Sunday, March 27, 2016

I have a problem with Rick Lax

A few days ago, I wrote a post in which I mentioned the British magician Paul Daniels, who had recently died. Like many people for whom Daniels was a part of growing up, I have been spending a bit too much time on the net, reading up on him and watching some of his routines on YouTube. And from there, the internet being what it is, I have been learning more than is healthy about conjuring in general, and also discovering some other fantastic acts. How can it be that I have, until now, remained ignorant of the existence of Penn and Teller?

Yes, this is what the internet is for.

Pick a card. Any card.

But to every silver lining there is a cloud, and so it was inevitable that I should also stumble across the grinning face of somebody who rejoices in the name of Rick Lax. I’m tempted to say his name sounds like a cure for constipation, but with a name like mine it’s probably wise not to milk that line too much.

It seems he’s making a big splash on Facebook right now. His page has over a million likes and a very impressive number of video views, which he is stridently proud of. I think perhaps if his ego wasn’t on display everywhere I wouldn’t pay him much attention. But let’s put that aside for the moment and consider Rick Lax, the magician.

The first of his videos I saw consisted of a mind-reading act. Think of a US state, take the last letter in that state’s name and hit “Like” to “lock in” your answer. Here’s a bunch of letters, some red, some white, some blue. Look for the letter you’re thinking of. It’s red, isn’t it?

It’s not hard to see how that one’s done. Yes, you could have chosen any one of 50 states, but if you take the last letters of those states, that only accounts for about half the alphabet. There are, by my reckoning, twenty states that end in the letter “A”.

It was one of those sub-par tricks that have been popping up on Facebook in recent years. It wasn’t even particularly well done: there were a few mistakes, including the “G” being the wrong colour, to the disappointment of the good citizens of Wyoming. I’d have moved on from there and not given it another thought, were it not for the fact that something, something, was nagging at me.

I think it was the blatant begging for “Likes”. You’re supposed to hit “Like” when you’ve watched the video and liked it. If you’re going to put pressure on people to “like” it halfway through, before the trick is even complete, you’re not really in a position to accuse Criss Angel of buying followers. Although at that point I didn’t know about his proud claim to be “America’s most popular”, the way the video screamed “Like me! Share me! Feed my craving for adulation!” irked me enough to want to find out more.

The problem I have with him is that I don’t know what to make of him. Fraud? Self-deprecating genius? Troll? I seriously have no idea.

Try this. Start with your age. Now add 5. Now subtract your age. You’re left with 5, am I right?

I can tell you’re not impressed. But this is seriously the level of all the mind-reading tricks of his that I have seen. When I was at school, we had similar mind-reading tricks that basically involved simple arithmetic, but at least you had to understand powers of two and algebra to figure out how they worked.

Think I’m exaggerating here? This is seriously one of his tricks (pay attention to steps 1 and 6):
  1. Think of your age.
  2. Add 3.
  3. Subtract 5.
  4. Add 7.
  5. Push “Like” to, you know, “lock in your answer”.
  6. Subtract your age.
  7. Add 5.
  8. Multiply by 2.
  9. Add 1.
  10. The answer is 21.
It seems to fool a very large number of people. Mr Lax himself warns people not to put any “spoilers” in the comments. Spoilers? This is elementary school stuff.

He also does some close-up table-top practical illusions, and they’re okay. They’re cheap tricks you can pick up at a store, and I later discovered why he was using them. They work, and will entertain your friends, but they’re not at the standard that would justify being called “mind-bending”. Pushing a coin “through” a sheet of latex? It’s not immediately obvious how that one’s done, but neither is it particularly amazing.

Digging deeper, I discovered that he works for a company that makes these tricks: he in fact designs them. Which is where my problem with him starts, because it makes sense of at least those videos. He’s demonstrating his own designs. All magicians have to start somewhere, and in any event as a way of enlivening a dinner party, they’re just the ticket; there’s a need for this sort of product, and that’s what he’s selling. I sort of wish he was a bit more honest about the fact, but perhaps that’s just how he does his marketing. All good.

