Discover more from Marty's Magic Ruseletter
Monthly Update #8 (August 2023)
Some thoughts on the link between puzzles and magic tricks.
I'm excited to connect with you again through this August Monthly Update for Marty's Magic Ruseletter. While this update, as usual, is arriving several weeks later than intended, my passion for magic remains strong! I also haven't been able to find the time to publish any regular columns as planned, which I know is a little disappointing. To reduce my “writer’s guilt”, I’ve decided to establish a more manageable publishing schedule by delaying these columns for a few months, probably until the New Year, until I can get ahead of myself.
Due to my work and family obligations, I have very little free time these days. However, I appreciate every opportunity I get to write about my passion for magic, even if it takes a frustratingly long time to complete each article. I'm committed to making this newsletter, and my magic blog, helpful and rewarding projects in the long run.
Even if my posts are irregular at times, know that I appreciate each and every one of you who takes the time to read about my latest magical musings. It means the world to me to have your support on this journey. Thank you for your understanding and patience, and I look forward to bringing you more fantastic content soon. Let the magic continue!
Thanks for reading Marty's Magic Ruseletter! Subscribe for FREE to receive new posts and support my work.
In this update, I have included my incomplete thoughts on "performable puzzles". As the name suggests, these are puzzles that are specifically designed to be performed in front of an audience, much like a magic trick.
As always, I value your thoughts on this month’s topic, so please feel free to leave a comment or reply to the email version of this newsletter.
What is a Performable Puzzle?
This month, I've found myself deep in thought, contemplating the close relationship between puzzles and magic. As well as magic, I have a passion for puzzles, riddles, brain teasers and bar bets (even though I'm not the best at solving them). That's one of the reasons why I'm drawn to magic tricks; trying to figure out how a clever magic trick works gives me the same sense of satisfaction as solving a difficult puzzle.
It's quite common to hear performers express the opinion that you’re not a “real magician” if you present a magic trick as a “mere puzzle” to be solved. In truth, whether we acknowledge it or not, every magic trick, no matter how expertly performed, is a puzzle eagerly awaiting a solution. Far from being a drawback, this puzzle-like quality adds to the charm and enduring appeal of magic. Conversely, a puzzle can manifest its own form of enchantment because the solution, once revealed, is often surprising, just like many of the best magic tricks.
I find it odd that many magicians hold a negative attitude towards puzzles. It wasn't until Chris Ramsay, the Canadian magician, YouTuber, and star of TruTV’s Big Trick Energy, started solving puzzles on his YouTube channel that his popularity skyrocketed. This suggests that there is a larger audience for puzzle-related content than there is for magic (at least online). Therefore, it seems absurd to disregard a magic trick simply because it looks or feels like a puzzle. It would seem far more sensible to actively incorporate puzzle-like elements into our magical performances due to their obvious popularity with the public.
There has always been a strong connection between games, puzzles and magic tricks. Books for the public often include all three of these pastimes. For example, Magic Illusions, Conjuring Tricks, Amazing Puzzles & Stunning Stunts by Nicholas Einhorn, as the title suggests, includes a mixture of magical illusions, close-up conjuring tricks, puzzles and stunts. Professor Hoffmann (1839–1919), the barrister and prolific author of magic books, was also an avid puzzle lover. In 1893, he published Puzzles Old and New, one of the definitive puzzle books of the Victorian era.
Ryan Pilling, a fellow newsletter author with a penchant for paper-based puzzles, recently shared a similar sentiment in one of his weekly emails. In it, he discusses what he calls "performable puzzles". Much like a poem crafted for performance in front of a live audience, a performable puzzle is any puzzle specifically designed (or adapted) for public presentation. In his article, Ryan champions the enduring appeal of puzzles and suggests we need not take offence when someone attempts to unravel the mechanics behind one of our tricks:
"It's not a slight on your skills as a presenter when someone attempts to pierce through the mystique and uncover the secrets of your trick. Some individuals are naturally inclined to decipher the enigmatic, and the act of attempting to solve the puzzle is, in fact, part of the enjoyment."
