Arts & Culture News

Magicians in the Midst: A Dispatch From the Annual IBM (No, Not That IBM) Convention

You probably didn't know this (I didn't either), but the annual gathering of Mages and magicians, professional tricksters, practicing misdirectionists and wide-eyed neophytes, has alighted at the Sheraton Hotel. The 83rd Annual Convention of the International Brotherhood of Magicians is upon us, folks, so I wandered the yawning, psychedelically carpeted halls of the hotel in search of the impossible -- or, at the very least, the improbable -- magic trick.

As I strode across that nauseating carpet, it just so happened that six finalists in Close-up Magic were vying for the I.B.M. Gold-Medal Prize. Yet secretly -- with longing they dared not give voice -- they all dreamed of winning the Gold Cup for Excellence in Close-up Performance. This isn't like an Olympic gold medal. It's not even comparable to the fucking Nobel Prize.

No, the Gold Cup is the unicorn award, handed out only seven times since competition began (I'm told) in the early '70s. I'm not sure if you have to extricate an elephant from your ass to win it, but you've gotta do something truly awesome. The $5,000 prize is pretty cool, too. As magician David Ren Jenkins puts it, the Gold Cup is "huge" in the magic world.

I stepped into one of the close-up demonstration rooms and surveyed the crowd -- a largely cotton-domed collective that looked like it might be populated with strays from a nearby State Farm convention. On the stage was Woody Aragon, a Spaniard with nearly impenetrable English and a neat trick: The man spelled "spades" and pulled a spade from a deck freshly shuffled by two volunteers (plants?). He spelled "joker" and pulled a joker, and so on and so forth, until he spelled his name, then pulled his own business card. Nifty.

"It's re-al magique!" he pronounced.

Next up was yet another Spaniard (they run deep in the black arts) named Hector Mancha, a lithe, good-looking dude with an aquiline nose. At the back of the crowd as he awaited his announcement, Hector danced like a boxer, pounded his chest, exhaled prodigiously and bounded toward the front. He instructed an audience member to sign the two of hearts, made the card "disappear" behind his hand, at which point it reappeared in his hand, exploded and fell like paper-mache snow. But moments later, the signed card re-emerged from the deck. Magic!

Following Hector was a kid with braces and shaggy hair, his blue collar splayed over his lapels, Saturday Night Fever style. He couldn't have been more than 16, but I thought I'd give him a chance. For his theme music, he played "Human" by The Killers on his iPod. On perpetual loop. When it queued up the second time, I fled. Whether or not I'm human or dancer, the song makes me feel like neither. But salvation was at hand.

Ladies and gentlemen, Shin Lim, the Hipster Magician. He was a slender Canadian of Singaporean lineage, with a red silk vest and tie, black skinny jeans and an angular haircut. I was instantly taken. And when he played the Inception theme song, I was smitten. Shin launched into this whole spiel about the persistence of memories, even bad ones. It was a pretty loose allegory when you're talking about card tricks, but still. Christopher Nolan, guys.

Anyway, kid had his shit together. The music swelled at appropriately dramatic moments, and I'd be fibbing if I said I didn't get chills. He was talking about bad memories buried within the subconscious, yet they continued to emerge. So the card is like Mal, DiCaprio's wife, always reappearing and wreaking havoc. He took a card signed by an audience member and placed it in one vest pocket. Moments later, it emerged from the other.

Shin turned his back to the crowd, holding the card in one hand at his lower back. He dropped it, and it disappeared from view behind the table. Hans Zimmer's awesomely bombastic film score swelled, Shin turned to face the audience, and a great gout of white smoke suddenly issued from his mouth...followed by that signed card. Don't ask me how it got there. The crowd gasped. I gasped. And clapped enthusiastically.

What's happening to me? I thought, That was, like, legit. A Canadian and amateur magician sitting next to me named Gogi lost his shit, so it must have been pretty rad.

That was the highlight of the day for me. Afterward, I ambled through the dealer room, where magical wares are peddled. I saw silk hankies. I saw bedazzled silk shirts, because every magician worth his salt is extensively bedecked in rhinestones. I also saw some fake fingers and fists, and I can't imagine what they're for (ostensibly magic?). And then I left and walked out into that bright Texas sunlight, into what many believe is a magic-less world. But I knew different. By God, I knew different.

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Brantley Hargrove