Max Maven’s Kayfabe – Reviewed by Dustin Stinett

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Dustin Stinett
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Max Maven’s Kayfabe – Reviewed by Dustin Stinett

Postby Dustin Stinett » May 20th, 2018, 4:41 am

Max Maven

A Review by Dustin Stinett

Now that the dust has settled on this, I thought perhaps now would be a good time to kick it up again. After all, while my voice will not be heard reviewing things in Genii anymore, that doesn’t mean I put a muzzle on my mouth.

For the record, leaving the print version of “Light from the Lamp” was my idea. The upside is that I will be reviewing those things that I want to, and I am not going to be limited to DVDs—even though this is a set of DVDs. One of the things I like best about this new way of doing things is that I have time to really digest the material that I am reviewing. I can even watch or read something twice. That’s what I’ve done with Max Maven’s marvelous collection of DVDs titled Kayfabe. So far. I have actually revisited some segments a third time, and there may even be a fourth. Few DVDs get that level of attention from me.

I first met Max Maven in the 1980s. However, it is more accurate to say that we’ve come to know one another better in the last 15, maybe 20, years or so. Even with that, I was thunderstruck just a couple of years ago when, sitting in the living room of a mutual acquaintance, Max and Crow Garrett began talking about pro wrestling. On purpose. With purpose. And knowledge. Apparently a great deal of knowledge. (I think. After all, I can only guess that they know what they were talking about.)

After some thought on the subject, it dawned on me that pro wrestling is equal parts theater and sport, so, okay, it makes sense; I guess. But not even Andy Kaufman could drag me into that odd world, so, sorry Max, I won’t be following you through that door. (I will, however, forever thank you for introducing me to Alexander Woollcott. Now there is a character with whom I can relate.)

As anyone reading this should, by now, know, “Kayfabe” is a pro wrestling term that describes staged events appearing to be real (not merely “secret” as some seem to think). Apparently it was a secret (or secretive) term and, ironically, Max Maven is “breaking Kayfabe” by exposing more of the uninitiated to the word. But when it comes to Max Maven’s work, it is a wholly appropriate title. Yes, even the “card tricks.”

Let us dispense with the notion that—as written on another site and carried over to this one well before the set had even been released—“every single thing he did was card magic, nothing else.” By now you’ve heard this is not the case. But I want to address the idea that even a majority of the material being card magic is, somehow, a bad thing. I have never seen a mentalist not use a deck of playing card in his show. Even Kreskin uses them (and he dies a little bit every time someone links him with the “magic community”). He almost always used them during his talk show appearances because he would do what we might consider “close-up” style mentalism.

What none of the mentalists I’ve seen do is nothing but card effects. Not even Max. And nowhere on Kayfabe is Max Maven suggesting that you use all of this material at the same time. What he is doing is giving you a lot from which to choose in the three basic venues in which mentalists perform: close-up, parlor, stage. When looked at from that point of view, there are only a few each to choose from, with a couple that can crossover. All of it is strong, and there is one in particular that a stage magician will want to add to his repertoire because it easily crosses over into the realm of “magic.”

Another thing that some seem to take away from this release—in particular the fact that most of this material has been held back by Max for as long as 40 years—is that this is his magnum opus. Given the vagaries of life, it is certainly possible, but I hope not. Max does have more to give. That’s just how much great material he has created over a lifetime just for his own use (never mind all the tremendous material he has developed for the rest of us). One day he might actually release the other items from which he still garners a living. In the meantime, in Kayfabe, he is releasing 13 items for your consideration that were exclusively his for decades.

The first of this exquisitely produced four-disc set is titled “Spring.” It has five stage effects on it (only one of which is a card effect—so apparently that guy quoted above skipped this disc when he watched the set). The live performance segments of this disc are held in a lecture hall of the Museu da Ciencia da Universidade (the Science Museum of the University of Combra). The room is 150 years old and is still in use today. It is an incredible space. The explanations were shot in Luis de Matos’s studio facilities. “Cognomen” starts off the disc and is a billet routine in which a name is divined. But before you roll your eyes—if you’re silly enough to do so—the effect requires no tears or peeks whatsoever. It is a masterclass in justification, stagecraft, and the blocking of this kind of routine. As a result, the elegant method garners a reaction one might not think possible for such a simple idea.

Therein lies one of the best aspects of this entire project. Each routine has a deeper lesson than just the methodology. Sometimes Max points it out, other times you are expected to figure it out for yourself, but they are there for the taking.

