Who is Steve Brooks?In a previous article we already introduced you to Steve Brooks, the man of many hats. In that interview he shared a wealth of information from his experience as a dedicated playing card collector. But Steve is also a magician, and he has been performing magic since his childhood. Furthermore, he's the owner and manager of the well-known forum for magicians, The Magic Cafe. With the tag line "Magicians Helping Magicians", this online forum is open 24 hours a day for magicians to drop in and exchange thoughts, ideas, and even secrets about a wide range of magical topics, as well as ask questions, seek advice, or share reviews.
Steve not only runs The Magic Cafe, but also has a lot of valuable insights about magic to share, based on his own experience and involvement in this performing art. He's even in the process of writing a couple of books about magic theory, which is in itself a testimony to his ability to be a creative thinker. In this follow-up to his previous interview where he talked about playing cards and collecting, Steve answers our questions about magic, and about what is involved in running The Magic Cafe.
MagicWhen did you first get interested in magic, and what got you started?
I’ve been studying and performing magic since I was about nine years old or so. I saw a magician on television doing something and asked my mother, "How did he do that?" She said, "He’s a magician. I don’t know." That kind of piqued my interest.
When I was maybe nine or ten, my grandmother took me to see Harry Blackstone Jr., to see a show somewhere in Los Angeles. And Harry did all the stuff he was doing, like the big Buzz Saw Illusion and the Floating Light Bulb, and birds, and more. All this was more than a little nine or ten year old could take at the time, and I just had to know how this stuff works. I wasn’t content thinking, "Well, he’s a magician and it’s secret and you can’t know."
So when the show was over I broke away from my grandmother’s hand in the crowd and decided I would go back stage so I could see how this stuff worked - because if he could do it, maybe so could I. So I crawled under the curtain and got backstage and I was touching and checking out the Buzz Saw Illusion. And I hear this really deep voice, "Can I help you young man?" And I turned around, and it was Harry Blackstone Jr. - who stood like a mountain to a little boy! I was totally scared, because I knew I wasn’t supposed to be back there.
And he kind of knelt down on one knee and he pulled a little red ball (in hindsight I’m sure it was a billiard ball). He just threw it up in the air and it vanished, and he said, "When you can do that, come back and see me and I’ll show you how to do the good stuff." Then he took me by my hand and helped me find my grandmother.
How did you continue to learn magic after first meeting Harry Blackstone Jr?
After I first saw Harry Blackstone in person, a couple of years later or so, I saw a magician on television, Marshall Brodien who was selling his TV magic cards and TV miracle cards and TV mystery cards. And I saved up my pennies and I went to my local Thrifty drug store and I purchased those.
When you got those decks, inside with the instructions would be a little folded catalog, and you could buy more magic tricks by mail. Back then, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a magic shop. So I started ordering tricks, e.g. Fun Incorporated items under the Royal Magic brand. You know, classics like the Ball and Vase, Drawer Box, Crazy Cube, Pentro Penny, etc. As the years went by, I would continue to save up my money and buy even more magic tricks, books, etc.
I also had a neighbor who was in the Boy Scouts and I would borrow his Boys Life magazines and look in the back and they’d have all these ads for magic shops. So I’d send off my quarters or dimes off and get all their catalogs, and look through all the amazing things I might get. So I grew up doing magic.
Did you ever meet Harry Blackstone Jr again?
Around 40 years later, probably in the early 2000s or the late 1990s. Harry Blackstone was doing a show here in Northern California, and I saw him do his show at Chico State University. After the show he and Gay Blackstone came out, selling little magic sets for kids. I was prepared this time, because I had brought a billiard ball and I told Harry the story. I threw the ball up in the air and vanished it, and he started crying. It was a very emotional moment. He had tears coming down his eyes and he says, "I’ll be right back." And he disappears.
He comes back and he brought me a bunch of stuff, including this huge photograph which I still have. I said, "Because you were kind to a little boy who was someplace he shouldn’t have been, that turned out to be pretty much what I’ve done all my life." So it kind of came full circle, I guess.
