The Art of Practise

Me, age 12

Some have said – myself included – that I’m a recluse.  It’s not true.  For the past number years I could be found on any given night at a hockey rink.  Both of my sons play hockey, the youngest one – named Harrison and now not so young – at quite a competitive level. (Harrison has a certain notoriety with the magic community. They are his hands, age seven, shuffling the cards as a young Vernon in Dai Vernon: The Spirit of Magic. He also tossed out the memorable retort when he was asked, at age twelve, what his father did for a living. He replied:  “My dad’s a clown…I have really big shoes to fill.” And finally, when I pointed out to him that I dedicated the first volume of the Dai Vernon biography to he and his brother, i.e. “For the children of magicians: may you grow up and continue to believe in miracles,” he said, “You should have dedicated the book, ‘To my sons, Courtney and Harrison, who will never read this book.’” ) Being born and raised in Toronto, I am also a member of the Leafs Nation – Go Leafs Go.  Now you are probably wondering what this has to do with magic.

My youngest, Harrison, age 17.

Well, I’d like to think that hockey has informed my magic, and that my magic has informed my sons about hockey. Many years ago I undertook the challenge of learning Dad Stevens’ Riffle Cull.  I’ve been practicing it virtually everyday now for six or so years.  I considered it the most difficult sleight in the canon and also one of the most rewarding. The idea is to “locate, secure and stock”, as Erdnase would say, target cards as they flicker off your thumbs during the course of a riffle shuffle.  To do it with control and without hesitation is very difficult. I do, however, get into a Zen-like state as I practice the maneuver.  It really becomes a meditation on improvisation. One of the challenges, of course, is to recognize the indices of the cards as they flicker by. That’s where hockey comes in. I remember from my youth the concept of blocking out all of the net except for the four corners. The idea is train the shooter to aim for the most vulnerable spots on the goaltender, at that time, the four corners of the net.  (Some have added a fifth area – between the legs – as another zone, but that is discussion best saved for another day.) By reducing the size of the target, the shooter develops greater accuracy.

So, I thought I would apply that principle to the Stevens Riffle Cull. I started practicing the sleight with “Texan” playing cards, specifically No. 45-R as they had small indices.  This helped me quite bit for when I used a standard deck of cards the indices jumped out at me as if the deck was made for the visually impaired. I learned years later from Jason England that Steve Forte used a similar technique, namely gluing pairs of cards slightly off-kilter, but face to face, so that when he tabled the pair, he would have to determine the value of the card with only a hint from the contour of the index.

Hopefully my obsessive interest in practice has helped my sons with their hockey.  Recently, I had a conversation with Harrison about practice. Much to my surprise, Harrison seemed interested in how I practice.  (I practice a couple of hours each day.) He was trying to learn a move – the toe drag – in which the player drags the puck with the toe of his stick in an artful manner around – hopefully – the defender.

One of the things I stressed was the importance of executing the move slowly. “It is only by executing it slowly,” I said, “that you can obtain a real understanding of the move and the ability to execute it.”  I learned that from Ross Bertram, a master sleight-of-hand artist with whom I studied for many years. Not only do you learn how the move should feel like when executed properly, but you also embed every nuance of technique onto your soul.

Harrison informed me that he already knew the mechanics of the move. I replied that by going slowly he would learn more details than he ever imagined, that his hands would be able to sense every change in position and movement required to execute the move at speed.  It was only then, after he thoroughly understood the mechanics of the move that he could start to bring it up to speed.

After discussing this concept further with Julie Eng – a wonderful magician who, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it – is more obsessed with Argentine tango than magic – we agreed that one of the main benefits of performing something slowly was that it gave you the opportunity to “self-correct” as the technique was in motion. That is a very important concept. You have to develop the ability to self-correct, and you can only self-correct in performance – and at high speed – if you have a deep understanding of every nuance of the technique.

It takes discipline to slow down and self-correct especially when your peers equate speed with success. Hopefully, I will be at the rink the day when Harrison executes his maneuver because I will know how difficult it was to perform and also how much it is like performing magic – hours and hours of practice and dedication for something that takes place in the blink of an eye.