psychics are great improvisationists. This means that a really good pseudo-psychic is able to produce phenomena under almost any circumstance. A quick mind and a good knowledge of the techniques and psychology of deception are all that is needed. Sometimes, only a quick mind is enough.

In one early test of telepathy, in 1882, pseudo-psychic G.A. Smith and his accomplice, Douglas Blackburn, were able to fool researchers of the Society for Psychical Research. In a later confession, Blackburn described how they had to think fast and frequently invent new ways of faking telepathy demonstrations. Once, for example, Smith had been swathed in blankets to prevent him from signaling Blackburn. Smith had to guess the content of a drawing that Blackburn had secretly made on a cigarette paper. When Smith exclaimed, “I have it,” and projected his right hand from beneath the blanket, Blackburn was ready. He had transferred the cigarette paper to the tube of the brass projector on the pencil he was using, and when Smith asked for a pencil, he gave him his. Under the blanket, Smith had concealed a slate coated with luminous paint, which in the dense darkness gave sufficient light to show the figure on the cigarette paper. Thus he only needed to copy the drawing.

I was lucky enough to learn the art of improvising from one of the greatest “teachers” on the subject, the Amazing Randi. I had met him only a few hours before, nearly twenty years ago, and he was already teaching me how to conduct a perfect swindle!

A Puzzle

Randi had come to Italy to help us promote CICAP, the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and he was expected to be on a talk show in Rome to discuss his work and talk about the Committee. The host, an actress called Marisa Laurito, asked him what he was going to do in front of the cameras, and he said that he planned to duplicate a drawing made by her in secret. She agreed and asked what was needed.

“Just some paper and some envelopes,” said Randi.

“Chiara,” said Marisa, addressing her secretary, “please, go and get those things from the office.”

Randi shot a glance at me and said “Massimo, maybe you should accompany her, to see if they are the right size.”

The right size? I did not know what the right size was; I had never seen him perform up close, and I could not imagine what was needed. But, as soon as I was going to open my mouth, Randi smiled and said, “Go, Massimo, please,” pushing me ahead.

I went out the door, following the woman, and a moment later, Randi came out as well and shouted at me: “Massimo! I am sorry, while you go, please throw away this junk I had in my coat.”

There was a wastebasket in Marisa’s dressing room; why did he need me to throw things away? However, he was my hero, and I was glad to help. I immediately went back to collect some scraps of paper and used train tickets, and, under his breath, Randi said to me, “When you are in the office, just get a few envelopes and sheets of paper without her seeing you, and then come back here. Now, go!”

I was quite confused, but I did as he asked. I made some gracious comments about the woman’s blue eyes while we were in the office, and a little chitchat later, I had some sheets and envelopes hidden under my jacket without her knowing it.

When we got back to Marisa’s dressing room, she and Randi were laughing at something he was telling her.

“Good, now here you are,” Randi said to the secretary. “I do not want to touch anything,” he stated, raising his hands up in the air, like a surgeon ready to operate. “Please give this stuff to Marisa.”

The girl obeyed, and Randi continued: “Now, Marisa, please go to another room, the bathroom will be fine, close yourself inside and draw whatever you like on that piece of paper. When you are done, fold the paper and seal it in one of the envelopes.”

As soon as she closed the bathroom door, Randi addressed her assistant. “Er . . . Chiara, I am sorry, could I have a glass of water? I need to take my medication.”

“Sure,” she said, and went out of the room. Now we were alone.

“Quick!” said Randi. “Give me the things you took in the office.”

Randi took one of the blank sheets of paper, folded it in thirds, and placed it in an envelope, which he sealed and then put in his jacket’s inner pocket.

I was more and more confused. “Mr. Randi,” I said, “would you please tell me what this is all about?”

“Later, now she’s coming.”

Sure enough, the door of the bathroom opened up and Marisa was out, waving her envelope. “Here it is! Now, what do we do?”

Randi looked puzzled. “Hmmm . . . you know, that envelope doesn’t convince me . . . excuse me.” He took the envelope from her, even though he had said that he was not going to touch anything. Holding it quite high, with just two fingers, as if it might be contaminated, Randi approached the window.

“Please, I won’t look. Tell me if you can see through the envelope, Marisa.”

“No, it’s quite thick. You can’t see anything.”

“Good! I do not want anyone to think that I merely saw your drawing through it. Well then, keep your envelope with you all the time now. Don’t tell anyone what you drew and then, when we are on stage, keep hold of the envelope until I have made my guess. You will agree that there is no way for me to know what’s in it.”

“Quite right!”

“Good. If you think so, just say it when we are on air. Then, if I am able to correctly guess your drawing, this will mean that I have some extraordinary ESP ability—or I will have showed you that what I do is quite indistinguishable from real ESP. Ergo, the public should always doubt these kinds of demonstrations, unless there is someone really expert in this kind of thing checking everything out.” I noticed that he did not use the word tricks. “Now, if you will excuse us, I need to get some rest before we start. I have arrived only a few hours ago from Miami and I am still jet-lagged.”

