How We Drove the Kids Bonkers at Thanksgiving (While Teaching Critical Thinking)

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Setup for driving the kids crazy. (Image: Kate Miller)

My brother Jon and I have a psychic connection through the ether. No, really!

Magic has been on our minds lately, what with a recent visit to the strange and moody Houdini exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York, as well as some lively discussions about The Amazing Randi and his longstanding million dollar prize waiting for somebody, anybody, to prove something paranormal.

So when Jon and I brought up our thrilling psychic skills at the Thanksgiving table, we were met with a wall of skepticism. It was a steep, thick wall constructed mainly out of eyerolling and “Yeah, right’s” from the children’s table. Jon and I were undaunted.

We set up some cards as shown and the kids gathered around. As Jon turned his back to the table, we demanded quiet to clear and stabilize our ether channel. (“Come on, Mom, stop with the ether baloney!”) Then one of the kids selected a card by silently pointing to it. I said, “OK, ready, Jon?” and proceeded to call out some cards one by one. At each one, Jon said, “No, that’s not it.” At the fifth card, which was the card, Jon said, calm as Xanax, “Yes.”

The kids exploded. “Oh, come on, that’s so easy!” they crowed, yelling out how they thought we did it. And so began the Great Hypothesis Testing of 2010.

Hypothesis 1: It’s always the fifth card.

Test: My niece silently pointed to a card and whispered in my ear, “Make it the second card you say.” I dutifully called out another card first, and the card second. Jon got it. No matter how many cards she told me to say first, our psychic connection prevailed.

Hypothesis 2: Jon can see a reflection of me in the window pane and I’m blinking a certain number of times.

Test: Jon moved his chair far away from the window, still with his back to me. We were still psychic.

By now the adults were gathered around with their drinks. There was some shuffling of feet, a few cracks about our mental stability. Then: “Wait. How are they doing that?”

“It’s the ether channel!” we cry, palms and eyebrows raised.

Hypothesis 3: It has something to do with the way I’m saying the cards. I’m taking a long pause before saying the card.

Test: Instead of me naming cards one after the other, my son named the cards I pointed to, using whatever pauses he liked. Jon still got it right.

Hypothesis 4: If we switch places, we’ll get totally screwed up, dudes.

Test: We switched places. We did not get totally screwed up, dudes.

My niece was the first to crack. “Just TELL us! How do you do it?” A few grownups took up her cause: “Come on now, how do you do it?” And so we told them — we’d been telling them all along — it’s the ether, dammit. A generalized crazy began to set in.

Hypothesis 5: If we’re on the same ether channel, then like TV channels, we should both know the channel number.

Test: Jon whispered the ether channel number into my son’s ear and then I did. It was the same channel number. There was general mocking of this test, since Jon and I must have simply agreed on a channel number beforehand, being the slick snake-oil salesmen that we are.

Hypothesis 6: It has something to do with the numbers or suits of the cards I say leading up to the card.

Test: We ran it through a few times using only suits. Then only numbers. Our psychic connection was unharmed.

At this point we had to break it up for various hysteria- and dessert-related reasons. The kids were clinging to us, begging “Tell us! Tell us now!” Trying to keep afloat above their grasping hands, I cried “If we tell you then you won’t have the pleasure of figuring it out! It’s the thrill of the chase!” This line of argument was not, shall we say, highly popular.

So yesterday I cracked under the pressure and told the kids the trick. I suppose that’s a fail for the critical thinking lesson. But hey, today they’re driving their schoolmates insane, so maybe one of them will figure it out.

P.S. Anybody want to venture a guess how we do it? There’s a big clue in this post.

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73 thoughts on “How We Drove the Kids Bonkers at Thanksgiving (While Teaching Critical Thinking)

    1. That’s most of the right answer.

      The number of syllables in the “ready” phrase gives the ordinal number of the correct card.

      “ready” means the correct card with be the 2nd card mentioned.
      “OK Jon” -> 3rd card
      “OK Ready Jon” -> 5th card. (this was the hint)

      Recall that in Hyp 3 she pointed to the cards while her son said the name. She still controlled the order of the cards.

