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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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now we leave the real world behind for some magic, though. David Kwong is a man of many tricks, a “New York Times” crossword developer and a magician. He’s known for his cerebral approach to deception. 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 to make some magic with our Walter Isaacson.


WALTER ISAACSON: David Kwong, thanks for joining us.


ISAACSON: You know, you’re a magician, illusionist, puzzlemaker, historian, but now you’re producing a play that keeps getting extended here in New York, month after month called “The Enigmatist”?

KWONG: Yes, it’s my fusion of magic and puzzles. I’m the enigmatist. I’m a performer of puzzles. And that’s sort of the thesis of my whole, not just the show, but my whole career really, is that all magic tricks are puzzles, and it doesn’t take superpowers. It just takes somebody that can misdirect you and is one, two, 52 steps ahead. So it’s been great. It’s been running in New York –

ISAACSON: And it’s an immersive theater which seems to be the hot, new genre.

KWONG: 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’s trapped in the enter (ph) room. But you have to solve these four puzzles to get into the theater. And then the show is me performing puzzles and asking people to stand up if they know the answer. And it’s all in the service of unlocking this box of mystery that’s on the stage.

ISAACSON: And so how many people are in the room and does everybody participate?

KWONG: It’s about 100 people in the theater. Everyone is encouraged to solve the puzzles at the beginning. You can work with people. You can solve with your friends. No one’s forcing you to solve puzzles. You can be a passive observe. But whole idea is that when I put that answer up on the screen you’re like, “Oh, if I’d only looked at it this way.” You know, think outside the box a little bit. It’s an exercise in perspective. So it’s really an introduction to puzzling, to fun, next-level puzzling.

ISAACSON: Cruciverbalist –


ISAACSON: – is a wonderful word.


ISAACSON: Explain it.

KWONG: The other half of my career. So I have magic, I have puzzles. I fuse them together. A cruciverbalist is someone who constructs crossword puzzles. So I’ve been writing them for “The New York Times” for a while now. And it’s a word we’ve – we made up, I think, but it’s slipped into the lexicon.

ISAACSON: And what’s the connection between crossword puzzle making and magic?

KWONG: Well, it’s just largely that I treat all magic tricks as puzzles, and then I don’t pretend to have any super abilities, and that it’s all about planning things out ahead of time, and something that’s intricate and the whole show. “The Enigmatist” is set up like a puzzle where you have to figure out the final answers. So I’m dropping hints throughout. And that’s how a good crossword puzzle works, is that you’re given the beginning of something that’s going on. The crossword puzzler misdirects you perhaps with a little bit of a twist and then you get to the end with that ah-ha moment and figure it all out.

ISAACSON: How does magic work?

KWONG: This — the magic tricks you see today are the same ones from 100 years ago. They’re — they’re — you can boil them down to a number of principles and it’s really about putting a fresh coat of paint on — on the old tricks. And in my show, I do this — I’m a crossword puzzle writer, as you know, and this one trick that I do is a — it’s making a crossword puzzle on the fly. And I’m taking letters and words from people and I’m building on the fly with the black squares and when I finish, I circle the name of a playing card.


KWONG: I’ve also written diagonally in the grid the E-I-G-H-T-O-F-H-E-A-R- T-S. Thank you very much.



KWONG: And you know what, it’s just a pick a card, any card trick. But that is how I reveal the chosen card. And it’s — it’s about putting a fresh spin on — on the old tricks.

ISAACSON: But isn’t part of it, like, distracting people from the real thing and making their eye go to the wrong thing?

KWONG: That’s a big part of it. As I said, you can boil magic down to these principles and — and probably the biggest one of all is misdirection. So it is getting people to look where you want them to look, to think what you want them to think, cognitive misdirection. When you talk about physically getting people to look elsewhere, we call that moving the frame, controlling the frame. And if you think of a director’s frame, they — we’re getting you to look somewhere else. And that’s why — movie making came out of magic. Those first film directors, George Millaize was a magician and there’s that common thread of getting people to look where you want them to look and feel what you want them to feel.

ISAACSON: You have this wonderful book where you sort of say — and these rules and things that politicians and business leaders can use.

KWONG: Yes, that’s — misdirection is — is rampant in today’s politics.

ISAACSON: It’s getting worse (ph0.

KWONG: Yes. You know, there’s 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 bad 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 — the arc of the story, it breaks the moment. But if you can give someone subtly something of greater interest, their attention will go there. So if I were to — if I were doing the classic cups and balls trick and I’m revealing underneath the cup that there’s the ball, right? If I instead reveal and kind of let that ball roll across the table toward you just a few inches, your eye is going to go there. And that’s when 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.

ISAACSON: And so we could learn from that too, in business or anything else —


KWONG: Oh, absolutely.

ISAACSON: Like how?

KWONG: Absolutely. Well, it’s about getting ahead of your audience and ahead of your competition. So if you are — if you’re set up, you then play things off as spontaneous. It’s — it’s — it’s — sort of hinges on this other principle, actually, called the illusion of free choice. And that’s another big — don’t call the magic police on me, by the way. No, these are just principles of illusion, they’re not technical secrets. But that’s a big part of how these 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.

ISAACSON: So maybe in real life we have the illusion of free choice too (ph).

KWONG: You know, I — I — I often say like, if you’re in a job interview, why not have seven different copies of your 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 — and –and playing cards. And I just did a talk this past week at the TED conference.


KWONG: Now it turns out research tells us that solving is as primal as eating and sleeping.


KWONG: I put a card down on the table and I said to the audience member, 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. But then I turned it to the jack of spades and I revealed to the audience, because I thought it was a — a good learning moment, that I was ahead with all 52 cards, and I turn the table around and you can see that I have all 52 playing cards behind the table, and I reach for the one 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. So I can’t give everything away —


ISAACSON: — another illusion.

KWONG: Can’t give everything away. Yes, yes.

ISAACSON: Now, at Harvard you studied history, you’re a historian and you did the history of magic. Tell me about the history of magic?

KWONG: Yes, it doesn’t say history of magic on my diploma, but it — I wish — I wish it did. I says American history. But I was so fascinated with the golden age of machines, Houdini, Thurston, Kellar that I concentrated everything I could on — on writing papers all about that era. And a particular fascination to me was, you’re familiar, of course, with blackface minstrel shows?


KWONG: I was fascinated by the oriental impersonation that magicians were doing at the turn of the last century. It actually even continued up into the ’50 and ’60s, but.

ISAACSON: There was a famous orientalist magician, who I think was faking it?

KWONG: Yes, well they were all faking it. It started with real Chinese jugglers coming over and this one Chinese magician named Ching Ling Foo sparked this craze in the 1890s and all these imitators started springing up and the most famous story that you’ve probably heard of was Chung Ling Soo. And Chung Ling Soo was the most famous magician of his day, at the turn of the last century and he was touring the world and in 1918 he was performing his famous trick, which was catching a bullet on stage. Yes, the trick was titled, Condemned to Death by the Boxer Rebellion. And Chung Ling Soo only muttered Chinese on stage, but 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 and it was revealed to the world that he as an American man named William Robinson, who fully spent his life as an oriental, as Chung Ling Soo. And he didn’t speak a word of Chinese, he was — there was gibberish and then he would have a translator on stage.

ISAACSON: How has magic changed from the — even the days when we were growing up when they were sawing women in half and doing things like that, has it progressed?

KWONG: Yes, we sort of fondly and jokingly call that the box era. You have the great stage sows and Las Vegas was flourishing with that and there’s still great performances in Las Vegas today. And the — and the great TV national televised specials, David Copperfield, Lance Burton, Doug Henning. Do you remember Doug Henning?


KWONG: Yes. And then it moved from those big TV tricks to the small screen and you had David Blain doing street magic, Chris Angel, and it’s moved largely to Youtube now. But, I think what’s happening right now is a return to the theater and you’re getting these small independent hipster magic shows springing up, especially here in New York.

ISAACSON: You’ve done that in Las Angeles, you do it in the show in New York.


ISAACSON: But it’s where people come to just see a magician in pretty small venue, not in a Las Vegas .

KWONG: Yes, and it’s a return to the practical. People want to see, in this age of technology, they instead 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. But, for my contemporaries, it is this return to the practical.

ISAACSON: Without making your revealed trade secrets, because it — you say it’s old-fashioned now, how did they saw the women in half?

KWONG: You know, I actually reveal it in my show. There are many ways to do it. And I won’t — I’m not going to tell you here.


KWONG: But one of the greatest tricks I ever heard of was, I think it was in the ’40s or ’50s, the date escapes me, but involved Johnny Eck the Vaudeville performer who did not have legs, just a torso, and he got in the saw in saw in the half box, where the magician Rajah Raboid, I think it was, and sawed Johnny in half and then he sprung up and ran down on is hands down the aisle and people went screaming from the theatre. So, that might be the most effective trick ever done.

ISAACSON: Can you show me anything?

KWONG: Yes, I can. I absolutely can. I brought a mysterious piece of fruit. You may inspect that.

ISAACSON: All right. A kiwi?

KWONG: It’s a kiwi. Make sure there’s not holograms or wires or .

ISAACSON: It actually smells like a kiwi.

KWONG: OK, good. Yes, we’ll just leave that right there. Do you have a dollar bill on you? Do you have your wallet with you?

ISAACSON: Yes, definitely. Yes, definitely.

KWONG: Let me see if I can take a look.

ISAACSON: You want me to just give you one?

KWONG: A bunch of it actually, three or four.

ISAACSON: All right. Here, I’ll give you — there’s a five stuck in there by mistake, but.

KWONG: OK, let’s do this one here. I’m going to give all this back to you .

ISAACSON: All right.

