Introduction and General Comments on The Art of Deception - SOME OPERATIONAL APPLICATIONS OF THE ART OF DECEPTION - The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception - H. Keith Melton, Robert Wallace

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


I. Introduction and General Comments on The Art of Deception

The purpose of this paper is to instruct the reader so he may learn to perform a variety of acts secretly and undetectably. In short, here are instructions in deception.

There are few subjects about which so little generally is known as that of deft deception. As the American humorist Josh Billings said, “It ain’t so much ignorance that ails mankind as it is knowing so much that ain’t so.” Practically every popularly held opinion on how to deceive, as well as how to safeguard one’s self from being deceived, is wrong in fact as well as premise. Therefore, prior to explaining either theories or methods, an effort will be made to uncover that which “ain’t.” This is particularly important because successful deception depends so much on attitude of mind, and holding even one erroneous belief will make it difficult to attain the proper mental approach.

Parenthetically, the writer is assured that the reader is a person of unquestionable integrity, possessing more than average intelligence and schooling. In other words, this is a person to whom the practice of deception is quite foreign. However, the reader’s admirable attributes of honesty and learning do not make his present task easier, for it takes practice to tell a convincing lie. Even more practice is needed to act a lie skillfully than is required to tell one. Though practice is essential to successful deception, much less practice is needed than might be imagined provided a person knows exactly what he is to do, how he is to do it, and why it is to be done in that way. The success of the act becomes more a matter of memorization of details than of physical repetition.

As examples of those who deceive by physical trickery, i.e. doing something in addition to talking, may be named magicians, crooked gamblers, pickpockets, and confidence men. To cite fallacious beliefs regarding the methods of each of these examples will show how wrong popular opinion is.

“The hand is quicker than the eye” generally is given as the reason for a magician’s success in mystifying his audience with any trick of small size. In large tricks, for instance where a person is caused to disappear, the secret is generally attributed to the use of mirrors. There are a number of other equally wrong “solutions” used to explain the methods of magicians, but the two given will show how basically wrong is uninformed opinion.

Stating that the hand can move more rapidly than the eye can follow suggests that a movement can be made and the hand returned to its original position so quickly that no motion at all is discernible. This is not possible.

The most rapid coordinated movement man has ever learned to make is done by a few of the leading pianists. Some of these highly trained musicians have gone as high as eight to nine strokes on a key per second, with one finger of one hand. It was discovered through mechanical tests with player pianos that the mechanism had to be in very good order to have one key function at the rate of ten times per second. It may be assumed that some pianist could develop the manual speed of ten strokes per second. However, even at such a rate, the movement would not be invisible because the normal eye can catch movement at the speed of one-one-thousandth of a second. The sight of the average person therefore is one hundred times faster than the most highly trained person can move one finger.

The mind may not register exactly what is accomplished in a very rapid motion of the hand but that a motion has been made will be quite obvious. It should be noted that a magician, unlike all other tricksters, acknowledges that he intends to deceive. His performance, because trickery is expected, can have no unexplained or, at least, unacceptable movements of the hands. A magician may not be seen to make any false motions and he should realize that he should perform all his secret movements with deliberation. Movement of any kind attracts attention—hence moving signs—and trickery depends upon not attracting attention to the method of performance. Magicians do not use speed in their actions.

Mirrors have been used by magicians in a few feats but their effective use is limited. A mirror can hide only one object by giving the reflection of another as a substitute. A mirror cannot make an object invisible. A mirror’s single function is to reflect something. A mirror cannot reflect nothing—and when a mirror is given nothing to reflect, the mirror itself becomes visible. Further, a mirror only can be used in trickery where it is possible to have every edge abutting some visible solid object, for otherwise the edges can be seen. Another detail which precludes the general use of mirrors in magic is that the larger the audience the closer the object to be reflected has to be to the mirror because of the angle of reflection. In large modern theaters this fact makes mirrors of no use to magicians. Traveling magicians, and these are the vast majority, find it utterly impossible to transport large mirrors due to their weight and fragility.

In short, while there is a slight basis for the public to believe that magicians use mirrors to achieve their mystification, the public is wrong in its understanding of the functions of the mirror in optical trickery and wrong in believing that mirrors generally are used in magic.