      Hyp 5 is easy once you have the pattern of communicating a number through the number of syllables in a phrase.

      1. So they planned ahead with different phrases, up to 12 syllables in length? Seems it would become obvious pretty fast.

        “Ok, Jon, here we go. I’m going to start now.”

        1. Nope. You forget that the person saying the phrases controls the order of questioning which card is the correct one. They really only need phrases up to 7 or 8 to give enough variety so it isn’t obvious.

          Re-read Hyp #3. She pointed to the cards while her son read them aloud.

          1. Except for the part where someone whispers to her. What if she whispered “Make it the 12th one”?


    Don’t read this if you don’t want to know my suggestion for a solution.

    I don’t know the answer, but I think maybe that the last person to speak tells the number of syllables? So it is inspired by haiku? “ready”->2 “ok, ready?”->4 “ready jon?” -> 3

  2. You hold the deck of cards, with your finger/thumb placed on the location of the selected card as they are placed on the table. Your partner just looks at your finger placement and knows exactly which card it is.

  3. You just said the suit and number when it wasn’t “the” card, and said “the suit number” when it was “the” card? That is what I get from the italicized the.

  4. In “The Great Brain” books, they did a similar trick. They just switched what words they used in the question. In that case the assistant picked someone in the audience to hold up their object. They had memorized code words to use for the most popular things to be found in pockets. “CAN you tell me…” would be a watch. The word “guess” would be a handkerchief. And so on… The assistant would simply not choose anyone holding up something that they didn’t have a code word for.
    So, like the other commentators were saying above, almost ANYTHING in the way the assistant spoke could have been the signal. Timing, breathing, code words, stressing a syllable, etc… Here, you must already know the card before the pointing started.

  5. You are always the one touching the card when the question is asked. So it is where you touch the card that conveys the information.
    My guess: If you touch the upper left hand corner of the 1st card, the “correct” card is in row 1 column 1. If you touch the middle of the 1st card instead, the correct card is in row 2 column 2. etc.

  6. ether+channel number = radio, as in walkie talkie
    my bet is walkie talkies or phones with handsfree sets.
    earpiece concealed around neck and mic by hands, then just tap the mic for the number or location of the card and the accomplice can just about hear the tapping with no need for the earpice in their ear to give the game away.

  7. It can’t be a verbal cue, or the system would have broken when she had her son call out the cards. It’s definitely the ether!

    1. Upon further consideration, of course, her son could have been a shill all along. Just a possibility.

  8. As others have pointed out, it is you map where the card is by how you point (or some other means). Had this done to me by my grandfather and dad when I was a child. I later did it to my kids. For us there was one card on the table that is layout matched the layout of the cards, thus tapping one of the suits on that card was the map to the full table of where the card was.

  9. Just to toss in here as people are guessing (and I LOVE this discussion!):

    My brother was sitting with his back to the table. He couldn’t see the cards or how they were pointed at or not pointed at. I never even touched the cards. The kids could set up the table with different cards, any cards they liked, at any time.

    1. Agreed.
      I’ve seen some slick tricks, and this is the most likely for this psych(ot)ic trick.
      It doesn’t matter who’s calling out the numbers if you’re directing them.
      The mind-reader could even throw in a “wait, go back to that last one…” just to add suspense.
      And for giving the channel-number, you just use whatever the last set-up was. ie, if the fifth card is THE card, channel=5.

      If this ain’t it, I’ll eat my hat
      :Not that I’m wearing a hat.:

      1. This would break down, though, under the testing for Hypothesis 1 above. If her niece whispered, say, “Make it the third card” and there was no 3 on the table, then the system crashes. But she says they continued the trick no matter her niece whispered.

  10. I’ve played this game before, but with pennies. The one person who can see which penny is picked also has a drink with them and a napkin. When they select a penny, they simply set their drink down on the napkin at the same location relative to the penny they picked. So if they pick the upper right penny, they set their drink down on the upper right edge of the napkin. then when the other person turns around, they just look at where the drink is placed.

  11. Yea I think hypothesis 5 has to be addressed. It seems they both had a number in mind for the ‘channel’ number beforehand. Not that it was a channel number but that it was a common number they were using to run the game. Was there some application of this number to defining which card was picked? For example if they decided on 5 did they simply use the 5 card as the card to offer up just before offering the real card that was picked by the kids?

  12. I have no idea HOW you’re doing it, but I wanted to add that I don’t think telling them would break down the critical thinking exercise. They are able to know that, just because the logical answer isn’t obvious doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Just because neither adults nor kids could explain it, doesn’t mean it’s not hooey. You reinforced that by eventually giving them the answer they couldn’t find.

  13. Seems to me that the time you take to ‘stabilize’ the ether channel could be a fixed number of seconds depending on the card. 1 second for ace, 2 seconds for a deuce, etc. Your brother simply counts the seconds between the time between the child’s choice and the time you say ‘ready’.

  14. With the Hypothesis 1 test you state “No matter how many cards she told me to say first, our psychic connection prevailed.” So I’m guessing you never said the correct card first and thus could have an indicator card always just before the correct one. Since having the same indicator card each time would give it away and you couldn’t be sure it was always there, you used a pattern for the key card. For instance maybe the plan was that you would always say a black suited odd numbered card before the correct card. Or a red suited multiple of 3 numbered card just before the correct one.

    1. The indicator card method is not valid here, since in one of the hypotheses the child was the one listing the cards to the ‘medium’. The child couldn’t have known what the indicator card was, and therefore could not signal the medium.

      1. Actually the child just said the cards; the adult still picked the order. So the adult could still pick the trigger card pattern just before the card.

  15. Two quick questions for the author:
    1) Does the trick work if you call out /the/ card first?
    2) Does Jon get to look at the layout before turning his back every time 12 new cards are drawn?

    1. Hi –
      1) Yes, we could do it with the card being first.
      2) Jon doesn’t ever turn to see the table at any time. In this session, he turned around just before we started the trick, and never looked back. He couldn’t see the cards, including new cards, old cards, pointing, drinks, me, anything.

      1. Ok, my theory is shot then. Even the almighty google is not finding the answer for me.

      2. Then I’m going to guess that your son was an accomplice all along, and he knew the appropriate voice cues to help Jon know when to say “Yes”. You included your son in the disproving of Hypothesis 3 to throw everyone off of how you were really doing it.

      3. 1) Were your hands in plain sight of observers the whole time?

        2) Would the trick break down if your partner had his eyes closed before and during the trick?

        I still think it has something to do with 12 cards and 12 numbers on a clock, but like the theory that you had some wireless buzzer in your pocket/shoe. That added geek touch, you know.

  16. It’s the syllables. The huge clue is “I said, “OK, ready, Jon?” and proceeded to call out some cards one by one. At each one, Jon said, “No, that’s not it.” At the fifth card, which was the card, Jon said, calm as Xanax, “Yes.””

  17. Of course! It was your mom that was passing the message along. No one really knows how she got the nickname became ether, or if they do they aren’t telling, but boy is she good at magic tricks.

    Well it was “ether” her or someone else!

  18. Questions for Kate.
    Did you use the same 12 cards each time? Where they laid on the table the same way each time? Your post says “We set up some cards AS SHOWN…”, but the caption on the image says “random cards”. I can’t help noticing there is a symmetry to the color of the cards however in the way they are in that image.

    1. No, the illustration just has some cards I threw in there. We set up about 12 or 15 cards I think, randomly. Sometimes the kids gathered them up and put down some others. In fact it doesn’t matter how many cards there are or how they are laid out or the suits or numbers of the cards or how many times you do the trick with a certain group of cards.

      1. That shoots my clock theory.

        I’m going to go with wireless signaling device in pocket. It’s “in the ether” (i.e. radio waves). She buzzes when pointing at the correct card. Could hide it in a shoe, ala casino card-counter style. Could hack something like this together with two walkie talkies and a cell phone vibrating motor fairly quickly.

