Spelling Routines, Dull or Amazing?

A few months ago I was watching Matt Baker's Masterclass on Vanishing Inc. and one of his routines was absolutely amazing. Sorry, let me rephrase that: most of the routines were amazing. However, one of them really struck a chord with me: Twice as Nice. He explained that it was his "improved handling" of Simon Aronson's UnDo Influence Principle from the book Try the Impossible.

I had never read that book or heard of this principle, so this entire thing was absolutely mind-boggling to me. In an amazing way, of course. And naturally, I ordered Try the Impossible shortly thereafter.

This past week I read the book cover-to-cover. Per usual, I wrote notes about each routine and noted which ones I would like to practice, which sleights or tricks I can pull from different sections, etc. Now, while there were several routines that I'm interested in, the majority of the routines in the book just don't fit my style. Why? Because they are "spelling" routines.

What exactly is a "spelling" routine? The most basic version of the routine is something like:

A spectator selects a card from the deck and replaces it. The magician then shuffles the deck and asks the spectator the name of the card. Let's say it was the Nine of Diamonds. The magician will then count off one card for every letter in the name. N, I, N, E, O, F, D, I, A, M, O, N, D, S -- that's 14 cards -- and the last card will be the spectator's card!

There are many variations of this from spelling the name of the spectator, spelling a randomly chosen word, selecting another card and spelling it to reveal the original selection, and so on.

I... don't like these routines. As a spectator, they bore me. I have a math background, and I play with cards a lot. My first go-to "how was it done?" solution is that clearly, the magician had to either know the word(s) ahead of time or using combined outs will always spell to the selection. The routines in Try the Impossible -- and many other books that offer spelling tricks -- validate this too.

However, what really is a spelling trick? With the explanation above, it's just a number trick. Or a math-based trick. The same routine described above where they spelled "Geoff" could just as easily been to force the number "5" and count that many cards. It loses the personalization and extra impact, but it's the same effect.

Now, back to the UnDo Influence Principle by Aronson. The routine itself, as described in the book, is pretty nice. I would have been really skeptical about its presentation if I hadn't seen Baker's performance of his version of the routine though. Having saw the actual handling in video, whoa. Why skeptical? Well, because after having two cards selected by two different spectators, the magician handles the deck a little bit and then "hears from the jokers" special numbers. Then, he counts down from the top of the deck to those special numbers and the selected cards are there. Flipping over the jokers reveals the numbers written on the back of each.

While this would likely get a good reaction -- and yes, I will actually try to perform this exact routine too -- if I were the spectator, seeing the jokers having the numbers written on their backs would immediately trigger my math background and assume he controlled them to those spots during his handling. Would I have figured out the real method? Likely not -- but a spectator having a possible solution is like them having the actual solution.

Baker's version of the routine, in my opinion, removes that one negative that I have. The fact that the spectators not only select any card, but they also choose the two numbers, makes it that much better. I want to try to incorporate a little bit of DaOrtiz's psychological misdirection techniques when performing it too though. For example, he often will ask someone to think of any number and say it out loud and as they're saying it out loud, he turns to another person, ignoring the number, and has the other person select a card. After the card is selected, replaced, and deck put down, he turns back to the original person and says, "I asked you to think of a number? what number did you think of?" -- and psychologically, everyone will believe that the performer never touched the deck between getting the number and revealing the selection. How cool is that, right?

Why though, would these specific routines where we're counting to a specific number be more entertaining than spelling out the name of the selected card? To me, and I fully acknowledge that this is likely just personal preference, but when we start counting letters I start to tune out -- not just in card tricks, but in general. Projecting that to card tricks and as soon as we start spelling words from the dictionary while counting cards, I'm checked out. Counting to a specific number though, that's just feels more natural.

What are your thoughts? Is spell-counting to a selection a good effect?

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