Or not.

Because as I started poking around, I found that he seemed to be something quite big in the world of conjuring. He has, it seems, worked for David Copperfield. But he’s also given interviews and written articles all over the place; and in at least some of them he makes a plea for originality (and manages to imply that he counts himself as one of the 1% of truly original illusionists).

Originality is not, on the evidence I’ve so far seen, his greatest strength. Perhaps his most visually impressive trick is the one where he pushes a knife into his finger (although it's a pity that the fake blood looks like the thin dribble of ketchup you get when you forget to shake the bottle). Great stuff, but his claim to originality wears a little thin given that this is basically just a scaled-down version of the “X-sword” illusion created by somebody called Adam Steinfeld about twenty years ago. (Did I mention I’d recently been reading up on conjuring?)

But then, he did appear on a Penn and Teller show called Fool Us, in which magicians perform tricks in the hope that Penn and Teller would be unable to work out how it was done. Lax succeeded in fooling the duo with a card trick.

He’s good with a theatre audience, that’s for sure. But what of the trick?

Well, it seems impressive to me. It foxed Penn and Teller, or so it seems. This is miles away from the extraordinarily lame think-of-a-number stuff he serves up on Facebook. This, finally, is a man I could imagine working for David Copperfield.

And then you disappear down the rabbit-hole of internet forums of amateur magicians and afficionados complaining that the trick wasn’t that impressive, and that they could think of ways it could very easily be done. That may be beginners’ bravado (“Ooh, I could do that!”), but the accusation that Penn and Teller are in fact rewarding acts they liked as opposed to acts that actually outwitted them is hard to dismiss. Be that as it may, it is, undeniably, a good and highly polished routine, entertaining and, to those of us who aren’t magicians, baffling. Well, he says he was once thrown out of a casino for card-counting, so it could have been a memory feat, but still a very impressive one.

And there you have it: the two sides of Rick Lax. There’s the lame, attention-seeking, egotistical purveyor of cheap tricks taking advantage of the inexperienced and gullible to feed his ego; and then there’s the accomplished, charismatic performer who leaves the professionals (if not the I-know-it-all you-can’t-teach-me-anything beginners) scratching their heads.

There’s only one way I can make sense of this. One of the things he does is write about deceptive techniques used in places like Las Vegas, and how not to fall victim to them. Why not? Other magicians, like James Randi, Derren Brown and even Paul Daniels, have warned people against charlatans who use the same techniques they do, but in order to deceive and defraud rather than for entertainment. Maybe Rick Lax’s Facebook page is part of some sort of social experiment for his next book?


  1. I have never heard of Lax...I have followed Penn and Teller for decades...

  2. I have the exact same problem with a guy, really. I watched a couple of his videos before, but refuse to watch anymore than that. The first video I had ever seen from him had me in awe when I realized how much of a "fake" he was. I say "fake" because he calls himself a magician. This is not the work of a magician, but more of the work of a clown. I watched a couple more videos after that to see if they were all the same. As it came to my surprise, they actually were.

    I just don't like the attention and fame he is getting for solving a few math equations from 6th grade.

    1. None of it is magic. He will ask you to pick an emotion then pick the word that goes with it then pick a picture associated with it and he guesses which picture you pick. Of course he gets it right because no matter what you pick they all go with one picture. I think it's just plain stupid stuff that anyone should be able to figure out.

  3. I hate to say it but all criticisms I've read seem petty. I just found the guy, know nothing about magic, could see he was often repackaging rhe same trick, googled to see how it was done, found it in like two minutes, then found all these rants. It's entertainment and he is enjoying some success. How many great entertainers don't. Give some props for success in a really difficult field. Think unknown comic and carot top. Not exactly the worlds createst comics but they had careers. Carot top even got to the point where he needed plastic surgery to continue. Very few can do essentially the same thing for so long and get away with it. The unknown comic had it made but even he didn't last long enough to brag about never needing platic surgery.