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Journalist breaks code by revealing secrets behind magician's curtain

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Magicians will hope that American journalist Alex Stone does the honourable thing by committing seppuku by the card sword he uses in one of his acts. For this is the reward for breaking the most sacred of magic's oaths: "Thou shalt not reveal thy secrets."

Stone's engaging journey into his amateur magic career is as enlightening as it is disturbing. Not only does he reveal closely guarded secrets hoarded, in some cases, for thousands of years but he tears open the psyche of the archetypal magician.

It mirrors too closely the geekiness, brilliance and single-mindedness illusionists seek to hide, even from themselves.

His journey of self-discovery is instantly recognizable to any serious practitioner of the art of deception, whether amateur (one who does not make their sole living from magic) or professional (one who "tries" to make their sole living from the performance of magic).

The ride begins with a devastating, ego-crushing failure that would paralyze and permanently damage any normal mind. His epiphany from the disaster, the equivalent of being triple-Xed on America's Got Talent, will inspire neophyte magicians and performers around the world to aspire to greatness.

Stone immerses himself in the study of magic through incredible mentors, some of whom are the greatest unknown creators of sleight-of-hand and prestidigitation outside of the rarefied circles of magicians.

We journey with him to the Las Vegas "Mystery School" run by the flamboyant and talented casino favourite Jeff McBride. Stone learns the three stages of magicianship and is surprised at how little he really knows about magic.

We discover the incredible world of underground magic meetings and follow a New York gang of Three-card Monte con men, all in the pursuit of understanding magic on a deeper level. His hope and dream is to become not just a good magician but a great one.

Stone also brilliantly melds the sciences of physics, biology, mathematics, neuroscience and memory with thieves, grifters and card sharps. Throughout these elements he interweaves his personal story with scientific studies and anecdotal events.

His understanding and explanation of these sciences give us more than a casual glimpse behind the veil. It is an intelligent and fascinating treatise on the working brain.

Stone's explorations with cognitive psychology pioneer Arien Mack, utilizing and exposing the "watch steal" or learning incredible feats of memory taught to him by mnemonics expert Joshua Foer show the lengths he goes through to understand magic and create a "magician-fooling" act.

It is exciting to be a voyeur as Stone follows a path to mathematical theorems hundreds of years old that still hold the secrets to modern computing.

He creates what is probably the most ingenious, if not most difficult, trick ever invented in preparation for one of the greatest magic competitions. Here he would compete against seasoned professionals from around the world, as well as high-school students who have spent their adolescence perfecting just one tiny, amazing act.

Stone's justification for breaking the magicians' code is that "there is just as much beauty and mystery behind the curtain as there was in front of it."

Fooling Houdini sometimes suffers from Stone's delving too deeply into research, and this detracts from the story. But like all good magic tricks. it does eventually come back around to make perfect sense.

Winnipegger Brian Glow is a corporate and casino illusionist with a degree in neuroscience and psychology. Follow him on Twitter @BrianGlow or on Facebook.

Fooling Houdini

Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind

By Alex Stone

Bond Street/Doubleday, 291 pages, $33

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2012 J8

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