The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception - H. Keith Melton, Robert Wallace (2009)


VIII. Working as a Team

Everything on the preceding pages has been written for the performance of trickery by the man or woman working alone. The following suggestions are made for those occasions when the trickster is in the company of a colleague. Whereas both may be capable of trickery, it is wise in any given trick for one to be the performer and the other to be the assistant. On a second trick it is quite possible for the roles to be reversed and have the trickster become the assistant. But in a trick there always must be one person who makes the decisions as to when, where, and how. The assistant must follow the lead of the trickster.

Naturally there are three combinations of trickery-working teams. There may be two men, a man and a woman, or two women. This is mentioned because, as the makeup of a team varies, so does the role of assistant. In most instances the assistant’s job is to aid by attracting the attention of the spectators before, during, or after the performance of the trick, according to when it is most needed. Naturally what the assistant does, and at which point in the performance his action takes place, is decided upon, and practiced, ahead of time. When the assistant does his part depends upon a signal given by the trickster. (The types of signal will be described below.) What is done often depends upon whether the assistant is a man or a woman.

While the above assumed that the trickster and assistant were known to be acquaintances, even friends, there may be occasion when the two are thought, by the spectators, to be total strangers. In such circumstances added methods can be used.

Before going into why and what the assistant does, it would be best to tell when the trick is to be done. As it is the trickster who has to be ready for the performance of the trick, it is his decision as to when the trick is to be done. He then signals the assistant of his readiness. This should be a physical rather than a verbal signal. Verbal signals often have to be delayed in order not to interrupt a person who is speaking, and they are almost impossible to plan so as not to seem quite incongruous when spoken. Physical signals can be given at any time and should seem to be perfectly natural, and therefore non-attention-attracting actions. Smoothing down an eyebrow, pulling the lobe of an ear, or similar action makes a good signal. The assistant is bound to see the action, for it is high—a table-height action may be overlooked unless the assistant keeps staring at the trickster, which, of course, he must not do. The action of the signal, while it must be completely natural, cannot be anything which the trickster might be apt to do unconsciously. The assistant does not act immediately after the signal is given, but only either after a prescribed interval or following some action of the trickster according to the demands of the particular trick to be performed. Usually the trickster acknowledges having noticed the signal by blinking his eyes, stroking his chin, or in some other prearranged manner. After the signal has been acknowledged, both trickster and assistant know the other to be ready to assume his role.

The type of aid an assistant can give varies with the time the aid is given. Aid prior to the performance of a trick is of two general kinds.

·        a. The assistant either by speech or action “sets the stage” for the performance. As examples: The assistant brings up the subject of the designs on certain coins. The trickster takes coins from his pocket to see whether the assistant is correct. The trickster shows a coin to the victim and performs the trick with a coin and pill as described in an earlier section of this manual. This type of conversational opening may be used by either a man or a woman. Similarly, the assistant takes a package of cigarettes from his pocket and offers cigarettes to everyone in the party. This makes it natural for the trickster to strike a match to offer a light to his neighbors and perform the trick of the pill on the package of matches.

There are two advantages to having the trick performed in this manner. The first is that the trickster was not the one to bring up the idea of another cigarette, and second, he had ample time to get set with the prepared package of matches. This action, if men were present, would be done only when a man is the assistant, for it would be less natural for a woman to offer cigarettes to a mixed group. However, it would be completely natural for one woman to offer other women cigarettes and for a second woman (the trickster) to offer a light.

The most frequent way in which an assistant can aid prior to the trick is verbally. For instance, the assistant can bring up the subject about which the diagram, or sketch, is drawn (for the trick with the loaded pencil). The magician’s role, in drawing the diagram, is that he cannot understand the description and asks the victim to go over the sketch with him. In this instance, the assistant may be either man or woman, but the trickster (for the reasons given earlier) must be a man. Another way in which the assistant can aid prior to a trick is to express great interest in seeing a factory (or some other place when the trick to be performed is to acquire some object secretly). The trickster’s role is one of lack of interest and he joins the party “only” to be a good sport. As he has no interest in factory or products (or whatever), he may do things unobserved and with greater freedom. The trickster, however, should act just as carefully as though he were alone and the focus of all attention.

·        b. The second way an assistant can aid prior to performance is to be the one carrying the properties by which the trick is performed. Examples are: The trickster finds he has no matches, or that he lacks a pencil, or that he wishes for a cigarette. The assistant lends the trickster that which he wishes and, it should be needless to mention, it would be the prepared paper of matches, or pencil, or pack of cigarettes. There are two advantages to working in this way. The first is that a borrowed object “must” be innocent and just what it appears to be, and the second is that both before and after the trick (for the borrowed objects are returned) the trickster does not have the trickery items on his person.

Although it requires considerable practice in order to make the act seem accidental, an assistant can draw everyone’s attention to himself by spilling his drink (coffee, wine, or water), or by having all the matches of a package flare up as he lights one. An attention arresting action of this sort by the assistant permits the trickster to do many actions quite unobserved. The same result may be obtained by the assistant getting angry and pounding the table. This requires more than average ability in acting on the part of the assistant. Further, there are many occasions when this technique would be unsuitable, particularly because in a public place it would attract general attention to the group. However, the method is noted because of its effectiveness at such times as it may be used.

There may be times when a woman can pick up something without being observed which her male companion could not do. The woman would then pass the object to the man to secrete. The transfer naturally would depend upon the place where it would occur, the size and form of the object, and also upon the way the man was dressed. The three general methods which may be used are: 1. the woman might pass the object to the hand of the man; 2. the woman might put the object into something (such as a hat) which the man later will pick up; 3. the woman might put the object directly into one of the man’s pockets.

Naturally, in each of these methods the man would be aware of what the woman intended to do and so would be in a position to aid her by distracting attention from her action. If the first method is used (i.e., passing the object from the woman’s hand to the man’s hand), the man has to cooperate by having his hand held so as immediately to be able to accept the object and, further, to hold his hand in a position where the woman may reach it inconspicuously. This would mean that the man held his hand either down at his side in a normal position or at his back over his buttocks. The woman would get as close to the man as possible prior to passing the article to him. In making this move, the woman (of course with the man’s cooperation) would use the body of the man as a screen to hide the action from the person to whom the man was talking. Upon receipt of the article, the man would put it in his pocket. He would not do this unless circumstances would make it so that no movement could be seen until after the woman had stepped away. He would use that pocket which, in the situation, he could reach most easily. If the second method is used, it is because it would not be natural for the man or woman to get close together.

As such situations arise, this method is given. The method is suggested only where no other means can be used. The man’s job is to leave his hat, overcoat, large envelope, etc., at a point where both sexes are permitted. He further must take care to pick up whatever has been “loaded” so as neither to disclose, nor drop the object itself. The woman’s job, after getting the object, is to have some reason for getting close to the man’s possessions. This may be done by having left some possessions of hers to which it is natural for her to need to go (as for a handkerchief) alongside of the article the man has put down. It is inadvisable to go to the man’s possessions even with a seemingly legitimate excuse such as getting a package of cigarettes out of the man’s overcoat pocket. This type of action is apt to be remembered and will likely connect the man and woman too closely for the complete success of the trick.

In using the third method, the chances of detection are very small. The method can only be used, however, when the man is wearing garments which have pockets which the woman can readily use. These pockets are the side pockets of overcoats and jackets. When the man is wearing no coat at all, it may be possible also to use a hip pocket of the trousers. Of course, this can only be done with quite a small object and with a man whose anatomy does not protrude and whose trousers are ample in size. It will facilitate matters if the pocket is held partially open by having a handkerchief crumpled at the bottom of the pocket.

Though these methods are suggested for use by a woman as the trickster and a man as assistant (and are almost impossible to use when the role of the man and woman are reversed), they have other uses. There are times when they can be used by two men and times, also, when suitable for two women. The hand-to-hand passing method and the method of putting the object directly into the assistant’s pocket also can be used in every combination of trickster and assistant in a delayed-action routine. Delayed action means that the transfer is not done at the time of the acquisition of the object. At the time the object is taken, the trickster secrets it in a pocket where it is easily available. Later the object is passed to the assistant. This may be done most easily in a crowd. The method is particularly good when the trickster and assistant are believed to be strangers. It also is useful when it is necessary for the trickster to remain but when the assistant can leave the premises.

Another means of passing an object secretly from one person to another may be used in a variety of ways by both men and women. The great advantage of this method is that the contact between two persons is made openly. An object openly is handed by one person to another. The object passed is the cover for the secret object exchanging hands. The covering object may be almost anything provided it is larger than that which it hides and is something which easily may be held by one hand. A book or magazine is suitable to use as an example of a cover. The book is grasped with the thumb on top and the fingers underneath. The book actually is held between the thumb and the third and little fingers. The secret object is held by the first and second fingers, pressing it against the back of the book. The one receiving the book uses both hands, palms up and with the tips of the fingers of one hand pointing toward those of the other. As soon as the receiver feels the hidden object, he presses it against the book with the fingers of the hand which best can hold it. The other hand holds the book. After the transfer has been completed and the giver has moved away, the secret object is pocketed as soon as the action will be convenient and will not be apparent. The covering object may be a plate, a cigarette box, paper pad, or a countless number of other things. Neither person’s task is at all difficult but both should practice the actions so as to be able to do them naturally. This method will be useful both when the assistant’s part is to give the trickster something he will need for his trick and when the trickster wants to get rid of something by giving it to the assistant.

The chief hazard in performing the secret passing of an object in the manner described is psychological. When the receiver’s first knowledge that he is to be given the object is at the time he touches it, he will find great difficulty in controlling his involuntary reflexes. When the person is aware that he is secretly to receive the object, there will be no reflex jerk. Therefore, it is essential that either through prearrangement between the passer and receiver or by a signal given and acknowledged prior to passing, the receiver knows that the action is to take place.

On the subject of signals, it must be noted that no signal is made twice during one session. Repetition of any signal, no matter how inconspicuously natural it may be, is apt to attract attention. Further, having two or more signals with the same meaning ensures that there will be no occasion when one or other can’t be given.


Passing one object under cover of another. Position of hands of passer and receiver make interchange easy, certain, and unnoticeable.
Phil Franke

Another use for signals is when one person expects or hopes that he will have an assistant but does not know the identity of that individual. Here, of course, it is of extreme importance that the assistant give acknowledgment that the signal has been noted before any action takes place.

The signals mentioned above are only to indicate either being prepared for action or to establish identity and the latter is merely an addition of the former. Where a signal is indicated to designate one of a variety of possible choices, a code is required. The best code is a combination of physical signal and counting. In its operation the signaler, upon making his actions, starts to count in his mind. He counts slowly and evenly. The receiver, upon noting the signal, also counts in his mind at the same rate of speed. The sender, upon reaching the number he wishes to signal, gives a stop sign and the receiver knows that the code number is, for example, nine. Naturally, this system takes practice, but it is far easier than it sounds and is completely undetectable. The only difficulty is for the two people to learn to count at the same rate of speed. In the old days of slow-speed negatives, photographers counted seconds by repeating the word chim-pan-zee after each numeral. By this means photographers learned to judge from one through ten seconds with accuracy. Making the interval between numbers of greater length makes it easier for two people to count in unison. For instance repeating, “one great big chimpanzee, two great big chimpanzees, three…,” two people will find it quite easy to learn to count in unison. By this means any one of ten prearranged plans may be transmitted undetectably from one person to another without speech. Because numerals above ten have two or more syllables and throw out even timing in counting and it is easier in memorizing to limit a numbered code to groups of ten, this system goes only from one through ten. In the event that more than ten variants are needed, it is advisable to have groups one, two, three, etc., and each group made up of ten items. Having more than one group requires that a signal also must be given to indicate which group is being used. This is done by having some slight variation in the “stop counting” signal or in the way the hand is held between signals. There is no reason why the starting signal and the stopping signal cannot be identical. If it is a natural and inconspicuous gesture such as smoothing an eyebrow, there is no reason why it cannot be repeated a few seconds later. It is only on a subsequent occasion that it is advisable to change the signal.

Where due to inadequate light, or other reasons, it is not possible to give a “sight” signal, the counting code can be utilized by a sound to start and stop the count. The sound has to be one that can be made easily and naturally and one that causes no surprise to those who hear it. Among such sound signals are moving the foot along the floor (easier to do when seated), tapping a cigarette four times on something hard such as a table or matchbox (the fourth tap is the signal to start counting), clearing the throat, or, where the company is permissive and the person has the control, a belch. Each of these signals may be repeated for the stop-counting sign except tapping the cigarette and that may be made by scratching a match. There are countless other suitable sounds for signals and those given are merely sample types.

Great care must be made in designating the signals to have them such that they do not take the receiver by surprise and thereby delay the start of his counting. As the count is invisible, there is no way for the sender to know if it has been done properly by the receiver. It is not like an incomplete pass in football, which is, according to your side, so pleasantly or horribly obvious.

So much for signals which are merely one aid to cooperative efforts. The major point in two people working together is the degree of oneness with which the job can be done. Success is attained by skillful work as a duet—two soloists, no matter how talented, are bound to have trouble.

In this work there is nothing which demands that the cooperating couple be alike in sex, size, manner, or temperament—as long as there is nothing to interfere with their working as a team. Often unlike individuals will, in this work, find that their differences will make their task easier and that one complements the other.

In the realm of trickery, more practice is needed to ensure success in teamwork than is needed for a person working alone. The single worker will, at times, find it possible and indicated to change pace, or even make some change in procedure. In teamwork, where the second person cannot know what is in the mind of the first person, such changes would interfere with the second person knowing when and how to perform his part. This difficulty will be eliminated somewhat by following the rule that in each trick one must be the performer and the other the assistant. Nevertheless, practice is required, for as in dancing, where it is the man’s job to lead and the woman’s to follow, it takes practice to be a good partner.

However, as has been noted many times in these pages, the main thing is to understand exactly what is to be done and how it is to be done. Having such knowledge reduces the rehearsal time in teamwork just as it does for the individual.