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by Earl Nelson
Mark Wilson Publications, 1979
With stories circulating about Earl Nelson’s classic book, Variations, selling for as much as US$250 on eBay, I thought it would be interesting to dust off my copy and see what treasures lie within.
I bought Variations shortly after it came out, on Howard Lyons’ urging. To anybody who knew Howard, read Ibidem, or simply respects the opinion of the man who started the first ‘underground’ card magazine, this is high praise indeed.
Variations, it turns out, is a superb book. It’s full of excellent material, with few difficult items. As Earl points out in the preface, most of the tricks are variations of existing material; some tricks and ideas have been published previously, others remain unpublished to this day. However, to think of this book as ‘merely’ a collection of variants wouldn’t do it justice, particularly at a time when the word ‘variation’ conjures up images of such radical departures as ‘I hold the break with my third finger instead of my little finger’ and ‘I replaced the pass with a double undercut.’
Indeed, Earl’s variations take many tricks to new heights. It seems to me that Earl has discovered something that many magicians, even advanced cardmen, have missed: many otherwise powerful tricks suffer from cumbersome handling that gets in the way of the effect. Earl has eliminated this clutter by removing redundant parts and replacing inelegant sequences, making the effects far more magical and convincing.
It’s obvious that Earl’s insights come from understanding the spectator’s point of view. For instance, in ‘Reset Reset,’ in which four Aces change to four Kings (which were placed on the table) and back again, he wisely chooses not to display the four Kings again at the end, as the original handling suggests, because he feels that this detracts from the spectator’s appreciation of the effect.
The original tricks are by Paul Harris, Phil Goldstein, Ed Marlo, Michael Skinner, Frank Simon, Al Leech, Larry Jennings, Al Schneider, and others. In the Cards section, you’ll find, among other gems, a useful top change, the beautiful ‘Haunted Card’ that eerily slides out of the deck — and caused quite a stir when it first came out, a couple of sandwich effects, and the legendary ‘Sleeve Aces,’ which to me is worth the price of the book. I saw Michael Skinner perform this on his lecture tour in Europe in the early seventies; of the thousands of tricks I’ve seen performed over the years, this is one of the few that stands out clearly as a true magical experience. (In all fairness, I must admit that I don’t know whether Michael performed Earl’s version, but my guess is that he did.)
The Cards and Coins section cointains ‘Coined Card,’ in which a coin finds a selected card in the deck, ‘The $1.50 Vanish,’ in which three coins disappear, then reappear under a card, a production of four coins, one at a time, from between two cards, and a few more items.
The Finger Rings section contains two moves for ring and rope routines, and ‘Impromptu Flying Ring,’ a nice routine for the Ring Flite device that does not require the apparatus to be set up. This is ideal for walkaround magic.
The Bonus Effects section contains ‘Hit and Run Aces,’ in which the four Aces are found using Ron Ferris’ rolling revelation (the basis for Derek Dingle’s ‘Roll-Over Aces’ and my own ‘Roll-Over-Kill’), and ‘The Changing of the Card,’ in which the face card of the deck changes into another card, even though there’s a coin resting on it.
The book ends with ‘Why and Why Not,’ a short piece in which Earl shares some of his opinions on magic.
So, is this book really worth $250? That’s not for me to say, but if you like good magic, you could do worse than head over to eBay, contact a used magic book dealer, or wait for the book to be republished, which may happen in the near future, according to certain rumours. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to get a copy from Earl, as he doesn’t have any.
Since this review was published, the book has been re-issued, with corrections, new tricks, photos, etc. It is called Variations Revisited and is available from any good magic dealer.