Classic Sampler, by Michael Skinner, published by L & L Publishing. $35 regular edition,
$79.95 deluxe slipcased edition. From L & L Publishing, P.O. Box 100, Tahoma CA 96142.
Although I'm not sure I can pinpoint exactly why, most magicians (including myself) who have
ever seen Michael Skinner work are rather in love with him. He evokes this admiration quietly,
by performing exquisite sleight-of-hand in a gentlemanly way. As with Slydini, one of Michael's
mentors, you sense when watching him work that you are watching an artist. In an age when
many a skilled close-up magician's persona is founded in a certain outrageousness (Tom
Mullica, David Williamson, even Ricky Jay, for example), it is refreshing that Michael reaches
his audiences through a slow, deliberate style, and that he has made a good living at it. He has
been at the Golden Nugget since 1975, where I regret never having seen him work. Fortunately,
I watched him often during his early years at the Magic Castle, and have attended two of his
lectures since then. What came through for me in those occasions was what Larry Jennings says
in the book's Foreword, that "Michael was as likable as he was accomplished," as well as what
Allen Okawa says in his Introduction, that "Michael Skinner is the consummate artist of intimate
In addition to Larry Jennings' Foreword, Allen Okawa's Introduction, and Michael's own
Preface (which contains thoughts on magic not easily found elsewhere), there is an extraordinary
15-page, nearly 8500-word Profile by William Murray. Mr. Murray is a New Yorker writer, and
the piece was intended for publication in that magazine. (It was written a few years ago, when
the Magic Castle library was still on an upper floor, and Dai Vernon was still alive. Although
one occasionally stumbles on a line that exposes a layman's naivete, it's an engaging essay.)
That it didn't make it into the magazine is The New Yorker's loss and our gain. In addition to
being a fine biographical article on Michael, it contains partial or full patter presentations for
many of Michael's signature effects, including a thimble trick, "Han Ping Chien," a ring on pen,
"Trash Compactor," a cigarette paper tear, "Jumping Gems," the Slydini handkerchief knots, a
dice twisting effect, a two-card transposition, an any-four-cards-to-aces effect, "Triumph,"
Edward Victor's "Eleven-Card Trick," "Three-Card Monte," and the cups and balls. The effects
are described in the context of Murray introducing his friends to Michael via a close-up table
performance in Las Vegas, and their gradual conversion to Michael Skinner fans both gives the
reader a feeling of being there as well as of how good Michael really is. As one of Murray's
companions says to Michael, "You know, Michael, you're challenging a whole concept of the
universe. It's what shamans and magicians have always done -- lift people's hearts and minds
At some point in Magic Grammar School, most of us encountered the bromide that we should learn but six tricks, and learn them well. Michael Skinner must have skipped class the
day that lesson was taught (he was possibly out behind the school house learning a few more
card tricks). Michael's reputation for an encyclopedic repertoire is as well-known as his skill,
and he became a legend the week he worked at the Magic Castle without repeating a trick. (The
management had to ask him to desist, as the other magicians kept crowding into the Close-up
Gallery to witness as much of this marathon as possible.) It is perhaps because of this reputation
that I sensed a feeling of disappointment when the book was announced as a "slim yet pregnant
volume." I need not have despaired: the book is full of excellent magic, the largest Skinner
collection to date, and I know from prior encounters with Michael that he truly favors the items
in this book. Of purely performance items, there are 27 spread over 85 pages. (The entire book
is around 120 pages with the biographical material and notes on theory.) In part the book is
"slim" because Michael doesn't over elaborate in his descriptions. Where he assumes that the
reader might have difficulty obtaining a reference, such as a file of Hierophant, he describes the
move in question. On the other hand, if the move is readily available in The Amateur
Magician's Handbook or The Dai Vernon Book of Magic, he doesn't, "as any card man, worth
his salt, will have the above mentioned volumes in his library." (After reading a library book in
high school on Scarne, the first book Michael purchased was Erdnase, and he frequently quotes
it by page number as an Evangelist might quote Biblical text. Michael's fascination with this
essential text no doubt endeared him to Dai Vernon on their meeting in 1967.) Also contributing
to the "slim" characterization of the book is the fact that Michael has trimmed each effect down
to its essential elements, containing only those required to produce an entertaining effect, and
using only the fewest and most straightforward moves to achieve that effect. An example is
"The Conus Aces," in which Michael eliminates the sucker aspects of the effect (". . . just too
blatant for a modern audience to accept . . . just not subtle enough to entertain") while
emphasizing its climax (". . . the production at the conclusion of the effect is just wonderful . . .
This is a beautiful sequence and makes the effect worthwhile.").
As to the effects, there are 22 card items and 5 with other ordinary objects. A quick look at a
few of them:
The Business on the Business Card Prediction -- Michael takes a familiar trick in which a
business card, on which is written two predictions, is inserted between any two cards in the deck,
which turn out to be the predicted cards. Two methods are offered, both considerably more
difficult than the original, but which eliminate the phony turnover of the card and produce a
more direct and unfathomable effect.
