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About 100 magicians and mentalists (aka mind readers) waited to watch Gregory Wilson, one of the world's top performers of magic, enact a close-up of his famous sleight-of-hand and card sharping. The charismatic and comedic Wilson was the headliner at last month's Magic at the Red Sea (MARS) convention and festival, which brought Israeli magicians and mentalists together in Eilat to share some tricks of the trade.
As Wilson set up his act for the show - open exclusively to convention participants - members of the audience became antsy, so a few pulled out decks of cards (which they carry around like wallets) and began to do tricks on one another.
An aspiring teenage magician sitting next to me told me to pick a card and remember it. I happily and curiously obliged. While the teenager tried to guess, an older and more experienced mentalist sitting one seat over gave a self-assured nod, wrote down an "8" and diamond symbol, and snuck the card to me before the teenager could respond.
He was right. Indeed, the card I chose was the eight of diamonds. I had not even exchanged one word with him until then.
This was just one of many breathtaking encounters that took place throughout the weekend. They were enough to make even a skeptic like me think again.
Soon enough I revealed that I was a journalist, and a small panic spread through the crowd - not only because in such intimate company the presenters are allowed to mess up (which some did) but because during the convention they shared secrets and techniques with one another, and I never signed the magician's oath.
Not only that, but several of the people in the audience - including the one who had read my mind - are contestants on national television's latest blockbuster The Successor, a televised contest in which sensationalized and controversial Israeli mentalist Uri Geller seeks his successor. The contestants have signed contracts strictly prohibiting them from speaking with the press.
These overnight celebrities were relative unknowns outside their field until The Successor premiered on Channel 2 on November 18 to record-breaking ratings (one third of Israel tuned in). They were the main attraction at the Isrotel King Solomon hotel, which sponsored and hosted the MARS convention and accompanying public festival. They freely roamed the halls, getting stopped by kids and adults alike who recognized them from television, showing that mentalism is becoming a national craze and a fast-developing entertainment genre.
Mentalist Nimrod Harel, star of his own weekly reality show Bilti Nitpas (Incomprehensible) on Channel 10, gave his own stage show in which he not only read minds but boggled them. He effortlessly bent a few spoons (a feat made famous by Geller), inserted thoughts into other people's heads, and dramatically revealed the childhood trauma of a middle-aged woman who once forgot her daughter in Ashdod. He determined the memory right down to the city and even made her cry.
But the man who stole the show was the American star Gregory Wilson, who led a workshop on impromptu magic and performed at the festival's gala. He, too, couldn't walk a few feet without kids, adults and convention participants begging him for attention. A former professional con artist turned professional entertainer, Wilson now uses his skills and Hollywood star quality to entertain audiences, magically turnings dollar bills into hundred dollar bills and stealthily slipping watches off people's wrists. He employs both mentalism and magic, as well as quick-witted improvisational humor into his performances.
"I've come to experience that Israeli magicians and mentalists are not afraid of hard work and diligent practice," Wilson said in an interview with Metro of his new colleagues and students, some of whom own his instructional videos. "They're remarkably good thinkers, and they specialize in mentalism probably because of Uri Geller, who kick-started the whole phenomenon."
On the Saturday night after the convention, his new friends took him to see The Successor. filmed live in Herzliya studios, which he enjoyed thoroughly. "I thought it was brilliantly conceived and constructed, professional in every way," he said.
But the mentalist who most impressed him wasn't an Heir contestant. At the risk of alienating and offending the other mentalists, Wilson confided that if Nimrod Harel had entered the contest, Harel would have received his vote. During the convention they spoke at length privately, sharing techniques and ideas.
"Nimrod has multiple layers of deception that make him clearly better than even the best mentalists. He has such a commanding presence that I could tell - even when I didn't understand his language - how the audience was rapt with attention. The finale to his show was evocative and emotional enough to bring a lady on stage to tears."
The MARS convention was like a rite of passage for the participants and, along with the new reality shows, a testament to Israel's leadership in the mentalism field.
"In the area of mentalism and psychic entertainment, Israeli mentalists have a high profile in the UK and US," said Quentin Reynolds, a British mentalist who lectured and performed at MARS. "Israeli mentalists I have met perform at a very high standard and frequently come up with new ideas that are fresh and novel."
The convention's timing couldn't have been more fortuitous - it took place only a few days after the The Sucessor premiered.
Roei Zaltsman, organizer of the convention and also a contestant on The Successor, says the timing was coincidental, but one can't help but suspect that he had subconsciously influenced the minds of the show's producers months before to bring attention to his bold and successful initiative.
"I saw other conventions throughout the world, and I said we have to do something on an equally high level in Israel," Zaltsman said.
He explained that magic and telepathy were combined at the convention because both involve creative thinking as well as performance, although some mentalists are wary of being associated with magicians because they want to be perceived as possessing special, even supernatural powers.
Wilson elaborated on the difference. "Magic is sleight of hand, mentalism is sleight of mind. Physical versus psychological."
I admit that after hanging around the magicians and mentalists for the entire weekend, I managed to glean a few subtle secrets. But I'm still completely stumped as to how that man knew I was thinking of the eight of diamonds.