What should be the goal of a performing magician?
What we’re really here for as magicians is to create that wonder, so that people can say: "For five minutes I can forget about my pain. Maybe I’m losing my house, or my daughter’s pregnant, or I’m going through a divorce, or my father just passed away. But for five lousy minutes, I don’t have to think about that stuff." For a short time I don’t have to think about all the drama and all the craziness. Right now with the coronavirus and everybody panicking and dying, people need laughter, entertainment, and magicians. They need something positive in their lives.
And this is why if you go back and look at the late 1920s and 30s and 40s when you had the Depression and Prohibition and a war going on, Vaudeville was so popular. This is why we needed the Marx brothers and Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy, and we needed the Slapstick and we made fun of things. Back when folks understood what humor was – you know, a joke? A story with a humorous climax. Back before everyone became afraid they might offend someone.
Magicians take you away from pain and make up something wonderful. This is something that we need to keep in mind. Why are you doing magic? Are you trying to impress yourself or are you doing it for your audience? And are they just spectators or are they participants in the moment?
I remember a conversation with Eugene Burger, and I asked him, "Eugene, when you go to perform, whether it’s for one person, two people, a room full or a whole auditorium, whether it’s magicians or it’s lay people, what is your number one goal?" And he looked at me without blinking an eye and said, "To fool them." And I said, "Really?" And he looked at me and said, "Why, what is it you do?" And I said, "To entertain them." If I fool them, that’s great. That’s icing on the cake. But honestly, I’ll take a pie in the face if it makes somebody laugh, if it makes them giggle, if it makes them just have fun.
How should this impact how we approach our audience when performing magic?
I’m actually writing a couple books on magic theory. We need to look at whatever we do - and especially magic - and concentrate on making them have fun.
If your audience likes you, they’re going to stop being confrontational. Every magician I know, at some point during their career or in doing magic, has had this experience: The audience has folded arms and is rolling their eyes backward, saying, "Okay, Mr. Magic Man, fool me, do your trick." You have to turn that moment around because you can’t sit there and fight your audience. And as long as they are there to fight you and confront you, there’s a problem.
We all build this little wall around us, and we don’t allow people into our personal space. In order to connect with your audience, you can’t bust through their wall. Instead you have to let them open the door for you. And once they open the door and allow you into that personal space, now you have an opportunity. Now you can tell a stupid joke and they’re still going to laugh because they like you. And if they like you, they’re having fun and they’re enjoying the moment rather than trying to deconstruct the moment.
This is all about how we approach them. I don’t think you have to be the greatest magician in the world to have your audience walk away thinking "That person was awesome!" If they had a good time and they enjoyed themselves, they’ll remember you.
How important is sleight of hand compared with entertaining?
I know guys that are some of the best "mechanics", you might call them, with cards and such in the world. But some of those guys couldn’t entertain themselves out of a wet paper sack. They can do all these great moves, but when they get in front of an audience, they freeze, or they’re boring. You’d rather watch grass grow than to watch them perform.
For example, if you’re in front of some people and you throw a ball up in the air and it vanishes, they don’t know how you did it. And whether you did it by fantastic misdirection and sleight of hand or whether you use some gizmo is irrelevant to them because all the audience saw was the ball vanish. And that’s what’s important, that moment: the ball vanished.
You have a couple of different schools of thought on this. Some magicians say, "If it’s not done with sleight of hand, then you’re not really a magician." Others say, "If you can use a gaff card and make the trick work, that’s what I’m going to do." It’s like comparing Vernon and Larry Jennings, and how they would sit together at the Magic Castle and somebody would come up with a problem to solve. There are different ways of achieving something, and which one you choose doesn’t matter. So find the things that work for you. Not everybody has great dexterity. That’s okay.
Is it essential to be a good performer in order to be involved in magic?
Not everybody in magic needs to be a performer. There can be people that just collect props, or they collect posters, or books or whatever they collect. Or they are historians.
