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Obscure Origins: Chicago Opener or Red Hot Mama?
In this post, we explore the history of the most famous card trick to emerge from the Chicago magic scene and find out why it has two names.
Welcome to the first edition of Obscure Origins, a regular column that aims to uncover the secret history of popular magic tricks and sleight-of-hand moves. Our first investigation will examine the card trick called "Chicago Opener" or "Red Hot Mama".
During the trick, the back of a freely-selected card changes colour from blue to red. The red-backed card is set aside. The magician offers to repeat the trick. Another card is selected and lost in the pack. However, a second red-back card fails to appear. The magician looks perplexed. He then turns the red-backed card face up. It has transformed into the second selection!
This very popular card trick is usually credited to either Frank Everhart, Jim Ryan, Frank Garcia or some guy on YouTube—all of these attributions are wrong!
So who actually invented this trick, and why does it go by so many different names? Keep reading to find out.
The World's Best Card Trick
Many magicians on YouTube only know this trick as "The World's Best Card Trick" or "The World's Greatest Card Trick" and make no mention of the Windy City or good-looking ladies. But why?
In 2006, during the early days of YouTube, a person using the username ultradeepbase1 uploaded a no-frills performance of the trick to the site. Back then, there was no algorithm controlling the appearance of content. Instead, featured videos were chosen by staff working at YouTube and, for some reason, this video was selected to appear on the YouTube homepage. This may have also been the first video labelled "Best Card Trick In The World". For this reason, it quickly generated over one million views.
To date, the video has been watched more than twenty million times! While the performance is mediocre at best, its popularity speaks to the innate appeal of the plot. Unfortunately, the anonymous performer made some odd choices (the camera angle, for example) and seems to think that the name of an Islamic militant group is the new abracadabra! Another quick web search reveals that a few YouTube magicians are oblivious to the actual meaning of this word and have started calling it "The Hezbollah Card Trick". Luckily, these people are in the minority; most users now refer to it as "The World's Best Card Trick". Well, at least that's what the kid in the tutorial video called it. Man, what a mess! And it's all YouTube's fault—or is it?
It turns out that magicians have a long history of needlessly renaming tricks, and if you think this effect is called "Chicago Opener" or "Red Hot Mama", then you're just as wrong as the hoards of headless magicians on YouTube! The worrying thing about this practice is that magicians, even knowledgeable ones, start to credit the invention of the trick to the wrong person (for example, Xavier Spade incorrectly credits Lynn Searles in one of his YouTube videos!).
The Trick With Too Many Names
The actual inventor of the trick is a man named Al Leech. Al was a journalist and passionate amateur magician. He worked for the United Press offices in Chicago and later for Newsweek Magazine, whose editorial offices were located in New York. This brought Al into contact with top-flight magicians like Dai Vernon, Harry Lorayne and Frank Garcia.
Al taught the trick to his friend Jim Ryan. However, Jim's presentation was a lot cheekier than Al's. First, Jim would walk up to a woman and ask her to select a card that was returned to the pack. Next, he would ask her to tap the pack with her finger. Then, in his mischievous Irish accent, he would say, "Do you know what happens when a red-hot mama does that?"
Jim then taught the trick to magic bartender Frank Everhart. Frank had great success with the trick, so much so that it became one of his signature pieces. Al's trick became very popular in the Chicago magic scene thanks to Frank. However, relatively few magicians outside the Windy City knew of the trick's existence.
In 1956, Walter B. Gibson—a prolific writer who wrote many stories for the popular pulp magazine The Shadow—published the trick as "Red and Blue Fantasy" in his book What's New in Magic2.
A few more years pass by. Then, in 1964, Harry Loryne shared his handling of the plot, "Color Quickie", in a slim manuscript called Personal Secrets3. (Harry is a magician, memory expert and a well-respected author on both mnemonics and close-up card magic.)
About twenty years after the trick was invented, it received a further boost in popularity when it was published, without credit, in Million Dollar Card Secrets by Frank Garcia4, known as "the man with the million dollar hands".
As a result, the trick is given a new name, "Chicago Opener", and a different ending (both duplicate cards are openly displayed at the conclusion of the effect). Frank renamed the trick "Chicago Opener" because he'd seen Frank Everhart use it as the opening trick in his famous bar magic act. Here's what Frank Garcia says about the trick in his book:
"This is one of my favorite openers. I learned this many years ago in Chicago. It is a strong effect and one that always leaves the audience bewitched and bewildered. The action is fast, and it will establish you as a great card manipulator."
