If we had been sitting on a stage instead of his home, I’d have had to block my credit card – because mentalist Christoph Kuch just told me what my PIN number is - and that it’s a MasterCard.
All he had asked me to do was to think about the number as I answered questions about whether I preferred red or white wine, Porsche or Ferrari, guinea pigs or cats.
How does he do it?
Asking a mind reader – much less one currently ranked best mentalist on the planet – to give me an example of his art is obviously risky business. A few more examples later, and the feeling of having someone see right through me is both confusing and irritating, especially as Kuch is uncannily good at deciphering truth from untruth.
Then again, being able to tell the difference between an honest answer and a lie is daily bread for a mentalist. One of the ways he can tell the difference between someone lying, and someone who is really trying to recall something, is the direction their eyes are looking. Poker, says the 37-year-old German, is a game his friends refuse to play with him.
Kuch is this year’s winner in the Mental Magic category at the FISM World Championships of Magic – something that for magicians is akin to winning gold at the Olympics. Every three years, the world’s top artists in “close-up magic” and stage magic – among which mentalists – turn up at this event in Blackpool, U.K., to measure themselves against other stars in their field. All participants must have qualified nationally first: Kuch was German champion in 2011.
At the Championships, 160 mentalists from around the world competed and – as has been the case for the past 27 years – no one came in first: once again, nobody met the unusually high requirements. Kuch came in second, which means he is currently the world’s best, and that is why the world’s best-known club for magicians, the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, invited him for a week. This Mecca of magic, which is reminiscent of the Hogwarts magic school in the Harry Potter books, is invitation only –and that includes the audience.
Christoph Kuch does not look like your idea of a magician. Likeable, unassuming, tall, with a shock of brown hair, he looks like the nice sporty young father from next door, who’s maybe a biology teacher or a cool minister.
Among modern magicians, mentalists are the rock stars. They have an ever-wider audience, not only for their stage shows, but also at corporate events, fairs, and as entertainers at galas and dinners.
Mental magic is not about hocus-pocus. Practitioners don’t use the usual appurtenances, the cloths and rabbits and doves; they don’t saw women in half. And they create something more than astonishment in the audience – they give people goose bumps.
Knowledge of human nature is of the essence in mental magic: "Peoples’ facial expressions and body language give away a lot more about them than they realize or want to believe," says Kuch. Statistics are important too – little things like women’s favorite color is often blue, while men tend to prefer green. Put it all together and you can create some awesome tricks.
Relating well to the public is crucial for this type of magic, Kuch says, adding that it’s easier to get women to come up on stage than it is men. "Women are more open, while men often want to show you that they are not going to let themselves be manipulated."
Kuch discovered his passion for the arts of magic when he was a kid, playing with his magic set. That led to thousands of hours of practicing, reading, and observing. As a young adult, he took private courses in magic in Nuremberg for three years. If he has to, he can still make coins disappear or take a Ping-Pong ball out from behind your ear, but that kind of magic began to pale for him once he got into the mentalist’s universe of body language, suggestion, telepathy, and psychology. And now, after years of training, he knows how thoughts make themselves visible.
A magical mix
"If somebody’s hiding a coin in one hand, the tip of their nose is almost always pointed in the direction of the hand holding the coin," he says. When people think about a noise, their eyes tend to look off to one side; when they think about a picture their eyes tend to look upwards. If Kuch imitates the body language of the person he’s interacting with they find him sympathetic, and he can tell when their body or voice suddenly tenses whether they are feeling joy, insecurity – or are lying.
Influential people tend to move more slowly and majestically than people with little power. When we find something unpleasant, we tend to narrow our eyes even though there has been no change in light. Yet Kuch says he wouldn’t make a reliable human replacement for a lie detector test because body signals are never 100% reliable.
To him, mental magic combines reality and fiction, a mix of psychology, suggestion and magic with a single aim: to entertain. "There’s nothing supernatural about it,” he says – although that’s hard to believe watching his most spectacular trick when he takes his audience on an imaginary deep-sea diving excursion to the wreck of the "Titanic."
A member of the audience chosen at random thinks of a name for the submersible and writes it on a piece of paper. How many feet down does the submersible go? The person writes a figure. An old coin is in the wreck: what’s the year engraved on the coin? That also gets written down. At this point Kuch opens a sealed envelope and reads out what the person wrote: name of boot, number of feet down. And around his neck is a chain with an old coin bearing the same year the audience member thought of.
Yet during our interview when Kuch’s little daughter comes to ask him help her find her doll, like any other dad the champ has to get down on his hands and knees to check under the sofa. He can only read the thoughts people know; otherwise he has to guess like everybody else.