ByAlex Scorseby, writer at
Alex Scorseby

The whole point of a magic trick is to mystify its audience. Some tricks, however, are far more difficult to figure out than others. In the film Sleight, a young street magician has a unique method of creating tricks no one can replicate.

In the real world, magicians have to rely on research, hard work, and endless practice. A rare and elite set of illusions are the ones that confuse even professional magicians when performed in close quarters. When a card trick or coin bend can cause amazement for those who think they've seen it all, it's well on its way to legendary status.

Three of the five tricks below fall into that category, while two are equally legendary as large spectacles. All have the ability to confound even the most practiced magician.

[Credit: Library of Congress]
[Credit: Library of Congress]

Hooker’s Impossible Card Rise

Harry Houdini may have been the 20th century’s greatest magician, but even he couldn’t figure out the secret behind Dr. Samuel Cox Hooker's “Impossibilities” routine, which debuted in 1914. A century later, the world’s leading magicians are still trying to understand it.

Hooker would borrow a deck of cards from one of his fellow magicians, place it in a glass cardholder, and ask them to call out specific cards — at which point, each one would float up. He placed a glass dome on top of the cardholder and the cards would continue to levitate.

Hooker allowed the other magicians to inspect his equipment, but they were all stumped; later he added to the trick a floating picture of a bear's head, which seemingly blinked and moved its mouth underneath the dome. Hooker sold his equipment, but refused to explain how the trick was performed, and in 2007 magician John Gaughan recreated it to an equally flabbergasted audience of magicians.

The Berglas Effect

Some of the greatest card tricks create the illusion of extreme simplicity, and this variation on the Any Card At Any Number (ACAAN) trick meets that criteria. Here’s how magician and mentalist David Berglas's version of ACAAN works. The magician has a deck of cards, which lay untouched on a table, or secure in the hands of a third party. One audience member chooses a card at random, such as the Queen of Hearts, while another chooses a number between 1 and 52. So if the specifications are Queen of Hearts and 17, then when the cards are dealt from the top of the deck, in the trick the 17th card will be the Queen of Hearts.

This trick would seem to involve a planted audience stooge, but Berglas, who popularized the trick, claims that was never the case. Variations of this act date back to the 1800s, but the Berglas version is the most famous. It’s been taught to few people, such as UK-based magician Marc Paul, and Berglas eventually explained the basics in his book, which is expensive enough that most people won’t bother buying it. In practice, the trick is a quiet showstopper, and people have wondered for years about its inner workings.

Berglas, by the way, escaped to Great Britain from Nazi Germany at age 11, became a member of the Intelligence Service of the US Army at age 19, and eventually consulted on several James Bond movies. Along the way, he managed to create one of the most enduring magic mysteries of the 20th century.

The Osterlind Coin Bend

Bending utensils and coins is a trademark aspect of the mentalist performance catalog, but not all bending tricks are created equal. Coin bends are common, with many involving a member of the audience offering change of their own, which is marked uniquely so it cannot be switched for a pre-bent coin, and which they’re allowed to keep. But mentalist Richard Osterlind, who has worked on stage for more than three decades, has a coin bend variation that can be performed with all safety nets removed, and at close range, that even other mentalists can’t figure out. So far, he hasn’t released the specifics of his version, which is one of the great puzzles of the mentalist world.

The Portal To Hawaii

We’re pretty sure that David Copperfield isn’t a mutant like the X-Men character Blink — and yet he’s seemingly able to teleport across the planet. For this trick, Copperfield and an audience member disappear from the stage in a flash of light, before reappearing on video on a Hawaiian beach, where the audience member is reunited with a family member. Soon, Copperfield returns to the theater.

Think it’s prerecorded? Before disappearing, Copperfield takes a Polaroid photo with the audience member (and writes their initials on his arm), which he still has in Hawaii. Think it’s a hidden soundstage? The audience member runs into the ocean, which would be unimaginably difficult to create in a theater.

The site Magic Secrets Explained narrows the explanation down to two possibilities: Either the audience member is a plant — in which case the video is prerecorded and the photo is recreated — or Copperfield indeed somehow built a fake ocean underneath the stage. Even then, it’s a mystery how the two of them disappear in the blink of an eye. Actually, yeah, maybe “mutant powers” is the simplest explanation.

The Indian Rope Trick

Real illusion or fake news? The grandfather of unexplained tricks is this illusion — or is it a hoax? In the 1800s, the story out of India was that certain performers could coax a thick rope to rise from a basket, stand straight up in the air, and bear the weight of a small boy as he climbed the rope. In some versions the boy disappears from the top of a rope, after which he perhaps wanders back toward the conjurer from within the crowd, or is even found in a basket. The best tellings feature the magician following the boy up the rope, supposedly angry at him, knife in teeth — and they both disappear!

A rope trick ad from 1920. [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
A rope trick ad from 1920. [Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Late-1800s reports of the trick appeared in US newspapers but were ultimately retracted as total fiction. Photos of supposed performances of the trick appeared into the early 1900s, but were also seen to be staged. Magic groups offered bounties to anyone who could perform or explain the trick. The rope trick was enticing precisely because of its total mystery.

In 1995, however, Indian magician Ishamuddin Khan managed to pull off an outdoor performance of the trick after years of research and practice. The outside setting was key, as it removed the possibility of wires or other hidden support from trusses above an indoor stage. We still don't know how he did it, but the sad truth is that successfully executing an illusion that had long been considered impossible didn't turn the magician into a star. In 2009 reports circulated that Khan was having difficulty making ends meet and was working as a conjurer at McDonald's.


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