        …Ok, now I don’t care if this is not the answer, I’m making one of these. 🙂

  19. Kate,

    This is excellent. I’m still trying to figure it out, and coming up with nothing that would go through the series of hypothesis. I would go for a simple mathematics solution, but I can’t come up with one that makes it through your hypothesises.

    Patiently awaiting enlightenment, or me to figure it out 😉

    Thanks for this wonderful brain teaser!

  20. Clock on the wall with a second hand? When you start asking, wherever the second hand is pointed is the card. Not sure how the whisper part worked if you had to wait 45 seconds after she whispered to you before you began. This theory fits the fact that there are 12 cards on the table.

  21. Maybe it is ether – perhaps you could be a witch.
    But like ducks and wood, you would have to float…

    Do you float?

  22. I’m guessing there was some other audible clue since you required quiet to “stabilize the ether” Maybe a creaking chair or some other not noticable sound.

    1. This would also fit my clock hypothesis, in that they needed time for the second hand to come around to the proposed number.

  23. I guarantee it has something to do with the phrase “OK, Ready Jon?”.

    That’s such a random detail that she put in this story.

    I think it’s the syllable thing. 5 syllables = the 5th card.

    1. Neal,
      You may be right, but it would help if we knew what she said before each time they did the trick. Since she just told us that one time what she said it’s hard to figure out if that is it.

      1. True.

        She probably didn’t tell us what she said every time because that would have made the solution way to obvious to all of us and where would be the fun in that?

        1. And I couldn’t help wondering what the heck she’d have said instead of “OK, ready, Jon?” if her niece whispered something like “Make it the 12th card you say”! LOL! “OK, Jon, are you really sure that you’re ready”? Meanwhile poor Jon is over there counting syllables on his fingers and trying to be inconspicuous.

          1. Good point about the 12th card.

            Maybe there was a keyword that was used to indicate to double the number. So then she would only have to have 6 phrases with the biggest being 6 syllables long.

            So if the keyword was said and then a phrase was said that had 4 syllables in it then Jon knew it was the 8th card.

  24. I think the two keys to this trick are the ready phrase and control over the number of cards that are pointed at.

    Having more examples of the ready phrase would isolate if it’s a straight mapping or encoded. I’d think people would catch on to a syllable count if the test were repeated enough but maybe not.

    The suit and card values are not encoded since the trick worked even when restricting the card name called out to only value or suit so the magic must be in the number of cards called and method to communicate that number.

  25. Guys one thing you are totally missing is she did the SUIT of the cards which is just a WORD, and not a number. So I can’t wait to see what the answer is. I can’t seem to get it. I’m sure I may have a DOH! moment when she tells us.


  26. What If….. The control is the syllables, five in this case and then you use the sum of the last card and current card as the number. You would make Aces 1, Face cards, 0. Then as calling out numbers, you would just be adding the last two together to see if they equal the control number 5.

      1. I cannot get my head around how the suits only scenario was played so I do not feel like it was that important in the trick…That is the best I can do to so that I do not go crazy at work trying to figure this out!

        1. I think perhaps you’re both seeing too much complication in the syllables concept. I don’t personally think that’s the answer, but here’s how I understand the theory:
          She says “Ok, Jon, ready?” That phrase has 5 syllables. That means, “Jon say yes to the 5th card I call out”. No need for card numbers or card suits at all. Just count syllables and cards. It’s a good idea, but could be unreasonably hard on Jon if the syllable count goes high.

          1. Yea she said it didn’t matter how many cards. In my first post, I had thought it might be some sort of math trick, and still “kinda” hold to that, but the suits do throw me off.


          2. Yes, this is my thought, that the transmitted element is “Say yes to the N’th card”. The question is how to transmit that value since as people have pointed out, larger values of N get more complicated so I suspect an encoding vs. a simple count of syllables. This could also be a binary encoding such that the sentence “OK, Ready Jon?” maps to 101 == 5. Just not sure how to establish the mapping.

