Technology TED Talks

Marco Tempest tells the secret story of a deck of cards

Posted by:

[ted id=1602 width=560 height=315]

On the TED stage, illusionist Marco Tempest has explored the nature of truth and lies, brought a stick figure to life, charted the meaning of magic and told the sad tale of inventor Nikola Tesla. In his latest performance, given this summer at TEDGlobal, Tempest turns his eye to a magician’s classic: a deck of cards.

With his augmented-reality glasses on, Tempest shuffles and deals, expounding on the symbolism behind the cards as he goes. The four suits — hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds — represent the four seasons. Meanwhile, the 13 cards in each suit represent the 13 phases of the lunar cycle. And did you ever notice that there are 52 cards in a deck, just as there are 52 weeks in a year? If so, it still might have escaped you that if you add up all the symbols in a deck of cards, there are 365 — the same as the number of days in a year.

But Tempest’s latest talk cannot be expressed in words — it has to be experienced. After you’ve watched his talk, read below as Tempest shares more of the story of cards.

Writes Marco Tempest:

“I sometimes wonder what magicians would do if the deck of playing cards had not been invented. It’s been estimated that around 70% of magic tricks are those performed with playing cards. Every magician performs at least one, and the Augmented Reality Card Trick is mine. Although it uses technology, the trick has its roots deep in history. It was inspired by a story that was sold as a penny sheet in 19th-century London, although historians say that it might be much older.

The story was known as The Perpetual Almanac or the Soldier’s Prayer Book. It told of a poor soldier caught at church playing with a deck of cards. He was hauled before the mayor and asked to explain his actions. And he did, by pointing out that a deck of cards was nothing more than a soldier’s prayer. “The ace reminds me of the one true God. The two and three are the Son and the Holy Ghost. The four are the four apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” The soldier continued right through the deck, claiming that each card represented figures from the Bible.

It is the second part of the soldier’s explanation that I use at the beginning of the Augmented Reality Card Trick. Here the soldier says that the deck is not only a Bible, but an almanac. “When I count the dots upon the cards, there are 365, the number of days in a year. When I count how many cards are in the pack, there are 52, the number of weeks. When I count the number of tricks won in a pack, I find there are 13, the number of months in a year.” This number seems off to us, but it might have related to the notion of an equal calendar, where each month is 28 days long.

The soldier’s tale is hardly plausible, but at the end of the story the mayor is impressed enough to give him money, set him free and declare him “the cleverest fellow” he’s ever heard. The story has been reprinted many times over hundreds of years. It has even been turned into popular music by several recording artists, including game show host Wink Martindale in the USA and variety entertainer Max Bygraves in the UK.

The story is also well known to magicians who, over the years, have been inspired to create their own, perhaps more entertaining, narratives. The most famous of these routines is known in the trade as “Sam the Bellhop,” a theme that goes back to the 1950s and was popularised by magician Frank Everhart. The story concerns a helpful bellhop who fetches drinks, women and four guys named Jack from the 654 Club. The element that magicians have added is that, as each card in the story is called, it is produced magically from a deck that is continually being cut and shuffled.

You’ll find echoes of Sam the Bellhop in my narrative, the added twist here being the real-time layer of augmented reality that illustrates the story I’m telling. It’s amazing how far back in time this trick stretches. And it makes me wonder what the trick will look like — and what stories will be told — a hundred years from now. The one thing I’m certain of is that a deck of cards will still be at the center of it all.”