Just because you don’t go out and perform for audiences doesn’t mean anything. You still can be in magic. You can still hang out with your magic buddies. You can still enjoy everything that is magic. You don’t have to necessarily be a professional magician.
How important is hard work in order to be successful in magic?
There are seminars about how to get rid of a bad habit, or how to create a good habit. Let’s say I want to create a habit like getting more work done in my office. I’m going to condition myself to go to work one hour earlier every day so that I can get more work done. If you do that, after about a month or so, you’ll just keep going in an hour earlier.
Or if you want to spend time writing a book, but your life is a mess. You start off by saying, "I’m going to start at least once a week, on Tuesdays. Every Tuesday I’m going to devote two hours to writing my book." At first it will be tough. You may not even make it every Tuesday. But if you keep doing it, after a couple of months, you will do it and you might even spend more than two hours. In fact, it’ll get to the point where you don’t feel right unless you do sit down and write something on your book.
You can apply that to magic. I want to learn a new trick but it’s really hard, and it’s got a lot of difficult moves. So you start practicing and you put yourself in a habit of practicing.
What can we learn about hard work from performers who have been successful in magic?
People that make it in business, or people who make it in magic - whether it’s Penn and Teller, David Copperfield, Siegfried and Roy, David Blaine, Criss Angel, Mac King, any of them - they didn’t get there because they didn’t work at it.
Somebody could say, "Well, they got lucky." Did they now? Maybe the harder the work you do, the luckier you might get, and you place yourself into situations to have the opportunity to be lucky and meet somebody. But you don’t do it by sitting playing video games on Xbox or reading BS on Facebook You do it by actually going out, and because you give something else up.
So you say: "So I want to be the next Criss Angel." So what are you willing to give up? What does Criss give up? I’ll tell you what he gives up. For years he gave up hanging out with all his buddies. He gave up chasing girls everywhere, and going to the parties. He gave up tons of stuff. Why? Because he was too busy trying to be successful.
You need to ask yourself: "How am I going to learn this? How am I going to get into this position? How am I going to meet the right people that will open doors for me to get over here?" I’m not going to do it sitting at home. So you take chances. You invest money that you might lose. You invest time that you may not get back and you try things and you fail at them and then you say to yourself, well that was a mistake, so I’m going to do it different next time, but I’m not going to give up.
Does this change once you achieve a successful career in magic?
You can say "Somebody in Vegas that makes $20 million a year has got it made." Really? So are you willing to do what they do? That $20 million contract is also wrapped in golden chains. Because it means I can’t go anywhere. I’ve got to do two shows at night, whether I feel like it or not.
And I have got to go and hang upside down off the stage whether I feel like it or not, and get in that tank of water and do this trick again and again in front of my audience and smile and be happy whether I feel happy or not. Maybe I just got in a fight with my mom or my brother or whatever, but I still have to be there. It’s seven o’clock, and I’ve got to do my show. I’ve got all this money, but I don’t have any time to really enjoy it. Because most of my time is at my showroom or at the casino I work at.
And who are really my friends? The people that just want to hang out with me because I’m famous? Do I have real friends, somebody that I can talk to and they’ll just tell me the truth because they don’t want anything from me?
Why is magic so much harder in real life than when a famous magician does it on TV?
I’ve seen this on the Magic Cafe. Some person will attempt to do a trick, and say: "I saw David Blaine do this great trick, but I tried to do it, and this homeless guy threw a beer bottle at me."
When somebody like David Blaine or Criss Angel or anybody else is going to do magic on the street, they have a bunch of advantages you don’t have. They’ve got a crew of camera people and grip holders and light people and sound people with them and they walk up and they get to know the guy. They find a guy that is receptive to this. So now we’re going to run the cameras and I’m going to do four or five tricks. And finally we’ll do the trick that we want to show on TV. But by the time we edit the episodes, we don’t have time to show you us getting to know him. We just walk up, do the trick and it’s done. That’s the way it works.
