“You go with the table that brought you.”
That was how Ron Conley, one of the world’s preeminent authorities on preventing casino fraud, responded to my question about the type of table surface he wanted for his demonstration of card handling. Ron was attending 31 Faces North, a conference that Allan Slaight and I co-host with Magicana where many of the world’s great inventors and performers of magic congregate to exchange ideas and libations. He was about to demonstrate the real deal, so to speak, when it came to defrauding a casino with playing cards.
I had asked the question because many magicians can be quite picky when it comes time to selecting a performing surface. They have become accustomed to ‘close-up pads’, mats that provide a soft surface, one with ‘give’, on which to perform. Gary Ouellet, often the triggerman for the powerful lobby firm Government Consultants International, used to set up a micro-stage – a close up mat on stubby legs – and speakers on each side, to demonstrate his intimate work. (Gary was the triggerman in the sense that he always offered to take the picture rather than be in it, a rather astute move particularly when some of his colleagues would have to testify years later about their activities before government inquiries.) Conley, however, was much more pragmatic: professional card cheats have to be able to work on any surface.
My favorite performing surface is a beautiful white tablecloth, the type found in restaurants like Il Posto, a local haunt. Of course, it is not just the tablecloth. It is also the ambience created by the cutlery, the stemware, the cups and saucers, and the breadcrumbs scattered across the surface that make the magic appear real, real in the organic sense. Magic is always stronger when it ‘just happens’. This applies not only to the sleight-of-hand technique used to animate it but also to the environment in which it takes places.
Magic performed in the close-up gallery at the Magic Castle or on an unadorned card table at a magic convention can’t compete with magic that grows out of, and uses the resources available from the environment. Knives, forks, glassware, sugar, tablecloth and other articles found on or around the table are for me the earth, wind, fire and water used by alchemists to turn base metal into gold.
Just make sure you save room for dessert.