David Kwong is a master illusionist. A puzzle king amongst the public and his peers, including a New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal ‘cruciverbalist’—a crossword puzzle creator for the uninitiated—Kwong wields unlimited tricks. The Harvard graduate sold out all 125 New York City performances of his one-man show, The Enigmatist, in 2019, and has just debuted the Los Angeles iteration at the Geffen Playhouse after seeing the effort placed on pandemic pause.
During the pandemic, Kwong spearheaded a digital production of Inside the Box, a showcase of puzzles meant to challenge and bewilder viewers over Zoom. In recent years, he has leant his hand to select movie magic, including Now You See Me, The Imitation Game, Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation, and more. Never one to limit his mediums, in 2017, Kwong published Spellbound: Seven Principles of Illusion to Captivate Audiences and Unlock the Secrets of Success.
We connected with Kwong to see if he might be interested in slightly refreshing the ever practical and socially saturated principles of illusion he outlines in his book. Despite being deep in rehearsals for his long-awaited Geffen Playhouse run, he charmingly obliged. Here now are Kwong’s explanation of the seven principles, supported by a handful of illustrative Editor’s Notes that prove these illusion-stimulators are rampant in culture.
Your awareness of the principles—and more importantly, your harnessing of them—might just enable you to be the magician you’ve always wanted to be.
Because Assumptions Are an Illusionist’s Best Friend
(David Kwong) This is the bedrock of all the principles. Your mind is a liar, and there is a gap between what you see and what you believe and assume. And magicians play around in that gap! It’s a very broad principle and can be applied to any person who has used someone’s assumptions against them.To quote contemporary illusionist, painter, and author Derren Brown, “Much, if not all, of conjuring relies on the performer creating a false trail of events that clearly leads to a particular climax..., The magician creates a very strong sense of A leads to B leads to C leads to D, where A is the start of the trick and D is the impossible climax...
[Editor’s Note:] One particular illusionist this principle calls to mind is businessman and action star Arnold Schwarzenegger—former Governor of California. Schwarzenegger remarked recently to The Los Angeles Times that the Republican lashing by California Governor Gavin Newsom—in the context of a voter-driven recall, the very likes of which saw Schwarzenegger take office 18 years prior, as a Republican—was on account of its “wacky” and “disastrous” approach. This bashing proves that the Govenator not only loves an outspoken opinion, but is loyal to himself and his principles ahead of any party.
But how did Arnie ascend the throne of one of the world’s most popular destinations, one of its largest economies? Well, facing an electricity crisis in the midst of a sluggish economy, due in part to the dot com bubble burst of the late 90s, then sitting Governor, Gray Davis, saw enough petitions amass to spur forward only the 2nd recall in the country’s history (in one of only 19 states that allows such a thing). This early 2000s recall, much like the recent effort—spurred by coronavirus response, forest fires, crime, and other touchy topics—played on an assumption that was presumed as thick in the air as the smog above the 405 freeway: it was time for a change.
Schwarzenegger’s entering the race capitalized on its unexpectedness (an assumption), and from there, with publicity and an established base his competing candidates could only dream about—not to mention a brash self-presentation so camp it almost seemed fake—he outperformed a slew of other Republicans by a considerable margin on voting day. Those who voted in favor? Well, those who assumed he would kick ass in office like as did in Terminator 2 (wherein he led, instead, a relatively centrist, economically buoyant governorship on platforms of environmental preservation, universal healthcare, and prison reform, among others). Those who voted against him? They assumed, of course, that a meathead immigrant action star (who, prior to all this, married a Kennedy—how’s that for side-stepping assumptions!?) couldn’t possibly have the chops to govern the state. Whether those folks’ vote went to another Republican candidate (a wasted vote? why so many candidates?) or to retain a guy literally called Gray in the face of a tanned, chiseled, grinning, former Mr. Universe…. is irrelevant. Their assumptions were eaten by Schwarzenegger for breakfast. Those that didn’t vote at all? Well, unfortunately, the conditionality behind this personal choice very often pegs to assumptions—that it’s rigged, that one’s vote can’t possibly matter, that a recall is not a normal election—which can be very difficult to deconstruct… and allows for tricks to be pulled.
