PROB­LEM-SOLV­ING can be found in al­most ev­ery­one’s job de­scrip­tion, but for MA­GI­CIAN and cru­civer­bal­ist (or cross­word set­ter) DAVID KWONG, it’s more of a life­time OB­SES­SION.


hol­ly­wood’s puzzle maker re­veals the role of il­lu­sions in magic and busi­ness

David Kwong was seven years old when he witnessed his first magic trick. “I saw a ma­gi­cian per­form­ing at a pump­kin patch at a farm in up­state New York,” he says. “He did a clas­sic trick where he put a lit­tle red sponge ball in my hand, and then held up a sec­ond one and made it dis­ap­pear. When I opened my hand, I had two of them.”

The ma­gi­cian then did the same trick with David’s fa­ther. “I turned to my fa­ther and said, ‘How did he do that?’ And he said, ‘I have no idea’. And be­cause my fa­ther is a sci­en­tist and knows ev­ery­thing about the world, when he was fooled I knew I had to go into magic.”

Af­ter a child­hood spent learn­ing sim­ple magic tricks and mas­ter­ing the art of the Scrab­ble board (in­clud­ing mem­o­ris­ing thou­sands of Scrab­ble words), David went to Har­vard Univer­sity to study the his­tory of magic, com­plet­ing an hon­ours the­sis on ‘Ori­en­tal ma­gi­cians’ such as Ching Ling Foo, and the non-Asian per­form­ers who im­per­son­ated them at the turn of the 20th cen­tury.

Now, David has a CV that is al­most un­be­liev­able. In ad­di­tion to his packed per­for­mance sched­ule, David is also a con­sul­tant on movies and tele­vi­sion shows that fea­ture magic tricks and il­lu­sions, and con­structs cross­word puz­zles for news­pa­pers in­clud­ing The New York Times.

His lat­est project, Spell­bound, is a book out­lin­ing how the prin­ci­ples that make il­lu­sions and magic tricks work can be ap­plied to lead­er­ship and busi­ness. Bridg­ing the gap be­tween see­ing and be­liev­ing, di­rect­ing the au­di­ence’s at­ten­tion where you want it to go and cre­at­ing the il­lu­sion of choice are all skills mas­tered by the greats of busi­ness, says David.

But he didn’t al­ways plan a ca­reer as a ma­gi­cian. “I knew I wanted to work in en­ter­tain­ment,” he says, but de­cided to get into film pro­duc­tion while do­ing magic on the side for fun. “Hol­ly­wood doesn’t care who you are, where you come from, and what your de­gree is. You have to start at the bot­tom in the mail room.”

Hol­ly­wood doesn’t care WHO you are, WHERE you come from, and WHAT your de­gree is. You have to START at the bot­tom in the mail room.

He found his first “teeny job” at HBO in New York, and then moved across to Los An­ge­les, grad­u­ally work­ing his way up to a pro­ducer po­si­tion with DreamWorks An­i­ma­tion. It was here that he heard about a movie that was in de­vel­op­ment at the time called Now You See Me, in which four ma­gi­cians pull off a se­ries of bank heists. He started con­sult­ing on the script, and was ul­ti­mately of­fered the op­por­tu­nity to be the head con­sul­tant on set in New Or­leans. He quit his job at DreamWorks to work on the movie for five months, fig­ur­ing that the op­por­tu­nity could help him segue into mak­ing magic his ca­reer, not just a hobby.

“I thought when the film fin­ished I’d just keep go­ing with magic. If the movie per­formed well, it would launch me. For­tu­nately, it was a big hit,” he says. He went on to cre­ate the Mis­di­rec­tors Guild, a com­pany of elite ma­gi­cians who con­sult on film, tele­vi­sion and the­atre il­lu­sions. Since Now You See Me, David and the Guild have worked on a raft of projects in­clud­ing Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble – Rogue Na­tion, Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity 4 and the TV se­ries Blindspot.

David be­lieves that our en­dur­ing fas­ci­na­tion with magic tricks, along with cross­words and other brain teasers, comes from an in­her­ent urge to find pat­terns and solve prob­lems. >

In a TED talk from 2014, dur­ing which he suc­cess­fully pre­dicts the tex­tas an au­di­ence mem­ber will choose to colour pic­tures of var­i­ous farm an­i­mals, David wraps up by point­ing out the clues he planted through the show – not to prove how clever he was in set­ting it up, but rather how clever the woman was in pick­ing up on them sub­con­sciously.

He also has a skill for bring­ing the au­di­ence in on the act with­out giv­ing too much away, and says that the best tricks re­spect the intelligence of the au­di­ence.

“A good puzzle is one that makes us all feel smart,” he says. “You never want to make a puzzle that’s so com­pli­cated and con­found­ing that it’s not en­joy­able. You want to bring about some­thing called the ‘Aha!’ mo­ment, where your solver says, ‘Aha! I’ve fig­ured it out!’ A re­ally beau­ti­ful thing hap­pens in that mo­ment. It’s a si­mul­ta­ne­ous ex­pres­sion of re­spect for your­self be­cause you cracked the code and, at the same time, it’s recog­nis­ing that the per­son who came up with this puzzle is smart as well.”

David says that hu­mans are ‘wired to solve’ – re­cently pre­sent­ing, with­out irony, at Syd­ney event Wired for Won­der – al­ways seek­ing out ways to close open loops and com­plete pat­terns, whether we are work­ing our way through a cross­word or try­ing to re­solve some­thing in our per­sonal lives. “We are con­stantly bom­barded with stim­uli, and there’s even more now with the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia,” he says. “So your brain is al­ways look­ing for short­cuts, which is, in a sense, solv­ing things. It fig­ures out how to han­dle this mas­sive amount of data.”

The mind of the puzzle-maker, how­ever, is also con­stantly scan­ning for use­ful ma­te­rial. “When I see street signs, when I see words on a bill­board, I look at them and the let­ters start to rear­range them­selves and I think, ‘This could be a good puzzle’,” he says. “I’m al­ways look­ing for the puzzle in ev­ery­thing.”

Not that David is never stumped. His fel­low elite ma­gi­cians are al­ways com­ing up with mind-bend­ing tricks that have him beg­ging to know the an­swers. They tease him by mak­ing him wait 24 hours be­fore they ex­plain how the trick is done, dur­ing which time he some­times drives him­self crazy try­ing to fig­ure them out.

Ul­ti­mately, it’s all about the big re­veal at the end, ac­cord­ing to David. “I’m al­ways re­verse engi­neer­ing things as a ma­gi­cian and puz­zler,” he says. “What is that ex­cla­ma­tion point that I want ev­ery­one to re­mem­ber, and how do I work back­wards from there to bring about that mo­ment of awe?”

It’s tricky, but David al­ways seems to work it out.

You want to BRING about SOME­THING called the ‘Aha!’ mo­ment, where your SOLVER says, ‘AHA! I’ve fig­ured it out!’ A re­ally BEAU­TI­FUL thing hap­pens in that MO­MENT.

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