Tuesday, February 10, 2009


I first read about Fred Robinson in Will Dexter’s book Famous Magic Secrets, an inspirational book to a teenage conjuror. Fred was one of the many curious characters portrayed by Dexter in the chapter about The Magic Circle. Fred was the burly rail worker sitting in the corner of the club dealing seconds and bottoms from the deck to the amazement of even the most expert magician. It was decades after the publication of Dexter’s book that I first saw Fred in the flesh and he looked pretty much the same as I’d imagined him, an ordinary looking guy, now silver haired and peering down spectacles that perched precariously on his nose. He was sitting a table dealing second and bottoms and middles from a deck while everyone, including me, looked on in admiration. This was at The Marlborough Arms pub, a favourite venue for magicians in years gone by because it was just around the corner from The Magic Circle headquarters when it was location in Chenies Mews.

Fred’s work was impeccable. And unique too because he didn’t deal cards like any magician. He dealt them like an ordinary bloke. You were never aware of him positioning the deck in the mechanic’s grip. He didn’t sit bolt upright in his chair as if he had a rod of iron down his back the moment he picked up the deck. And he didn’t attempt to play the part of the smart alec gambling expert. He handled the deck like a layman and dealt as if about to play a game of brag or whist with friends rather than give you a lesson in crooked gambling. Only the outcome of the deal, a winning hand, indicated that some chicanery was afoot. Dai Vernon considered him ‘one of the all time greats with cards.’ You could understand why Vernon liked Fred’s work. It was so natural and so perfect. His image and handling belied any suggestion of skill

Fred Robinson died in 1986 and although he was editor of Pabular magazine for many years he left little behind in the way of a coherent magical legacy, just the odd item printed here and there and an intriguing video tape marketed by Vic Pinto in which he and, I think, Jack Avis anonymously demonstrated but did not explain some false dealing and other gambling tricks.

Peter Duffie, one of Fred’s friends, thought it was time to put the record straight and gather together all of Fred’s expert card techniques into one book. That must have been around 1987, back when I was working with magic publisher Martin Breese. I remember Pete approaching Martin with the idea for the book and Martin commissioning it for publication. Pete spent a long time contacting Fred’s friends, and fellow card workers and collating as much information as he could about the tricks and techniques he had used throughout his life. He did a marvellous job.

At one point, because of pressure of business, ownership of the book transferred from Martin to Chris Power and JJ of Opus Magazine fame. But for one reason or another they never got around to publishing it. Peter’s manuscript lay idle for a decade at which point I helped get it back into the hands of Martin Breese who with Peter Duffie began the process of putting the book back together. It was the first time I got to read the material. What a treasure house it was.

It still took several years for the book to be published but the time was not wasted and Peter and Martin took great pains to make sure it was the best book it could possibly be. Finally it is here, one big handsome volume filled with Fred Robinson’s superb magic, a tremendous tribute to one of Britain’s finest cardmen. For those who didn’t know Fred Peter has provided an excellent biography, one made possible through the generous help of Fred’s family and in particular his daughter Annabelle who provided much information and even family photos. There are affectionate and informative tributes from Fred’s friends, notables such as Roy Walton, Darwin Ortiz, Jerry Sadowitz, Walt Lees, Max Maven, Simon Lovell, Barrie Richardson, Bobby Bernard and Patrick Page. Dominic Twose, a pupil of Fred, recalls the lessons in card handling that he had. And Dai Vernon provides a foreword.

The book contains all the moves that card workers will want to know about. Here are Fred’s second, bottom, middle and Greek deals upon which Fred built his reputation as a master of sleight of hand. There are four versions of the pass including his legendary riffle pass. There are counts, palms, double lifts and colour changes. And Fred Robinson’s gambling routines.

There are tricks too. One of my favourites is Fred’s Rising Cards as described by Patrick Page. This would fool you. It could easily have been a marketed trick. Then there are Fred’s handlings of classic plots like Cards Across, Dunbury Delusion, Do As I Do, Daley’s Last Trick, Out of This World and many more. And some excellent coin items and a smattering of stand up magic. The one thing that draws them all together is simplicity. Fred didn’t go in for complicated magic. He once told Francis Haxton that he never found anything in Marlo’s books. And when you read this book you can see what Fred meant. The tricks are all simple and direct. The moves are invisible. The outcome is magical. Fred performed his magic in the same deceptively natural manner than he executed his false deals.

Martin Breese has done an excellent job in the production of the book. It is a big heavy tome of 284 pages, features dozens of items and is clearly illustrated by Paul Griffen and Roy Johnson. But the kudos must go to Peter Duffie because in Peter you have an author who really understands the techniques he is describing. Peter’s false dealing and work with the pass is extraordinary. You can be sure that when he describes Fred Robinson’s middle deal you are getting every last detail.

If natural handlings and straightforward magic is your bag then you will certainly enjoy The Magic of Fred Robinson. You can buy it from Martin Breese here. And if you want to see what Peter Duffie’s handling of some difficult material is like, then this You Tube trailer is a great starting point. It will give you an idea of the skill level that can be achieved when the mechanics of a sleight are thoroughly mastered and combined with the naturalness of execution that was at the heart of Fred Robinson's philosophy of magic.