In real life you can’t always do that. It’s tough. You watch videos of how to learn magic and then it looks great on a video. Someone like Michael Ammar or somebody else who knows what he’s doing, and everything just works great. But when you do it, that lady grabbed the deck out of my hand, or that kid ran off with my scotch and soda coins. Yep, that’s the real world.
How important is it to get experience when performing magic?
That’s the thing that’s missing from these videos. It’s not that the videos aren’t good. It’s not that the books are not good. They are good. But they don’t teach you the experience.
Say somebody wants to be a doctor. So they go to medical school for eight or nine or 10 years or whatever, and they come out and they know all the technical stuff. They know all about chemistry and how the body works and what these tools do. But when they start working with real people things don’t always happen the way the book says it might happen. So experience, experience.
I worked restaurants for years, and behind bars alongside bartenders. Some of the toughest magic to do is working beyond a bar because why? Because you’ve got alcohol involved. Alcohol plus humans often equals disaster. People will do things when they’re drunk that they wouldn’t do otherwise. And they’re not paying attention all the time.
So books can get into how to do the moves, and tell you how you might want to dress. But they can’t give you experience. You’re going to have to go up there and fail. You need to fail. You need to get busted a few times. And any magician who says "I’ve never been busted" I say: "Bullshit. Yes, you have. Quit lying. Yes you have."
So learn from that and always be a step ahead of your audience. Always have an out in the back of your mind and say "What happens if this fails on me?" You must be able to adapt. Or do you just say "Oh sorry, it didn’t work." That’s really not a good out. You need to be able to take a bad situation and make it into a good situation.
What has experience taught you about dealing with hecklers?
It teaches you how to deal with a rowdy spectator. For many years it was said that there’s no bad audiences, only bad magicians. I call bullshit on that. There could absolutely be a bad audience. You could like do a show thousands of times and it’s awesome. But then get an audience and it’s just a train wreck. You can have unruly spectators and people who basically aren’t there to have a good time.
You’ve got to understand another thing about magic: some people don’t like it. It’s a psychological thing. If they’re sitting in a seat watching a magic show, somewhere in the back of their mind, they feel that if they get amazed and fooled by this, they must be an idiot, and everyone’s going to laugh at them. It’s almost as if they think the rest of the theater is too smart for this and they would be the only ones getting fooled by it. So they have to be the heckler, the rowdy guy, or the person who knows everything.
When I was younger and did kids’ shows, I learned a couple of little tricks for dealing with kids. Kids can really be a problem. I would set up all my stuff and stand by the doorway and watch the kids for the first two or three rows. Sure enough, there’d always be some kid who is slugging other kids in the arm and pulling people’s hair. That kid’s going to be my problem, so I’m going to deal with that right now.
So you walk up and say: "What’s your name? Come here." And you take him out in the hall and say "Listen, I’m going to be doing this show and I got a couple of tricks which I’m going to need your help. Can you keep a secret?" And you get the kid involved somehow. You make him feel special. You make him feel wanted because a bully at school is a bully at school because he’s being bullied at home where he feels like he has no power. So give him some power in your show and guess what? He’s not slugging kids in the arm, shouting things at the magician, or grabbing things, because he’s part of the show now. So it’s a pre-emptive strike.
What insights about magic have you gained from your passion for science fiction?
I like things like Star Trek and Star Wars and BattleStar Galactica, Stargate SG-1. You could make a movie and put billions of dollars into it and have the greatest special effects. But if it doesn’t have good characters that you care about, it’s not a good story. A series like the Lord of the Rings by Tolkien is good because it has good characters. Similarly Star Trek has always been good - not because of the cool space ships or the battles – but because of the relationship of the characters, and their ethics and ideas of morality. That’s what creates good stories.
That also applies to magic. Magic is more than just making something appear or disappear and standing up there saying, "See how wonderful I am. Aren’t you impressed?" Good magic is about how you can touch your audience on an emotional level.
