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Pure trickery

July 6, 2011

This is part of a series on the aspects of martial arts, the first post can be found here.

In this section we’ll look at pure trickery.  Examples of practitioners of trickery, who use little violence or athleticism, are: pickpockets, con men and conjurors of the big stage and up-close variety.  Up-close conjuring being so widespread, we’ll look at that.

As we said in the initial post, the conjurer works by controlling what the audience concentrates on.  This can be both registering where the audience is concentrating and controlling that or forcing the audience to concentrate on something of the conjuror’s choosing.  Here’s an example of a classic magic trick, passing a solid object through a table, from Mark Wilson’s Complete Course in Magic:


The magician states that he will cause a solid object to penetrate through the top of the table.  With that, he places a coin on the table and covers it with a glass, mouth down.  He then covers the glass with two paper napkins, which conceal both the glass and coin from view.  The magician explains that, by mere concentration, he will cause the coin to “melt” through the top of the table.  After several unsuccessful attempts, he explains that the reason for failure is that he forgot one of the most important parts of the experiment.  He must first strike the top of the glass, giving the coin the momentum to penetrate the table.  Suddenly, with a sharp downward motion of his hand, the performer smashes the glass and the napkins flat on the table.  When the napkins are lifted, the coin is still there but THE GLASS IS GONE!  Immediately, the magician reaches beneath the table and reproduces the same glass.

Secret and preparation

The secret of this trick is based on a very clever principle.  Due to the natural stiffness of the paper napkins, they will retain the form of shape of the glass even if the glass is not within them.  This creates a very convincing illusion which makes this mystery possible.

I’ll leave the remaining details of this trick to the interested reader.

Three stages of a magic trick

The three stages in a magic trick are the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige.  The Pledge sets the scene and conditions the mind of the audience.  The Turn is where the magician changes something about what was shown in the Pledge.  The Prestige is everything after the Turn, mostly revealing the effect of the Turn to the audience.

In the above trick the Pledge involves everything up to the point where the glass is covered and some of the first few attempts to vanish the coin.  The audience was being introduced to a glass-shaped napkin and led to believe that it is this shape because the glass is inside it.

The Turn in this trick happens when the magician removes the glass from under the napkin without us noticing.  The Turn is disguised by the napkin retaining the shape of the glass and other slights.  The audience has come to believe that a glass-shaped napkin will have a glass under it.  Disguising the Turn is the heart of the trick and allows for a dramatic Prestige.

All three parts are essential to a performance and it’s a poor magician that neglects any of them.  Let’s look at these three phases as they relate to martial arts.

The Pledge

Controlling how you will face your opponent can be compared to the Pledge.  This is heavily emphasised in The Art of War.

Some amazing feats that are shown as martial arts demonstrations can be explained with the mental conditioning and suggestion that magician’s use.  The interested reader should check out Lulu Hurst, the Little Georgia Magnet as an example of skilful use of the Pledge.

The Turn

Changing the situation without our opponent’s knowledge is the Turn.  This can be expressed as getting inside their OODA loop.  To do this we either slow down their loop, or speed up our own.

Let’s look at some examples

  • Making the Turn at the very beginning (appearing)
  • Making the Turn when the opponent thinks they have an advantage (vanishing)

For the first type we have the sucker punch.  The attacker approaches an unprepared target and minimises the time between the defender recognising the attack and the point where it is too late to defend, i.e. minimises the defender’s available time to react.  The attacker has to deny the defender the queues that would trigger a defensive response.  Attackers can either put the defender’s attention away from the queues, or remove the queues.

Putting the audience’s attention elsewhere can be as simple as asking what time it is, approaching them from behind or flashing their eyes.  Magicians call it misdirection.  Misdirection allows for longer wind ups to the attack.

Removing the queues is about the conjuror/attacker changing themselves, May the very firstlings of my heart be the firstlings of my hand.  In striking this is minimising the wind up / telegraphing of the strike.  There are two important aspects to non-telegraphed action.  Firstly never falling into a completely neutral position, and secondly being able to maximise your acceleration to critical.  In Kashima Shin Ryu this is embodied in striking directly from mu gamae and motion and stillness in one.

The second type, making the Turn when the opponent thinks they have an advantage is like vanishing in magic.  A lot of this is to do with mindset, are we surrounded or in a target rich environment?  When the opponent senses some advantage or disadvantage there is an imbalance.  There are several things we can do with this imbalance.

We can use the imbalance as misdirection.  This is like the movie cliché of the hero with their hands tied behind their back.  The evil henchmen think the hero is helpless and are unprepared when the hero kicks out with their feet.

Slightly more sophisticated is to make the imbalance our own advantage, following the judo maxim “when pushed, pull; when pushed pull.”  Hollywood is fond of tomeo nage, the hero, being pushed backwards, uses the momentum to help pull the attacker forward and sends them flying head over heels.

Somewhere between these two options are techniques that more closely resemble the magic trick we discussed in the beginning.  This can be illustrated by framing in BJJ.

Framing is useful in escaping from inferior positions.  We create an easily maintained rigid structure that we can move around while our opponent is restricted.  This is very different from pushing our partner or trying to scramble without putting up a frame.  The frame is like the napkin in the magic trick.

I would argue that the Turn is crucial point in most magic tricks and martial arts techniques.  It is the fundamental training of the conjuror and should be heavily focused on in martial arts too.

The Prestige

The Prestige is the source of many differences in martial arts.  Many variations in technique will crop up at this stage.  This is part of the thinking when instructors say there are very few techniques, or only principles and no techniques at all.

Some allowances have to be made for our partners in training in the Prestige stage.  These allowances could be abbreviating the finish of the technique, using safety equipment to protect our partner, reducing the speed or power of the technique, substituting the target or restricting the range of techniques used.  We need to be vigilant to bad habits that can be disguised by, or even encouraged by, these allowances to safety.


There are a few aspects of the conjuror that we can emulate in martial arts.  These include the preparation put into their performances and the careful managing of the audience.

There are also traps we should be careful of like: passively watching a performance instead of practising; over-reliance on secrets; and misrepresenting one skill as another.


From → martial

  1. Antonio Salveta permalink

    Really impressed, been meaning to get into your blogs for a while.
    I reiterate what I’ve often said: you’ve a lot to share.


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