The Mona Lisa Card Trick -- A "favorite with the ladies in the audience," this is a routine in
which classic paintings is the subtext, as a random card on display changes to a selected card.
Quite easy to do and a nice climax.
The Conus Aces -- In Michael's stripped down version, four random cards become aces as you
brush them over the back of a spectator's hand, as the four aces under the spectator's hand
become queens, to a patter story that neatly ties it all together.
Oil and Water Rides Again -- An eight-card oil and water sequence in which all the cards
eventually turn red. Again, a relevant story line makes it all work together. (It's a strong, novel
effect, but I'll still stick with the routine in our October issue.)
A Deeper Mystery -- I'd just as soon Michael had not published this, as I learned it from him
years ago, in one of his lectures, and would rather others not know it. It's the best version I
know of Al Koran's "Lazy Man Card Trick."
On the Card to Wallet -- A difficult maneuver, but one that should confound the most observant
spectator or video camera. The card is loaded via two justified trips to the pocket. In both
cases, the hand going to the pocket is clearly empty.
Birthday Telepathy -- This is an easy mathematical stunt (no cards involved), but Michael's
presentational touches raise it to the miracle class.
The Mental Photography Deck -- I find it interesting that magicians of the technical caliber of
Michael Skinner and the late Albert Goshman both have seen fit to feature the old dealer item
also known as "The Nudist Deck." In his Preface, and throughout the various card tricks,
Michael reveals himself to be a perfectionist regarding cleaning up, often doing so well ahead of
time. This effect is a case in point.
The Memorized Deck -- There are three sections in the book on the memorized deck, and several
of the routines in them require repeated perfect Faro shuffles. If this move is part of your
arsenal, the effects are stunning. I particularly liked "The Monkey's Paw," which produces an
effect similar to Paul Gertner's "Unshuffled," but better to my mind, and with a perfect patter
line. (I keep coming back to Michael's lines, which thoroughly impressed me in this book. As
Don Alan does, Michael uses few lines, but lines that are potent with suggestion and leave
lasting impressions on the audience. )
Torn and Restored Soda Straw Wrapper -- The title describes the effect, a clean version owing
much to Leipzig and to a relevant story with some really bad puns.
Instant Replay -- Michael's very commercial version of the "Chicago Opener," with no mention
of red hot mamas.
A Poker Deal -- Again, this is a routine that requires Faro shuffles, a skill that eludes me, but it's
the presentation here, in which a spectator deals the royal flush, and with perfect lines, that
makes this sell. With a little work you could map this version to one requiring more
Did You Wash Behind Your Ears? -- Ever produce a coin from behind a child's ear? Here's
a method that will fool others who have done so. Again, perfect lines and entertaining byplay
with the spectator make this play. Thanks are noted to Jack Chanin.
The Trash Compactor -- A perfect restaurant routine: a paper napkin is magically compressed to
a small pellet of paper, which then vanishes completely.
Top and Bottom Blackstone -- This is one of the easiest effects in the book, and one that will
cause audiences to credit you with the most skill. It's most interesting to compare this with the
equally strong and impromptu "Larry's Favorite" in Larry Jennings' book, The Cardwright. You
start with a spectator-shuffled deck. A card is selected and replaced, the deck is cut into four
piles and reassembled in a different order. You look at the top and bottom cards which now add
up to, say, 17. You then cut 16 cards cleanly off the top, in one quick move, and count them to
verify your accuracy. The 17th card, now on top of the deck, proves to be the spectator's card.
Rouge et Noir -- Some bold but easy moves make possible this "Oil and Water" effect in which
the specator seemingly does all the work. A spectator shuffles seven black and red cards
together and then hands you seven of them. You turn them over to reveal them to be all red.
The spectator examines the cards remaining in his hands to discover he holds the seven black
cards. You end clean with a full deck with no duplicates.
Return to The Little Egypt Gazette.
Copyright© 1996 by Steve Bryant
Classic Sampler is a hard-cover book, 8 1/2 by 11, 120 pp. Although Michael felt no illustrations
were necessary, the book is liberally illustrated with over 100 clear hand photographs by Anne
White. Photos of Michael with various friends in magic also appear throughout the book. The
attractive layout is by Daniel McCarthy, and the book is printed on glossy paper. (My only
quibble, and this occurred only in the introductory material, is that I have a prejudice against the
use of underlining for emphasis in printed matter; I prefer italics. Marlo was a great card man,
but one shouldn't use him as a style guide.) There is a quite beautiful full-color dust jacket, and
the overleaf contains a very nice introduction of Michael by his boss, Steve Wynn. (Mr. Wynn's
other staff magicians include Siegfried and Roy and Lance Burton.) So -- while the book may
not be the Every Trick Michael Skinner Knows In The World (over 2000 at the time of the
William Murray article) book that one might have hoped for, it nevertheless contains a
substantial amount of wonderful material, enough to keep you busy and your audiences
entertained for years to come. At $35, it's also a bargain and should fill magicians' stockings
around the world this Christmas.