If you have ever seen a performance by a good mentalist, you probably admired, more than anything, the mentalist’s ability to control the crowd. Sure, it may appear to be all about the tricks, but in reality, mentalism is about manipulating the crowd you are performing for.
It is this power more than any pretense of clairvoyance that makes performing mentalism so attractive. In this article, you will not only learn the best mentalism tricks and how they work, but some pro tips on how to perform them.
Best Mentalism Tricks
When looking at the best mentalism tricks, you have to ask yourself, what is it that your audience wants from a mentalist? Most people are going to watch a performance believing it is all a trick anyway, right?
What they want is to not be able to discover the trick. They want to be so wowed that they can not come up with the reveal, how you were able to know what they were thinking. Much of this has to do with your performance, but part of it has to do with the tricks themselves. Mentalism tricks tend to be based on four categories:
- Sleight of hand
- Insider Information
The clever mentalists use tricks in one of these four categories to convey the impression that they are reading a person’s mind or even the mind of a group of people when in reality they are simply giving flair to quirky math equations, basics of psychology, or old magician’s tricks.
But before you get to read what is behind the tricks, you need to read about the tricks themselves. Put yourself in the audience’s shoes and try to imagine seeing the trick without any explanation.
These are some of the safest mentalism tricks to do because they are based on some quirk of mathematics that makes the trick almost entirely reliable.
But first, here are the tricks as they would appear from the point of view of an onlooker. See if you can guess how they work.
No, this is not a tax form. In this trick, the mentalist asks a volunteer to get out a phone, open up the calculator, and:
- Think of a three digit number
- Each digit has to be unique.
Then the volunteer must reverse that number and subtract the lesser number from the greater. Now the mentalist tells the volunteer to reverse the answer and add those two numbers together. The mentalist then proclaims correctly that the answer is 1089.
Any Number Equals Five
In this trick, the mentalist asks the audience or a volunteer to think of any number, any one at all. Then add that number to the next highest number.
Then add nine to the sum and divide that total by 2. Finally subtract the original number from that answer and you will get five.
In this trick the mentalist asks a volunteer to gather a bunch of objects, anything lying around will do. When the objects are gathered, the mentalist predicts which object will be left.
Then the mentalist and the volunteer start choosing and eliminating items in this way:
- One person picks two items
- The other person eliminates one
And so on until the object that is left is the one that the mentalist predicted would be there.
All Numbers Between 1 and 50 are 37
In this one the mentalist asks the group or volunteer to pick a number between 1 and 50 where both digits are odd.
Without any more instructions the mentalist simply asks the audience or volunteer to picture it. The number is 37.
With psychological mentalism, the clever mentalists rely on some basic psychology to manipulate the “correct” answer out of the person or group they are entertaining. The trick is not knowing what people will think but knowing what they are likely to respond to.
With some of these tricks, if you set up the circumstances correctly you can guess the outcome with a reasonable degree of success (in fact, two of the above tricks rely on this to a degree).
The Red Hammer
In this trick, the mentalist writes down a prediction and keeps it from the volunteer. Then the mentalist asks the volunteer a series of questions, something along the lines of:
- What day is Christmas?
- What is 3 x 5?
- What are hamburgers made of?
- What side of the road do they drive on in Europe?
- Think of a tool and a color
The volunteer will say their answer and then reveal the prediction that the mentalist wrote down a head of time. The answer and the prediction are: Red hammer.
Triangle Inside a Circle
In this trick the mentalist works with a volunteer and asks that person to imagine a shape, like a square but not a square.
Then the mentalist says something like, “Now imagine a shape surrounding that shape.” Next the mentalist derives that the volunteer is thinking of a triangle inside a circle.
The Rainbow Trick
Also called the rainbow ruse, in this trick the mentalist attempts to read the mind of the individual volunteer.
With statements such as:
- “You or someone you know has recently lost a relative,” or
- “I think you or someone you know has recently made a big purchase”
These statements then are followed up with more specific ones. The mentalist will say things like:
- “I think you value the finer things in life,” or
- “You were dropped on your head when you were small.”
Amazingly, if the trick goes well the volunteer will admit that all these things the mentalist has said are all true.
Sleight of Hand Mentalism
Typically mentalism and magic go in two different categories. Performers tend to specialize in one or the other, but the best entertainers will blend the two together. Some mentalism tricks involve a hybrid of these two approaches.
With sleight of hand clever mentalists can convey the impression of clairvoyance to a stunned audience. These tricks all involve some kind of mannerism with the hands or trick designed to ensure the mentalist’s abilities are accurate.
Three of Diamonds
This is a classic card trick of clairvoyance, except without the deck of cards. In this trick the mentalist will claim to be able to guess the card a person is thinking about.
As the mentalist addresses a volunteer, he or she is somehow able to convey the card of choice to the person to think about. How is it done? More on that later.
Revealed in Ashes
In this trick the mentalist predicts the card a volunteer will choose and writes in on a piece of paper. Then the mentalist:
- Asks the volunteer to select a card from a deck
- Shows the volunteer the prediction written on the piece of paper
At this point, it appears to be wrong, but not to be out done, the mentalist burns the piece of paper and rubs the ashes on his or her forearm. Miraculously the image of the card appears in the ashes.
Reading the Crystal Ball
In this trick the mentalist hands a volunteer a piece of paper that has been folded twice and has a crystal ball drawn on it. The volunteer then:
- Writes a number inside the crystal ball
- Folds the paper back up
- Hands the paper to the mentalist.
The mentalist tears up the paper in full view of the volunteer and then proceeds to say what the number was that he or she had written in it.
The Nail or Spike Trick
In this trick the mentalist takes some sort of spike or nail that sits pointing up on a table and covers it with a plastic, paper, or styrofoam cup that you cannot see through. Then puts down two or even three or four more cups just like the one covering the nail or spike.
Next the mentalist turns around or even leaves the room and asks a volunteer to switch up the cups. Returning to the table, the mentalist dramatically smashes down the cups until the one with the spike it left.
The States Trick
In this trick the mentalist lays a bunch of letters on a table that are all different colors. Asking a volunteer to come up, the mentalist tells the volunteer to think of a specific state in the United States.
Then the volunteer must spell out the state in his or her head, without speaking at all. Now the mentalist will ask the volunteer to find the color of the last letter of the state on the table. The mentalist will know what color it is without asking the volunteer.
Insider Information Mentalism
In this category of tricks, the mentalist does not rely on math, psychology, or even sleight of hand, but on simple deception.
There are two tricks that incorporate this kind of thing:
- The mind reading trick
- The touching the head mind reading trick
In both of these, the mentalist is able to read the mind of a person without the appearance of any help at all from them, friend or not.
How to Do Mentalism
In mentalism, the tricks and the performance go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other, but if there is an emphasis on one over the other, it is on the performance.
Why should the performance of a trick matter so much if the trick itself is meant to be the thing that wows the audience? The answer is twofold:
- The performance heightens the tension making the unbelievable more stunning when it comes to pass
- The performance draws attention away from aspects of the trick that may be possible to figure out
The Art of Redirection
If there is an art to the performance of mentalism tricks, it is the art of redirection. The goal of the mentalist is to wow the audience by controlling them. But they cannot ever feel like they are being controlled.
In some cases the success of a trick will depend on a volunteer drawing the right conclusion, the one the mentalist is giving them to draw. In some cases it will depend on the audience not guessing how the trick is really being done.
Whatever the case, the mentalist is tasked with the job of performing the trick in such a way that the illusion becomes believable. Here are a couple hints to make your stagecraft as cunning as your tricks:
- Act out your own illusion
- Draw out the suspense
- Use “mistakes” to your advantage
Buy Into Your Own Illusion
The great thing about audiences of mentalism tricks is that they want tricks to succeed. There is a part of them that wants to be fooled and be wowed. That does not make it easy to do, but the better at acting you are, the better your tricks will be.
Through the appearance of straining to get the answer right to careful doses of humor, the success of a trick depends on how successful you are at bringing your audience into this world of make believe.
Draw Out the Suspense
If tricks have a quick predictable rhythm every time they get boring no matter how flawlessly they are done. In fact, there comes a point where they can be almost too flawless. You need to break up the rhythm of them and one way to do that is to draw out the suspense of the reveal.
Oddly enough, no one believes someone who gets the answer right every time with little effort. Try struggling through your trick with lines like, “I can sense something, but I’m having trouble reading it.” You can also draw attention to your volunteer by saying things like, “Wow you are really making me work for this one.”
Use Mistakes to Your Advantage
In the same way that no one believes someone who gets the answer right all the time with little effort, audiences tend to build credibility around mistakes. Many of these tricks revolve around the probability of an answer. Sometimes that probability just is not on your side.
In that case you can make light of it and move on to the next trick. If you build your show carefully, you can space the chancy tricks in between a series of hard and fast dependables and come out ok.
Best Mentalism Tricks Revealed
Now it is time to look at how those cool mentalism tricks listed above actually work. In all cases there is a reasonable explanation for them. But it is the mentalist’s ability to redirect the audience’s attention onto the illusion that will make the trick come off.
In some ways, knowing how the trick works makes this harder. You now have to simultaneously:
- Manage the mechanics of the trick
- Convey the impression that you are completely convinced of your own clairvoyant abilities
Here is how it works for these tricks.
1089 and Any Number Equals Five
There actually is not a lot to these tricks since they are based on quirks of mathematics. In both cases, the processes that you have your audience or volunteer go through always end up with the same answer: five or 1089 depending on which one you are doing.
The trick is to draw attention to the fact that every number the audience choses is unique. This heightens the effect of the illusion.
This is another math based trick but it is not based on a quirk of a certain kind of equation. Remember in this trick you want to have a volunteer pick a number of items and you predict which one will be left at the end. In this trick you go back and forth between you and the volunteer choosing two items and eliminating one until only one is left.
