Right when it came out, I wanted to get “Zarrow: a Lifetime of Magic.” So I did. It was mainly due to a review of it that I read by Jamy Ian Swiss singing its praises. ”Oh snap,” I remember thinking, “I love the Zarrow Shuffle—therefore it logically follows that I will love the Zarrow Book.”
When it came, I opened it up and immediately flipped to the back to learn the “proper” way to do the Zarrow Shuffle. It was (and is) a damn good description—it covers all the bases, all the finesses, all the timing. I wasn’t particularly adept at it—kind of butchering it as I went, but it was the thing I was most interested in. I only had, at that point, a rudimentary understanding of the shuffle as shown to me by the kid at Tannens Magic shop (who later turned out to be Spencer Peterson). But David Ben’s description—now this was the real shit.
I should mention, at this point, that I do not do the Zarrow Shuffle the way I learned it from the book. Now I do a better version—a much better handling; one that is more convincing. I should also mention that I do it very well. This is not to say that Zarrow’s version is bad, it’s just based on old technology. The thing about his shuffle is that you can always tell when another magician is doing a Zarrow shuffle the way Zarrow did it.
You can tell when Jason England does it, you can tell when Michael Vincent does it, and you can even tell when Ricky Jay does it. It is simply inherent to the move. Then you’ve got Gary Plants’s handling, but we run into the same problem—it’s just a weird shuffle and it’s different than a regular shuffle, no matter how good it looks.
I remember the first time I met with SR, he asked me what books I liked. It was shortly after I had gotten the Zarrow book, so I said it (though at that point, pretty much all I had read out of it was the description of the shuffle). At some other point during the evening, SR’s mentor J asked me the same question—again, I said Zarrow and eventually it came around to me showing J the shuffle. He nodded and pointed at SR and said “that’s who you want to talk to about the Zarrow Shuffle.”
Turns out, SR has spent the better part of two decades working on the Zarrow shuffle. He learned it when he was a kid living in the north off of a Brother John Hamman video. It was the first ever sleight he worked on improving. He based his handling off of Marlo’s as seen in “Primetime Marlo.” There is no lifting action—the cards are weaved and they just go in. That’s it.
He’s shown it around to a lot of people including Marc Desouza, Bill Malone, and Gary Plants who all agree (as I am told) that it is the best they’ve seen. SR also met with Zarrow before he died and they discussed the finer points of the shuffle. And Zarrow said to SR in regards to the shuffle: “That’s it.”
So SR started teaching me his version of the shuffle, which is a far superior version. Exactly because he makes his true shuffle look exactly like the false shuffle. And so I learned that shuffle and use it and didn’t look at the Zarrow book for a while.
I picked it up again some months later simply because I had forgotten about it and I stated going through it, working through the routines. And I was struck by this thought: “This book is crap.”
Anytime I hear something like “Herb Zarrow was one of the modern masters” I can’t help but disagree. His effects are decidedly a step backwards—the reason so many of them were unpublished is because they are not good tricks. They’re like something a teenager who knows a lot of moves would throw together and call an original effect—there is apparently little thought given to construction, they are tepid, uninspired…I could go on.
But hows about an example? Take the trick entitled “Three Cards Across” and can be found on page 221. First, the deck is spread face up and three cards are selected and reversed in the upper half. Next the deck is separated into two sections. Now the face down selections magically converge and travel to the bottom of the packet (all at the same time!). Then they disappear (holy shit!) and reappear in the tabled lower half of the face up deck. It might also be worth mentioning that there is a top-card cover pass and two half passes in there. This is not a good trick. This is not just a not-good trick—this is a bad trick. This trick has too many moves for too little payoff. This trick is not subtle. This trick makes no sense. This trick is boring. This trick feels like it was constructed by a 14-year old prepubescent boy who just learned a top-card cover pass and a half pass.
Now nothing against Herb Zarrow—I never met the guy, but this is not praiseworthy magic. It also doesn’t help that most of writing in the book whines about how nobody ever appreciated Zarrow and nobody ever credited him when they stole his ideas. And then there’s the end of the book which is effectively a bunch of poop being flung at Ed Marlo for being a bad evil magician who doesn’t want anyone to have ideas of their own and just wants to take credit for everything. I’m sure that David Ben is a good historian and researcher and all that jazzy shit, but this really just read like a hissy-fit.
Persi Diaconis said something to the effect of the Zarrow Shuffle being the single most influential card sleight of the 20th century. I’m gonna call bullshit on that one and agree with Jon Racherbaumer in his assessment that it’s the double lift—nothing has changed card magic (for better or worse) more than showing two cards as one. So what if the Zarrow shuffle was one of the few sleights to go from the magic world to the gambling world.
You know what else went? My dick.
So the bottom line? “Zarrow: a Lifetime of Magic” has a really good description of the Zarrow Shuffle in the last chapter. If that’s worth 125 bucks to you, then fuckin’ go for it, man.