Furniture once used by scammers now repurposed for good
Thu, Jan 20, 2011 (midnight)
Photo: Christopher DeVargas
Magicians are honest deceivers. Unlike crooked politicians, slick salesmen and unfaithful spouses, a magician doesn’t just trick you—he tells you he’s tricking you.
Except for when he doesn’t.
With a little practice and a straight face, a magician can use his skills in deception to mimic mediumship (pretending to talk to the dead) or beat the dealer. And when some magicians can’t pay their bills, they do just that.
On the other hand, magicians are usually the first to expose fraudulent mediums and card cheats. In their stage shows, Penn & Teller and Derren Brown replicate and reveal the mind-reading tricks of “psychic” Sylvia Browne and crossover-er John Edward. And sleight-of-hand experts Steve Forte and Jason England help Vegas casinos catch card cheats.
The following is the story of two magicians who use their powers of deception for good. They’ve taken two illusions—table illusions, to be specific—from the fields of mediumship and card cheating, and they’ve ushered them into the world of magic. These might be the most interesting tables you’ll ever read about.
Nobody can talk to the dead. Well, technically, people can talk to the dead, but the dead can’t talk back. Dead people can’t play trumpets, can’t ring bells, can’t move Ouija boards or levitate tables. But that didn’t slow down 19th century medium Eusapia Palladino. She had a fantastic, sprawling, decades-long career. She won the confidence of author/physician Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as Pierre Curie and many other scientists. She got them all believing in life after death. How’d she do it? By floating a table in the air.
First, Palladino would ask her audience to sit in a small circle around the table. Then she’d dim the lights. She’d ask the people on either side of her to place their feet on her shoes so she couldn’t raise the table with her feet. And, slowly, the table would begin rocking. Then, it would start floating.
How’d Palladino do it? With her feet, of course. She had hard, gimmicked shoes, which would stay in place when she slipped out of them. Then she’d slide her feet under the table legs and lift.
Cute trick, right?
Wrong. This wasn’t presented as a trick. Palladino told her spectators that their dead wives, husbands and children were moving the table. And then she took their money.
That’s how it worked with mediums. They performed a magic act and presented it as proof of life after death. Then they accepted people’s checks and moved to the next town. Many charged exorbitant fees, and many of the people paying those amounts were emotionally crippled grievers.
So, ethically speaking, the floating table has a dicey history. Today, though, one magician is reviving the illusion on firm moral ground.
Dirk Losander looks like a magician. Not a Lance Burton-type magician, but a Harry Potter-type magician. He’s got long blond hair, wears flowing jackets and often carries a staff. He surrounds himself with bubbles, flames and New Age music.
“Eighteen years ago,” Losander says, “I had a corporate gig for a fryer company. They wanted me to float the inside of a two-foot-by-one-foot fryer, to show how easy it was to clean or change the oil. I designed a method, and I performed it at the convention. It was a huge hit. When the convention was done, I started thinking about how I could use the secret technique I’d developed to float something else. After two weeks, I decided on a table.”
If you watch Losander float a table—and you can right here—you’ll notice two things: 1) the trick looks like real magic, and 2) the trick is really hard to figure out. The table doesn’t use strings, doesn’t use magnets, doesn’t use electronics and, unlike the Palladino version, doesn’t use feet.
“I did a show in a German airport,” Losander recalls, “for the opening of a new terminal. My son had a book that made an airplane sound when you pushed a button, and I wanted to incorporate that into the performance. So when the table began to fly, my son would push the button. After the show, a couple people told me, ‘That’s a nice trick, but you have to do something about the engine—it’s too loud.’ They thought I had a gasoline powered table!”
Losander’s method is entirely different from Palladino’s. But the thing that most distinguishes his performance from hers is what Losander is trying to accomplish. Whereas Palladino floated tables to extract money from the vulnerable, Losander floats tables to inspire.