So, what’s the difference between a performable puzzle and a magic trick? Firstly, a magic trick is a puzzle that is, hopefully, impossible, or at least very difficult, to solve. But not all performable puzzles qualify as magic tricks. Here’s a good example of one that doesn’t contain a magical effect. Even though there’s no trick, it still has a compelling visual, a well-scripted presentation and a surprise ending.
Performable puzzles and magic tricks have another key difference: a puzzle should give you all the information you need to solve it, while a magic trick is specifically designed to hide any clues that might lead to its method. The solution or explanation for a performable puzzle is almost always more intriguing than the puzzle itself. In fact, a puzzle, riddle or brainteaser that you’re unable to solve can quickly become a frustrating or even unpleasant experience. Solving (or learning) the solution to a puzzle provides surprise, relief and closure.
Unlike magic tricks, performable puzzles allow you to share the secret without ruining the experience. Explaining how a magic trick is done is usually underwhelming—the method is often far less interesting than the magical effect it achieves. Revealing the secret typically robs your audience of a more fascinating illusion.
With a puzzle, however, you can let people attempt to solve it themselves before providing them with the solution. This avoids frustration while still allowing you to impart satisfying secret knowledge. Most puzzles retain their intrigue even after a person learns how it works. But a magic trick completely loses its magical quality once its method is exposed.
In this way, performable puzzles enable you to share clever secrets without spoiling the overall experience. The audience gets to be mystified and then enlightened rather than entertained and then disillusioned!
And if you mix performable puzzles with magic tricks, you can benefit from the best of both worlds. I also have a theory that presenting a puzzle to an audience, alongside a magic trick, can divert people’s mental attention and prevent them from attempting to figure out how your trick works (because it’s difficult to think about two things at once).
I’ve decided to take my lead from Ryan and try and develop some performable puzzles that blend entertainment with intellectual stimulation. I’m excited to see how individuals perceive and tackle puzzles when presented in a live context. I also think that a performable puzzle is a good way to lead into a magic trick or provide an additional fun activity for your audience to engage in after you’ve performed your tricks. In this way, I believe that interactive puzzles have the potential to be more enjoyable than your average magic trick since they often involve a greater level of audience participation, both physical and mental. I’m also hoping that creating and performing them might also lead to greater insight into the art of magic.
Before I spend time developing some performable puzzles myself, I thought it would be sensible to research the different types of common puzzles available. As far as I can tell, there are five broad types:
Let’s look at each of these categories in turn and how they might be used by a magician.
These consist of a set of mechanically interlinked pieces. The solution is achieved through the physical manipulation of the whole object or parts of it. The most famous mechanical puzzle is the Rubik’s Cube, which has inspired a whole sub-genre of magic (Cube Magic).
Mechanical puzzles are well-suited to performance because they usually involve interesting and unusual-looking objects, not dissimilar to some classic magic props.
There are three main types of mechanical puzzles:
Assembly Puzzles - Also known as put-together puzzles, these puzzles are presented in component form, and the aim is to produce a certain shape, pattern or design. Jigsaw puzzles, the Soma Cube, pentomino puzzles, anchor stone puzzles, packing puzzles and pyramid puzzles all fit into this category.
Disassembly Puzzles - Where the solver is required to open, disconnect or divide the puzzle into its constituent parts. Also known as take-apart puzzles. Common examples include Japanese puzzle boxes and interlocking and disentanglement puzzles (such as nail puzzles).
Rearrangement Puzzles - These puzzles usually have similar (or identical) pieces which must be re-arranged or permuted, often as groups, in order to move from a randomised (mixed or scrambled) state to a solved state. The most famous example is the Rubik’s Cube. However, tangrams and matchstick puzzles also fall into this broad category, both of which are well suited to performance.
Mechanical puzzles can be difficult to categorise because they frequently combine puzzle elements from multiple sub-genres or can be classified into different groups depending on the sorting criteria being used. Tiling Puzzles include jigsaw puzzles, tangrams, and the Stomachion, one of the oldest puzzles in the world.
