Nov. 17, 2011, 3:02 a.m.

Scam School host Brian Brushwood teaches Stanford Chess Club magic tricks

(OLLIE KHAKWANI/The Stanford Daily)

At 6 p.m. in Tresidder Union on a cold Friday evening, members of the Stanford Chess Club crowded around a board, brows furrowed at the puzzle posed before them.


The puzzle was this: place eight queens on a standard eight-by-eight chessboard such that no queen is able to attack another.


The puzzle was posed by visiting magician Brian Brushwood, who looked on as eight Stanford students rose to the challenge, moving pieces around the board and drawing on their intellect and chess intuition to find the desired orientation.


Their efforts were filmed by cameras and will eventually air as an episode of Brushwood’s popular web series, “Scam School.”


The premise of “Scam School” is to “teach you scams to mess with your friends, get the girl and (of course) score a free drink,” according to Brushwood’s website.


The puzzles posed by Brushwood to the chess team are challenging, and in a bar situation, would probably “frustrate people enough to buy you a beer,” Brushwood said.


Halfway through filming the show, Brushwood demonstrated the “Chess ESP” trick, announcing that he and a chess club member had been “struck by radioactive lightning” and gained the miraculous ability to read each other’s minds. While his co-conspirator looked away with his ears plugged, another chess player selected a piece and placed it into Brushwood’s mug. Brushwood slammed the mug onto the chessboard and told his accomplice to turn around and take a guess.


“White rook!” his accomplice said to the stunned disbelief of the other club members.


Intellectual pursuits

“Chess should be encouraged so that students can develop analytical, mathematical and critical thinking skills,” wrote chess club president Burjis Godrej ’14 in an email to The Daily.


Much of the challenge for club member Andrew Rodriguez ’15 comes from “figuring out what to do” — or exploring potential moves and their consequences.


For Eric Thong ’15, another club member, the biggest challenge in chess is coming up with a strategy to recover a losing position. In such a case, one’s ability to weigh the risks of every move is compounded by the psychological burden of having to beat the odds.


Brushwood’s “intense interest in chess” emerged during his college years. The heightened sensitivity to the opponent’s pieces and their position on the board, especially when one is at a disadvantage, is comparable to the situational awareness a magician must adopt when executing a trick, Brushwood said.


A magician maps out these probabilities and possible audience reactions in the same way that a chess player maps out moves. According to Brushwood, having a chess player’s intuition aids him in his performance. It allows Brushwood himself to “begin acts without having any idea how [he’ll] be proceeding,” because he has enough tricks up his sleeve for every move and outcome.


Unlike many magicians, Brushwood is always eager to explain his craft. For instance, the “Chess ESP” trick wasn’t passed off without an explanation to the chess team. Brushwood even had Rodriguez and Parabal Singh ’15 reenact the trick and “read each other’s minds,” giving them pointers about showmanship along the way.


Brushwood attributed the reasons behind this teaching approach to the difficulties he faced in his early days as a magician.


“When I first started out with magic, it was hard to find tricks,” Brushwood said.


The shortage of magic tricks motivated Brushwood to spread his own knowledge. This “open-source” approach to magic can capture an audience as much as a well-executed act, Brushwood argued.


The last act

The heart of Brushwood’s final trick was in audience participation. Brushwood explained the classic ploy: a con man walks into a chess club and demands 10 simultaneous matches with the club’s 10 best players, knowing that he will win or draw in at least half of the games.


The con man’s trick is copying the moves made by one of his opponents playing white in a match against an opponent playing black, and vice versa. This manipulates the conman’s opponents to play against each other rather than the con man.


Brushwood gave away the trick from the outset, because he was interested to see if it would work in practice — to see if a magician possessed enough talent in memory and situational awareness to pull it off.


Chess player Elliott Liu ’12 rose to the challenge. He managed to win or draw two of his four opponents, coolly meandering between chessboards and trash talking as he made his moves.


Liu’s confidence in the last act came from discovering the best ways to execute the trick, combining his skill as a chess player with a magician’s sense of show.

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