That’s why I love close-up magic. Most people have never experienced magic in person. They see it on television and they might be impressed with it, but they’re thinking in the back of their heads, "Those people were in on it", or "It was a camera trick." But when you borrow somebody’s finger ring that their mother gave them as a gift and you do something wonderful with it, there’s this emotional connection because, "Hey, that’s my ring," or "That ring belonged to my grandmother. That’s not a camera trick, that was real. I saw it."
The Magic Café ForumWhat was your original vision for The Magic Café forum?
I started the Magic Cafe on September 7th, 2001. I lived out in the country at the time and the only internet we had was dial-up, so setting up the Café was a challenge. My original idea was to have a place where magicians could go and talk with each other. And because I knew that magicians, besides doing magic, what else did they like to do? Well, talk about it.
How much does it cost for people to use The Magic Café, and what do you expect of them?
It’s free. It doesn’t cost you anything.
All we do is say: behave yourself. Don’t be an asshole. Don’t use profanity. Don’t say things that are just stupid.
Has the availability of information on the internet been good for magic?
Any tool you’re going to use is subjective. The internet is both a blessing and a curse.
You would think that in 2020 the ability to press a couple buttons and a click of a mouse, you literally have access to libraries of information at your fingertips. I grew up in very poor family, and we didn’t have a World Book encyclopedia set, so I would go next door and borrow my neighbors books – these things were expensive back then. But now everybody’s running around with phones and tablets, and they have home computers, and it’s like: "Wow, I can just press a button and I basically have the library of congress at my disposal!"
But the internet is like the Old West. There is gold to be found in California if you venture there. But there’s also bandits and disease and Indians and rattlesnakes. The problem with the internet is that when you go online, everybody’s a lawyer, a doctor, and an expert at everything.
When I was a kid, if you went into a bookstore and there was a best-selling book, the guy who wrote the book probably got rejected a million times before he found a publisher that thought it was worthy of being printed. Back then there were checks and balances, and even newspapers were held to high standards. You couldn’t just write anything you wanted.
The problem with the internet is that anybody can put anything there. So what you have is tons of information. But is it correct? Is it for real, or as they say, is it fake news? You don’t know because there’s no checks and balances. It’s open and there’s no real laws to govern it.
How does this apply to The Magic Café?
The Magic Cafe is good for a lot of things. If you use our custom search engine, there is a wealth of information to be found on there. If I had a place like the cafe when I was first getting in the magic, I would have been a happy camper, because there’s just so much stuff, e.g. interviews and reviews of products and more.
But the factor that we add in here is human beings and human nature. This is not a political issue. This is not a religious issue. This is a human issue and people are going to fight and they’re going to argue. And when they get on the internet it’s like, especially like if it’s three o’clock in the morning, they get a big red S on their chest and a big cape behind them and they’ll say things to you they’re not going to say to your face. Because they know that if they say it to your face they’ll get a broken nose.
I probably had like four or five simple rules at the time I started. And I soon found out that that wasn’t going to cut it. Because people are there talking about something that they’re passionate about, in this case magic. And when people are passionate about something, they can get very defensive about it, or say "I know more than you know." Debate is good, and even heated debate can be good - until you cross the line and you say to someone, "I hope your mother dies." Now it’s no longer a debate. Now you’ve run out of something to argue about, so now you’re just name calling. So those four or five rules became lots of rules.
How big is the challenge of dealing with people in moderating a forum like The Magic Café?
It’s hard because you’re dealing with human beings. We deal with people who want to kill you. They’ll call you up at your house, and say "We want to burn your house down." We deal with some psychos - why? - because there are psychos out there, and some of them happen to be interested in magic. It’s like that with photography forums and any other kind of forum, just crazy people.
