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The Life & Magic of Stewart James (1908-1996)


PRINCIPLES | Cyclic Stack

The time has come to revisit two card effects – “Vocalculate” and “Spell of Mystery” – introduced during the trick-based chronology of Stewart James’ life. 

Vocalculate,” the lie-detector routine in which three different spectators select cards, is an excellent example of how a “cyclic” stack – such as the Eight Kings stack – functions.  It is also illustrative of the combination Stewart made of sleights, such as false shuffles and cuts, in tandem with self-working principles.  Those sleights are employed to convince the audience at the beginning of the routine that the cards have been thoroughly randomized.

In reality, the cards have been carefully ordered into four sets of thirteen according to the mnemonic phrase – “Eight (8) Kings (K) Threa-(3)-tened (10) to (2) save (7) ninety-(9)-five (5) Queens (Q) for (4) one (A) sick (6) knave (J).”  This arrangement combined with another mnemonic device, the classic CHaSeD formula (i.e. Clubs, Hearts, Spades, and Diamonds), constructs a complete deck stack whose order can be memorized.  The stack is a “cyclic” one, because both values and suits repeat the same cycle multiple times.  The easily remembered phrase and acronym mentioned above allow the magician to keep mental track of where each card is placed in relation to the others.  Stewart James was not responsible for the invention of the Eight Kings stack, but his employment of it in “Vocalculate” is noteworthy for its concision.  His contribution to an elegant handling of the stack can be summed up in the following observation: once the magician knows the true value of the first spectator’s card and the true suit of the second spectator’s selection, all of the cards identities (including the third card dealt) can be inferred based on that information.

In fact, James’ card routine does not introduce or discover a new physical property or mathematical principle inherent to the Eight Kings stack.  Instead, “Vocalculate” is simply a streamlined approach to determining the most based on the least amount of information possible.  It is a highly efficient application of what is knowable based on dealing the cards in order to volunteers from a cyclic stack. 

Spell of Mystery,” on the other hand, represents another cyclic stack trick to which James also applied a mathematical principle.  The trick is also based on the relationship between the suit of one card and the value of the card directly following it in a stack like the Eight Kings.  In this case, after studying the relatively slight variation in the number of letters used to spell the names of each card in a deck of 52, Stewart James discovered a formula.  When adding the value of one card (the Two for example) to the suit of the card following it (Hearts) in a cyclic stack, the card formed using that pair (the Two of Hearts) will always be located twelfth from the top of the deck.  I will refer to this as the “Value + Suit = Twelfth Position” formula. 

Using that formula, James was able to make a list of all possible eleven-lettered or twelve-lettered spellings for every card.  With minimal alteration of the letters used (the addition or subtraction of the word “of”), every single card can be made to appear at the twelfth position of the deck. 

The cyclic stack tricks “Vocalculate” and “Spell of Mystery” are similar in many ways, but operate using two distinct principles.  The “twelfth-position” principle seems an obvious name for the latter trick’s mathematical ploy, but the former card effect is more difficult to classify.  It relies on such a basic relationship between the value and suit of cards in the Eight Kings stack (or other cyclical stacks), that perhaps it should not be labelled at all.

One of the mysteries of Stewart James’ ability to create such a massive amount of different effects is how he kept track of so many similar methods and principles.  What were his organizational strategies?  How did he creatively brainstorm without drowning in the countless variations pouring through his mind?




Copyright © 2007 Joe Culpepper and Magicana. All rights reserved.