When Schwarzenegger famously declared “I’ll be back” inside the police station in the original The Terminator, we thought he’d be back to kill more cops and save more kids from cyborgs—we didn’t think he meant the podium, the governor’s office in Sacramento, the second term ballot of which he won in 2006. Hasta la vista, baby.
Because the Baggage Allowance on this Flight Is Limitless
Magicians uber-prepare for things. For example, I once walked into someone’s backyard and asked him to name a single playing card. He named the five of hearts. We walked over to a spot in the dirt and dug up that card. I then revealed that I had snuck into his house earlier that afternoon and buried 52 playing cards in his backyard.
This principle largely hinges on the audience dismissing the very idea because “no one would be so crazy as to take all the time to do X.” But magicians are crazy. And it’s worth it to us! I often think of how effective it would be for someone in a job interview to have three different copies of the resumé in their portfolio—and you give your interviewer the one that best suits the way that conversation moved. Or if you’re pitching something over Zoom. Why not have several different PowerPoints prepared, and share the one that is most appropriate for the moment? Of course, you never tell your audience about the other versions!
[Editor’s Note:] Enter the always over-prepared Shohei Ohtani. Not since Babe Ruth (1895 - 1948) has a baseball player presented such a profound and cunning mix of Major League Baseball skills. Since his debut in 2018, Ohtani has continued to demonstrate why he’s drawn comparisons to the sport’s biggest legend, with a collection of tricks carefully tucked up his jersey sleeve. Ohtani can pitch ten straight innings and simultaneously be a key ingredient in notching runs on the scoreboard.
If he’s not icing you from the pitcher’s mound? Not a problem. He’ll step to the plate. While most pitchers will sit those half-innings out to gear up for the next, Ohtani’s overloaded his arsenal, consistently taking a crack at the opposing pitchers. Guaranteed to swing big, Ohtani currently leads the league with 44 home runs this season alone. That’s not all! Give up a base? He’s liable to steal another one from you. Any evidence that says there’s only one way for Ohtani to beat you is surely an illusion.
Because the Heart Strings Are Meant to Be Plucked
Magicians’ tricks are more effective when they imbue their illusions with storytelling. Emotional arcs are more engaging. Audiences become more invested in tricks that take them on a journey. But what I find most interesting is that magicians focus on what the takeaway is at the end of their story. I might do a trick in which I subtly grab a card from the deck. But I’ll say to the audience, recapping before I reveal their card, “And I never touched the cards right?!” But I did touch the cards. I touched them in an off-beat moment when I was brushing a speck of dust off the table and had to move them out of the way for a second. But you underscore what you want them to believe and take with them.
[Editor’s Note:] Barbara Walters is, by all intents and purposes, a national treasure. Known for her renowned hard-hitting broadcast journalism and robust interviewing abilities, the personality has interviewed every sitting U.S. president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama. A pioneer for women in journalism and media, Walters has appeared as the host of several television programs like The Today Show, The View, 20/20, ABC Evening News, and her annual Barbara Walters’ 10 Most Fascinating People. Walters famously warms up her subjects with familiarity and banter, then harpoons them with a hard-hitting, tear jerking inquisition that leaves the subjects overcome with emotions and the ratings sky high.
Walters interviewed Donald Trump in 2015—the man who seemed to have it all, from his multibillion-dollar brand to a reality series and a supportive family. However, the one thing Trump sought that he didn’t have in his tiny grasp was perhaps the “greatest calling”, as he posed it: the presidency. Walters’ pointed questions took the audience on a journey of Trump’s candidacy prior to the election, calling into question his aptitude to be the Commander in Chief.
At one point, Walters looked at Trump directly and asked “Are you a bigot?” This off-beat moment led to a string of uncomfortable responses that clearly summed up Trump’s questionable policies. The magical arc of Walters’ approach illumined the flimsiness of the Trump family perspective (Donald just being “true to himself”), later illustrated by four years of divisive rhetoric and a firestorm in the media. Walters asked Trump such a pointed question, ensnaring his emotions, so that he could basically only answer, “Well yes, and I’ll tell you why…”
Lights, Camera, Manipulation!