These two examples, 1. the totally wrong general belief that magicians depend upon rapidity of action, and 2. the misconception of how and when mirrors are used in magic, are typical of the wrongness of popular beliefs regarding magic. That magicians depend upon hypnotism and that magicians generally use confederates are among the other fallacies to which the public clings. None of these have any more validity than the one occasionally heard that magicians make objects invisible by painting them air color.

The great misconception about all trickery is that there is a single secret which will explain how each type of trick is performed. For instance, consider the feat of causing a rabbit to appear in a hat that had just been shown to be quite empty. It generally is thought that there is a specific method of getting the rabbit secretly into the hat. The fact is that there are several score of different methods for performing this feat and a person conversant with the majority of methods may be mystified (and most probably will be) upon seeing the trick performed by a method he does not know. As another example, people still wonder about the secret which permitted Houdini to escape from any type of physical restraint. The fact is that he released himself by a different secret method for each way in which he was confined. He had at least one method for escaping from each type of handcuff, shackle, and box, and each way of being tied with rope, cord, bandages, or straitjacket. There is no overall secret to magic, or any part of magic. It is the multiplicity of secrets and the variety of methods which makes magic possible. The proper secret for a magician to use is the one indicated as best under the conditions and circumstances of the performance.

All tricksters, other than magicians, depend to a great extent upon the fact that they are not known to be, or even suspected of being, tricksters. Therein lies their great advantage, for they need only do their trickery when it is to their advantage and when they have conditions favorable for success. Further, having made no commitment as to what they are going to do, they can utilize that trick which is most suitable under the conditions of the moment.

The main error in public thinking about the tricks of gamblers is in believing that the tricks are designed to make winning a certainty. Actually these tricks are intended only to give the gambler enough advantage to increase the probability of his winning above that of the chance expectation. Working on this basis also minimizes the possibility of the gambler’s tricks being discovered.

It generally is believed that a skilled card shark can deal to himself any card he wishes and whenever he has such desire. This can’t be done, although a skilled manipulator of cards can, now and again, arrange to give himself a good hand. Even such skill may not ensure winning, for chance may give his opponent a better hand. The professional gambler depends largely upon a thorough knowledge of the game played, his memory of the cards played, and a full understanding of the mathematical probabilities of winning in any situation. This is not suggesting that the gambler will not take advantage of any means which he can use to his own aid but merely that he doesn’t, and usually cannot, do the things which people generally believe.

The opposite situation also exists in the common belief about gambling that demanding a new deck at the start of a game will ensure that the cards do not have secret marks upon their backs. The new deck may have such marks, or it is not at all difficult to substitute a marked deck for an unmarked one. Also it is quite possible to mark cards while the game is being played.

Pickpockets are very generally accredited with such delicacy of touch, brought about through long practice, as to be able to put a hand into a person’s pocket and remove it, along with some valuable, without the person feeling the action. This is easily possible with a sleeping or intoxicated person, but for the sober, as well as awake, individual, deftness is not enough on the part of the pickpocket. The method generally used is to accustom the victim to being touched (usually done in a crowd) so that he is not aware of the extra touch at the time the theft is made. The public has been told about pickpockets having jostling confederates. At times confederates are used but they seldom are as rough as the word jostling would indicate. While the confederate may assist in preparing the victim by accustoming the victim to being touched, his chief task is to accept the loot and leave the vicinity so that the pickpocket is free of incriminating evidence.

Sellers of goldbricks (also confidence men and others of like ilk) rely in the main on the cupidity of their dupes. The only person who can be sold a goldbrick must have such avarice that he ignores the obvious fact that the “bargain” he is offered must be untrue or illegal. The chief skill of the seller is in discovering properly greedy victims. However, trickery frequently is used to clinch the sale by substituting false gold for real, or substituting other bad merchandise for good. The world has the opinion that the goldbrick seller is one who has the ability to give a super sales talk. Actually he is merely a trickster with knowledge of the weaknesses of human nature.

To summarize from these few typical examples, the public holds wholly, or largely, untrue beliefs about how all trickery is accomplished. The public is satisfied that these false beliefs explain every deception, while actually the public has almost no factual knowledge of the methods used to deceive. One not aware that these generally accepted beliefs are false will be bothered subconsciously and can never learn to perform any false action smoothly and easily.

It is as essential to point out the facts as to point out what are not facts. As has been noted, there never is a single secret for any trick. The sole criterion is that the method to be used is the one to ensure the trick’s success. There are two chief reasons for choosing a particular method. One is that it fits the physique, mannerisms, and personality of the performer better than any other method. The other is that conditions at the time of performance favor a particular method. Of course, this latter reason sometimes, as in a theater, can be ignored because conditions of performance are under the control of the performer.

The basic principle in performing a trick is to do it so that the secret actions are not observed. As Alphonse Bertillon said, “One can only see what one observes, and one observes only things which are already in the mind.” A trick does not fool the eye but fools the brain. In order to do that, it must be performed so that the secret parts are not noticed. This is possible because the trick is merely one or more actions which are added to other actions done for legitimate and obvious reasons. The added motions are not noticed because of the great variation in which people perform any given task and because it is not in the observer’s mind to suspect such motions. The added motions must be minor ones, or at least they must not be emphasized more than the other actions. Further, the “secret” actions must fit in with the actions which are done openly.

Here is an example to clarify the generalities. A person, seated at a table in a restaurant, wants to obtain a teaspoon full of salt and put the salt into his left coat pocket, and wishes to do this without being observed.

The trickster picks up the saltcellar and shakes salt on to his food, or into his beer. He does this with the top of the saltcellar held toward himself so that the others at the table cannot see the quantity of salt coming out of the shaker. Seemingly not satisfied, the trickster raps the bottom of the saltcellar on the table. At this point circumstances dictate the performance, for the salt may, or may not, run freely from the cellar. If the salt runs freely, the performer, as if to try out the shaker after he has tapped it on the table, shakes a quantity of salt into his left hand, which is held at the edge of the table. If the salt actually is bound up in the cellar, he unscrews the top and pours a quantity of salt into his left hand. In the first instance, as if satisfied by the test that the salt is coming out properly, he salts his food, or beer, by using the shaker. He drops his left hand to his lap or by his side. In the second instance, he takes pinches of salt from his left hand, with the fingers of the right hand, and salts his food. As soon as he has taken enough salt for his needs, he drops the left hand as was done in the other case. Naturally, when the left hand is dropped below the table, the fingers are closed so that the salt is held in the hand. The left hand is held at the side, or in the lap, for as much as a minute before the salt is put into the pocket. This wait is to ensure that there will be no obvious connection between the salt going into the hand and the hand going into the pocket. While this illustrates how something can be done which will not be observed although it can be seen, it also illustrates another point: not everyone can do a trick in the same way. A person with very moist hands would have to use another method because all the salt would adhere to his hand and could not be left in his pocket.

Timing also is most important. Timing has two elements. One has to do with when the trick is done. For instance, it obviously would be wrong, in the example above, to handle the saltcellar immediately after another person has used is successfully. The other point in timing is the cadence in a series of actions. The accent is given to what is wished to be noticed. There will be little attention paid to those actions which are not stressed.

The example makes it obvious that what is essential to the success of the trick is the naturalness with which the performer acts the part of wanting salt, has trouble getting salt, doesn’t let it bother him, and gets the salt he wants. It should be performed as if it were one of those minor bothers which beset mankind. He should go through all the actions as if no thought were needed (which it isn’t) and is just one of those automatic actions one does regularly. Above all the trickster does not try to make any action slyly. The salt openly goes into the left hand and then the hand is dropped. He calls no attention to dropping the hand and thereby attracts no attention to the action. As with most tricks, it will be seen that it is not a matter of digital dexterity that is required for the success of the trick, but instead, a carefully thought out sequence of actions, naturalness in performance, and the ability to fit oneself to circumstances.

In planning a trick, the first consideration is to determine exactly what is to be accomplished. This would seem to be so obvious a fact that there would be no need to mention it at all. But, unless one is reminded that he must know fully and exactly what is his aim, one will begin with generalities. The invariable result of planning, when working from generalities, is complication of method. A trick to be good must be simple in its basic idea. It is true that, at times, it may become easier to do a trick through elaborating the details of performance, but the basic idea must be simple.

After the full requirements of what is to be done have been determined, the next step is to decide how the task can be done most easily, provided secrecy is not necessary. In most instances, that is the way it will be done in the trick except that some addition is made which will keep the action from being noticed. Again referring to the trick of secretly putting salt into the left coat pocket, it is obvious that the easiest way to do this openly is to pour the required amount of salt from the shaker onto the left hand and then to put that hand, and the salt, into the coat pocket. That also is what is done when performing the trick. However, because the spectators are given something reasonable to think about, apart from the required actions, the extra actions will not be noticed. The trick, in that instance, as is so frequently the case, is due entirely to a false premise induced in the minds of the spectators. The pretense that the saltshaker is clogged is the false premise.

It will be noticed, in the example, that the false idea which masks the essential action is suggested only by a routine which is usual in getting salt from a clogged shaker. The false idea is put over by pantomime rather than by words. At times, too, words are needed to get a spectator to accept some false premise. The great value of relying only upon simple pantomime is that the actions can further be minimized by talking on a totally unrelated subject as the actions are made.

Primarily, trickery depends upon a manner of thinking. It is a lie acted. More thought and care are needed to act out a lie than to tell one, for false actions are more obvious in their incongruity than are words. It is easier, for example, to claim to be an automobile mechanic than it is to act the part of one. It is easy for a phlegmatic person to state that he is nervous but exceedingly difficult to act for any appreciable length of time as if he were nervous.

Stating that trickery basically depends upon a manner of thinking needs considerable amplification, for the oblique thinking of the trickster must be acceptable to the spectators. This means that it cannot violate the manners and customs of the spectators nor, in any other way, can be the cause of attracting special attention. Anything unusual in action or speech (unusual to the one watching or listening) will attract attention and should be avoided. Even if a spectator’s attention is focused on the actions during a trick and he does not discover that a trick is being done, he may later recall that the trickster acted oddly and possibly have his suspicions aroused.

Before a trickster can plan a trick, he must know who the spectators are to be. This does not mean knowing their names and addresses. It means knowing the kind of people that they are and their nationality. For instance, one might base a trick on the action of borrowing a watch and then find that none of the spectators carried watches. Or the trick might require the trickster to slap a spectator on the back only to discover that all the spectators were Hindu, who would resent being touched. These are examples of actual cases where the trickster’s lack of knowledge of who the spectators were precluded the performance of the trick which had been planned. The more the trickster knows about the spectators the better he can plan the trick to assure that it will succeed.

The “at-a-tangent thinking” is quite a descriptive phrase of the manner in which a trickster plans his work. He must think of something to do or say which, while it touches the subject, actually shoots off from it. Because the comment touches the subject, it will not be noticed that it actually is going away from the subject rather than around it. Again refer to the saltshaker trick. Attention is called so obviously to the “faulty” shaker that the spectators pay no attention to the perfectly open action of putting salt in the left hand. It should be stressed again that the false action must be so natural as to be acceptable.

There are several points which should be known about the things spectators will notice and those things they will not notice and about some of the spectators’ thinking processes which can be depended upon. These are things which are true of all people irrespective of their nationality, educational background, or station in life.

No action which is expected will be noticed, but all actions which are surprising to a spectator will be noticed by him. However, while all surprising actions will be noticed, many will immediately be forgotten when followed at once by a rational explanation. For instance, pouring a beverage from a bottle into a glass, or tea or coffee from a pot into a cup, will not attract attention. However, pouring the liquid over the food on one’s plate will be noticed. It will be noticed but not remembered if, when the liquid is poured on the food, it seems accidental because the body is twitched as if in pain and the statement is made, “There must be a pin on the chair.” It will be all the stronger if, upon reaching down, a pin is produced, shown, and discarded. In other words, natural and normal actions excite no interest and, therefore, are not observed, while unnatural and unusual actions will attract attention unless a simple but satisfactory explanation is given at once.

A person who seems to be interested in what it is he is doing will not be noticed but one whose interest is directed toward what others are doing will attract attention. For instance, little attention will be paid to the individual who, when alone, seems absorbed in the book or newspaper he is reading, and when with others devotes his interest to his companions and has but casual interest in his surroundings. One who seems interested in everything except his paper, or his companions, or seemingly is looking for someone who hasn’t yet arrived, always will attract attention.

Posture is important in avoiding being conspicuous. That person attracts little attention who when either seated, or standing, appears to be at his ease; that is, showing no physical effort and with the manner of being confident of having a right to be where he is. He will be noticed if he stands stiffly as if he were a soldier reporting to a high-ranking officer, or slouches as if death were imminent. Noticeable, too, is the person who sits as if he expects the chair to explode, or the one who sits slouched awkwardly in a chair as though he were a rag doll tossed into that position.

Possibly nothing attracts attention as quickly as fidgeting. Constantly shifting position either while standing or seated; repeatedly putting hands in and out of pockets; tapping on a chair area or table with the fingers; or playing with a watch chain, keys, coins, table silver, etc are all to be avoided by the person who wishes to do something secretly.

Summarizing these points: the calm, quiet, relaxed (though not to the point of seeming disjointed) person does not attract attention. This assumes, of course, that he is a normal individual. The person who is exceptionally tall, or short, or crippled, or deformed will be noticed, but once the observer notes the way in which he is unusual, little further notice is paid.

On the subject of being noticed, there is an inverse point that should be noted. At times tricksters have reason to credit, or accuse, some imaginary person with what has been done. A natural mistake is to describe someone of a form, and of actions, which are unusual and striking. It usually is easy to ascertain that no such person has been in the vicinity. The proper description will be of a person average in size and coloring and normal in features, but—and this is a very essential point-having some minor oddity such as the first joint missing of the little finger of the left hand, or a large mole close behind his right ear. The description, in short, of almost anyone but mentioning some unlikely, but easily noticed, minor oddity which would identify him if found. Such a description will be acceptable to listeners and at the same time be one most difficult to disprove.

Resuming the description of the attributes of a successful trickster, let it be repeated that he should be so normal in manner, and his actions so natural, that nothing about him excites suspicion. This does not mean that he has to be of any particular size or shape, or that he has to make gestures when he talks, or refrain from making them. It means only that he has to be himself—as he is at his calmest moments. That person who naturally speaks and acts rapidly will do well to learn to make both speech and actions more slowly. Tricks never are done rapidly and slowing up at the time the trick is done becomes noticeable. The big point is to be comfortably natural or, at least, to give that appearance. If one can be natural even in a difficult situation, he will make his work less arduous, for it is very difficult to act the role of one who is at ease and, at the same time, think of trickery. The chief cause of stilted actions and lack of poise is due to worry brought about through lack of preparation. When confident that he can do it, he will have a natural manner. There is nothing more important to the performance of a trick than confidence on the part of the performer. Confidence is a direct result of preparation. Confidence is nothing to be exhibited and it is not cockiness. Confidence is merely the feeling of certainty of being prepared to do the job—an awareness of being ready.

Some people, as a matter of fact almost everyone, become nervous and tense when appearing before a large audience. The trained actor realizes, and the novice senses, that due to distance, his natural manner seems false. Because distance both minimizes and otherwise alters, the stage actor makes gestures both broader and slower than he would do intimately. Because doing a trick is a form of acting, beginners tend to be nervous and assume an unusual manner and stilted gestures. Those who do their tricks before only a few should not worry, for they have no need to alter their actions or manner. Not only is there no need, but it should not be done. The popular belief that it is more difficult to perform a trick “right up close” is completely erroneous. The performance on the stage is sufficiently distant so that the spectator’s eye sees the entire man. When close by, only part of the performer is within the spectator’s range of vision. The more of the performer that can be seen, the less his chance of doing anything without detection. As examples: a performer on the stage would be seen were he to put his hand into his pocket, but that action can be made without being seen while standing close to a person so the hand is outside of his range of vision.

Simple tricks, and the reader will never need to do any others, are easy to do, for they require only knowledge, understanding, confidence, and a small amount of ingenuity. And the ingenuity will be needed only in the event of having to combine or alter methods hereinafter set down in order to fill some particular circumstance of which the writer could not be aware. The reader will not find it necessary to develop any manual skills for any of the tricks. He never will be asked to do any action that he does not now do regularly, even though he may need to make the action for a new purpose. There will be no lessons in intricate sleight of hand. All tricks will be simple to do physically. But take this bit of warning—the easier the manipulation in a trick the more essential it becomes for the performer to have every detail clearly in mind. This is because, while expert manipulation can in itself become mystifying, simple trickery depends entirely upon an idea and a routine. However, with your mind and my methods, there should be no real difficulty.

Prior to going on with details of how to do particular tricks, it may be well to review what has been written. First, in order to approach the subject properly, one must have a mind completely free of all the various commonly held, though erroneous, ideas about how tricksters operate. It is wise for a beginner to have his mind completely devoid of convictions of any sort about trickery. Starting with a clear mind eliminates 75 percent of the difficulty of learning to do tricks.

Next, it is necessary to restate that trickery depends basically upon elementary psychology. One who expects to perform trickery must understand that the objective of the trickster is to deceive the mind rather than the eye. This understanding will make him ready to accept that the trickster depends upon a form of thinking which will mislead the spectators rather than upon quickness and manipulative ability. To make a positive statement, the trickster relies upon confusing, and thereby deceiving, the minds rather than the eyes of the spectators. Even when eyes are misled, the memory may hold something that will permit working out how the mystery was accomplished after it is over. When the mind has been deceived, it is almost impossible to work backward and discover the deception.

Were it possible for the writer to be with the reader, it would be very easy to demonstrate how readily the mind may be fooled even when what is done is seen by the eyes. It would be very easy because the personal element plays such a large part in the performance. As this is not possible, all that can be done is to set down a couple of tricks on paper.

· 1. Two farmers live a mile apart and each put a fence of the same length, height, and material in front of his house. The eye can see (in the design below) that one farmer is a better fence builder than the other, but unless attention is called to the matter, the mind does not realize the difference.

(-0-0-0-0-0-0-) (-0 -0—0- 0-0 -)

· 2. A man had been studying Esperanto and other universal languages. As he sat at his desk thinking about the matter of universal languages, he absentmindedly wrote these letters:


The eye sees the letters, but even with the reader’s mind cued twice in the story above, it takes some study to see what was in the man’s mind. Without the story, and the study, the mind would register only that a number of letters, making no word or words, had been written. It is not immediately apparent that beginning with the second letter and reading every other letter spells out the word universal. And beginning with the next to the last letter and reading backward, every alternate letter spells out the same word.

Now a description of the performer. He must be natural and at ease. He must know in such complete detail what he is to do and how he is to do it that he is completely assured and so has full confidence in himself. He has such complete confidence that he not only does not fidget but has no inclination to do so.

Then the performer must have a realization of the element of time. He must know the proper time to start his trickery. He must know the importance of time in each detail of his performance.

Finally, the performer must accept to the full extent the fact that he cannot know too much about what he plans to do. Every detail he knows, beyond the bare essentials to ensure success, adds just that much more to eliminating the possibility of failure. The more details a trickster has in mind in connection with a trick the more certain he will be of his ability to do what is required. To state this in other words, worry, the possibility of error, and the chance of detection can all be eliminated by thoughtful, careful preparation. The situation recalls the occasion when a reporter asked the scientist Dr. Roy Chapman Andrews, on his return from a year in Inner Mongolia, to tell about his adventures. “My dear man,” said the doctor, “we had no adventures. We had a scientific expedition. Adventures come only through lack of preparation and we were properly prepared.” Such is the case with trickery, for proper preparation ensures success.

The performer’s knowledge must be so complete that he knows each detail of how and why each point in the trick is done. He must know, as well, when conditions of the moment demand a change in the prepared procedure and how to make such change without being disturbed. Such changes will not be manipulative and never require anything but a flexibility of mind coupled with knowledge.

At this point (very possibly at an earlier paragraph) the reader comes to the conclusion that the writer is extremely verbose in explaining a few simple points. Such feeling is not at all objectionable as long as the reader has grasped that the points are simple. The writer’s aim is to have the reader successful whenever he performs a trick. The writer is quite willing to acknowledge being both wordy and obvious provided the reader, thereby, invariably has success in his work.