  27. Dying to know and I gotta go home soon! I’ll definitely have to check in from there!!! Don’t forget about us!! 😉

  28. My Aunt had a spin on this that was a little variation that provided much more robust randomness. One of us would leave the room and allow the group to specify an object in the room to be “transmitted” to the other. Upon returning the room would be quiet, mostly, and we would enter into a negotiation. When one of the audience would make a distinct noise (cough, laugh, comment, etc.) the person who stayed in the room would ask an ok question. This implicitly marked the person who made the noise as the key. If the person who had left agreed on the key they would claim to be ready, otherwise they would pass and the negotiations would continue. The person who stayed in the room would then proceed to ask questions about random objects. The question immediately before the correct object would include the name of the key person. “Is it Fred’s sweather?” for example. This indicated that the next question would identify the object of interest. Worked like a charm and was never (to my knowledge) broken.

    1. Wow, love your name. The Greater Dalmuti! Who’s the Lesser Dalmuti? What an awesome card game. Wizard put it out right?

      Sorry, not on topic at all! Just love the card game by that name and have no idea the answer to the riddle!!! Funny listening to all the answers. Nicely done 🙂

  29. Brilliant, Kate! I’m loving this and intend to use it at the next family gathering! My standard card tricks are old and tired.


    You guys basically nailed it. The phrase “OK, ready Jon?” has 5 syllables, so it’s the 5th card I say. If my niece wanted it to the be the first card, I’d just say something like “Right.” She never asked me to make it the 12th card or higher, but that would have definitely been a problem.

    The cards are basically a red herring. As the “magician,” you put the stress on the cards, their arrangement, their number, the ether, the insistence on quiet, etc. etc. so that nobody notices your throwaway comments right before a round. You can say absolutely anything, not just stock phrases, totally natural and conversational.

    Once several years ago we got really stuck. Our observers suspected that it was something in what we were saying, so they asked us to be totally silent, even between rounds. Someone else would call out the cards I pointed to. So I couldn’t say anything before we started a round, and couldn’t signal to him which card it would be. But somebody ELSE in the room said something before the round, and I went with it. Jon picked it up! Whew, we were sweating with that one, but it worked on the fly.

    Anyway, what a terrific discussion! Glad to drive everyone bonkers.

    (Oh, and sorry for the delay here. Picked up the kids at school and went to an after school event, then we had some friends over for dinner. Just finished the dishes, and now I’m off to bed.)

    1. A very plausible-sounding “answer” Kate. Mission accomplished.

      Love love love

      1. This isn’t inspiring confidence that this is the correct answer… thanks Jon 😉


  31. Until Kate spilled the beans, here’s what I thought the trick was:

    The hint was the channel number. Agreed upon anytime in the past.

    Let’s say channel 4.

    Whatever card Kate calls out first, divide the ordinal number of that card (Ace is 1, King is 13, etc) by 4. Then take the remainder. The remainder indicates how many more cards are going to be called out before the correct one.

    This works for suits as well, if you assign them ordinal numbers (Spade = 1, Hearts 2, etc).

    This way, Kate doesn’t ever have to say a thing prior to calling out cards. And Jon need only know the remainders of dividing the numbers 1-13 by 4 (which I hope is less challenging than counting 7+ syllable phrases).

    This means you will always guess within the first 5 tries. If you want more, just raise the channel number. This also means that the very first card called out is never the correct card, but the original post says “No matter how many cards she told me to say first…”, which I interpreted to mean she always called out another card first.

    If for some reason she must call out a card that is NOT the correct card, but which is less than 4 (Ace, two or three), it’s easy to figure on a plan B: just use the ordinal value of the card called out as the indicator of how many more guesses are coming before the correct one.

  32. An addendum to my post above:

    As an added dimension, ask a spectator to pick the channel and to tell each of you separately.

    Give that person some guidelines – say, any number between 3 and 9.

    The game will worked as described above.

    If the spectator is a wise-arse and gives a different channel number to each of you, you’re communication won’t work, and you can expose the wise-arse’s ruse; then really freak everyone out when it works as planned once you are both on the same channel.

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