Misdirection is a magician’s best friend. We control what you see, just like he director of a movie controls the frame in which you view things. And misdirection makes the audience look away from where the secret moves are happening. Politicians, of course, use this to distract the public. A well-placed incendiary Tweet might distract the public from another issue at hand. I also think of misdirection as the cognitive buffer between what you see and what is really happening.
[From my book] “We live in a world of physical misdirection. The meat and poultry most of us eat, for example, is raised and slaughtered far, far away from customers—sometimes under conditions that would give them serious pause, if they saw them—then packaged and displayed in such a way that kids in America can grow up without having any idea that meat comes from animals. The illusion is that grocery stores produce food.”
[Editor’s Note:] This clever maneuver brings to mind most political strategies that anchor in distraction and diversion. One particular consideration is the armchair psychologist’s framing, well summarized by The Daily Beast in 2017, of the closeted anti-LGBTQ politician, and with them their abounding hypocrisy. With a white-knuckled clinging to the closet frame, it’s easy to understand how self-hate and shame can fluidly convert to vitriol and hostility towards queer groups. And from there, how that vitriol and resentment can become a policy platform, or lead to extreme, polarizing behavior. Considering the spate of Republicans in recent years exposed and then resigning for same-sexing or soliciting from same-sex minors, it’s easy to see how the likes of GQ and The New York Times tend to run with sassy headlines when these stories break, like “Anti-Gay Ohio Republican Resigns After, Surprise, Having Sex with a Man in the State Capitol”, or “Homophobic? Maybe You’re Gay?”, respectively.
Alas, while there are studies out there (chiefly a 2012 research effort for Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) that show a percentage of “highly straight” individuals have demonstrated “levels of same-sex attraction”, and are therefore more likely to favor harsher penalties for petty crimes if the perpetrator was homosexual, or to express “greater implicit hostility toward gay subjects”, the default Secretly Gay Homophobe argument is far from substantial enough to properly interpret anti-LGBTQ prejudice and tendencies in American politics and culture. The studies, however, are rather powerful at exploring the threshold where the magic act of casting an illusion over oneself—and in the process, trying to pull the curtain over one’s desires—may have damaging, and even violent, outcomes.
Your Wish Is Not Your Command!
There’s a wonderful social science experiment called “But you are free to accept or refuse.” A young man walked into a mall and asked shoppers for change for the bus. He received money 10 percent of the time. But when he asked shoppers for money and appended it with, “But you are free to accept or refuse,” reminding them of their free choice, he received money 47.5 percent of the time. This is the power of choice. When we can decide the outcome of things, we feel more empowered. Magicians, of course, love this and use this to our advantage.
Real life examples of this might include a parent asking their kid, “Do you want to go to bed in 10 minutes or 15 minutes. You decide!” In a sales meeting, imagine how more effective things are if you allow the person on the other side of the table to come to an idea themselves, rather than you strong-arm them with a hard sell. And when we come to ideas ourselves, we are more invested in the outcome! In other words, magicians have prepared for the desired outcome, but they allow their audiences to have a moment of choice.
[Editor’s Note:] In what could be considered the true dawning of the freelancer and the crowd-sourced economy, marketing maverick, Mary Kay Ash, launched her namesake cosmetics firm and managed to orchestrate one of the great illusions in contemporary capitalism, enchanting blonde-streak bob’ed Karens from Rochester to Riverside. The entrepreneur, who embraced the phrase, “know your audience”, solicited a sales strategy out of what already existed: housewives who weren’t keen to stay at home but still wanted time to pick up the kids from T-ball practice. Instead, Ash recruited these individuals to set their own hours, court their own database, and exceed their own sales targets. She would further stimulate the hustle with lavish gifts, such as pink Cadillacs, which in turn became flaunted, mobile advertisements for the company’s swelling product line.