Other common sub-genres of the mechanical puzzle include disentanglement puzzles, wherein you must disentangle a metal or string loop from another object, and sliding puzzles, where you are tasked with sliding (frequently flat) pieces along particular routes, usually on a board, to establish a certain end goal or configuration. Also known as sequential movement puzzles, the most famous example is the 15-Puzzle (also called Boss Puzzle, Game of Fifteen, Gem Puzzle and Mystic Square) and Klotski (also known as Huarong Dao, Khun Phaen and Kunpan). Other puzzles in this category include the Minus Cube and Rush Hour (pictured below).
You can use the Rush Hour puzzle to perform a simple yet impressive prediction effect as follows: First, select one of the starting configuration cards as your force card. Arrange the puzzle pieces on the board so that they match the configuration on this card. Hide the puzzle under the lid of the box. Use your favourite force, such as the Balducci Cut Deeper Force, to make a person “randomly choose a card”. Lift the box lid to reveal your prediction matches the selected configuration card!
Twisting puzzles are probably the most popular subset of the mechanical puzzle, thanks to the phenomenal success of the Rubik’s Cube in the 1980s (technically, the Rubik’s Cube is also an example of a sequential movement puzzle). Also known as twisty, rotational and combination puzzles, they’re solved by a series of twists or rotations. Other puzzles in this category include Rubik’s Domino, Fisher’s Cube, the Mirror Cube (also known as Mirror Blocks or the Bump Cube) and the Ghost Cube. Most are either a colour, design or shape modification of the original Rubik’s Cube.
Mechanical puzzles may have a logic component or may be solved completely via trial and error. Technically, jigsaw and tile puzzles are mechanical puzzles but are so popular and numerous that they deserve to be treated as separate categories.
Other sub-genres of mechanical puzzles include:
Dexterity Puzzles - You rotate, shake or manipulate the object until all the pieces are in the required location. These puzzles often include small steel ball bearings enclosed in a transparent housing.
Folding Puzzles - Made out of paper, these puzzles incorporate elements of origami and geometry. This category includes flexagons, which were made popular by magician and mathematician Martin Gardner.
Impossible Objects - The classic example is a ship, knot or deck of cards in a glass bottle.
Puzzle Locks - Also known as “trick locks”, these are a type of mechanical puzzle with unusual or hidden mechanics.
Trick Vessels - This is similar to an impossible object, but it does something that it should not be able to do. For example, an “Assasin’s Teapot” can pour two separate liquids from the same vessel.
A fellow performer, who posts under the pseudonym Dr Dee on The Magic Café, shares my enthusiasm for the performance of puzzles, mechanical ones in particular:
“When presented properly, mechanical puzzles can intrigue, enchant, and enlighten. I make a point of not using puzzles as ‘instruments of torture’—rather as a way of sharing ingenuity. I like to start with puzzles that can be solved relatively swiftly before moving on to more elaborate pieces.”1
He makes an excellent point that mechanical puzzles should not be used to frustrate or belittle a person but rather inspire their creative imagination.
These are puzzles derived from the mathematical field of deduction and test a person’s analytical and reasoning skills. Technically, logic puzzles are a popular type of mathematical puzzle. Here’s an easy example:
Ducks in a Row: There are two ducks in front of a duck, two ducks behind a duck and a duck in the middle. How many ducks are there?
The answer is three (not five). Two ducks are in front of the last duck; the first duck has two ducks behind it; one duck is between the other two.
Logic puzzles can be used before you introduce the props for a magic trick. For example, you could use the ducks-in-a-row puzzle to introduce three miniature ducks2, which you then use to perform a short Two in the Hand, One in the Pocket routine.
