How to Become a Mentalist

Mentalist Gary Chan




How does one prepare to have lunch with a mentalist? Caffeine to keep the brain alert? A mantra to stay resolute, braced against a mind meld? Do they even do that?

Gary Chan performs at corporate events, at professional conferences, and most recently, for the FBI, who were impressed. He calls himself a security mentalist (the only one in the biz), because he has turned four security certifications, a degree at MIT, and a day job high in the world of IT security into a series of entertaining routines that rely on lie detection, fraud detection, forgery identification, and lightning calculations of probability.

Before our entrées arrive, he takes me through several demonstrations. (He does not like to call them “tricks,” though he sometimes slips.) For the first, I must answer all his questions, but I can lie—and I do so repeatedly, with what I deem remarkable poise. Chan scoops up the stack of cards opposite the one I am indicating and says with a slight smile, “Play poker much?”

When he has me pick a series of imaginary cards from midair, I am careful to vary the number and the suit—yet when I settle on a card, he guesses it instantly. Next, he fans out a physical deck of cards—showing me first, so I can see that it is a legitimate deck—and has me pick a card from any place in the deck. He gives me at least three chances to keep or replace my card. Do I feel I am freely choosing? I do. And my freely chosen card turns out to be the exact card, plucked from another deck, that is waiting face-down on the table.

“How the hell—” I blurt, loud enough that people at other tables look up. Chan grins. “That’s the magic.” He continues his demonstration, confounding me every time. I do not like to think myself this predictable, and as fun as it is to be amazed, I insist on a few hints.

“It takes longer to lie,” he points out. “First, you have to decide to lie, and then you have to convert from the truth.” I registered no difference in my responses, but after asking a few general questions to measure my usual speed, he could tell if I was taking an extra second or two.

Placement matters: when I chose from a fanned-out deck, I apparently chose from the exact center of the side where the cards were stacked a wee bit more tightly.

The mentalist’s tone matters: an offhand, “Oh, and did you want to change that?” is less likely to elicit a change than a slow dangling of the temptation to change the card.

Pace matters—he goes fast on purpose, slows for effect. “If I say, ‘Tell me when to stop’ as I am counting out cards, and I slightly slow my tempo, they will stop me at the third card. I can extend that, though—if I keep talking fast, so they can’t get a word in, and then I pause, they will say stop right then.”

He lists behaviors intended to foil him, and I point out that I did not consciously do any of that. He shrugs. “It doesn’t matter. That’s always the outcome. I call my show Experience the Power of Hidden Influence.”

Oh, fine, I think irritably. Hidden schmidden. None of his hints seems enough to explain what I just witnessed. But we talk a long time, and from his life story, experiences, and opinions, I extract a road map to mentalism. Used right, this skill set could transform our interactions; used wrong, it could easily be Machiavellian.

First, feel lonely. Chan was introverted as a boy, and his math-professor father had him studying all the time. “So I was trying to figure out how to make friends,” he says. “That was the problem I was solving.” On a trip to New Orleans, he saw street performers doing magic tricks and people crowding around them. “Ah, they are making friends,” he thought, and begged his mother to buy him a deck of cards from the magic shop. Back at school, he was a sudden hit. He began to study.

Number two, which is really the most important. Mentalism taught Chan to listen, watch, get out of his own head and climb inside the other person’s. For example, Chan calls what he does “preselecting,” because he is nudging people toward the desired outcome, but he knows that from their point of view, he is “predicting.” Either way, taking the other point of view requires study, thinking through every possible outcome, calculating probability, looking ahead at the path a particular decision opens….

I interrupt to ask how I can influence our waiter to bring me a slice of lime—or lemon if they do not have lime—and not wind up with lemon by default. He spoke earlier about language and tone, so I expect a trick in that vein. Instead, he reminds me that what matters is our server’s mental state. Rather than take a chance when she is preoccupied or extra busy, I must wait until I have her full attention. Once I do, I must not leave the choice to her. I am to say both, clearly and very deliberately, without a question mark at the end: “I would like lemon and lime for my water.”

I choose my moment and make the request verbatim.

Three. Remember that the magic is more than magic. Mentalists do not generally use mirrors and angles and sleight of hand; their trick is subtler: “You ask yourself, ‘What’s the other guy thinking?’ and then change your behavior in response,” he explains. “The magic is your ability to think quickly.” In mentalism, taking the other point of view has more to do with calculation than with empathy, he says. “I’ve studied con artists, psychics, and hypnotists—I’ve done interrogations, negotiations, and mediations—and I’ve explored behavioral economics, which I think of as behavioral profiling. There are different methods for each of those. What I do involves a lot of math. Probability—what are the odds of someone behaving in a certain way—and constant changing to adapt.”

Four. Use people’s stereotypes against them. When Chan selects an audience member to come onstage, he is already factoring in probabilities, maximizing his chances. If he wants an outcome that marvels at the beauty of something, he picks a woman; if a routine involves weapons, he picks a man. Not because the gender stereotypes are accurate, but because those are still common associations, and if you try to blast through them, “there’s dissonance.”

If you are picking a woman, he continues, “you don’t pick the person with the perfect hair. She is likely to care more about herself than about what will happen with you.” Conversely, you pick someone dressed well enough to feel comfortable onstage, not miserably self-conscious. You make sure they are not wearing high heels, because you do not want them to trip on their way to the stage. And you remember how easy it is to misread: “I might think a man will use very formal language because he is dressed very properly—and it turns out his wife dressed him!”

Five. Keep it fast but clear. He sets a quick pace to hold the audience’s attention (young people’s smartphones and short attention spans mean a mentalist needs to pick shorter routines), and he also goes fast to prevent too much deliberation. Forced to decide quickly, we take the likeliest choice. Chan has to think even faster, always one step ahead but never more than one iteration, so he can stay flexible, ready to follow his internal flowchart down a different path at any moment.

Once every two or three shows, one of his routines will crash. “I just move on, because at the outset I have explained that this is all probability,” he says. “I might say, ‘That didn’t work, Susie. Are you game for another?’ And now the probability is much higher, because I misread Susie earlier, and now I know better.”

Six. Wield subtle influence. Chan uses gestures, positioning, and tone to suggest that someone point to a particular card. But my favorite example is an anecdote from his day job. “A job candidate told me he wanted to be a penetration tester”—in other words, an ethical hacker, working in the interest of cybersecurity. “He has no background in this, and what I saw in him was, he would be really good in another type of security work I needed done. I knew if I made him that offer, he would say no. So I made connections for him with penetration testers. He came back even more energized. I set up some interviews for him—genuine interviews, but I knew he wouldn’t get hired, because he still didn’t have enough experience. Finally he said, ‘Nobody wants to hire me. What do I do now?’ And I said, ‘I have the job for you!’” Patiently, Chan had waited for the impulsive enthusiasm to run its course. Now, with very little work on his part, he could fill his position with exactly the right person.

Seven. Spot the lies. Lies take many forms. To figure out which drawing or signature is a forgery and which is real, Chan looks at the slant, any unevenness of pressure, whether there are extra dots of ink where someone hesitated or slowed down, whether there are more break points where someone stopped and started again. To detect a stranger’s verbal deceit, he stays hypervigilant: “The hardest is when someone always lies, or when they always tell the truth.” What if he brings a sociopath onstage—someone who lies as second nature and is impervious to the influence of others? “It wouldn’t work, probably. They don’t follow social norms.”

Eight. Confound people. Interrogators add to someone’s cognitive load—ratcheting up their emotions, playing psychological games, keeping them off base, forcing them to recite their memorized script backwards and then watching it fall apart. We can only process so much at a time, and when we are pushed past our capacity, it gets easier to uncover what we are trying to hide. “You can bring all that to the stage in a fun way,” Chan says. “You don’t need to make them angry; just being onstage is a cognitive load,” and knowing the entire audience is watching them takes up a chunk of processing power.

Nine. Practice in everyday life. Chan understands game theory but goes beyond it: “Game theory assumes everybody is entirely rational. Mentalism looks at what people will do on the spot. I don’t use this knowledge to be more rational because that’s not always the best thing. What’s incredibly powerful is knowing when to use logic and when to go with your gut.” Knowing how people behave helps in virtually any situation, he adds. “The coolest thing about mentalism is that it forces you to look at the outcome—not what should happen.”

Ten. Play into the illusion of freedom. “You could have walked here,” Chan points out, “but you probably wouldn’t have. We think we have free choice, but the variables are tightly constrained. The system forces a particular outcome.” When the job candidate wanted to explore an unlikely option, Chan had to acknowledge his perhaps illusory freedom, then let the constraints bring him back to the likeliest outcome.

What Chan has learned, in  these years of eclectic study, is that “we are incredibly predictable.” I say I find that depressing. “Really?” he asks. “I find it comforting.”

At which point the server materializes, holding a small plate covered with lime and lemon wedges.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.