I’ve made a lot of friends. But I’ve also made a lot of enemies, including people I’ve never met in my life. I don’t know anything about them - their politics, their religion, their color. If they’re interested in magic, they’re welcome. But there are people out here that are nuts, literally nuts, and they’re running around loose. You can swear at me and name call me, and I can take all that. But when you call up to my home and tell my wife you’re going to rape her and burn my house down and hang my dogs in the backyard, I’ve got a problem with that. That’s the type of BS I’ve had to deal with. There are people that really need to go see a psychologist – even famous people - because they have issues.
In a normal store, like a magic shop, when somebody comes in, they buy a trick and they leave. Maybe they’re having problems with it, and they bring it back, so the guy helps him out a little bit, and it’s a done deal. But I’ve got to deal with the same person 24/7, all the time.
Most people in magic are good people, really good people. I’ve been in magic all my life, and I’ve made some of the best friends. I would let them into my home and stay with me, and to me they’re family. But like in the rest of the world, there are a few idiots out there that you got to deal with.
I’ve had people helping over the years, but it’s not like they’re getting paid for it, they’re volunteering. Even the most gung ho people who help get burned out. Unfortunately when people get upset, and somebody is breaking a rule or they’re becoming rowdy or whatever, that person becomes volatile. And if one of my moderators handles the situation, they feel the brunt of that anger.
What advice do you have for dealing with difficult people?
You try to do the best that you can. I don’t judge people just on my first meeting with them. If they’re a little curt with me or they’re grumpy, well, maybe they’re having a bad day. Maybe they’re having problems at home, maybe someone wrecked their car. I don’t know. But I’m not going to sit there and judge them by that first or second experience.
Now, if I meet them 20 different times, and they’re still grumpy and they still have got an attitude, I may choose to not be around them anymore. But I still might say to myself "This person’s unhappy. He’s a hurt person and hurt people hurt people."
In my younger days, I worked for the probation department for 14 years as a counselor. Most of the problems in this world are hurt people hurting other people. They’re not evil or bad people as such. They’re hurt people and they have problems. What they’re really saying is "Help me, I need help," but they don’t know how to say "Help me."
It’s all about how you perceive them. When we hear the ambulance going down the street, don’t say, "I wonder who got in an accident?" Instead say to yourself, "Wow, somebody is getting rescued." That changes the moment in your mind.
Anybody who knows me, knows that I’m an easy to get along with guy. I go out on a limb to help people with The Cafe. I’ve seen some really sad circumstances where the people are not only losing their magic shop, but they’re losing their house and their livelihood, and I try to help whenever I can. But you can’t help the whole world, and you can’t fix everything. There’s only so much you can do.
Should negative experiences with people stop people from joining The Magic Café?
The Magic Cafe is what you make of it. If you want to find trouble, you can find trouble. But that’s the way life is. You want to find trouble. You can walk downtown and find troubles. It’s your attitude.
I originally made it so that my buddies and I could get on there and talk magic. The cafe is good for a lot of things if you're into magic.
How important is it to you to treat people equally when moderating a forum?
You’re always going to get people who say things that other people think is stupid. I’ve seen people get on The Magic Café and say to me "You know who I am and how many books I’ve written." It doesn’t matter. I don’t care if you drive a Porsche and this guy over here drives a Volkswagen. He has just as much value as you pal, I’m sorry. If you think he’s stupid and you don’t want to talk with him, don’t talk with him. Don’t waste your time, and don’t waste your breath, but go onto something else.
That probably is the biggest thing I’ve had to deal with sometimes: the idea of elitism. "My group is special, and better than your group." I don’t think that’s true.
So can we enforce all the rules all the time? No, we can’t. There’s too many people. So we count on other members letting us know. If there’s a problem, let us know, and we’ll try to deal with it. We try to deal with each problem fairly on a case by case.
What if people don’t like your forum rules?
Here’s an example. In the beginning I didn’t let anybody put up an avatar, a little picture. Because I was concerned about copyright issues. I didn’t want people putting Mickey Mouse on there and whatever.
And then people were like, "Oh, come on …" So I said, "Okay, put a picture of yourself. But if you’re concerned about that, and if you don’t want to use a photo of yourself because you’re afraid of your personal privacy and you don’t want people to see what you look like, then I’ve got a little bunny rabbit in a hat that’ll be in there instead, and that’ll be the normal little avatar that appears."