These are similar to logic puzzles but rely on trickery and wordplay rather than mathematics. Here’s one of my favourites:
I start with the letter e and end with the letter e. I contain only one letter, yet I am not the letter e! What am I? (the answer is in the footnotes)3
Riddles often seem to have a simple answer, but the solution is usually more complex than it first appears. A good example is the famous puzzle known as The Missing Dollar Riddle. Here’s the most popular form of the conundrum:
Three guests check into a hotel room. The manager tells them the bill is $30, so each person pays $10. Later, the manager realises that the three firends were overcharged and the bill should only have been $25. To rectify this mistake, he gives the bellhop $5 as five one-dollar bills to return to the three guests.
On the way to the room to refund the money, the bellhop realises that he cannot equally divide the five one-dollar bills among the three guests. As the guests are not aware of the revised bill's total, the dishonest bellhop decides to give each guest $1 back and keep $2 as a tip for himself.
As each guest got $1 back, each person only paid $9, bringing the total paid to $27. The bellhop kept $2, which, when added to the $27, comes to $29. So, if the guests initially handed over $30, where is the missing dollar?
This puzzle is a good example of verbal misdirection. The context surrounding the simple mathematical calculation distracts from the fact that unrelated amounts are being added together. There is no reason why (10 − 1) × 3 + 2 = 29 should equal 30. If you’re still confused by this puzzle, consider where the money ends up. The manager kept $25 of the $30 he was given. The guests got back $3 ($1 each). So far, this adds up to $25 + $3 = $28. The remaining $2 dollars was, of course, pocketed by the bellhop. There is no missing dollar. The following sum further proves that this is the case:
$1 (Guest’s pocket) +
$1 (Guest’s pocket) +
$1 (Guest’s pocket) +
$2 (Bellhop’s pocket) +
$25 (Hotel cash register)
Put another way, the $2 “tip” is already included in the $9 paid by each guest. In the riddle, we’re incorrectly counting it twice, which causes the misleading total of $29.
Over the years, this puzzle has evolved into a fully-fledged magic trick. Daryl, known as the Magician's Magician, first crafted it into an effect called "A Puzzling Bill Vanish" using actual dollar bills.4 Nicholas Einhorn later refined Daryl's routine and published it as "The Mysterious Puzzle of the Missing Dollar Bill”5. Both tricks artfully incorporate the riddle's mathematical fallacy into a stunning illusion with real money. In Nick’s routine, two real one-dollar bills appear to vanish into thin air! (You can watch a performance of the trick in the trailer from Murphy’s Magic Supplies.)
This routine demonstrates how mixing a puzzle with some magic can make both the puzzle more difficult to unravel and the magic more impressive and memorable.
As well as word-based riddles, there is also the rebus puzzle. This is a riddle that combines the use of illustrated pictures with individual letters, numbers and symbols to depict words or phrases. For example:
In the UK, these puzzles are also known as dingbats (after the game of the same name devised by Paul Sellars). If you enjoy this type of puzzle, you might want to follow Daily Dingbats on Facebook, Instagram or X (Twitter). Can you work out the answer to the one below (answer in footnotes)?9
This category tests a person’s knowledge and understanding of language. Popular examples include crosswords and word searches. However, there are many other, more obscure word puzzles:
Most word puzzles would be difficult to perform for an audience; watching someone complete a cryptic crossword doesn’t sound very entertaining! However, they can be effectively incorporated into a mental magic or mentalism performance.
Finally, there are number puzzles, the most popular being sudoku. Again, these are usually solitary pursuits, so don’t translate well to performance without being combined with a magical effect.
So, there you have it. There are literally hundreds of different types of puzzles out there waiting to be performed, and we haven’t even covered optical illusions and bar bets!
Dr Dee, “Favourite Pocket Puzzles,” Puzzle me this…, The Magic Cafe, last modified April 6, 2023, https://themagiccafe.com/forums/viewtopic.php?topic=755866.
Answer to riddle: ENVELOPE
Daryl Martinez, Fechter's Finger Flicking Frolic (Session 1992) (Las Vegas: DARYL Productions, 1992), 7.
Answer to dingbat: “ONE IN A MILLION”
Answer to dingbat: “SCRAMBLED EGGS”
Answer to dingbat: “SIX OF ONE, HALF A DOZEN OF ANOTHER”
Answer to dingbat: “HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS”