Kenton Knepper writing released: How magicians can harm mentalism

October 7th, 2008 | Joe Hadsall | Filed Under David Blaine, General

If you don’t know the name Kenton Knepper, he is worth studying — especially if you are into mentalism. Who is he? Just a legendary mentalist who has inspired performers such as Jeff McBride, David Blaine, Derren Brown and Doug Henning.

The sometimes-controversial Knepper, who has released a new manuscript, (not recommended for beginners) also released on his blog some thoughts about performance. Though a date is unspecified, the entry indicates the thoughts were written before the release of many training videos. In a nutshell: He has an issue with effects being called “tricks”:

Many neo-mentalists became such performers because they found out that doing mental tricks made them more successful. I am not so different in one sense. I made a name for myself in high school bending metal in cafeterias and turning back the time on watches. That was in the 1970s. But back then, only (James) Randi openly called metal bending A TRICK. Today, I run often into laypeople asking me if I can “do the spoon trick.” Frankly, after spending decades perfecting this craft, such a comment from real people SUCKS … I really am dismayed by this trend.

Knepper uses the example of Da Vinci painting a masterpiece, then seeing a business publish a Da Vinci paint-by-numbers kit. Da Vinci wouldn’t feel threatened, because the kit would not be able to compare to the real thing, and people would recognize that… or would they? Though magicians debate about whether magic is art, Knepper reminds us that audiences don’t believe it is. Ergo, if they learn how a work of art is created, it transforms into a lowbrow feat that anyone can do.

Knepper’s essay is provocative and interesting; some may find it polarizing (Discuss it in this thread). But it reminds us about the importance of performing an effect, not just doing a trick. We all work hard to master the effects we learn from Ellusionist and others. The way we pay tribute to the giants upon whom’s shoulders we stand is to give our performances the weight they deserve. Should we get bent out of shape if someone asks us to do a trick? Probably not — Criss Angel and others make it a point to say that they are not using “special powers” or “magical forces.” But we should respect the illusion and mystery behind an effect, and do everything we can to perform it honestly.

This is a live performance of Knepper performing a Time Machine effect. We can smell the pub too, for some reason.


  1. I undertand where he coming from, I dont like strong stuff like mentalism to be called trick either but I dont understand why hes upset about some saying “trick”. Facts are facts and it is a trick, not all spectators believe that magic/mentlism is real. They dont think like performers either, they dont know that the word “tricks” makes illusionist kind of upset. dont get me wrong though, I dont care for the word either.

  2. “Facts are facts and it is a trick”- Therein lies the problem ‘misdirect’. By belittling the work of mentalists and performers such as Derren Brown, Luke Jermay, Banachek, Richard Osterlind, you’re putting the tenth theory of magic into the same league as something as simple as a french drop combined with minor patter. The audience management, atmosphere, patter, body language, and presentation of mentalism sets it apart from what most people generally consider as magic. Mentalism, in essence, takes away the inevitable thoughts of trickery and instills the question of “what if?” When there’s nowhere to hide, the connection with the audience is that much stronger and that much more real. Essentially, calling mentalism a “trick” is like calling a lion a domesticated cat. It just doesn’t fit. Take a walk in their shoes for a bit and think about how it feels( after all the extra time it took for them to get down every little nuance that is necessary to pull of many a mentalism effect) to them to hear “do the spoon trick”.

  3. You obviosly have no idea what I think about mentalism, and please dont put words in my mouth, ive saidsiad NOTHING to belittle Derren Brown (wich who is my favorite phycological illusionist, he calls himself that, did he belittle himself by calling what he does illusion?, he doesnt what people to belive in the real thing, in fact his persona is based on the exact oppisite?) So please be asured that I am not an ignorant fool and I realise the great difference in Magic and Mentalism. I was just simply saying that not everyone is going to BELIEVE that you posses powers but see you as a great illusionist. But PLEASE understand I get and agree where hes coming from. If I did Mentalism my goal would be to try and make people believe that I am the real thing, but not all , mentalist what to present it that way, for example the Phycological ILLUSIONIST Derren Brown.

  4. I did not put words in you mouth. I quoted exactly what you typed, “facts are facts and it is a trick”. There is (and obviously you must somewhat understand this if you see the difference between mentalism and magic) an extreme difference between a trick and many of the things that are incorporated in mentalism. Let’s take, for example, hypnotism and psychological suggestion (two things incorporated by Derren Brown himself). A trick is going to have some kind of a secret (obviously) that one must know to accomplish said trick: a hidden move, a gimmick, etc. The aformentioned techniques are obviously quite different than the description I just gave for what a trick is. Hypnotism, while sometimes requiring pre-show work, is the literal alteration of a spectators conciousness awareness. Once again we can see that a mere trick can do nothing of the sort (even though it can pretend to do so). In the same fashion, psychological suggestion, quite literally, plants thoughts and ideas into a spectators mind. While both of these techniques can be used in tricks, they are obviously not tricks. Therefore, and I did directly quote you, they can not simply be called tricks. Another issue that you addressed was that I said you belittled Derren Brown. I still believe that you did, but I know that you’re not meaning to. Calling what he does an illusion or entitling him as an illusionist does not belittle him and has nothing to do with what I was talking about (it’s simply a title and has nothing to do with anything. Criss Angel also calls himself an illusionist–or “Mindfreak”–and he is the furthest thing from a real magician as camera tricks and bs are not the best way to perform magic). Calling what he does a “trick” is what belittles him and that’s what this article is all about. That’s why Kenton Knepper is upset about spectators calling what he does a “trick”. As for your stance on how you would present mentalism, simply choose how to perform based on your crowd/audience. If the seem like an intellectual crowd that is there mainly in an attempt to “solve a puzzle” (which is an extremely annoying and indecent way to observe magic), then perform from the standpoint that it is, indeed, entirely psychological. Don’t sugar coat it for them because that’s a major problem in magic today. Magicians treat their spectators as if they were 5 year olds, as if the magician is so superior to the spectator (which we all need to remember that we were once the spectator). By presenting it as something entirely psychological, that type of audience will be appeased. Contrastingly, if your audience seems more open (as if they’re there to simply take in what you’re doing as however you’re going to present it) then you can perform either way: saying that what you’re doing is derived from the psyche and suggestion or by sometime of psychic power. It’s all about flexibility and I see where you’re coming from (your standpoint on how you would present yourself) and if you evetually went into mentalism, just remember to not go off the deep end with the “real deal” scenario like Geller did. He had to deal with Randi for years because of it.


  5. this discussion has become slightly irrelevent. i speak as a person who has studied hypnotism and similar fields. mentalism in the way it is performed by derren brown and others is based mainly on magic ‘effects’ and probability. so not in anyway to belittle what they have done but what is an effect to one is a trick to another. In the aforementioned cases both terms are in essence correct as there is little proof for the existance of any psychic powers which are suggested in the denial of the term ‘trick’.

  6. Kenton is hurting mentalism – just look at those videos! YIKES!