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Ask the Slot Expert: To figure out how magic tricks work, take a lesson from casino security

28 October 2020

One of the ways that casino security personnel catch casino cheats is by studying the actions made by players and dealers. Actions by some players stand out when most other players don't act that way. Actions by dealers stand out when they don't follow the prescribed way to do things.

You can use the same principles of an action that doesn't look natural or an action that is repeated to get an idea of how magic tricks work.

Dealers are taught to do things in a standard way every time. Dealers stand out when they do something in a way contrary to the standard operating procedure. In this case, repetition means there's nothing to see here.

When trying to suss out a magic trick, on the other hand, repetition means you should probably take a closer look at the action. Take Penn's performance of the Chinese Magic Sticks trick at the end of season 7 episode 13 of Penn & Teller Fool Us.

You've probably seen the Chinese Magic Sticks trick. The magician holds two sticks. Each stick has a tassle attached to a string going through a hole in the end of the stick. The tassle on one stick is hanging at the end of the string. The tassle on the other stick is right under the stick.

When the magician pulls down on the latter tassle, the other tassle goes up. When the magician pulls down on that tassle, the other tassle goes back up. At some point the magician pulls the sticks apart to show that even though it looks like both tassles are attached to one string, there is nothing connecting one stick to the other.

Take a close look at Penn's actions as he performs the trick. Every time he pulls down on a tassle, he tilts the sticks up. After he's pulled down on the tassle, he brings the sticks level again. Every time.

Here, repetition is a clue to how the trick works. Do you think that the sticks might be hollow and there is a weight inside to pull the string back and the tassle up when the stick is tilted? I hope you do, because that's how the sticks work.

Penn's patter that accompanies the trick is a good lesson in statistics: correlation is not causation. The movement of one tassle is correlated with the movement of the other, but one tassle's movement is not causing the movement in the other tassle. The example frequently given in a statistics class is that areas with a large number of churches also have a large number of bars. Does attending church drive one to drink?

No, areas with a large number of churches tend to have a large number of people. There tends to be more bars where there are more people.

Even though we may have our own strategies for playing slot and video poker machines, we all play the machines in pretty much the same way. When a player plays in an unusual way, that player stands out.

Take the recent Russian slot cheats. We tend to get into a rhythm playing a machine. We might switch from hitting Bet Max to hitting Bet One once in a while, but we quickly fall back into our usual rhythm.

The Russian slot cheats never played in a rhythm. They would wait and wait and then quickly hit the Bet Max button. Then they would wait and wait until quickly hitting Bet Max again. It's like playing to a metronome with a random interval between beats.

The reason they waited between plays is because they had reverse engineered the RNG in the machine and they were waiting for a signal from the cell phone hidden in their pockets. The signal indicated that they would have a good chance of catching a favorable result from the RNG if they started a spin now.

When you want to figure out a magic trick, look for actions that don't look natural. Does the magician turn his (or her) back or side to the audience? Does he put his hand beneath the table, even briefly? Does he put his hand in his pocket?

Let's look at a trick performed by Daniel K on season 7 episode 9 of Penn & Teller Fool Us. The Cliff's Notes version of the trick: The magician puts a set of thumbcuffs (handcuffs for the thumbs) on a vollunteer from the audience and has him verify that he can't get out of them. The magician opens the cuffs using a key and puts the key in his left jacket pocket.

He then asks the host, Alyson Hannigan to pick a card at random while he riffles the deck. She looks at the card and shows it to the audience and then puts it back in the deck. He then puts the deck back in the box and puts the box on Alyson's outstretched hand.

Daniel then has the vollunteer help him put the thumbcuffs on his thumbs. Daniel says that the trick is that he will escape from the thumbcuffs and find Alyson's card at the same time.

Daniel has the vollunteer cover his restrained thumbs with a handkerchief. After showing that he can easily escape from the thumbcuffs by pulling one unshackled hand and then the other out from under the handkerchief, he frees his left hand to get the key from his left pocket and give it to the vollunteer.

He puts his left hand back under the handkerchief, and then moves his covered hands over the deck in Alyson's hand so he can get her card out from the box.

Daniel then moves his hands away from the box and asks Alyson to open it. She opens it and discovers that there are no cards in it. Just a pair of thumbcuffs. He then asks the vollunteer to pull the handkerchief off of his hands, revealing a card impaled on his thumbs. Alyson's card, which was the six of hearts.

If you watch Daniel K closely, you'll see that he turns his side to the audience during the trick. You can't see what he's doing on the side that is hidden. That's part of the secret to the trick. The other is that Alyson did not have a free choice in the card pick.

I have a deck that is constructed in such a way that I can force you to pick a particular card. I assume Daniel's deck has a similar gaff. You can't tell how the deck works just by watching Alyson pick a card, so I'm not going to reveal how it works.

Daniel turns his side to the audience after he puts the cards back in the box. He turns to the right, presumably to get the thumbcuffs from the vollunteer, but he's also putting the box of cards in his right pocket and pulling out the box with the thumbcuffs in them. Alyson was holding a box with thumbcuffs the whole time.

Later it looked perfectly natural when Daniel pulled his left hand out from under the handkerchief to reach into his left pcket to get the key to give to the vollunteer. But look at how he's holding his left hand. That doesn't look very natural because he's palming the thumbcuffs. His hand also doesn't look natural after he takes the key from his pocket because he's now palming the card.

When he puts his hand back underneath the handkerchief, he puts the card, which already had two holes in it, on his thumbs in preparation for the big reveal.

One other thing to note is that Alyson never marked the card. Was that really the physical card that she picked?

Pockets are a magician's best friend. Consider this trick by Eric Easton on season 7 episode 13 of Masters of Illusion. He threw a beach ball to an audience member and asked her to choose red cards or black cards. She chose red. Then she threw the beach ball to another audience member who chose between hearts and diamonds. She chose diamonds and threw the ball to another person. The next person chose number cards over face cards. Then the next person chose high number cards (six through ten) over low cards. The final person chose six. It's clear that there was a free choice to choose the six of diamonds and the choice wasn't forced in any way.

Eric asked him to come up on stage and bring the beach ball. Eric cut the beach ball open with a knife and asked the audience member to reach into the ball and pull out anything that is inside. The audience member pulled out a folded up card, the six of diamonds.

What's the unusual action during this trick? After the audience member chose high cards, Eric put his left hand into his jackpot pocket, turned a little to put his left side upstage, and pulled his jacket pocket behind him. We really can't see what he's doing in his pocket and his hand was in his pocket for a long time. His hand stays in his pocket until the audience member joins him on stage.

You can see some movement in the fabric of his jacket -- while he's finding the six of diamonds in his pocket and folding the card. He palms the card when he takes his hand of his pocket and, if you watch closely, you can see him put his left hand in the beach ball after he cuts it. That's when he drops the card in the beach ball.

Ed Alonzo did a similar trick on season 7 episode 15. He takes a ring from an audience member, appears to destroy it, and then a delivery person comes on stage to deliver a sealed box. They cut open the box. It contains a gift box, which contains a jewlery box, which contains her ring.

Watch the box closely while the delivery man is holding it and waiting for Alonzo to sign the delivery sheet. You can't see the delivery man's right hand, but you can see the box moving ever so slightly -- as he puts the ring that Alonzo had just palmed and given to him in the jewelry box and then puts the jewelry box into the gift box in the "sealed" box.

Take a lesson from casino security if you want to figure out how a magic trick works. Look for unnatural or unusual behavior. That's probably when the magic is happening.


Here are the latest figures from https://www.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#cases.

Totals Weekly Increases
US NV US NV
Date Cases  Deaths Cases Deaths Cases Deaths Cases Deaths
 10/27   8,680,611   225,084   96,178   1,749   492,026   5,585   5,238   (10) 
 10/20   8,188,585   219,499   90,940   1,759   401,037   5,053   4,501   48 
 10/13   7,787,548   214,446   86,439   1,711   351,270   4,886   3,910   48 
 10/06   7,436,278   209,560   82,529   1,663   306,965   4,962   3,232   36 
 09/29   7,129,313   204,598   79,297   1,627   303,616   5,136   3,058   54 
 09/22   6,825,697   199,462   76,239   1,573   288,070   5,370   2,196   82 
 09/15   6,537,627   194,092   72,043   1,491   250,265   5,404   1,825   65 
 09/08   6,287,362   188,688   72,218   1,426   282,919   5,638   2,734   92 
 09/01   6,004,443   183,050   69,484   1,334   251,790   5,291   3,237   104 
 08/25   5,752,653   177,759   66,247   1,230   330,411   7,889   4,076   125 
 08/18   5,422,242   169,870   62,171   1,105   358,071   7,463   4,973   114 
 08/11   5,064,171   162,407   57,198   991   365,353   7,203   5,776   117 
 08/04   4,698,818   155,204   51,422   874   418,683   7,532   7,367   109 
 07/28   4,280,135   147,672   44,055   764   460,996   7,042   7,130   91 
 07/21   3,819,139  140,630  36,195  674  463,682  5,395  8,181  57 
 07/14   3,355,457   135,235   28,744   617   422,861   5,102   5,607   57 
 07/07   2,932,596   130,133   23,137   560   351,367   3,394   5,006   24 
 06/30   2,581,229   126,739   18,131   536   278,941   6,406   4,367   26 
 06/23   2,302,288   120,333   13,764   510 

I don't know what happened with Nevada's death count. I looked at the historical data. There was a negative adjustment of 42 on 10/21.

Covid, covid, covid may not be the top story in the news on November 4, but it's certainly going to still be in the news that day and for many, many months to come.


John Robison
John Robison is an expert on slot machines and how to play them. John is a slot and video poker columnist and has written for many of gaming’s leading publications. He holds a master's degree in computer science from the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology.

You may hear John give his slot and video poker tips live on The Good Times Show, hosted by Rudi Schiffer and Mike Schiffer, which is broadcast from Memphis on KXIQ 1180AM Friday afternoon from from 2PM to 5PM Central Time. John is on the show from 4:30 to 5. You can listen to archives of the show on the web anytime.

Books by John Robison:

The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots
John Robison
John Robison is an expert on slot machines and how to play them. John is a slot and video poker columnist and has written for many of gaming’s leading publications. He holds a master's degree in computer science from the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology.

You may hear John give his slot and video poker tips live on The Good Times Show, hosted by Rudi Schiffer and Mike Schiffer, which is broadcast from Memphis on KXIQ 1180AM Friday afternoon from from 2PM to 5PM Central Time. John is on the show from 4:30 to 5. You can listen to archives of the show on the web anytime.

Books by John Robison:

The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots