R. Paul Wilson On: Coincidence Or Magic?
In an earlier article I discussed how seemingly impossible bad beats can actually happen at the card table and how an inexperienced player might actually be suspicious of a crazy hand where four aces are beaten by a royal flush; whereas seasoned pros would simply add it to their back catalogue of crazy hands they’ve witnessed.
In fact, a cheater would avoid such ‘Hollywood’ endings and engineer more subtle situations but in real life and in real card games, the seemingly impossible happens all the time at tables all over the world.
That being said, if it happens twice in one night, I’d suggest finding another game.
Gambling on anything forces the participants to pay attention to the outcome and notice when unusual or unlikely events take place.
The same number can come up several times in a row on a completely legitimate roulette table purely by chance but try explaining that to the players, the dealers, the managers or the owners who will almost certainly tear down the rotor and oil every cog before putting it back on the floor.
To better understand just how often seemingly impossible coincidences happen, I’d like to share a couple of personal stories to illustrate how circumstances can converge to create something almost magical.
The following story is 100% true and proves (at least to me) that anything is possible.
The Penn & Teller Coincidence
Sometime in the early 2000s, I was traveling around the United States giving lectures about deception, sleight of hand and magic. I took the opportunity to see the country, drive from place to place and get to know America.
As I traveled, I was a slave to internet cafes or friends’ computers in order to keep up with emails since at that time, I had no laptop and pocket devices such as Blackberries were new and prohibitively expensive.
My trip ended in Las Vegas where I was to attend a magicians’ convention being held at the Rio shortly after Penn and Teller had taken up residence there. I arrived a few days early and met a friend from Scotland who was staying at the Sahara where we shared a room for a few days.
The day before the convention, we had planned to visit a friend who showed us his collection of gambling and cheating paraphernalia during the day while at night, my Scottish friend had a ticket to see “O” at the Bellagio.
I did not have a ticket but had plans to meet friends Mike and Lisa Close for dinner at the buffet but when we met them, I found they were sick and had decided not to stay for dinner and because I was hard to contact (I had no US cell phone either) they felt obliged to come and tell me in person.
Indeed, they were both at the tail end of a bad flu and when they headed back home, I was suddenly alone in Las Vegas with nothing to do.
This is a familiar situation to many people who’ve spent time in Vegas and some stories end much worse than this one (perhaps in a motel bathtub missing a kidney) but while I was now on my own, I knew that a short taxi ride away I could find a hotel filled with fellow magicians, many of whom I knew well.
At that time, I’d never been to the Rio so was curious to check it out since we’d be moving there for the convention the next day.
Arriving at the hotel, I quickly navigated the gaming the floor on the lookout for familiar faces and at the bar, spotted someone I knew.
We chatted for about 20 minutes before his girlfriend arrived and I realised they were on their only night together before the convention and I should probably leave them to enjoy their own company.
It was almost nine o’clock so I decided that I would find the convention centre before heading back to the Sahara for an early night since the rest of the week was guaranteed to be crazy-busy.
From the casino, the convention centre is reached via a long hallway and about halfway down that hallway I saw a good friend smoking a cigarette.
This would change everything since that friend was also a blackjack expert and I knew we’d spend hours in the cafe as I traded card tricks in return for picking his brain into the wee-small hours.
I tapped him on the shoulder:
“Mike! How are you?” I said.
“Quick, this way,” he replied, taking my elbow and marching me out of the hallway and into a theatre where he handed over two tickets before showing me to our seats in the Penn and Teller Theatre.
The show was already starting, and I spend the next 90 minutes baffled by the magic on stage and by how the hell I found myself watching it!
When the show broke, we pushed our way into the lobby where a hundred friends were leaving the same show and it took another 30 minutes of shaking hands, hugging and promising to get together before Mike and I were alone in the coffee shop.
Finally, I was able to ask him: “What just happened?”
He looked at me, puzzled by the question, so I reminded him that I just said hello to him in a corridor and was whisked off to a free show without so much as a by-your-leave.
Still baffled, Mike said: “Didn’t you get my message?”
The next moment is one of the most bizarre of my life as I sat in the middle of my own personal dolly zoom.
While I had been mostly incommunicado and traveling around the States, Mike had scored a couple of tickets for Penn and Teller and hearing that I might attend the convention that followed, had reached out to me.
Not on email but on a message board for magicians.
His message was: R. Paul Wilson – If you are in Las Vegas the night before the World Magic Seminar, meet me at nine o’clock outside the Penn and Teller Theatre, I have an extra ticket.
After weeks on the road, and after a dozen tiny events and decisions – and without any idea whatsoever about that message from Mike – I just happened to walk down the right corridor at the right time to make a rendezvous I had no idea was meant to happen.
No one believes this story, least of all Mike who posted the message and was not at all surprised by my arrival.
Later, when I tried to convince over late-night waffles, he refused to buy a word of it yet it’s completely true and still baffles me to this day but as I said previously: these types of impossible coincidences are supposed to happen from time to time.
As unfathomable random events tumble like infinite-sided dice, occasionally the outcome will seem impossible when in fact, it’s just one of a gazillion possibilities that we just happen to notice.
Finally, A Confession
In a basement in Los Angeles, I was asked to spend time with one of the world’s biggest A-list actors to show him what was possible with a deck of cards as inspiration for a role he was about to play in the film I was working on.
With me was one of the world’s finest sleight of hand magicians and together we showed some card tricks and moves and got the actor suitably excited to play the part.
But towards the end, he asked me to show the “real work”, so I invited his brother to shuffle the deck and deal any number of five-card hands.
I had already palmed out a straight flush and when I was given a hand, I immediately switched all five cards while the actor, his brother and my friend checked their hands and all agreed they would bet heavily after taking a draw.
My fellow magician was utterly astonished to find that I not only had the straight flush but that he had a flush, while the other two had a full house and a four of a kind!
What really baffled him was that the actor’s brother had shuffled, dealt, and handed me the five cards that I switched out – I never touched the rest of the deck!
To this day, it probably still troubles him since I never tipped the switch or any of the other details and since he missed that switch, what chance did he have to realise the truth?
Here’s what really happened: while my hand was a lock, the others were down to pure chance and I had just gotten fantastically lucky at exactly the right time and in exactly the right place – their hands were pure luck and nothing else!