The genius of Mary Kay Ash is that she pre-dated the crowd-sourcing revolution by decades, foregoing the need for office space, expensive insurance plans, or a fleet of new materials. Like Uber or Airbnb, the entrepreneur filled a hole with a resource that was already saturated in the marketplace, ultimately sprinkling the world with a grand illusion: that you weren’t employed by a corporate behemoth, with restrictive environments and a series of ceilings to keep you suppressed… you were exceeding yourself, and with that, the bottom line of a corporate behemoth. Now, who wants to come over for Chardonnay night and try these new lipsticks?
For Consistency’s Bedfellow Is a Kink and a Wink!
Pattern recognition. Magicians often rely on pattern recognition. If I am going to use a sleight of hand move to retain a coin in my hand, I will first place that coin for real in my hand a few times, using the same motion, so audiences familiarize themselves with that movement. So when I use the secret move, it looks the same.
[Editor’s Note:] Eight time Academy Award-nominated actor, Robert De Niro, has been a legend in film for almost six decades now. Despite an unequivocal resumé and screen presence, De Niro has been so influential in film that we can joke about what we might come to expect in a role: Robert De Niro. Stemming from his outsider performances, like those of The Deer Hnter, or Taxi Driver, De Niro has chiefly become synonymous with every crime family story on screen, from Goodfellas to The Godfather: Part II to The Irishman.
While no one would ever dare call the great talent a ‘one trick pony’, we do expect a certain stiff-lipped hard-assedness, brought about a pattern of… well… stiff-lipped hard-assednes. That is until 2007’s Stardust, an unchained gonzo fantasy that sees that signature De Niro bravado manifest into a silky smooth, cross-dressing pirate, Captain Shakespeare. This may be De Niro’s unsung grand illusion, for the film pivots on genre expectation, which supernaturally implodes in a colorful confetti of free will and self-abandon. Best of all is De Niro looks like he’s having an absolute ball. For once, we’re delighted he’s swashbuckling and swishing about the poop deck, as opposed to assassinating someone in a stairwell or smashing their head in with a tire rod. Ahoy mate, that’s magic!
Because You’re Only as Good as Your Last Backup Plan
This principle is about magicians’ backup plans. For every trick, we have one, two, or ten back up plans. And the beauty of a magician’s out is that they put us ahead again. The audience is never aware that there was a pivot and the out packs its own punch! For 2020, I think it’s entirely fitting to say that I pivoted into doing a virtual show when my live stage show was put on pause. My virtual show, Inside the Box, ran for 168 performances and garnered a Critic’s Pick from the NYT. I am mighty proud of it. Humans are at their most creative when they have to innovate within the parameters they are given. That was the spirit of Inside the Box!
[Editor’s Note:] To measure time in the pop culture calendar of the 20th Century, there should only be B.M. and A.M. Before and after Madonna’s reign, that is—depending on who you ask and whether they think her reign has ended, or ever will. The Michigan-bred dancer turned “Queen of Pop” cemented herself in the global psyche as an icon as recognizable as Marilyn Monroe, Superman, and even more so than the OG biblical Virgin. The decade-spanning career founded on controversy and shock value with 1980s mega hits such as “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl,” continues to make headlines—and is much more calculated than the chaos that appears at face value. Like any devoted illusionist, Madonna’s success at creating a seamless image is the result of meticulous backup planning and preparation that when it’s good, like magic, often defies rationality.
On November 16, 1989, fresh off the release of her fourth studio album Like a Prayer, Madonna announced the 57 city-spanning Blond Ambition World Tour. After the Pepsi-sponsored tour was canceled due to the single’s music video being riddled as blasphemous and sexually explicit, the tour concept was reimagined for alternative theaters and venues, and without the support of a corporate overlord.
Madonna, taking the steering wheel, was determined to have complete control of every aspect: choreographers, lighting, five-act structure, and especially the garb. She sent a handwritten letter to French haute couture designer, Jean Paul Gaultier, who agreed to design the tour’s wardrobe. Magic then transpired. Deemed “one of the most satanic shows in the history of humanity” by Pope John Paul II, and Gaultier’s garments a “Freudian nightmare,” Madonna’s backup plan, and her role as the master puppeteer in her own career—the Oz behind the curtain—reads entirely calculated… her most brilliant trick of all.
Illustrations by Victoria Tierney