Another handling, closer to the original, was later published by Frank in Super Subtle Card Miracles5.
Following this, in 1980, Jim Ryan's handling of the trick was published in Jim Ryan Close-Up: Entertaining Card Quickies by Phil Willmarth6. The trick is renamed "Red Hot Mama" in the book but, thankfully, correctly credited to Al Leech.
Interestingly, Jim's name for the trick may have been inspired by the 1934 Fleischer Studios Betty Boop animated short, Red Hot Mamma. This cartoon was banned in the United Kingdom because it depicted Hell in a humorous manner, something that was deemed blasphemous. First, Betty gives some demons the cold shoulder, freezing them into blocks of ice. She then gives the Devil a cold, hard stare, doing the same to him. Finally, she literally makes the whole of Hell freeze over! It's a classic cartoon and well worth a watch.
So, which name is correct? Well, the answer is none of these! Surprisingly, Al didn't name the trick "Red Hot Mama" or "Chicago Opener". Instead, he called it "The Hot Card Trick" and published it in an undated manuscript called The Hot Card Trick No. 1 in 1950 (or thereabouts). So, strictly speaking, "Chicago Opener" and "Chicago Style" are minor variations of "The Hot Card Trick" that Frank Garcia saw fit to publish (without permission, I should add). Likewise, "Red Hot Mama" is Jim Ryan's personal presentation of the plot (the method is the same as the one used by Al Leech).
Why all this misinformation? Although he didn't create the trick, Frank Everhart is responsible for making it a favourite amongst magicians. (As well as making "Chicago Opener" popular, Frank Everhart was also responsible for a renewed interest in the storytelling trick "Sam the Bellhop".) As already mentioned, when the trick was published in 1972, it was renamed "Chicago Opener" by Garcia because Everhart used it as the opening effect in his famous bar magic act.
In 1973, when the effect was again published in Super Subtle Card Miracles under the title "Chicago Style", Frank Everhart was wrongly given credit for the routine. This mistake explains much of the confusion surrounding the origin of this famous trick. No credit is given to Al Leech in any of Frank Garcia's books. Most close-up magicians in Chicago were aware of the trick's origin. Ed Marlo, for example, always referred to it as the "Leech Trick". For this reason, it seems highly unlikely that Frank was unaware of the provenance of the trick. He either purposely didn't credit Al Leech or didn't bother to find out where the trick came from. Either way, there is no good excuse for this kind of behaviour.
Furthermore, this misunderstanding was reinforced when Daryl credited the trick to Everhart on his Card Revelations7 VHS tapes. Michael Ammar also helped to popularise Jim Ryan's handling when he taught "Red Hot Mama" on the first volume of his Easy to Master Card Miracles8 series of VHS tapes. Michael mentions on the tape that when he asked Frank Everhart for permission to include the trick on the project, Frank told him that Jim Ryan taught him the trick. Michael then mentions that "some historians trace the routine back to Al Leech." Even though Michael Ammar got the crediting correct, the way he mentioned all three magicians without clearly identifying Al Leech as the trick inventor likely caused more confusion. Nevertheless, crediting issues aside, both Daryl and Michael perform and explain the trick extremely well. By the mid-90s, due to this confusion, Al's name had become disconnected from the trick.
In summary, the trick commonly known as "Chicago Opener" or "Red Hot Mama" is actually Alfred B. Leech's signature effect called "The Hot Card Trick".
The video was uploaded to YouTube on the 6th of August 2006. As of 2022, it has amassed well over twenty million views. The YouTube user who uploaded the video, using the pseudonym ultradeepbase, is amateur magician Joe Corny.
Walter B. Gibson, What's New in Magic, (Bell Publishing Co, 1956), 75.
Harry Lorayne, Personal Secrets, (D. Robbins & Co., Inc., 1964), 31.
Frank Garcia, Million Dollar Card Secrets, (Million Dollar Publications, 1972), 13.
Frank Garcia, Super Subtle Card Miracles, (Million Dollar Publications, 1975), 15.
Phil Willmarth, Jim Ryan Close-Up: Entertaining Card Quickies, (Self Published, 1981), 7.
Daryl, Card Revelations Volume 1, (L&L Publishing).
Michael Ammar, Easy to Master Card Miracles Volume 1, (L&L Publishing).