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Inside Helder the Magician’s Memory Palace

A close-up magic pro explains why a card is never just a card

Listen to what happened to me before the magic show. We didn’t know where the show was going to be until a few hours before, when we received a text message. The text message gave us an address to a street off Western Avenue, in the northern part of Koreatown or the southern part of Hollywood. Central L.A., basically. When we reached the address we found a small market. It wasn’t a corner store, because it wasn’t on the corner. Inside, a man behind the counter — well, he was sitting on the counter — offered us Red Vines. (We took some.) Then he gestured toward the back of the store where there was a photo booth. We got in. A flash bulb went off three times; then the dark red curtain on the far side of the booth—the wall side—parted and a young man, a child really, smiled and said, “Hello.” He was wearing a tuxedo. “Please,” he said, “come in.”

Then he stepped back, pulling one side of the curtain with him, gesturing elegantly, revealing another room. Even from the small bench inside the photo booth, we could see it was filled with wondrous things.

There was, for starters, a beautiful tree. Maybe a birch. It wasn’t living, just the skeleton of a tree, really. And hanging from the tree were hundreds of little tags, like sad dangly beige leaves. Each tag was filled with scribbles. We couldn’t see what they were until we got up close and realized the tags were filled with people’s wishes. A lot were about seizing the day, or the moment, and living in it. A lot were also about Donald Trump going away and never coming back. There was also cabinet, a few cabinets — some glassed, illuminating mysterious objects. And, in one corner, behind a large desk, a woman dressed like an old-timey aviator appeared to be busy writing something.

The woman stood up, approached us and — one at a time — whispered a riddle into our ears before pointing at an especially large and strange cabinet that appeared made up almost entirely of unopened drawers. Were we supposed to write the answer to her riddle and put it in one of the drawers? It wasn’t clear, but that’s what we did. There were books and little fragments of pages torn from books, that themselves had been further torn, removing certain sentences, all arranged around a desk. And more cabinets, with more objects, mostly relating to magic and magic history.

As we explored the room, opening and closing more drawers, more guests arrived and they, too, looked around — sometimes even opening the drawers to the cabinet where we had very recently stashed our attempts at answering the woman’s riddles. But when they opened the drawers, our answers were not there anymore. Eventually, after about 30 minutes, a new door opened to a new room. We all went through it, and Helder Guimarães’ magic show began.

Guimarães would later explain to me how he had hidden a journal in that second room, the one with all the cabinets. Maybe the journal was in a cabinet, maybe it was somewhere else. He wouldn’t say where the journal was hidden, of course, but it contained all the answers, detailed the exact methods behind every trick and misdirection he performed for us that evening. It wasn’t so much about planting his secrets in the room for us to find; it wasn’t so much about us at all. The hidden journal was a reminder to himself. Even if his journal had been found and its secrets revealed — some evenings, guests would come very, very close — the purpose of his magic would remain.

It wasn’t, he said, about the reveal, but all the time in between, the expectation of magic, the suspense leading up to the reveal, the throwing off balance, the tilting of reality — all of it allowed us to believe, if only for an evening, that strange and unexpected things were possible. Put another way: The show hadn’t started when we’d entered that final room for his performance, but at the moment we received the text message. Maybe it hadn’t ended that evening, either.

Close-up magic is stripped-down and simple—no room for big props or beautiful assistants being sawed in half. Helder Guimarães is among the greatest close-up magicians in the world. There were only about 15 of us walking into the room where we saw him perform. Half of us sat at a card table with Guimarães at the front, in the dealer’s spot. The show was so intimate that at one point early on a man in the second row seemed to forget it was a show and not a friendly card game, and began loudly whispering at his date. Maybe he was not forgetful, but rude.

Guimarães (Ghee-mah-ress) has a wide and friendly face that looks semi-astonished a lot of the time. It’s a face that is the opposite of whatever I’d imagined a world-famous magician’s face to be, all heavy-lidded and world-weary, full of secrets, ready to deceive. Guimarães is open and enthusiastic, both offstage and on. Cheerful, too, which made what happened after the maybe-rude man began loudly whispering so unexpected. Guimarães went very still and stared directly at the man. “Hey,” he threw his voice straight at the man. “Shut up, please. Or get the fuck out. Thank you.” The man sat up, face flushed, and didn’t speak a word for the rest of the night. It was, I had to admit, pretty magical.

Several days after the show, when Guimarães and I meet for the first time, I ask him about that moment with the whispering man. It had seemed startling and out of character. It was meant to be, he says. He’d learned that the best response to any distraction was to attack quickly and aggressively so as to not lose control of the room. Controlling the room was the absolute key. (During his show, no one could leave to go to the bathroom, and before we entered we were all told repeatedly to turn off our cell phones.) There were also more small moves Guimarães was making, little plays for control. The tone of his voice, his gestures, his eyes, all of it aided in the creation of what he called a “space for magic to happen.” Could I have noticed these things? Maybe. Probably not.