KWONG: I’m an honest magician.


KWONG: And would you please–

ISAACSON: All back.

KWONG: Yes. Would you please write your name right over George Washington there.

ISAACSON: Is that legal?

KWONG: It’s not legal. We’re on television; you’re committing a federal crime here.



KWONG: Just write my name.

ISAACSON: No, (inaudible) going to jail–

KWONG: All right, now maybe on the back draw a quick little picture, maybe a smiley face or a shape or a dinosaur, whatever you feel like doing. Oh, nice. All right, very good.



ISAACSON: This has not been practiced in advance–

KWONG: It’s not for practice. Not from practice.

ISAACSON: Yes, I mean I don’t know what I’m doing here.

KWONG: So, we got Walter, your name on the front and on the back we have a heart with an arrow through it. I’m going to perform for you the first trick that I learned when I was a little kid. Looks like this. I used to stand in front of the mirror and practice. I would fold the bill down a few times. You see once, twice, three times like this. Check this out, if I’ve done this correctly your bill starts to look a little bit different, you see? I used to have one, and now Walter, that’s a pretty good ROI. There’s a–

ISAACSON: Wow, a Franklin.

KWONG: — hundred for you.

ISAACSON: A Franklin, wow. And I was just–

KWONG: Check that out.

ISAACSON: I was — yes, I am not absolutely sure what hundred dollar bill looks like but this looks like a neat one.

KWONG: Yes, yes. You can have that, for five minutes. OK, now you inspected the fruit.

ISAACSON: Correct.

KWONG: Do you have like a — let’s see, do you have a knife on you by chance?

ISAACSON: No, no, no, I just went through TSA.

KWONG: Check that out; make sure there’s nothing weird about it, yes.

ISAACSON: Yes, that’s a plastic knife.

KWONG: Plastic knife from the kitchen here.



ISAACSON: You can see right through it, yes.

KWONG: OK. I’m going to slice in to the fruit here, Walter. I’m going to have you do the difficult part. Could just break off–

ISAACSON: Oh, I see something, yes. Yes, it’s real.

KWONG: It’s real. All right, open it up, make sure it’s real.

ISAACSON: I’m testing. Holy shit — holy cow. Wow, wait–

KWONG: What do you got?

ISAACSON: — a minute, oh my goodness.

KWONG: All right.


KWONG: Show that to the camera. There should be–

ISAACSON: Yes, no I can already see–

KWONG: — a heart–

ISAACSON: It has — it is–

KWONG: — with an arrow through it.

ISAACSON: — exactly what I drew. It truly has kiwi seeds in it. And that was not cut.

KWONG: Are you a Scrabble player?

ISAACSON: Yes, yes.

KWONG: You pay Scrabble?

ISAACSON: I play Scrabble.

KWONG: These are going to be eight letter bingos here, eight letter bingos, and I’m going to write down three words. And the first is aldehyde.

ISAACSON: Right, the chemical.

KWONG: OK newsboys, this will work, newsboys.


KWONG: And this is a great one, OK, lollipop. Now I’m going to put in the values for these letters, OK, they never changed. The A which is a common letter is always one point–

ISAACSON: One, yes.

KWONG: The L is ne, the D is two and that’s to one four, four, two, one, one, one four, one, B is three, one four and one, and one, one, one, four, three, one and three. I play a lot of Scrabble, all right.


KWONG: Now I’m going to take these three eight letter words which I basically now converted to three eight digit numbers and I’m going to add them virtually to get a new eight digit number, right? So the one plus one plus three is–


KWONG: Five.

ISAACSON: Down there.

KWONG: Two plus four plus one, seven.


KWONG: Now before I begin this little experiment I want you to take a look at your dollar bill. In the lower left-hand corner there’s an eight serial number there.


KWONG: Does it end in a seven and five?

ISAACSON: Correct.

KWONG: Yes. What is to the left of that seven?


KWONG: It should be an eight, right?


KWONG: Four plus one plus three is eight, four plus one plus three–

ISAACSON: Wait — wait, how’d you do that?

KWONG: What is to the left of that eight?


KWONG: Because this is where it gets interesting. Four plus three plus four is 11. Carry the one mind you to get a four, what do we have to the left of that four?

ISAACSON: Yes, four, I got that — seven.

KWONG: Yes, we have another seven. Two plus four plus one is seven. What’s to the left of that, should be a–


KWONG: At last but not least we have a three, 33741875, does that match your dollar bill?

ISAACSON: Yes. And by the way–


ISAACSON: — this was the dollar bill out of my wallet. Meaning you didn’t give me this dollar bill.

KWONG: You ca put that under your pillow.


KWONG: Pray to the Scrabble gods.

ISAACSON: Well, we’re all going to go to the show now.

KWONG: If you bring that dollar bill, I’ll buy you a drink. Does that sound good?

ISAACSON: It’s a deal, David. Good to see you, man.

KWONG: Good to see you.

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.”