It wasn’t true, he had arrived about a week earlier, but as I would discover, he needed some time in private.

The Switch

“Mr. Randi,” I said as we were walking down the empty hall, “can you explain to me what we are doing? Why did you place an envelope in your pocket?”

“You mean this one?” he said, taking it out of his jacket.

“Yes. How can a blank sheet of paper be of some help in. . . ?”

The words died in my mouth as he opened up the envelope and I saw a drawing on it: a very simple pencil drawing showing a house and a cat!

“What the—?”

“Later. Now get in our dressing room.”

When the door closed, Randi took a good look at the drawing.

“Quite simple, isn’t it?”

“Do you mean that this one—”

“—is the drawing that Marisa drew, yes,” he finished. He was clearly amused by the look on my face. “You wonder when I took it, right? Well, there was really no need to check if the envelope could be seen through, it’s really thick and I probably looked a bit dumb to her by asking that question. But I needed to have the envelope with her drawing in my hands for just a few seconds, in order to do the switch.”

“You mean. . . ?”

“Yes, when I approached the window, I turned my back to you all for just an instant, but that was enough for me to throw her envelope inside my jacket and take out the dummy one.”

“But I didn’t see you do it!”

“Well, thank you. That was the point.”

Quite ingenious, I thought. I was soon going to learn that the best way to duplicate a drawing sealed in an envelope (and so far nobody has shown that another way exists) is to “somehow” secretly get a look at the drawing. That’s all there is to it. It doesn’t matter how: switching envelopes, looking at a reflection in a mirror, watching the pencil move on paper, have an accomplice take a peek. What matters is that you know beforehand what’s inside that envelope. Well, most of the time: Randi has been able to go even further than this, but that is another lesson.

Confusion

Now, the problem was that Marisa had in her possession an envelope containing a blank sheet of paper: what was Randi going to do?

“Well, now that I know what she drew, I need to give this back to her . . . without her realizing it.”

So he placed the drawing in another similar envelope—that’s why he had asked me to get “a few” of those—and put it back again in his jacket pocket.

“Now, we only need to wait.”

“Wait? Wait for what?”

“For the show to begin.”

“Do you mean that you are going to do the switch live on camera?”

“Of course not, but I need her to be distracted a bit more now, and so we will wait just five minutes before the show starts. She will have a thousand things to think about, and will not have much time for me.”

And that’s what he did. Five minutes before showtime, Randi knocked on Marisa’s dressing-room door just as she was coming out with all her assistants, producers, writers, coiffeur, and make-up artist all buzzing around her like she was the queen bee.

“I am sorry, Marisa” he said with a smile. “But while I was resting, I had this great idea. Let’s put your drawing in one of the bigger envelopes there on the table. This way, we can show that your drawing was really impossible to see and the effect will be much stronger.”

She had many people and distractions around her. “Yes . . . well, whatever you say. Here is my drawing, where should I put it?”

“Here,” said Randi, taking her envelope and placing it in a bigger envelope. “Now we can seal it and you can put your signature on it. This will really shock the viewers!”

“Okay, just let’s move on, we are about to start.”

She signed her name on the envelope and then took it along with her.

Resolution

We remained alone, again, in the dressing room. I stared at Randi, and said, “Now that that didn’t work, what will you do?”

“What do you mean it didn’t work?”

I was silent for a minute. “But you never had a chance. . . . When did you do the switch? It was impossible.”

Randi chuckled. “Okay, okay, I will tell you. When we got in, with all those people and the confusion, I quickly put the envelope with her drawing inside one of the bigger ones that were resting on the table. Then, when she gave me the envelope with the blank sheet—and, of course, she thought that it contained her drawing—I acted as if I was placing it inside the envelope, but, actually, I was putting it behind it. So, when I placed the whole thing on the table to have her seal and sign it, on top of all the other envelopes lying there, the thing was done: the drawing was already inside, and the envelope with the blank one was mixed with all the other envelopes. In fact, here it is.”

He took a sealed envelope from the lot and put it back in his jacket. It was later destroyed to avoid even the remotest risk of someone discovering the trick.

Of course, later on, when the show started and Randi joined Marisa on stage, all went perfectly. Marisa told the viewers how she had kept hold of the envelope the whole time, and when Randi—after much concentration, grinning, and sweating—duplicated her drawing, she was flabbergasted.

For me, that was the first important lesson I got from Randi: real tricksters rarely read magic books and magazines, they just invent their methods along the way, quickly improvising something on the spur of the moment.

I was going to find that out at my expense very soon, as we shall see in the next “lesson.”

Massimo Polidoro

Massimo Polidoro's photo

Massimo Polidoro is an investigator of the paranormal, author, lecturer, and co-founder and head of CICAP, the Italian skeptics group. His website is at www.massimopolidoro.com.