The Password is Always Swordfish

In this post, I reflect on some recent performances of a simple card trick. I also share a variant handling of it called "Bad Password."

This week, for the first time in about two years, I performed some card tricks for a live audience! Unfortunately, like most magicians, the opportunity for me to perform magic has been limited due to the global pandemic. However, now that social distancing measures have been relaxed, and we've migrated to hybrid working—which means I'm back in the office twice a week—it is much easier for me to perform magic regularly.

One of my goals as an amateur magician is to share my magic with more people. Naturally, this will require me to seek out more opportunities to perform magic. I'm an introverted extrovert, which means that while I enjoy being in the spotlight, I don't need to be the centre of attention. The downside to this personality trait is that I don't have the same urge or drive to perform magic that other magicians possess. This is a shame because I enjoy the interaction, fun and laughter that good magic, especially close-up conjuring, can generate. For this reason, I've decided to perform more magic at work, something that I've been reluctant to do in the past.

I work at a small university in the U.K., and because it is the start of the Autumn term, I had the opportunity to perform some magic for our new students. We're currently promoting a new digital skills diagnostic test, so I devised a password-themed card trick to promote the service. Educating students about the importance of using strong passwords is something we do every year to keep our University network secure. The trick is based on a simple but superb effect called "My Secret Password" by Robert Ball (you can learn it on Robert's YouTube channel). It is a variation of Jim Steinmeyer's "Nine Card Problem", which was first published in Magic Magazine almost thirty years ago (May 1993, pg 56).

Promotional video featuring multiple performances of "My Secret Password". Video Credit: University of Essex.

Because I hadn't performed magic for a while, I selected a so-called self-working card trick to enable me to concentrate on my performance rather than knuckle-busting, sleight-of-hand. (In truth, there is no such thing as a self-working card trick; more on this in a future article.)

In this short article, I will reflect on my five performances of the trick to see how I can improve things in the future. My performances were helpfully caught on camera, allowing me to review the footage and evaluate my performances in the cold light of day.

Photo Credit: Philipp Katzenberger on Unsplash.

Before I get into the details of the performances, I should describe the trick itself: a spectator is asked to shuffle a small packet of cards and then remember the bottom card. Next, the position of the selected card is randomised in the packet using a secret password. For example, if the password is "DRAGON", then one card is dealt to the table for each letter of the word (in this case, a total of six cards would be dealt into a pile). Finally, any cards remaining are dropped on top of the pile. This is all done with the performers back to the audience. As the magician does not know the secret password, he cannot know the identity of the selected card.

The order of the cards is further randomised by using a "deal or switch" mixing procedure (this is a Paul Curry idea that I added to the method to make it more deceptive). The performer then instructs his helper to deal-spell the phrase "MY PASSWORD IS", dropping the remainder on top of the pile after each word is spelt. Next, the volunteer is asked to say their password out loud. When they announce it, the magician says, "You should never tell anyone your password!" The secret password is dealt-spelt, and the remainder is dropped on top. After a suitable build-up, the top card of the packet is turned over and is revealed to be the selection, at which point the magician says, "And that's why you should always use a strong password!"

Performance One

During my first performance, it became clear that the fun part of this trick was picking a password and mixing the cards using the "deal or switch" procedure. My first participant asked if she could use numbers in her password (numbers can be used, so long as one card is dealt for each character in the password). She whispered something to her friend before picking a secret password and made a joke about the strength of her password at the end of the trick. 

As a performer, it is easy to get wrapped up in the method or process of the trick and forget to spend time on the things your audience will find entertaining. While this trick is certainly no miracle, it involves a lot of audience participation (shuffling, picking a secret password and dealing cards in a pile) as well as a memorable presentation. Some magicians might view this trick as too process-heavy. I think the dealing and mixing of the cards is a strength, not a weakness; it is what makes the trick interactive.

While I performed the trick successfully, and my helper was clearly impressed, my instructions could have been clearer. If a person doesn't follow the instructions carefully, it is very easy for the trick to go wrong. While my back was turned, she reshuffled the cards, unbeknownst to me. Luckily, this didn't mess things up. I should also have made sure that there was a tablecloth or close-up pad on the table. Not having a soft surface made it difficult to deal the cards into a pile because the cards kept sliding about.

Performance Two

My second performance was for the Registrar and Secretary of the University (the person in charge of all administrative and support staff), who I've known for several years. Bryn was suspicious of me from the very beginning and carefully inspected the cards before shuffling them. He actually said, "I'll just mix those up; call me suspicious." He was also a noisy dealer and understood that this might help me locate his card. For this reason, I emphasised the mixing procedure, something that I was going to do anyway. 

Bryn has a good sense of humour; he cracked funny jokes throughout the trick. In the end, I thought I might have messed up because he was very slow to announce his selected card (Mike, my cameraman, also believed that the trick had gone wrong). However, while Bryn was thoroughly entertained by the trick, his comments indicated that he had a good idea of how it worked; this isn't surprising because he's an intelligent chap with an undergraduate degree in history from the University of Cambridge.

Performance Three

During my third performance, I felt more confident. For this reason, I got my helper to deal out the cards when spelling the final phrase; I didn't do this in my previous two performances because both volunteers struggled to follow the instructions. The performance was going well until I screwed up the ending! When it came to the final reveal, I mixed up the trick with another version of the plot, and I turned over the last card dealt rather than the top card of the pile. Still, my participant seemed to enjoy the trick. I think he realised I messed up because his card was the very next one in the stack. On reflection, I could have recovered from my mistake by taking the cards from him and performing a Colour Change to transform the wrong card into the right one, but I wasn't thinking fast enough, unfortunately.

Performance Four

Thankfully, my next performance was more successful. I remembered to ask my spectator his name. My instructions were also much clearer. However, for some reason, Dipak didn't shuffle the cards after I handed them to him; he just looked at the bottom card. Maybe he was satisfied that they were already randomly mixed. Dipak used his own name as his password! This was very funny and beautifully demonstrated the point I was trying to make: that people should use strong passwords.

Dipak and his friends were very vocal and clearly enjoyed the magic; he asked me to perform the trick again. Instead, I opted to perform another routine (one of my own devising) with a technology-inspired presentation called "Australian Algorithm". In it, ten cards, the Ace through Ten of Spades, are thoroughly mixed. The "Australian Algorithm" is used to locate the Ace of Spades (a Down-Under deal). The magician explains that it is also a "sorting algorithm" and reveals that all cards are back in numerical order. (I'll be sharing this trick on the blog soon.)

Performance Five

My fifth and final performance was the most successful of the day because my two participants were very enthusiastic. In fact, they were the most high-energy group of the day. The first spectator shuffled the cards but didn't look at the faces. She was not a confident shuffler, so she asked her friend to help, who did a very neat, Hindu-style shuffle. Because she didn't look at the faces of the cards beforehand, she thought I was using duplicate cards.

Consequently, she was far more impressed with the trick when she discovered that all the cards were different. This was my best performance of the day because we laughed a lot during the trick. However, I neglected to ask my participants their names, something I need to remember to do in the future.

What did I learn?

So what did I learn? That it is possible to screw up even the easiest self-working card trick! I should write a more robust script; doing this would help me avoid mistakes. The script should include a line that reminds me to turn over the top card of the pile rather than the last card dealt.

Always ask for people's names, use them when talking to them and try not to forget them. Instructions for this type of trick should be crystal clear; otherwise, something will eventually go wrong. If something does go wrong, it is always the performer's fault, not the participant's!

And finally, this trick is much more impressive if you do not display the faces of the cards at the beginning. Instead, let your participant discover that all the cards are different at the very end of the trick.

Overall, I'm pleased with how the presentation communicated the intended message to our students in a fun, engaging and memorable way. However, I think it would be better if there was some consequence for using a weak password. To this end, I have devised an alternative method for the trick that combines the automatic elements of the original with some simple sleight of hand. This approach allows your spectator to simply think of any one of the cards in the packet. It also adds a kicker ending: when the top card of the packet is turned over, it is seen to have a blank face; your participant's data has been stolen because they used a weak password! 

To perform this version of the trick, you need a pack that includes a blank-faced playing card. A small setup is also required. I like this combination of self-working magic and sleight of hand; it makes it much more difficult for someone like Bryn to unpick the method because the secret has multiple layers.

If you'd like to learn this version of the trick, you can do so by answering a simple question:


P.S. If you're wondering about the strange title of this post, it is a popular trope found in film, television and literature. It makes reference to a famous scene in the classic 1932 film Horse Feathers by the Marx Brothers. Groucho Marx, as Professor Wagstaff, attempts to gain access to a speakeasy guarded by Baravelli (Chico Marx). The password needed to get into the speakeasy is "swordfish". 🗡️🐟

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