“The whole point of magic,” Guimarães says, “is for me to make you believe that anything might be possible. This glass,” he says, pointing to a glass of water on the table between us, “might not be just a glass. Or the water in it might not be, simply, water.” Guimarães pauses and lifts his eyebrows, on the brink of something I thought, again, might be astonishment. I stared at the glass and waited for something to happen to it or the water inside, but nothing did. “You’re waiting for a magic moment,” he says. “For a ‘taa-daa!’ But that’s not, for me, the point.” He pauses and we both continue staring at the glass and water. It was true: I was waiting for something to happen. Part of the expectation of going to lunch with the world’s greatest close-up magician was seeing some magic up close.

“You’re focusing on the end,” Guimarães says. “Magicians too much focus on these things, the beginning and end, the set up, the reveal. What I am interested in is everything in between — to stretch that magic moment as far as it can go. So far that even long after my show, you’re in a space where you think that anything might be possible. That that glass,” he says, picking up the glass, “might not just be a glass.” I’d like to say that just then the glass disappeared, or the water inside suddenly changed color, or that something magical happened to punctuate his point. But nothing did, still.

Guimarães grew up in Porto. His father was an electrical engineer and his mother was also an engineer of a sort, “drawing into the code that the machines needed to make patterns in carpets,” Guimarães says. His father was also a magician: nothing serious, just a hobby, some parlor tricks. Guimarães was intrigued, because what boy isn’t, and began to learn magic when he was just 4 years old. But two events happened early on in his life that changed him and his approach to the craft entirely. First, he lost all his memory. Then, he saw Juan Tamariz perform.

When he was 10, Guimarães was walking down the street in his neighborhood when he was hit by a car. When he landed on the opposite sidewalk, he began convulsing in epileptic shock. He arrived at the hospital with such severe brain trauma that, in an effort to stop the swelling, doctors put him in a coma. He woke up three days later to the faces of his family, whom he recognized, but no recollection of the events that had put him there. There was no recollection of anything at all, in fact, before the moment he awoke in the hospital bed.

He has memories from childhood, he says, but they are other people’s memories of him — videos he’s been shown of him performing magic as a 5-year-old, or photos, or stories his parents tell him about his earlier life. Often, he finds himself saying to people, “Oh yes, I remember that,” but the experience of losing his memory gave him an awareness of the slippery nature of memory, the fact that it is in a constant state of destruction and recreation.

Not long after, he saw Tamariz perform. There is a very strong argument to be made for Juan Tamariz as the greatest magician alive today. I don’t have to make it, especially since Ricky Jay — the actor, writer, historian, and magician — already has. Several years ago Jay was asked to name a still-working performer he believed would be remembered centuries from now and said, without hesitation, Juan Tamariz. Tamariz’s motto? “Magic, Love, Freedom, Humor, Magic, and the rest is nothingness.”

“My main goal is to fascinate the audience into thinking that they are dreaming, even if this is only for a few seconds,” Tamariz once said. And when Guimarães saw him it was just like that, a dream. Tamariz came out in his usual getup: purple top hat, silk vest, long frizzy grey hair. Guimarães remembers: “When I saw Juan, he did the show with a deck of cards, one deck, alone, for an hour and a half. It was pure. So pure. I realized, then, that’s what I care about — the purity of it, the simplicity, to bring someone to a dream, to make them really believe, with nothing but a deck of cards in your hand.”

Tamariz had a school, the Escuela Mágica de Madrid, which wasn’t just a school for close-up magic but the philosophy of the art. It was here in Madrid, Guimarães says, that he found his magic family and began to shape the moves and acts that would lead him to where he is today. At 23, Guimarães became the youngest magician ever crowned World Champion of Card Magic by the FISM, the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques. Twice, he’s won Parlor Magician of the Year from the Academy of Magical Arts, which is based out of the Magic Castle — a 1908 Châteauesque mansion in the Hollywood Hills that is the official clubhouse to magicians throughout L.A., which is itself a sort of international hub of magicians.

At the Magic Castle, Guimarães met Derrick DelGaudio, another young and wildly talented magician who was thinking about ways to advance the form. The two became friends, and Guimarães slept on DelGaudio’s couch for months as he uprooted his life and moved to L.A. They also began laying the groundwork for a show that would become one of the most popular in Magic Castle history, with legendary celebrity-filled, hours-long lines. The show, called “Nothing to Hide,” was so popular that, at the urging and direction of Neil Patrick Harris, the duo left the Castle for sold-out runs in traditional stage theaters in L.A. and New York. The Times theater critic Charles Ishwood wrote that he emerged “from their crisp, funny and dumbfounding show questioning how the laws of physics could be so rearranged that playing cards appear to travel through space, escape from locked boxes, arrange themselves in an order preordained weeks in advance and generally behave in ways that can only be called supernatural.” But something not long after “Nothing to Hide” closed caused DelGaudio and Guimarães to split, at least artistically. The rumor I’d heard among magicians ranged from simple creative differences to a rift that started with a scheduling conflict that resulted in one of them (Guimarães) performing at Steven Spielberg’s house without his partner. One article written around the pair’s rise described them as having “two separate, but perfectly compatible goals” as magicians. Perhaps those goals changed, or were no longer compatible.

Guimarães struggles to describe what, exactly, he’d learned at the Escuela Mágica, and how to put into words his own philosophy as a magician. Part of the struggle is practical — English is his third language — but part of it is the nature of talking about magic in specifics when so much of the art must be cloaked in mystery. Just try to describe the mechanics of a certain card trick, and the trick loses its power.

He says the best way to explain his approach is to imagine an orange. He doesn’t care if the orange looks especially shiny or round or orange. In fact, he’d rather the orange look very plain, even ugly. What’s important is the juice inside — is there a lot of it? Is it sweet? Is it bitter? Is it interesting? Does it make you wistful? Sad? Happy? The orange is what a magic trick looks like at first, even to magicians. The juice represents the deeper layer, and what he can bring, not simply for his audience, but to better understand himself. “It’s kind of a very interesting puzzle,” he says, “to put these things in the right measure so that you get this feeling of impossibility and you know at the same time I am hiding something from you, but you also see that I’m showing you something much more deeper and interesting, and something that is true about me also.”

Guimarães was thinking about his vanished memories when he decide to build a show around a trick that wasn’t a trick at all, but an incredible feat. He would memorize the exact order of a deck of cards in under an hour, in front of an audience, all while performing other card routines. It was a riff on one of his old teacher’s greatest gifts to magicians, the memorized deck stack or “Mnemonica,” a Juan Tamariz method that became so legendary Tamariz turned it into a book, and the book became a foundational text, a sort of encyclopedia on memorized-deck magic. Even with all of Tamariz’s insights, committing to memory the order of a shuffled deck of cards usually took about three hours in quiet full concentration. It wasn’t a thing you did quickly, and in front of people. Only, that’s exactly what Guimarães had in mind.

But he’d never been good with memory — even after the accident. He hated history class, and was terrible with specific dates. But the secret to memory isn’t just drilling in numbers, but placing it in context and building a picture around the date, or in this case, the card. That’s where the idea of a memory palace comes from, a large house filled with rooms and people or animals or objects attached to specific items. One card would be in the parlor with his aunt while she was sewing, another in the basement with his cousin while he was practicing trumpet — he’d move through the house, room to room, in a logical order, and each card would be there. But then he thought of another wrinkle. What if the audience helped him build this palace instead?

And that’s what we did during our show. He had us shuffle a deck, then shuffle it some more, then slowly work our way through, card by card, room by room, adding to each a celebrity wearing an item of clothing in a certain color. Burt Reynolds in the study with a burgundy hat and the six of hearts, and so on. At the end of the show, Guimarães successfully went through the whole deck, with all the celebrities in all the rooms wearing all the colorful pants and scarves and hats. He even briefly mentioned his childhood accident, leaving out most of the grisly details (the swollen brain, the induced coma) as a way of explaining himself and his fascination with this feat we had witnessed.

Over that glass of water (that was maybe not just a glass of water), Guimarães says that the little bit of his own history, added at the end, was the key to whole show. Every card routine, he said, is really just a conversation, a metaphor between the magician and his audience. He points at me, “I told you how I understood this memory palace. What about you?” I say something lame, something he’d already articulated, about memory’s inherent fungibility and how that related, often, in what I did, to the illusion of truth.

I have to think about it some more, I finally say. “Good,” he responds. “Good. What do you think happened? That’s more important and necessary to me than what might have actually happened. Think about it some more.” We stand up and walk out of the restaurant and a few blocks to our cars. Before we say goodbye, and after a minute or two of silence, Guimarães tries again to explain himself. He starts to describe the most typical card trick of all — a card that disappears and come back. “The journey is not about the card itself,” he says. “It’s about that feeling of loss, it’s what people have lost, that representation of loss. It’s all that. It’s never: Oh, your card is gone. Where did it go? Now here’s your card. The card is never just the card.”

“And the glass of water is never just a glass of water?” I say.

“Yes,” he says. “Yes. Exactly.”

Listen to what happened to me after the magic show. I was in the back room of a recently dead relative poring through spidery rotting boxes filled with old, old photographs I’d never seen before — family history, even my own, long forgotten. The room was detached from the main house and musty. A vine from the surrounding garden had pushed its way in, crawling up the corner of the room, up to the ceiling before the window shades were drawn and the vine died for lack of sun. Now part of the vine drooped into the middle of the room where cobwebs had collected along its brittle pale leaves, pulling them to the floor. I opened the blinds and through the sun beams and the dust I saw reflected on the wall a sliver of a rainbow. Tracing the colors back through the beam of light and dusty air I found, near the window, the object that had bent the light to make the little rainbow — a glass, half filled with water.