The trick here is to be the last person to eliminate an item. Just remember this:
- If you are choosing from an odd number of items, you go first
- If you are choosing from an even number of items, the volunteer goes first
If you stick with that formula, you will always be the last one to eliminate an item. All you have to do is never choose or eliminate the item that you have predicted will remain.
An Elephant in Denmark
This is a classic trick based on a math equation. Basically, no matter what number your audience starts with, the answer will always be four. Once you have mathematically whittled your group down to the same number, they have to choose the corresponding letter “D,” and the rest is psychological.
In all likelihood, most people are going to choose Denmark (as opposed to, say, the Democratic Republic of the Congo) for their country and they are also more likely to think of an elephant for an animal because it will come easiest to mind.
All numbers Between 1 and 50 are 37
How is it possible for you to know a number that people are thinking between 1 and 50? The answer has two parts:
- Set the parameters
- Make an educated case
As you will recall from the first part of the article, you tell your audience to choose a number where both digits are odd. Automatically you have eliminated well over half of the numbers, including all of the twenties, all of the forties, and 1-9. Among those that are left in the teens and thirties, people are most likely to choose 37.
The Red Hammer
This is the first of those tricks that rely on psychology to direct your audience or volunteer toward an answer. In this one you secretly make the prediction of the “red hammer” first and then begin to ask your volunteer a series of apparently unrelated questions.
The questions can differ somewhat, but those referenced above are the ones you want to stick with. For whatever reason, after answering the questions, people are most likely to think of a red hammer.
The success of this trick depends heavily on how you manage your volunteers. The important thing is:
- Do to not give him or her time to think
- Be sure that the questions come quickly after the answers
Triangle Inside of a Circle
This trick depends partly on suggestion and partly on sleight of hand. By asking your volunteer to picture a shape like a square but not a square, you are actually suggesting to them the shape that they will imagine: a triangle. It is the shape people are most likely to think of next.
The next part is also common to think of (a circle surrounding a triangle), but you can help it along with a little hand gesture that implies a circle. Call it mentalism insurance.
The Rainbow Ruse
This trick is enabled by a combination of generalities and careful observation. You start off with statements that are general enough to be true for most anyone but specific enough to appear as though you just thought of them.
While this is going on, you do some cold reading of the volunteer. Cold reading is a technique mentalists use to gain information about people by:
- Making observations about a person
- Drawing general conclusions
So seeing a small scar on a person’s forehead, a mentalist might say, “Were you dropped on your head when you were a child?”
If you get good at making observations and conclusions you can add them to the general statements to build the impression that you can read someone’s thoughts.
Three of Diamonds
This trick of clairvoyance is actually a practice in the subterfuge of suggestion. You are not going to guess what card your volunteer thinks of, you are going to tell you volunteer what card to think of.
You do this by emphasizing threes and diamond shapes through patterns of speech and hand gestures. This will often plant the thought of a 3 of diamonds in someone’s head.
Revealed in Ashes
This is one of cleverest tricks of the whole group and half the battle is the preparation of it. First, you must decide what card you want your volunteer to choose. Choose a black one because that will be the easiest to replicate with the ash. Once you have chosen it, draw the likeness of the card on your forearm in clear lip balm.
Next, put the card back in the deck and mark that card that is in front of it, so when you show the cards to the volunteer, you will linger longest on the target card (the one after the marked card) causing the volunteer to choose that one.
In the course of the trick remember that:
- Writing down the wrong prediction is just a foil to burn up the paper on which it is written
- Use the ash to smear on the lip balm on your arm which will stick in the image of the card the volunteer chose.
The effect of this trick is almost entirely through sleight of hand, and it lies in how you tear up the paper on which the answer is written.
Remember that the paper has been folded twice, so that when the mentalist tears it up on either side of the center, it is easier to discreetly slide apart pieces of paper and see what the number is that was written.
The Nail or Spike Trick
With this trick, all you need to do is be able to identify the cup that is covering the spike. This is both the conundrum and the ease of the trick. First, be sure that you do the trick on a black or very dark table. Next:
- Take a small amount of nylon thread
- Tape it to the edge of the cup that is going to cover the spike
Now you have a small light object to identify against the dark background. If done wrong, this trick can really hurt, so be sure that you take all precautions and practice a lot before trying this one.
The States Trick
Probably the easiest of all the tricks, this reveal makes the trick so undramatic that it feels almost silly to do it. When you ask the volunteer to choose the color of the letter that the chosen state ends with, it is moot because all the letters that end all the states are of the same color.
The way to disguise this is to make sure there are a bunch of different letters of all different colors spread out with the letters that end the states that are all the same color.
For the final two tricks, it is simply a matter of planting a friend or helper who will help you deceive your audience. Both make a show of mind reading abilities.
In the mind reading trick you have the plant choose an object from a group of objects and then you “read” his or her mind according to predetermined gestures or stances that relate to each object.
The touching the head mind reading trick works a little differently. You ask your friend to choose a number between 1 and 10. Then you put your hands on your friend’s temples and act like you are concentrating on their mental vibrations. Meanwhile your friend is clenching his or her jaw a number of times equal to the number that you are guessing.