Most people understand that and they just upload something. But every once in a while you’ll have somebody who doesn’t read the rules. They join, and then the first thing they do is they upload a picture of a playing card like the Ace of Spades, or they put Bart Simpson on there. And of course we take it off, and explain to them why. Most people say, "I’m sorry I didn’t see that part, no problem," and they upload up something else.
But we get a percentage of idiots who say, "Go screw yourself. I’ll put whatever I want on there. Who do you think you are?" Well, I’m the guy that runs the forum. They say: "Well, I’ve got the right to this!" No, you don’t. This is my forum. It’s like being in my house. I’m going to call the rules here.
I don’t go to Taco Bell and tell you how to make a burrito. So don’t tell me how to run a website that I built. So that’s my attitude. If it makes me an asshole, it does, but I’m not trying to be. I just have very little patience for idiots.
If people say, "Well, I’ll go start my own forum," then I say: "Go for it! I’m rooting for you. By the way, you might want to go to your doctor and get some tranquilizers, because you are probably going to need them." And they’ll run a forum for a month or two and that’s it, and it’s done, because they find out really fast how difficult it is.
How much other work is involved in running The Magic Café?
I’ve put a lot of hours in the Café. Thousands upon thousands of hours.
We get attacked hundreds of times a day from hackers, mostly from China. Once in a while they’ll get through, and they’ll flood the forum with just crazy stuff. And we have go through and get rid of it
I’ve had times where we’ve had server issues, and I’m up for three days with no sleep, running around trying to stay awake while we’re trying to solve an issue. Meanwhile, people are over on other forums, saying "What an idiot Steve Brooks is. I don’t know why The Cafe’s down, and he won’t tell us why." I don’t have time to tell you why. What I have time to do is get my server running, and then I’ll tell you why.
These are armchair quarterbacks. These are the same people that will sit there, drink a can of beer, and watch a football game. And when a quarterback gets slammed to the ground by two 300 pound line-backers, and the quarterback is having a hard time, they say "Look at that idiot, he let himself get sacked." Did he now? Have you ever played football? Have you ever worn a helmet, and understand that you’re blind? Have you ever done this? Are you in the NFL making $20 million a year? No, you’re not. So shut up, drink your beer, and just watch the game.
How would you respond to a newcomer who thinks The Magic Café has too many sub-forums?
The Cafe is almost 20 years old. And Gene and I coded this thing ourselves. I didn’t download any software, but we built this website from scratch. It’s a work in progress. It’s like a big painting that you never finish, and you never actually get to the point where you put a frame on it and hang it on the wall. So you’re continuously adjusting. So occasionally we’re going to add a new sub-forum for one reason or another.
Sometimes newcomers who have never been on The Magic Café say, "There’s just too many forums. It’s too confusing, and I don’t like this place." That’s like going into a library and saying "There’s just too many books and I don’t want to take the time to have to look for the book I’m looking for." I say: Then you’re lazy. Get the hell out. If you don’t like the Magic Cafe, don’t go to the Cafe. It’s pretty simple. Nobody’s forcing you.
What about criticisms that the Magic Café has an old style format?
The Cafe is still alive and going strong. My servers are full every day from people all around the world.
Is it a little old fashion? It is a little old fashion and I like that. I don’t need all this crazy flashy stuff on there. I originally made it so that my buddies and I could get on there and talk magic and that’s what we did. And it grew.
Then Facebook came along and Twitter and Instagram and a lot of people who started hanging out there, just out of habit. But when they want reviews on magic, and when they want to look up something, they’re on The Magic Cafe. And the ones that say they’re not on the Cafe, they’re on the Cafe too. So the Cafe is fine.
What are your thoughts on social media, and how is The Magic Café different from this?