“Spy Story” reveals another wonderful aspect of this set of discs: in most places it is a history lesson in the craft of mentalism as well as magic. I’m not certain if it was Max Maven who instilled in me the need for knowing what was past to understand better what we are doing today, but he certainly contributed to that. Knowledge of the printed record—we’ve distilled that down to “crediting”—is an important part of creating material for others and few are better at it than Max Maven. I wonder how many others will be as amazed as I was to discover that the effect of “Confabulation” is not Alan Shaxon’s—though he coined the term and certainly popularized it—but instead, and this does not come as a surprise, it was Stewart James who created the concept. In fact, Shaxon is several names down the list of those who worked on this plot started by James in the 1920s. “Spy Story” is this kind of effect with a fun premise. You will require the Kaps/Balducci style wallet you have sitting your drawer.

While a “card trick,” the effect of “Rorrim” gives the impression—at least to me—that any small objects could have been used had a bunch been available; say sitting in a bowl resting on the large table behind Max. Playing cards just happen to be a convenient way of having dozens of objects from which to randomly (and blindly) select. This, of course, is not at all true. It just seems that way and I cannot help but wonder if a lay person might come to that conclusion as well. Calling this a “coincidence effect” is really unfair, but that’s what it appears to be; to magicians. To the laity it is an impossibility when the performer divines not only the identity of the two cards that the volunteer doesn’t even know he had (he selects them without looking), but also the correct pockets into which they were placed. And Max proves his powers by removing matching cards (in this case jumbo cards) from his same pockets.

“Psychometry” is a popular effect for which Annemann can certainly be blamed. There are countless versions—Max has more than one himself—and this one, called “About Face,” is simplicity at all levels. Its method is direct. Its props are as simple as they come: four pieces of paper board and some marking pens. And the premise Max gives it is one that not only focuses on his abilities (whatever those are in the minds of the audience), but also on the people up there with him. They are made interesting because what they do for a living is important. It’s a fine effect, psychometry almost always is, but here we have a lesson in connecting with an entire audience by making their onstage representatives more than objects of an experiment.

The last section of this disc is the first part of a four-part interview between Max Maven and Luis de Matos. Because these days I am far more interested in people than I am in technique and effects, the interviews are my favorite parts of the project. Don’t misunderstand: I still enjoy learning all I can about this craft that I love and I hope to remain a student of it for the rest of my life. It’s just that these days I collect people more than I collect effects. The more I learn about them, the better I like it—and the better I can learn from them.

The opening of the interview covers the surprising wrestling connection. It then moves into his youth, his early journey in the craft of magic, and his turning professional. De Matos is a fine interviewer. Because he is a friend of Max’s, he recognizes that there is more to him than magic, and de Matos delves into the other aspects of Max’s formative years, such as his talent for music, that shaped him. Max’s broad range of interests is a thread that runs through all four segments of the interview (there is one on each disc). And to continue the metaphor, throughout the interview, de Matos and Maven use that thread to neatly tie that variety of interests together with Max’s magic and Mentalism.

The second disc is “Summer,” and it is all card effects at the close-up table and on the stage, or in the parlor. This was filmed in several different rooms in the Science Museum. One of only two items in this collection that has seen publication (in Thequal, 1984), “Zen Poker” is the divination of a thought of card which is drawn by a participant. No, there is no peeking involved, but the instructions given for drawing the card is very much a part of the method—a very clever one. The rest of the method is disguised by a simple betting game.

Dai Vernon’s “Out of Sight Out of Mind” from More inner Secrets of Card Magic is perhaps the most elegant card effect created: the spectator merely thinks of a card and the performer finds it. “Out of Mine” is Maven’s version. Is it “better” than the Professor’s? That is open to debate, but what isn’t is that is different, and so dramatically strong that Max has used this close-up routine in a stage environment.

“Singularity” is, according to Max, a piece that grew out of his work on “Out of Mine.” It is a clever piece that uses two spectators, a clever force that I do not want to say more about here, and a classic force. In the explanation, Max spends the bulk of the time in discussing this important aspect of card work. In effect, one volunteer thinks of card and the other removes it from a facedown spread of cards.

The second previously published routine is “Territory.” It appeared in the wonderful magazine Pabular, which was published in the 1970s and ‘80s in the UK . Max has quite a bit of material that can be found in that terrific magazine—he had three one-man issues to go along with other regular contributions. (If you enjoy the work of Roy Walton, Peter Kane, Fred Robinson, Pat Page, and many more, search out the underpriced digital edition of this publication on This effect—which is great for strolling since it does not require a table—is one of my favorite close-up pieces since the spectator does a lot of the work for you. He mentally selects (really) one card of five that he has randomly pointed to in a shuffled deck, and its final discovery is, I think, quite satisfying—and if you don’t think so, with just a little thought, you are in position to make it so for you.

I do not recall from whom I first learned about clocking a deck. I suspect that it was Harry Lorayne. Max’s way is incredibly easy and he thoroughly teaches it in the explanation of “Roundabout.” The effect is that three selections are divined in an increasingly more dramatic manner.

Max Maven’s “look” and his name (remember that his given name is Phil Goldstein and for decades all of his writings—including in the above mentioned Pabular magazine—appeared under that name) is the first subject of the second part of the interview. He further discusses his youth and how his experiences during that time led to magic and his persona.

Another element in the interview, which includes a segment on his 13 years on the comedy club circuit, is how he treats his volunteers. Max has received criticism over the years from many magicians on how he treats those who come up on stage with him. I am not one of them. I’m not saying that I am particularly knowledgeable about the practice of selecting audience members, but the fact that Max Maven has absolutely no problem getting people up onto that stage with him proves to me that he actually treats them well, and other (lay) audience members recognize that fact or they would hesitate before volunteering. I think all performers, but especially those who criticize him, need to listen to this part of the interview. Rest assured that Max uses his “powers” (another great discussion in the interview) only for good.

Autumn has always been my favorite season of the year, and the disc titled “Autumn” in this set is one for which I have been waiting for over 30 autumns.

In the mid-1980s I was in the audience of the Palace Theatre at The Magic Castle when Max Maven set off a tsunami in the magic world. It was a card trick unlike anything most of us had ever seen. With one hand in his pocket and a deck in the other, a volunteer corner peeks a card. She immediately takes the deck and looks through it for her card. It is not there. It is in the pocket in which Max’s other hand has been since the outset of the routine.

Max Maven did not invent the plot behind “Pocket Nightmare”—that’s saved for Ken Krenzel with an item well-hidden in a Karl Fulves publication—and perhaps Louis Zingone had such an effect as well—but oh did Max ever popularize it. In an issue of the close-up magazine Labyrinth, John Lovick published seven versions of the effect (all based simply on a description of the effect given by Eugene Burger in Strange Ceremonies), and Steve Mayhew published another version in a subsequent issue. None of these solutions approach the method employed by Max. If I had this information 25 years ago, when the thought of performing magic as a profession had not completely escaped my mind, I would have said that this one effect would be enough for me from this set. I would feel that few others would go to the effort to add this powerful effect to their repertoire, giving me something all but unique for my “set.”

I was not aware that “Pocket Nightmare” had a predecessor. That’s “Night Flight,” a close-up version. It doesn’t enjoy the same level of certainty of outcome as its progeny, but it is certainly worth a look since it is a tad easier to construct.

“Caesarian Section” is the only effect on this set that feels—for lack of a better phrase—like a card trick to me. It’s a side-of-the-deck card stab (insert the blade into the side of a deck wrapped in a napkin next to a selection). The upside of this routine is a strategy one can use in any routine in which a deck that cannot be inspected is handled by an audience member thus proving (psychologically) that the deck is normal.

There is a reason why we do not see too many very good performers doing “The Trick That Cannot Be Explained”: it’s because they are so good that it just appears that they are doing an effect that always happens the way they do it, so we do not recognize it as Vernon’s trick that appeared in More Inner Secrets of Card Magic by Lewis Ganson. When the less than talented attempt it, it looks like what it is: a search for a way to arrive at a card in a spread. “Scrutability” is Maven’s version of this improvisational piece of card magic.

It should come as no surprise that Max makes it appear that what occurs during the course of the effect always happens even though that is not the case—Max is one of the good ones. And in his version, he goes places—actually he removes possibilities—most of us would never consider. He eliminates spelling. He eliminates counting. And he removes his hands from the pack. Sounds scary, yes? Have no fear. He teaches you how to do it, too, and you get to see him perform it four times, with differing procedures, but with the same result. That’s because, as Max says, “There is always a solution.” There is a fifth performance, this time in-studio (an “extra”) in which he verbally shares his process. Pay attention to this, as well as the other performances, and learn that process and in particular how Max establishes how what happened is exactly what was supposed to occur.

The third part of the interview on this disc starts with Max talking about his mentors and influences, living and dead, including, for example, Annemann, who was long dead when Max started having “conversations”—and disagreements—with him. Max, of course talks about those who were alive during his conversations and experiences with them. There is more, of course, covered during this part of the interview, including some thoughts on his process and the history of magic and mentalism, and his relationship with the country of Japan.

The last extra on the disc is the talk he gave at the 2011 Essential Magic Conference (EMC) titled “Mentalism in Principle.” The title, however—his words not mine—does not count. And it doesn’t because his talk is certainly applicable to magic. It is a discussion on deviating from the most logical way of doing something (the straight line), such as having a card selected (forced), to a method that still appears logical.

Like most humans, I tend to wish for things I cannot have. I don’t know if I actually cannot ever have a copy of “The Fragility of Mystery” to listen to in my car, but that’s because this audio-only piece that starts the disc called “Winter” is not a CD recording. It will not play on the 20 year old CD player in my car. (I don’t want to deal with “shareware” systems that will rip the audio, etc.—no need to go there as this, like the subject of this paragraph, is a philosophical conversation, though nowhere near as deep.) I would like to listen to this often because it reminds me of things that are important to me. And like most humans, I like it when my beliefs are reaffirmed. It’s a bonus when that reaffirmation is coming from Max Maven. And there are things on this talk by Max that require more attention from me. I would be lying if I claimed I got it all. Hence the desire—nay need—for listening more than once—or thrice for that matter. Your mileage may vary. And that’s part of the beauty of it.

The Canadian documentarians Donna and Daniel Zuckerbrot made Max one of their subjects. Made for television (the Canadian program Enigma) in 2009, it was subsequently released on DVD and now is an extra here. “A Fabulous Monster” is among the few DVDs in my modest collection that I revisit. It includes clips from Max’s Knowing and Not Knowing show—my favorite iteration of his Thinking in Person one-man show, interview segments, and the inevitable “talking heads” that these types of short-subject films feature. That I know who all of them are (and even know many of them personally) and so I know that they truly are close to Max is a bonus that makes their comments about Max more meaningful.

I always believed that the first person who would answer the question, “Who was the first close-up magician?” would have been Jon Racherbaumer. I say that because the history of close-up magic is subject he’s been working on for decades. Max beat him to it in this talk from the 2010 EMC, which is one of the extras on the disc. Max does more than just talk about his candidate, though. He sets down a criteria about just what constitutes “close-up magic.” It’s a pretty bold, but necessary, thing to do. After all, it could be argued that Hieronymus Bosch’s subject in his famous early 16th century painting of a cups and balls performer (“de Toveren”) represents a “close-up magician.” Or some, as I might, suggest that Isaac Fawkes may have been performing close-up magic centuries ago. Max’s criteria focuses the subject and, not surprisingly, fully supports his candidate. It’s a persuasive argument.

Another extra is the last segment of the interview between Maven and de Matos. This one starts by looking back over the last 40 or so years. In some areas it is an even more detailed look at the artist. The interview also covers his thoughts on television, the evolution of his one-man show, and some advice—and not just on doing magic and mentalism. (And something else he says will push me to watch his performances on this set again and again. I have got to find Dirty Harry.)
The appropriately titled extra “Get Off My Lawn” is five performances of Max’s “Finger on the Card,” his opening piece. This is performance only. He does not explain it here, nor should he. I hope he never does. Just enjoy watching it—as I have for years—and, like the title says, stay off his lawn. (Perhaps the producers can have Decker bite the “sorry ass” of those who ignore this plea.) After all, Max has given plenty on this set of discs, on other videos, in books, in magazines, at lectures, and more.

This marvelous set is just the latest, and I am confident it is not the last, of his considerable and generous contributions to magic and mentalism. Max Maven’s legacy has a solid foundation, but it is not yet finished. Kayfabe is just a an incredible addition to it.

Jim Martin
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Re: Max Maven’s Kayfabe – Reviewed by Dustin Stinett

Postby Jim Martin » May 22nd, 2018, 5:36 pm

Thanks for this review, Dustin. The details and thoroughness are appreciated, as well as the perspective on Max's contributions. Outstanding!
Jim Martin
St. Louis MO

Bob Coyne
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Re: Max Maven’s Kayfabe – Reviewed by Dustin Stinett

Postby Bob Coyne » May 22nd, 2018, 10:09 pm

Yes, such an in-depth and heartfelt review. I really enjoyed reading it.

Edward Pungot
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Re: Max Maven’s Kayfabe – Reviewed by Dustin Stinett

Postby Edward Pungot » May 23rd, 2018, 6:46 am

Wonderful and insightful review.

Below is a podcast interview with Max.
Clocking in at the 2 hour and 30 minute mark. Dustin mentioned collecting personas. You'll get plenty of that here.

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Re: Max Maven’s Kayfabe – Reviewed by Dustin Stinett

Postby EndersGame » June 5th, 2018, 8:48 pm

I first came across Max Maven's work in the 1980s, and seeing his name anywhere always causes me to have a second look. He's produced some wonderful magic over the last few decades, and it can only be good for magic that he is still producing and sharing high calibre magic, like the material included on Kayfabe.

Thanks for sharing this write-up Dustin.
Click here to see all my reviews: Magic Reviews Playing Card Reviews Board Game Reviews

Edward Pungot
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Re: Max Maven’s Kayfabe – Reviewed by Dustin Stinett

Postby Edward Pungot » June 16th, 2018, 7:08 pm

Regarding Pocket Nightmare

Dry Transfer [....]
Where and which? How?

Alakazam Magic Cards.
Which one? Is it ethical?

Studio 33 custom made [....] X 5
(I wish)

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