06.03.2019

David Kwong Reveals (Some) of the Magic Behind Magic

David Kwong is a man of many tricks – a New York Times crossword constructor and a magician, he’s known for his particularly cerebral type of magic. His sold-out show “The Enigmatist” is an immersive evening of puzzles and illusions at the High Line Hotel in New York City, and he sat down with Walter Isaacson to discuss it.

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> NOW WE LEAVE THE REAL WORLD BEHIND FOR MAGIC.

DAVID KWONG IS A MAN OF MANY TRICKS IN 'NEW YORK TIMES' CROSSWORD DEVELOPER AND A MAGICIAN.

KNOWN FOR HIS CEREBRAL APPROACH TO DECEPTION.

HIS SOLD OUT SHOW THE AN IMMERSE IFR EVENING OF PUZZLES AND ILLUSIONS.

HE SAT DOWN TO MAKE SOME MAGIC WITH OUR WALTER ISACKSON.

THANKS FOR JOINING US.

THANKS FOR HAVING ME.

YOU ARE A MAGICIAN, ILLUSIONIST, PUZZLE MAKER, HISTORIAN.

NOW YOU ARE PRODUCING A PLAY THAT KEEPS GETTING EXTENDED HERE IN NEW YORK.

MONTH AFTER MONTH IT'S CALLED THE ENI 'GMA' TIST?

YES.

I AM THE ENIGMA TIS.

I AM THE PERFORMER OF PUZZLES.

TH ALL MAGIC TRICKS ARE PUZZLES.

IT DOESN'T TAKE SUPER POWER TO JUST TAKE SOMEBODY THAT CAN MISDIRECT YOU AND IS ONE, TWO, 52 STEPS AHEAD.

SO IT'S BEEN GREAT.

IT'S BEEN RUNNING --

AND IT'S AN IMMERSIVE THEATER.

YES.

YOU HAVE TO SOLVE A PUZZLE ROOM.

IT'S A MILD ESCAPE ROOM TO GET INTO THE THEATER.

IT'S NOT TOO HARD.

NOBODY IS TRAPPED IN THE ANTEROOM.

YOU HAVE TO SOLVE THESE FOUR PUZZLES TO GET INTO THE THEATER.

THE SHOW IS PERFORMING PUZZLES AND ASKING PEOPLE TO STAND UP IF THEY KNOW THE ANSWER.

IT'S ALL IN SERVICE OF UNLOCKING THIS BOX AND MYSTERY ON THE STAGE.

HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE IN THE ROOM?

DOES EVERYBODY PARTICIPATE?

IT'S ABOUT 100 PEOPLE IN THE THEATER.

EVERYONE IS ENCOURAGED TO SOLVE THE PUZZLE AT THE BEGINNING.

YOU CAN WORK WITH PEOPLE.

YOU CAN SOLVE WITH YOUR FRIENDS.

NO ONE IS FORCING YOU TO SOLVE PUZZLES FRM YOU CAN BE A PASSIVE OBSERVER.

THE IDEA IS WHEN I PUT THE ANSWER UP ON THE SCREEN YOU ARE LIKE, OH, IF I ONLY LOOKED AT TIT THIS WAY.

THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX A LITTLE BIT.

IT'S AN KEXERCISE IN PERSPECTIV.

IT'S AEN INTRODUCTION TO PUZZLING.

CRUSI-VERBALIST.

EXPLAIN.

IT'S SOMEONE WHO CONSTRUCTS CROSSWORD PUZZLES.

I HAVE BEEN WRITING THEM FOR 'THE NEW YORK TIMES' FOR A WHILE NOW.

IT'S A WORD WE MADE UP, I THINK.

BUT IT SLIPPED INTO THE LEXICON.

AND WHAT'S THE CONNECTION BETWEEN CROSSWORD PUZZLE MAKING AND MAGIC?

WELL, IT'S JUST LARGELY THAT I TREAT ALL MAGIC TRICKS AS PUZZLES.

I DON'T PRETEND TO HAVE ANY SUPER ABILITIES.

IT'S PLANNING AHEAD OF TIME AND SOMETHING THAT IS INTRICATE AND THE WHOLE SHOW, THE ENI 'GMA' TIST IS SET LIKE A PUZZLE.

IT MISDIRECTS YOU A LITTLE BIT, A LITTLE BIT OF A TWIST, AND YOU GET TO THE END WITH THE AHA MOMENT.

HOW DOES MAGIC WORK?

THE MAGIC TRICKS TODAY ARE THE SAME ONES FROM 100 YEARS AGO.

YOU CAN BOIL THEM DOWN TO A NUMBER OF PRINCIPLES.

IT'S REALLY ABOUT PUTTING A FRESH COAT OF PAINT ON THE OLD TRICKS.

AND IN MY SHOW I DO THIS -- I AM A CROSSWORD PUZZLE WRITER, AS YOU KNOW.

ONE TRICK I DO IS MAKING A CROSSWORD PUZZLE ON THE FLY.

AND I'M TAKING LETTERS AND WORDS FROM PEOPLE AND I AM BUILDING ON THE FLY WITH THE BLACK SQUARES.

WHEN I FINISH I CIRCLE THE NAME OF A PLAYING CARD.

I HAVE WRITTEN DIAGONALLY IN THE WRID E-I-G-H-T-O-F-H-A-R-T-F.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

[ APPLAUSE ]

YOU KNOW WHAT?

IT'S JUST A PICK A CARD, ANY CARD TRICK.

THAT IS HOW I REVEAL THE CHOSEN CARD.

AND IT'S ABOUT PUTTING A FRESH SPIN ON THE OLD TRICKS.

BUT ISN'T PART OF IT LIKE DISTRACTING PEOPLE FROM THE REAL THING?

AND MAKING THEIR EYE GO TO THE WRONG THING?

THAT'S A BIG PART OF IT.

YOU COULD BOIL MAGIC DOWN TO THESE PRINCIPLES.

PROBABLY THE BIGGEST OF ALL IS MISDIRECTION.

SO IT IS GETTING PEOPLE TO LOOK WHERE YOU WANT THEM TO LOOK, THINK WHAT YOU WANT THEM TO THINK, COGNITIVENESS DIRECTION.

WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT PHYSICALLY GETTING PEOPLE TO LOOK ELSEWHERE, WE CALL THAT MOVING THE FRAME.

CONTROLLING THE FRAME.

IF YOU THINK OF A DIRECTOR'S FRAME, WE'RE GETTING YOU TO LOOK SOMEWHERE ELSE.

AND THAT'S WHY MOVIE MAKING CAME OUT OF MAGIC.

THOSE FIRST FILM DIRECTORS HE WAS A MAGICIAN.

THERE IS THAT COMMON THREAT OF GETTING PEOPLE TO LOOK WHERE YOU WANT THEM TO LOOK.

YOU HAVE A WONDERFUL BOOK WHERE YOU SORT OF SAY THESE THINGS THAT POLITICIANS AND BUSINESS LEADERS CAN USE?

YEAH, MISDIRECTION IS RAMPANT IN TODAY'S POLITICS.

YOU KNOW, THERE IS A QUOTE THAT I LOVE BY THE GREAT DUTCH MAGICIAN TOMMY WONDER, AND TOMMY HIS QUOTE WAS THAT MISDIRECTION IS THE ART OF GETTING PEOPLE TO PAY ATTENTION TO SOMETHING OF GREATER INTEREST.

SO THAT MISDIRECTION BY CONTRAST IS IF I'M DOING A TRICK, MY ASSISTANT WALKS ON STAGE AND DROPS SOME POTS AND PANS ON THE FLOOR AND EVERYBODY LOOKS OVER.

IT BREAKS THE ARC OF THE STORY.

IT BREAKS THE MOMENT.

BUT IF YOU GIVE SOMEONE SUDDENLY SOMETHING OF GREATER INTEREST, THEIR ATETENTION WILL GO THERE.

SO IF I WERE TO BE DOING THE CLASSIC CUPS AND BALLS TRICK AND I'M REVEALING UNDERNEATH THE CUP THAT THERE IS THE BALL, RIGHT, IF I INSTEAD REVEAL AND KIND OF LET THAT BALL ROLL ACROSS THE TABLE TOWARDS YOU JUST A FEW INCHES, YOUR EYE IS GOING TO GO THERE.

THAT'S KBH I CAN REACH FOR MY NEXT THING.

BUT THE BEST MISDIRECTION IS ACTUALLY THE END OF TRICK NUMBER ONE.

AND YOU JUST ROLL INTO THE NEXT ONE.

SO WE COULD LEARN FROM THAT IN BUSINESS OR ANYTHING ELSE?

ABSOLUTELY.

HOW?

WELL, IT'S ABOUT GETTING AHEAD OF YOUR AUDIENCE AND AHEAD OF YOUR COMPETITION.

SO IF YOU ARE -- IF YOU ARE SET UP, YOU THEN PLAY THINGS OFF AS SPONTANEOUS.

IT'S SORT OF HINGING ON THIS OTHER PRINCIPLE CALLED THE ILLUSION OF FREE CHOICE.

AND THAT'S ANOTHER BIG -- DON'T CALL THE MAGIC POLICE ON ME, BY THE WAY.

THESE ARE PRINCIPLES OF ILLUSION, NOT TECHNICAL SECRETS.

THAT'S A BIG PART OF HOW THE TRICKS WORK, IS THAT WE ARE PREPARED FOR EACH AND EVERY OUTCOME, BUT WE MAKE IT SEEM LIKE YOU ARE DECIDING EVERYTHING FOR THE FIRST TIME.

SO MAYBE IN REAL LIFE WE HAVE THE ILLUSION OF FREE CHOICE?

I OFTEN SAY LIKE IF YOU ARE IN A JOB INTERVIEW, WHY NOT HAVE SEVEN DIFFERENT COPIES OFFIER RESUME IN YOUR PORTFOLIO BASED ON HOW THE CONVERSATION GOES.

THAT'S THE ONE YOU PULL OUT, RIGHT?

THAT'S NO DIFFERENT THAN A MAGICIAN AND PLAYING CARDS.

AND I JUST DID A TALK THIS PAST WEEK AT THE TED CONFERENCE.

IT TURNS OUT RESEARCH TELLS US THAT SOLVING IS AS PRIMAL AS EATING AND SLEEPING.

I PUT A CARD DOWN ON THE TABLE AND I SAID TO THE AUDIENCE NAME ANY CARD.

AND THEY SAID THE JACK OF SPADES.

AND I TURNED IT OVER TO SHOW THEY WERE WRONG.

IT WAS THE QUEEN OF CLUBS.

THEN I TURNED IT INTO THE JACK OF SPADES AND I REVEALED TO THE AUDIENCE BECAUSE I THOUGHT IT WAS A GOOD LEARNING MOMENT THAT I WAS AHEAD WITH ALL 52 CARDS.

I TURNED THE TABLE AROUND.

YOU COULD SEE I HAVE ALL 52 PLAYING CARDS BEHIND THE TABLE AND I REACH FOR THE ONE THAT I WANT.

OF COURSE, I ALWAYS TWIST IT AT THE END THAT JACK OF SPADES, I TURNED IT OVER AND IN SHARPIE WAS WRITTEN THE PERSON'S NAME.

I CAN'T GIVE EVERYTHING AWAY.

NOW, AT HARVARD YOU STUDIED HISTORY.

YOU ARE A HISTORIAN.

AND YOU DID THE HISTORY OF MAGIC.

TELL ME ABOUT THE HISTORY OF MAGIC.

YEAH, IT DOESN'T SAY HISTORY OF MAGIC ON MY DIPLOMA.

WHICH WISH IT DID.

IT SAYS AMERICAN HISTORY.

I WAS FASCINATED WITH THE GOLDEN AGE OF MAGICIANS, HOUDINI, THURSTON, KELLER, I CONCENTRATED ON WRITING PAPERS ABOUT THAT ERA.

PARTICULAR FASCINATION, YOU ARE FAMILIAR WITH BLACK FACE MINUTE STRUL SHOWS.

I WAS FASCINATED WITH THE ORIENTAL IMPERCENT MATIONS.

THAT CONTINUED TO THE '50s AND '60s.

THERE WAS A FAMOUS MAGICIAN WHO WAS FAKING IT?

THEY WERE ALL FAKING IT.

IT STARTED WITH REAL CHINESE JUGGLERS COMING OVER AND THIS ONE CHINESE MAGICIAN NAMED QINGLING FU SPARKED A CRAZE IN THE 1890s AND ALL THESE IMITATORS STARTED SPRINGING UP.

AND THE MOST FAMOUS STORY THAT YOU PROBABLY HEARD OF WAS CHUNGLING SU.

HE WAS THE MOST FAMOUS OF HIS DAY AT THE LURN OF THE CENTURY.

HE WAS TOURING THE WORLD.

IN 1918 HE WAS PERFORMING HIS FAMOUS TRICK, WHICH WAS CATCHING A BULLET ON STAGE.

YEAH.

THE TRICK WAS TITLE CONDEMNED TO DEATH BY THE BOXER REBELLION.

CHUNGLING SU MUTTERED ONLY CHINESE ON STAGE.

ON THAT NIGHT THE GUN WENT OFF AND HE COLLAPSED TO THE STAGE AND SAID IN PERFECT ENGLISH SOMETHING'S GONE TERRIBLY WRONG, AND HE DIED THAT NIGHT.

IT WAS REVEALED TO THE WORLD THAT HE WAS AN AMERICAN MAN NAMED WILLIAM ROBINSON WHO SPENT HIS LIFE AS AN ORIENTAL, AS CHUNGLING SU.

AND HE DIDN'T SPEAK A WORD OF CHINESE.

THERE WAS GIBBERISH AND HE WOULD HAVE A TRANSLATOR ON STAGE.

HOW HAS MAGIC CHANGED FROM THE EVEN THE DAYS WHEN WE WERE GROWING UP WHERE THERE WERE SAWING WOMEN IN HALF AND DOING THINGS LIKE THAT?

HAS IT PROGRESSED?

YEAH.

WE SORT OF FONDLY AND JOKINGLY CALLED THAT THE BOX ERA.

YOU HAVE THE GREAT STAGE SHOWS AND LAS VEGAS IS FLOURISHING WITH THAT.

THERE ARE STILL GREAT PERFORMANCES IN LAS VEGAS TODAY.

AND THE GREAT TV NATIONAL TELEVISED SPECIALS.

DAVID COPPERFIELD, DOUG HENNING.

DO YOU REMEMBER DOUG HENNING?

YES.

AND THEN IT MOVED FROM THOSE BIG TV TRICKS TO THE SMALL SCREEN AND YOU HAD DAVID BLAINE DOING STREET MAGIC, CRISS ANGEL, AND IT'S MOVED LARGELY TO YOUTUBE NOW.

BUT I THINK WHAT'S HAPPENING RIGHT NOW IS A RETURN TO THE THEATER.

YOU ARE GETTING THESE SMALL INDEPENDENT HIPSTER MAGIC SHOWS SPRINGING UP, ESPECIALLY HERE IN NEW YORK.

YOU HAVE DONE THAT IN LOS ANGELES.

YOU ARE DOING THE SHOW IN NEW YORK.

YEAH.

BUT IT'S WHERE PEOPLE COME TO JUST SEE A MAGICIAN IN A PRETTY SMALL VENUE?

YEAH.

AND IT'S A RETURN TO THE PRACTICAL.

PEOPLE WANT TO SEE IN THIS AGE OF TECHNOLOGY, THEY WANT TO SEE WHAT YOU CAN DO WITH YOUR HANDS WITH A PACK OF PLAYING CARDS, WITH YOUR MIND CALCULATING NUMBERS QUICKLY AND LETTERS AND THAT'S WHAT MY SHOW IS ALL ABOUT.

FOR MY CONTEMPORARIES, IT'S A RETURN TO THE PRACTICAL.

WITHOUT MAKING YOU REVEAL TRADE SECRETS, BECAUSE YOU SAY IT'S OLD FASHIONED NOW, HOW DID THEY SAW THE WOMAN IN HALF?

YOU KNOW, I ACTUALLY REVEAL IT IN MY SHOW.

ALL RIGHT.

THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO DO IT.

I AM NOT GOING TO TELL YOU HERE.

ONE OF THE GREATEST TRICKS I EVER HEARD OF WAS, I THINK IT WAS IN THE '40s OR '50s.

THE DATE ESCAPES ME.

BUT IT INVOLVED JOHNNY ECK, THE VAUDEVILLE PERFORMER WHO DID NOT HAVE LEGS, JUST A TORSO.

HE GOT IN THE SAW IN A HALF BOX WHERE THE MAGICIAN RAJAH RABOID, I THINK IT WAS.

AND HE SAWED JOHNNY IN HALF AND HE SPRUNG UP AND RAN DOWN ON HIS HANDS DOWN THE AISLE.

PEOPLE WENT SCREAMING FROM THE THEATER.

THAT MIGHT BE THE MOST EFFECTIVE TRICK EVER DONE.

CAN YOU SHOW ME ANYTHING?

YES, I ABSOLUTELY CAN.

I BROUGHT A MYSTERIOUS PIECE OF FRUIT.

YOU MAY INSPECT THAT.

A KIWI?

IT'S A KIWI.

MAKE SURE THERE IS NO HOLOGRAMS OR WIRES OR --

IT ACTUALLY SMELLS LIKE A KIWI.

YEAH.

DO YOU HAVE A DOLLAR BILL ON YOU?

DEFINITELY.

LET'S TAKE A LOOK.

WANT ME TO JUST GIVE YOU ONE?

A BUNCH.

THREE OR FOUR.

ALL RIGHT.

I WILL I HAVE GO YOU -- THERE IS A FIVE STUCK IN THERE.

OKAY.

LET'S DO THIS ONE HERE.

I AM GOING TO GIVE ALL THIS BACK TO YOU.

HONEST MAGICIAN.

AND WIOULD YOU PLEASE -- I WILL PUT THEM ALL BACK.

YEAH.

WOULD YOU PLEASE WRITE YOUR NAME OVER GEORGE WASHINGTON THERE.

IS THAT LEGAL?

IT'S NOT LEGAL.

WE ARE ON TELEVISION AND YOU ARE COMMITTING A FEDERAL CRIME HERE.

OKAY.

JUST WRITE MY NAME.

NO.

MAYBE A QUICK LITTLE PICTURE.

A SMILEY FACE OR A SHAPE OR A DINOSAUR OR WHATEVER YOU FEEL LIKE DOING.

OH, NICE.

OKAY.

SO

THIS HAS NOT BEEN PRACTICED IN ADVANCE.

NOT BEEN PRACTICED.

I DON'T KNOW WHAT I'M DOING HERE.

SO YOUR NAME ON THE FRONT.

ON THE BACK WE HAVE A HEART WITH AN ARROW.

THIS IS THE FIRST TRICK I LEARNED WHEN I WAS A LITTLE KID.

IT LOOKS LIKE THIS.

I USED TO STAND IN FRONT OF THE MIRROR AND PRACTICE.

FOLD THE BILL DOWN A FEW TIMES.

ONCE, TWICE, THREE TIMES LIKE THIS.

IF I HAVE DONE IT CORRECTLY, YOUR BILL LOOKS A LITTLE BIT DIFFERENT.

YOU SEE?

I USED TO HAVE ONE, AND NOW, WALTER, THAT'S A PRETTY GOOD ROI.

WHOA!

A 100.

CHECK THAT OUT.

YEAH.

I AM NOT SURE WHAT A HUNDRED DOLLAR BILL LOOKS LIKE.

YOU CAN HAVE THAT, FOR FIVE MINUTES.

YOU INSPECTED THE FRUIT?

CORRECT.

DO YOU HAVE LIKE A KNIFE ON YOU BY CHANCE?

NO, NO, NO, I JUST WENT THROUGH TSA.

THAT'S A PLASTIC KNIFE?

NOTHING FROM THE KITCHEN HERE.

OKAY.

I AM GOING TO SLICE INTO THE FRUIT HERE, WALTER.

I AM GOING TO HAVE YOU DO THE DIFFICULT PART.

IF YOU COULD JUST BREAK OFF --

I WANT TO SEE SOMETHING.

YEAH, IT'S REAL.

IT'S REAL.

I AM TASTING IT.

HOLY COW.

WOW.

WAIT, WAIT.

OH, MY GOODNESS.

ALL RIGHT.

SHOW THAT TO THE CAMERA THERE.

SHOULD BE --

YEAH.

NO, I CAN ALREADY SEE.

A HEART.

IT IS EXACTLY WHAT I DREW.

IT TRULY HAS KIWI SEEDS IN IT.

AND THAT WAS NOT CUT.

ARE YOU A SCRABBLE PLAYER?

YEAH.

YOU PLAY SCRABBLE?

YEAH.

THESE ARE GOING TO BE EIGHT-LETTER BINGOS HERE.

EIGHT-LETTER BINGOS.

I AM WRITING DOWN THREE WORDS, AND THE FIRST IS ALDEHYDE.

RIGHT.

A CHEMICAL.

MM-HMM.

OKAY.

NEWS BOYS.

THIS WILL WORK.

NEWS BOYS.

AND HERE IS A GREAT ONE.

OKAY.

LOLLIPOP.

I AM GOING TO PUT IN THE VALUES FOR THESE LETTERS.

THEY NEVER CHANGE.

A WHICH IS A COMMON LETTER ONE POINT.

THE L IS ONE, THE D IS TWO.

LET'S DO ONE, FOUR, FOUR, 2-1.

ONE, ONE, 4-1, B IS ONE, ONE, FOUR AND ONE, AND ONE AND ONE ARCS ONE, 4-3 ONE AND THREE.

I PLAY A LOT OF SCRABBLE.

I HAVE CONVERTED THEM TO THREE EIGHT-DIGIT NUMBERS AND ADD THEM VERTICALLY TO GET A NEW NUMBER.

THE ONE PLUS ONE PLUS THREE IS FIVE.

TWO PLUS FOUR PLUS ONE.

SEVEN.

NOW, BEFORE I BEGAN THIS LITTLE EXPERIMENT, I WANT YOU TO TAKE A LOOK AT YOUR DOLLAR BILL IN THE LOWER LEFT HAND CORNER.

THERE IS AN EIGHT-DIGIT SERIAL NUMBER.

DOES IT END IN 75?

CORRECT.

WHAT IS TO THE LEFT OF THAT 7?

8.

SHOULD BE AN 8.

FOUR PLUS ONE PLUS THREE.

WAIT.

HOW DID YOU DO THAT?

WHAT IS TO THE LEFT OF THE EIGHT?

A ONE.

FOUR PLUS THREE PLUS FOUR IS 11.

CARRY THE ONE, MIND YOU, TO GET A FOUR.

WHAT DO WE HAVE LEFT OF THAT FOUR?

I GOT THAT SEVEN.

ANOTHER SEVEN.

TWO PLUS FOUR -- WHAT IS LEFT OF THAT?

A HE THREE.

33741875.

DOES THAT MATCH YOUR DOLLAR BILL?

YEAH.

A DOLLAR BILL OUT OF MY WALLET.

YOU DIDN'T GIVE ME THIS DOLLAR BILL.

YOU CAN PUT THAT UNDER YOUR PILLOW.

PRAY TO THE SCRABBLE GODS.

WE ARE GOING TO THE SHOW NOW.

IF YOU BRING ME THAT DOLLAR BILL, I WILL BUY YOU A DRINK.

SOUND GOOD?

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Nigel Sheinwald about President Trump’s visit to the UK; and Ava DuVernay about her new Netflix series “When They See Us” about the Central Park Five. Walter Isaacson speaks with magician David Kwong about his show “The Enigmatist.”

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