The Magic Café is not like social media. You can go on Facebook, and you can talk to your friends, but mostly you’re going to see a picture of what they had for breakfast. But if I really want to know something about magic, I’m going to go on the Cafe. If I’m looking for a certain cups and balls routine, I’m going to go on the Cafe. If I want to know how to find a certain book about a card routine, I’m going to go on the Cafe. It’s there.
In contrast, social media is all about showing how everybody has a wonderful life, except you. This guy just got a brand new car. This guy just got a brand new house. He and his family are in vacation in Europe. He just got a new illusion for his act. Oh, he’s on a cruise ship. Oh, he just got booked on Penn and Teller.
And pretty soon you start looking at yourself and go, man I must be worthless. Everybody’s got new cars and new houses and new jobs and they got lots of money and they’re doing fine and they got lots of gigs and they’re always working. And I’ve got a house that I’m barely paying for, my car is broken down half the time, I’m having problems and my wife might divorce me, I don’t know if my job is still there, so I must be a loser. And so what happens is you have people that kill themselves over a Facebook post.
Is social media such a great thing? We’re talking about magic and illusion, but isn’t that the biggest illusion of it all - that everybody on the planet is just doing well except you? You must be doing something wrong with your life, and you’re an idiot and a loser. But everybody has value in this world.
As long as you don’t let yourself get sucked into this illusion, I guess social media could be good. There’s all kinds of things that the internet is good for. You could Skype friends over in England, stay in touch with your family. But it’s also a hell hole that could destroy your life if you let it, and if you buy into the BS.
Like I once told my wife once, turn the TV off, and get off Facebook because all you’re getting is negativity - negativity from the news, negativity from social media. You’ll feel better. And sure enough, and you do that for a couple of days, and say "Wow, I feel better." Of course you do, because you’re not being inundated with negativity. No human being can take that.
Given how much work running The Magic Cafe involves, what keeps you going?
Over the last 20 years, I’ve seen everything you can imagine. It’s nuts. It is a job is what it is. But I just do it because I like what I do. I love magic. So I do it.
Running The Café is a challenge. It always has been and it always will be. One day I’ll find the right person and I’ll pass it to them, and then that person’s going to have to deal with it. And how they deal with it will of course be different than the way I deal with it.
ConclusionI hope you enjoyed hearing from Steve Brooks and reading his insights and observations as much as I did. He certainly has some real wisdom to share about what it takes to run an online forum. Like all of life, the real challenge is dealing with people. While doing so online can involve aspects that doesn't apply to face-to-face meetings, in essence the basic element is the same: it's about human interaction, and since humans are imperfect, our online interaction is going to involve flaws and challenges.
But that shouldn't prevent us from engaging with others, because there's a wealth of knowledge we can gain from interacting with fellow hobbyists, whether they be playing card collectors or magicians. My own experience with The Magic Cafe has been positive overall. Even though occasionally you can find yourself in the middle of a war of words, it's no different than what you'll find anywhere else online.
More importantly, being on The Magic Cafe has allowed me to learn from experienced magicians, ask questions, share advice, and that's been an enormous help to me in my own development and growth as an amateur magician. So thank you Steve for doing this interview and for sharing your perspectives on magic, and thanks for the blessing you been to thousands of magicians around the world who drop in regularly at The Magic Cafe!
Where to learn more? Check out the official website: The Magic Cafe
- Learn more about the Magic Cafe: Welcome Message, FAQ, Rules & Etiquette, Forums
- The Magic Cafe on social media: Twitter, Facebook
- Steve Brooks on social media: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn
- Our previous Steve Brooks interview: On playing cards and collecting
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known and respected reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, cardistry, and card collecting, and has reviewed several hundred boardgames and hundreds of different decks of playing cards. You can see a complete list of his game reviews here, and his playing card reviews here. He is considered an authority on playing cards and has written extensively about their design, history, and function, and has many contacts within the playing card and board game industries. You can view his previous articles about playing cards here. In his spare time he also volunteers with local youth to teach them the art of cardistry and card magic.