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Puzzle Wizard

Magician, puzzle maker and author David Kwong talks to Brunswick’s Preston Golson and Carlton Wilkinson about the magic of revealing the tricks of the trade.

Sleight of hand might seem the opposite of transparency. But professional magician David Kwong wants to let us in on the secrets behind his tricks, encouraging us to participate by trying to solve the puzzles and understand the tricks for ourselves.

“The first thing I do in my show is expose how a trick is done,” Kwong told us in a recent interview. “It’s my way of saying, ‘This is all a puzzle, and it’s a puzzle for all of you to figure out.’”

His purpose is equal parts entertainment and education; to let people find delight in their own powers of awareness and become better observers and more trusted and convincing participants in any type of exchange. “Magic,” he tells us in the interview below, “is not necessarily about being deceptive and manipulative,” but about storytelling and wonder.

Kwong is author, puzzle maker, TED Talk presenter, Hollywood film advisor and the star of a hit one-man magic-and-puzzles show, The Enigmatist. In 2020, his Zoom show, Inside the Box, was a surprise hit, earning the praise of critics with The New York Times and other media. Likewise, his book, Spellbound: Seven Principles of Illusion to Captivate Audiences and Unlock the Secrets of Success has been called “a virtual wand for those who want a bit of magic in their lives.”

Kwong is also one of the designers of The New York Times’ crossword puzzles. He is also an advisor on magic in film and TV shows, including the hit Hollywood production Now You See Me, the plot of which involves magicians who rob banks.

Yet he didn’t decide on his chosen career until long after he’d graduated from college (earning an AB in History from Harvard). For his 30th birthday, he staged some tricks he had devised for his friends—and lightning struck.

“I came up with this crossword puzzle magic trick that I still do,” he says. “I ask for words and letters from the audience and build a crossword puzzle on a large board as quickly as possible. But I’ve hidden a playing card some 20 minutes earlier, so when I finish, I reveal the card in the crossword puzzle. My friends, the first audience I tried this with, went crazy. It became my signature effect.

“Until that point, I was doing magic like everybody else. I hadn’t found my voice yet,” he says.

Wonder is tied to possibility. And possibility is what is just beyond the horizon of what we know and accept to be the current status quo.

Today, his one-man show has played to sold-out audiences at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, the High Line Hotel in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC and is currently slated for Chicago’s Shakespeare Theatre in May 2024. He was featured in a 2018 TED Talk, and is a recurring guest of The Today Show.

Blending interests in magic and puzzles and history “allowed me to become more authentic,” he says. “I don’t have to pretend to be something that I’m not, and I have a lot of fun on stage. And I think people can see that.”

Your 2020 Zoom-only show, Inside the Box, seemed more liberated by the platform than restricted by it, as so many others were. How did that come about?

I was meant to do The Enigmatist at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in May 2020. But because of the pandemic, they had transitioned into doing theater over Zoom, and they asked me if I would write an original show.

I’m quite proud of it. I performed it 165 times. What was really important to my creative designer, Brett Banakis, was to take advantage of the aesthetic of the Zoom grid—it was a five-by-five grid and so the problem was how could we get people to interact across these virtual lines, not just with me but with each other?

There were very fun puzzles and some of the clues involved specific, choreographed interactions between the audience members. There was one in which some people were holding up red objects against their cameras to make their screen a particular color—so their whole square would be a solid color. And because of where they were on the grid, those shapes would form letters spelling out a message.

So, the pandemic was a challenging time, but we are at our most creative when we have to innovate within constraints and parameters. That is Inside the Box at its core, both as a performance and also the creative process that put it together.


Can you tell me about your book, Spellbound: Seven Principles of Illusion to Captivate Audiences and Unlock the Secrets of Success?

Magic is not necessarily about being deceptive and manipulative. That’s a very important point for me. There’s a way to use these principles benevolently, especially when you are creating more command and control for yourself and getting 50 steps ahead of the competition. This is not a blueprint for going out and deceiving people.

The illusion of free choice is probably my favorite chapter in that book because it deals with giving people agency. When you allow people to choose things, they become more invested in the outcome of those proceedings. It’s a really deep psychological principle. You can imagine in a sales meeting how much more effective it is to allow the person on the other side of the table to arrive at an idea themselves rather than you strong-arm them with a hard sell. Or a parent said to me the other day, you can say to your kid, “All right, it’s up to you: Do you want to go to bed in 10 minutes or do you want to go to bed in 15 minutes?”

These principles are applicable to leaders who know the outcome that they’d like to accomplish. They’ve designed what they want their followers to do. But the idea is to get them to arrive at those decisions themselves. It’s not deceitful, but an awareness that you’re guiding the conversation.

Is there an ethical code about revealing tricks?

The rule of thumb is you can expose general concepts and principles. The principle of the illusion of free choice, or misdirection, or how to get “one ahead” of someone—you can talk about those things generally. What you don’t want to do is to ruin a specific trick, especially one that someone is performing today. But you can speak about things generally and historically. But it’s delicate for sure.

What do you do when a trick you’ve rehearsed just doesn’t work?

This is another of the principles I outline in my book: magicians always have an out—a backup plan. For every trick that I have in my show I probably have two or three backup plans in case it goes wrong. The beautiful thing about a magician’s out is that it puts the magician ahead again. The audience members often don’t even realize that something has gone wrong.

Let’s say you were to choose a card. I think it’s 10 of diamonds and I have that card on the table and I ask you, “What card did you choose,” and you say, “Seven of clubs,” I’m wrong and I need to clean this up. So I will find that seven of clubs, and then change the 10 of diamonds to the seven of clubs and you’re never the wiser that something went wrong. Instead you see a trick where I’m showing you the 10 of diamonds and I’m miraculously changing it to your card, the seven of clubs.

The notion of being overprepared for situations is another important principle—closely related to having an out for every trick. The idea is that you have not just one or two, but a tree of options, and based on what your audience or the person on the other side of the negotiating table comes up with you are prepared for all of those different options. A great example of that is if you’re on a job interview and instead of having just one version of your résumé you have seven—all just different presentations of your actual experience but emphasizing different things—and the one you pull out is the one based on how the conversation is going. You’re able to pivot as needed based on the information that you’re getting.

One of the tricks I do in my show has hundreds and hundreds of possible outcomes, but you’re not aware of that. To you it just looks like the one outcome was inevitable.

Magic is not necessarily about being deceptive and manipulative. That’s a very important point for me.

It sounds like this kind of preparation for all possible outcomes takes a mind-blowing amount of preparation.

I’m lucky that I’ve turned my hobbies and games into a job, so I get to have fun all day long. You really only see what ends up on the stage, but there’s so much that goes into producing the show and putting it in the proper theaters.

The same goes for the private and corporate events. That’s a big part of what I do and they’re a different thing. They might be my favorite things to do because when I’m performing for a large company, I’m on that stage and I’m thinking, “I can’t believe I get to do this for a living. This is wonderful.” I love that so much. A lot of work goes into that. Designing tricks is really about storytelling. Every trick is a little story. And the good magicians are good storytellers.

How did you end up working as an advisor on films?

I was performing my solo show around Los Angeles—at that point it was still just for fun and as a nice way to make connections in the movie business industry. But the show started to catch fire; it became something I couldn’t ignore. I had a small job with DreamWorks helping the screenwriter Ed Solomon, a brilliant guy, on a film project called Now You See Me. But my magic show caught the attention of the director, Louis Leterrie. He went to see it and he said “This is the guy I want.”

It’s a great film and the magic is just so crazy.

What I’m most proud of in terms of my contribution is, there was all this concern about how the magic would appear on film. Would it just look like special effects? But we figured out how to make it about how magicians think, giving people a peek behind the curtain for the methods and the principles that they use. The film audience learns about misdirection and how magicians get ahead of their audience. There’s a bunch of tricks of the trade that we reveal, some of the principles of illusion. And it makes the magic in the film feel more real.

With AI coming into the picture, is there a danger that the availability of this knowledge can water down the impact of the skills that magicians have?

That’s a big question right now. I’m writing a talk about it that I hope will be another TED Talk. With the advent of this technology that can write cogent text or make a beautiful image in a matter of seconds is there still room for wonder out there? And I think that there is. Magicians, at least for what I do, can still create wonder by pushing the boundaries of what people are familiar with. If AI becomes the new normal, how will I embrace that new normal and push the envelope of what is possible?

As a part of this talk, I’m going to be performing a trick with AI, to make everyone in the audience question, “Can the computer really do that?” I’m hoping to craft a trick that has a really delicious ambiguity about what is possible.

Wonder is tied to possibility. And possibility is what is just beyond the horizon of what we know and accept to be the current status quo.

photographs courtesy of david kwong

The Authors

Preston Golson

Director, Washington, DC

Preston has served in a variety of national security positions, including as an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and an aide to the first two Directors of National Intelligence.

Carlton Wilkinson
Carlton Wilkinson

Director, New York

Carlton Wilkinson is a Director and the Managing Editor of the Brunswick Review.