Sweating the Details // Part One
At a time when instant gratification is sought by most, Steve Reynolds is spending time, often years, discovering valuable gems from the past. But he's not some crazy guy in a basement. Beyond his archaeologistic ways, he makes his living by performing his craft for audiences all over New Orleans and lecturing to magicians across the US. For more about Steve, go to his website or follow him on Facebook. You can also find some of his magic right here in the catalog section.
As I finish organizing my project on the Zarrow Shuffle and its related techniques, I take a moment to reflect on why I started this whole thing in the first place. I was unaware of its classic status in 1991 when I first saw it used by Brother John Hamman in “Two-Shuffles Harry” (Greater Magic Video Library Vol. 38). The false shuffle was a necessary step to this end. Hamman’s execution of the shuffles didn’t invite an enthusiastic desire from me to remove the move from the context of the routine. His use of the move was functional. It got the job done and I performed the trick regularly (which I still do). I was interested, at that time, in technique in so far as what it could accomplish within tricks.
But in 1992 this all changed. Jon Racherbaumer published (through L&L Publishing) Card Finesse II. I was introduced to the idea of refinement and finesse. I read the book many times and worked through all the moves and devoured the credits and insights. It became my technical Bible. My thoughts on moves were separate from my performance of tricks per se. However, it was a particular performance of “Two Shuffles Harry,” at a friend’s home, that my focus shifted. In the performance of the shuffle it was required to do some slip cuts. While my performance was good and the blow-off came as a surprise, my friend’s mother brought up that she knew that I had kept her card on top of the deck—she had seen me holding back the top card during the split. But she was fooled enough to make the overall performance a success. What came out of this episode shaped the way I approached technique for the next decade. At that moment I remembered a line from Racherbaumer’s book:
"There is a finite number of ways to Second Deal, Shift, Palm, False Count, and Control playing cards. There are limits. Technicians now focus on refinements and finesses. They are perfecting our tools."
Our tools? This was to me an invitation to participate, to put my own thoughts into the mix, and to become a part of the creative continuum that I only, before that moment, looked upon from afar. I began to think and experiment, reinventing the double-shuffle strategy that had been published, I would find out later, many decades before. I used them to improve my performance of Hamman’s trick. My execution of the move was still functional and Hamman-esque, but I would never be caught on the slip cut again.
Prime-Time Marlo changed all of that. After seeing Edward Marlo’s masterful execution of the Shank Shuffle w/Applied Block Transfer, the desire to perfect my execution of the move became my obsession. I realized that I had to re-learn to shuffle like Marlo if I wanted to execute the shuffle at this level. I watched the footage, taken from a 1972 Super-8 film and narrated by Racherbaumer, numerous times daily over six months. Each frame was analyzed finger by finger. I watched what Marlo did with his right fourth finger first and applied that to my execution. I did this exercise with every finger, including the thumbs. I watched the action in slow motion, which revealed to me many inconspicuous details. My focus then became the shuffle itself and I began to find and study any published descriptions that would add to my understanding of the technique of perfecting the move. Applications became moot. It became a playground. Every bit that I found was applied, mastered, and eventually kept or discarded until I had the fullest understanding that my readings could provide.
// Jon Racherbaumer and Steve Reynolds, 1998
// Herb Zarrow, 1998
Six years later, in 1998, the S.A.M. convention was held in New Orleans and I traveled from Lansdale, PA to meet Racherbaumer. We had spoken on the phone since 1993 and here was my chance to meet the man face-to-face. I also met Marc DeSouza, who I found out lived twenty minutes away from my home. It was at this convention that I met my contemporaries and this marked a turning point in my involvement in card magic’s underground. I also met Herb Zarrow briefly at H&R’s booth. I had bought a copy of Marlo’s Shank Shuffle and Herb had inquired as to who purchased it. I happened to be standing a few feet away, having gone back to buy more books. At that time I was not fully aware of the depth of the Zarrow/Shank controversy. At that convention I had a chance to demonstrate my execution of the shuffle and he gave me a few tips.
