Reading minds — part two

This is how easy it is to convince people you have supernatural powers

The Friedel Chronicles
6 min readOct 16, 2023

I have written about how, many decades ago, I entertained — and confounded — a class of school students for a full week with a mind reading illusion. That episode is described here. I have performed the trick maybe a dozen times. Today I want to describe two other memorable occasions I did. And describe a followup mental trick perpetrated on me.

Nihal Sarin is a super-talent in chess, today a world-class player. He first visited us when he was thirteen, and I took him to the ChessBase office.

A 13-year-old analysing a position with one of the world’s leading endgame experts, grandmaster Dr Karsten Mülller. Karsten was deeply impressed with Nihal.

The young Nihal was very bright, full of fun and pranks. At some stage, in the ChessBase office, I prepped him for the mind-reading scam, taking less than a minute to do so. Then I started baffling the staff and visitors.

The scam involves me arranging five cards to resemble a human body: head, arms and legs.

I would close my eyes — or be blindfolded, or even leave the room. Someone would touch, or just point to a card, which I would then be able to identify. Nihal was telling me which card it was, by moving an arm, leg or his head. He became very good at it, and in fact led the effort to find out how I was able to do it. Once again I had the exquisite pleasure of seeing someone exclaim “How can he be doing this??” seconds after he had signaled me which card it was.

Jousting with a magician

Hartmut is an electronic engineer, but also an amateur contact magician. At the periodic gatherings of my wife’s extended family he will show us his latest conjuring tricks. At one gathering I decided to take him on and introduced the mind reading trick with the five cards. Everyone enjoyed it, but Hartmut was deeply disturbed. He did everything he could to uncover the method I was using — he made sure I could not peek, sent my wife and son out of the room, he set up a screen, did everything he could think of. But I was still able to tell him the card he had point at.

The next day we were due to leave the gathering around noon. At breakfast Hartmut and the other guests insisted: you have to explain how you are doing it, before you leave. So I told them: it is clear, someone was signalling which card it was. Who was doing that, everyone wanted to know. I asked them to guess, and they went through every person present at the gathering. Well, not quite. “If it was nobody here, who could it be?” Hartmut asked. And suddenly it struck him: “No, it can’t be her!”

Indeed it was: his daughter Stefanie, five years old, who had been playing around the hall all the time. I had told this little girl what to do, in a minute or two, before I started, and she mastered it perfectly. I was deeply impressed how she had stood on the stairs to the bedroom the previous night and said to me: “Please, please tell me how you did it!”

Revenge trick

Hartmut did not take this well, and for the next family gathering he planned revenge. “Pick a card, Frederic, and I will mentally send the information to a friend in south Germany. He will tell you which card you chose.”

Of course I am very experienced — an expert. So before he started I cleared up the conditions: Hartmut and everyone would see the card; nobody would leave the room or use a mobile phone; before we started Hartmut would give me the number I would call.

With all this in place we proceeded with the experiment. I chose a card, showed it around, called the number, which was clearly to a landline phone in southern Germany. And the person who answered told me which card I had chosen.

It was quite stunning: nobody who knew which card it was had left the room, nobody had used a mobile phone, nobody had even named the card out loud (which could have been picked up by a hidden microphone). And still this distant friend of Hartmut had been able to name the card. How was that possible? For once I was at a complete loss. It took a couple of hours to work out how it was done.

This is the very clever way Hartmut had perpetrated the prank. The phone call with the friend went as follows:

  • Hello, this is Frederic Friedel…
  • Yes, with whom do you want to speak?
  • Jacob Beck. Hartmut gave me this number.
  • Ah, okay, it’s about the card you chose, right? He just sent me a mental message telling me which one it was.

And Jacob correctly named the card.

So how was this done? After I had chosen the card and started dialing the number, Hartmut had said: “His name is Jacob Beck”. He said it quite innocuously, and it went quite unnoticed by me. But he had worked out a system with his friend (whose name was not Jacob Beck) from which he could derive any of the 52 cards from the name I mentioned. Very clever, and beautifully executed.

I worked out Hartmut’s trick because I had experienced a similar deception many years previously.

Michael was a friend, also an amateur magician, from whom I learnt a great deal. One of the pranks he played on me used a deception similar to Hartmut’s trick.

One day Michael called me and offered to do some magic on the phone. He asked me to get a pack of cards and mix them well. Then select a card and place it on the top of the deck. After that I had to do a series of things, deal out the same number of cards as the value of the card I had chosen, place the rest of the cards on top of the pile, and a number of other manipulations. Finally I should cut the deck and start reading out the card from the top. “Be careful not to let me know by your voice when we hit your card,” Michael warned.

I started dictating in a deadpan style, making sure he would not know when we got to my card. But still he immediately stopped me and said “That is it!” And was absolutely right.

I was completely baffled: I worked out that the series of operations I was asked to perform left the chosen card in sixteenth place. But the final step involved cutting the deck, and this meant the card was no longer in sixteenth place. Michael could not know where it was. So how could he tell when I got to the card? I even examined the window, on the odd chance that Michael may have been watching me with binoculars from a neighboring flat.

I asked Michael to repeat the trick, but he refused. Instead he told me how it worked — I was his student. He had told me to execute all the operations that put my card in the sixteenth place, and then asked me to start reading out the cards from the top. “But before you do it, cut the deck,” he said. The trick was to say this while I was already in the process of dictating the first card. So he knew mine was the sixteenth card after it.

It was wonderfully executed: While I was naming the first card, he interrupted my words with the cut-the-deck instruction. It was done so normally and naturally that I could not recall it happening. It had not registered in my mind.

Further reading

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The Friedel Chronicles

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.