“The main purpose behind my magic is showing people that anything is possible. I want people to see my table, and then think about their own lives, and realize that just because something seems impossible doesn’t mean that it can’t happen later. Change is possible.”
If Arthur Conan Doyle and Pierre Curie were alive to see Losander’s trick, who knows how they’d react. Who knows what they’d guess Losander’s method to be. They’d probably believe whatever he told them. In fact, a lot of people would do the same. And if Losander were a different man, he could probably make a lot of money with his trick. But he’s no fraudulent medium; he’s just a magician with a really good table trick.
In the 1970s, Ray Carson lived in Henderson. He worked as a pit boss at the Horseshoe casino and as a security supervisor at Caesars.
Oh, Carson had a third job, too: designing gambling devices for card cheaters.
Carson, who recently passed away at 102, grew famous for his prism blackjack shoe, which allowed crooked dealers to glimpse the next card to be dealt, and then deal the card beneath it. But the prism shoe was Carson’s passion project; Carson’s bread and butter was the holdout table.
A holdout table looks like a regular card table, but when you sit at just the right spot and push in just the right place, it sucks up a playing card or spits one out. You cover the sucking and spitting from the other players with your hands or with your other cards. One of Ray Carson’s most deceptive holdouts is a 32-inch-by-32-inch folding card table with a wood top, felt inlay and metal legs. It looks like the kind of thing you’d buy at Walmart or Target. It looks thin, cheap and completely nondescript. Of course, it might be the most distinctive folding card table in history.
Its secret is a springboard concealed beneath the felt inlay. When you press on the right spot, the spring pushes a card through the part where the felt center meets the wood.
According to sleight-of-hand master and cheating expert Jason England, “The Carson table was most likely used for gin. In gin, a single good card, like an ace, seven or eight, could be very useful. And if you’re playing in a big game, where $25,000 or $50,000 might change hands, a single good card could be really useful.”
Who knows how much money illicitly changed hands atop the Carson table. The one thing we know for sure about the table is this: It’s up for auction next week. The starting bid is $1,500, and it’s expected to go for $3,000-$5,000.
The table is at the Chicago-based Potter & Potter Magic Memorabilia auction house, and the man bringing it from the back rooms to the spotlight is auctioneer/magician/magic historian Gabe Fajuri.
Fajuri has been doing magic since he was 6. He’s performed at kids’ birthday parties and at restaurants like Max & Erma’s and Bennigan’s. At 17, he lectured at the Magic Collectors Weekend in Chicago, and since then he’s established himself as one of the world’s foremost magic scholars.
“Ray Carson definitely built this table for crossroaders—cheaters,” says Fajuri. “But we’re selling it for entertainment purposes only. It will probably go to a magician or to a collector who can show it off. It’s not our goal to arm Legion of the Night with tools of their trade.”
Holdout tables like Carson’s, Fajuri says, aren’t often available to the public. “This stuff trades privately,” he says. “It’s rarely available by auction. You can count the number of times these things have come to auction on one or two hands.”
But isn’t there a danger that a magician would acquire the table and then use it for evil?
Unlikely. “Most magicians,” Fajuri explains, “don’t have the balls to be card cheats, let alone use a holdout table. If you secretly palm a card or do a shift or second deal and get caught, there’s no real evidence against you. But if you get caught using a holdout table, it’d be hard to deny.”
Thanks to Fajuri’s efforts, a powerful tool for criminals is being transformed into the ultimate magician’s show-and-tell piece.
Both Fajuri’s Carson holdout table and Dirk Losander’s floating table illustrate the possibility of positive transformation. Think back to Palladino’s floating table. Think of how she used it to take God knows how much money from God knows how many grieving widows and parents. And now, think about how Losander uses the exact same trick to inspire and delight.
Just because a trick or an object has been used for nefarious purposes doesn’t mean it always will be. Like Losander said, change is possible—even in the seemingly most rigid of things.