Through Marc DeSouza, I became part of the Philadelphia magic scene, which was a loose-knit group that attended lectures at Marc’s home. I met Aaron Shields who was a well-informed young cardman. This was the early days of The Second Deal website and we sessioned on-line and on the phone. During one of our in-person get-togethers I performed the shuffle numerous times. He asked me a stumper: “How are you not lifting?” That is, as I performed the technique he saw none of the usual tell-tale signs of lifting the right-hand portion as I performed the square up. It looked as though the right portion was moving straight in and to the left that would happen during a legit shuffle. I answered him directly: “I don’t know.” Over the last few years, my technique had concealed itself within my muscle memory. I was lifting, but it had become so refined, that even I couldn’t spot it. To find out, I would have to use the same tactic I used when watching Marlo execute the move on Prime-Time Marlo. As I performed the move for myself, I had to stop the move mid-way to determine the exact technique I was using. I did, and it was a revelation. This was a challenge, but the real challenge would reveal itself at a TSD Convention (a convention held by and for members of The Second Deal website).
A group of us stayed one more day since Andi Gladwin, Jamie Badman, had come in from England. We crashed all in one room and sessioned. Andi asked me to give him some pointers on the shuffle, and at that time I had never taught or gave lessons on the shuffle. I was lucky if I fully understood what I was now doing, let alone telling anyone else. I thought about so many details that it was difficult to encapsulate them into a brief description and Andi was no more informed, to any great extent, than he was before he had asked me to help him. It seemed to me at the time that getting the technique, as I did it, into someone else’s hands would be doubtful.
Enter Trini Montes, who seems to never take no for an answer. I met him in 1998 in New Orleans, where he lived. Because I had only spoken with Racherbaumer, I knew no one at the convention and was not one to barge in on someone’s private session. This was, to me, sacred ground. So, I sat on the fringes of the convention, literally alone at a table in the dealer room, shuffling. Here comes this guy fondling his deck of cards. He was a veteran sessioneer, having spent the last four years as a student of Racherbaumer’s and a member of the Knights of Sleights where Jon holds court on a weekly basis. We knew nothing of each other’s backgrounds; two students crossing paths. He asked me to show him something and I began to show him effects from out of Card Finesse II. He was stunned. This stranger was showing him things that only him and HIS teacher knew and performed. He asked, “Where did you learn this?” And so it went from there; we became psychically inseparable kindred spirits. The stories of this collaboration will be left for a later date; but back to the story at hand. From 1998-2007 I visited my new home away from home (eventually moving to New Orleans in 2007). I spoke with Trini on the phone practically every day up to that time. In 2005 Trini asked me if I would lecture in New Orleans and in Baton Rouge. No problem. Then he asked, "Can you also do a workshop on the Zarrow Shuffle?" Within the silence that ensued, I remembered clearly the frustration of trying to teach Andi Gladwin. My answer: “No. There’s too much detail.” Did I mention that Trini rarely took no for an answer? His answer: “Just figure it out, it’ll work.” Yeah, that’s great. He didn’t have to do it!
I remember sitting on the floor in my living room going over the shuffle and trying to find the key aspects that needed to be involved for a deceptive false shuffle. I figured that, besides any finesse or refinement, there were three things that just had to be done for the shuffle to work. I wrote an outline of the workshop and took it to Baton Rouge.
Most of the attendees were club members who had not spent much time on technique, but were eager to learn. I watched as they shuffled and most were not close to having a refined shuffle. Most of the workshop would be spent with them re-learning how to perform a decent riffle shuffle. This work paid off. At the completion of our time, the group had made considerable headway and most were performing the false shuffle better than they had expected. Also, I was excited since this was the first time I had successfully taught the shuffle and had results to prove it. Now what?
I had the details and motivation to put this information into some publishable form. I began to write with this intention of compiling a book. I went through many approaches and re-writes and as I went through the process, I realized that a more visual presentation would be valuable to the student. But would it be a book/DVD combo, book only, DVD only, a flip book? Dave Solomon suggested that it would be best if it was part of a bigger book of my other card work. As I mulled all this over, I started reading The Magician and the Cardsharp (2005).
The book is about Vernon going on the road meeting card hustlers and searching for the man who could deal centers. Since I was a boy I had established the allure of magicians in back rooms talking shop. While I am in no way interested in hustlers and cheats, the idea of travelling to search out ideas and the people who create and guard them appeals to me. Towards the end of the book, Herb Zarrow had been interviewed to discuss his relationship with Vernon.
Travelling... Zarrow... the shuffle... the fact that I lived in Philadelphia and Zarrow lived in New Jersey (only a few hours away)... I had a car... I needed to go meet Zarrow.
That was it. I had met Zarrow before, but this time I was going to go on the road and meet with him one-on-one.
To be continued.