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David Blaine was just performing in Las Vegas when a trick went dangerously wrong. It was not one of those ‘tricks meant to look like they go wrong ’. No, this trick went so wrong that he was forced to wipe away the blood and decide on stage if he should continue with the show or cancel abruptly and seek medical attention.
This is not the first time a trick like this has gone wrong and caused bodily harm. In fact, it’s not the first time this exact trick has gone wrong and hurt a magician. Several magicians, including close friends of mine and big-name magicians like Derren Brown, have misperformed this trick and ended up in the hospital.
It’s one of those tricks that’s become infamous among magicians. One of my earliest memories of the effect was listening to Penn of Penn & Teller talk about how stupid it was that magicians would risk injury doing such a routine.
The problem is that the routine is incredibly engaging, and more and more products spew onto the market, claiming to provide a safe method. The most popular one, performed by many magicians I respect, caused one friend of mine great harm. Even though the product claimed to be incredibly safe, he had not set it up correctly and accidentally impaled his hand during a show.
Part 1. Smash & Stab
I’m talking, of course, about a routine known to magicians as the ‘smash and stab’.
The smash and stab is a modern classic of magic, reminiscent of the cups and balls routines we know magicians for but with the interactive danger of Russian Roulette.
A performer will usually place a spike below one of several cups, mix them up and then, based on the audience’s choices, they will then smash their hand down onto the cups. If all goes well, the final remaining cup will be the one with the spike…and I won’t have to write an article about them screwing up the trick.
Keith Barry performed my favourite rendition of the smash and stab routine on his TV show in the early 2000s. In Barry’s performance, he strips it all back to its core and presents an incredibly minimalistic version. He knows what’s essential about the trick: the props, his actions, and the spectator´s choices and reaction. So — that’s all he focuses on. He performs the trick in a blank white studio, with a glass table, opposite a celebrity (with whom we can quickly relate), and without distractions.
I remember watching this over and over again as a teen.
The way it’s shot.
The way it’s cut.
How it feels so dangerous but also so inevitably safe.
Part 2. The Trick That Goes Wrong.
There are quite a few magic tricks that have caused magicians to lose their lives, and the infamous bullet catch is one of them.
Escapology, often seen as a subset of magic, can frequently cause terrible accidents. The Incredible Mr Goodwin, Jonathan Goodwin, suffered a life-changing spinal cord injury when a trick went horribly wrong while filming a special America’s Got Talent episode not long ago. The stunt was supposed to be Goodwin escaping a straitjacket while upside down 30 feet in the air, suspended between two cars, but instead, he was crushed between the cars as they caught fire.
Smash & Stab, though much less life-threatening, go wrong all the time, leaving performers with nasty hand injuries. Some of the methods are just objectively unsafe and risky.
I remember going to a magic show in Bath, UK, with a friend when I was at college. One magician performed what I believe to be the dumbest method for this trick, which involved a magnet. Of course, as I watched, I knew which method he was using based on his handling of the props. My friend told me after the show that when they looked around during the performance, I appeared more stressed and nervous than anyone else.
That’s what’s so dumb about that method — it’s genuinely scarier when you know how it’s done.
Magicians know how dangerous the trick is and will often fear performing it or openly mock doing so. Barry & Stuart, a performing duo I adored when I was getting into magic, once parodied the trick in a performance. In their version, Stuart ends up with his hand smashed by the nail. It’s sort of great because it remains fooling in effect.
But if you want to find clips of magicians performing and injuring themselves with a smash-and-stab routine, you only have to head to YouTube. One guy on a morning television show performs it with kitchen knives — kitchen knives! And it goes wrong! He actually stabs his hand live on air.
If you don’t fancy heading to YouTube, you could rewatch Derren Brown’s live show in which he performs the effect. Derren Brown is an incredibly famous British mind reader and illusionist.
I recall hearing that Derren would be performing a smash and stab in the show many years ago. I winced to myself. I can’t recall if I was confident enough to say out loud what I was thinking — Derren would perform the routine 500+ times through the tour, so the odds that it’ll go wrong once were pretty high. I didn’t think this because I felt I was particularly — it was because a am a nervous person when it comes to smashing your hand down into a nail.
However, Derren’s team were wrapped up with their idea for the presentation —they were going to show clips of magicians failing and hurting themselves on a video screen before Derren performed it on stage live.
Imagine the atmosphere! Brilliant, what could go wrong?
The fact that magicians continue to perform this trick is astonishing to me. Or, at least, it just amazes me they do so with such few safety precautions. I’ve worked with professional stunt teams. If a stunt coordinator were presented with this trick and knew the method, even he wouldn’t want the star actor performing it. They’d swap them out for a stunt person, increase the insurance, reset every thirty seconds and ensure no distractions were on site.
Because here’s the thing — even if the prop is supposedly safe, if there’s even a slight risk of causing great harm using a prop, it can happen. Look at the infamous example of Alec Baldwin firing a gun at his director of photography with a real bullet from what he believed to be a prop gun on set. As I write this, he was just charged.
In ‘Smash & Stab,’ there are almost always real nails and it relies on special markings, sensors or a moment of disarmament— so there’s almost always the chance the magician could be distracted, fumble the method, or do literally anything that could cause the trick to fail.
Magicians need their hands to perform, so this is an odd risk to willingly take.
Derren Brown went on to perform the trick successfully countless times on stage, and he even performed it for Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of Hamilton.
A year or so after the first run, I was told Derren had had an accident that sent him to the hospital. He was filming the routine at home for a reference video with different props from the ones he was used to. Instead of safely smashing his hand into an empty paper bag, he slammed his palm full force into a nail.
Only it wasn’t a nail — it was a screw. When he made it to the hospital, they had to actually twist the screw to remove it.
Of course, the video of him injuring himself now replaced the initial video of other magicians failing at the trick in his routine. When Derren performed the illusion for Lin-Manuel, he asked Lin-Manuel and the cast to gather around his computer to watch the epic failure.
Part 3. David Blaine Injures Himself
When Blaine began promoting his ‘dangerous’ Las Vegas residency last year, he claimed it “can’t physically be done night after night”. At the time, most perceived this to mean that the show required too much physical strength and endurance to perform without breaks to recover. Now, we’re wondering if it was because the show’s risks were always high.
Blaine was performing smash and stab in his Las Vegas stage show when he forced his hand down onto the wrong styrofoam cup. He spoke to People about the injury. He’s done the trick one thousand times before without injury. You may have already seen him performing it on stage or in his TV show Real or Magic to celebs like Kanye West and Woody Harrelson.
“I felt like this was the one,” he said.
In the routine, two audience members help him decide which cup to slam his hand down onto. One of the cups contains an upward-facing metal ice pick. On this particular night, the audience members chose the wrong cup, and Blaine unknowingly slammed his hand onto the ice pick, inflicting injury. I chose my words carefully there to make it clear that the spectators were not at fault.
And if you’re thinking about the time you saw Blaine gently push an ice pick through his hand without appearing to experience pain on his TV show and wondering why this injury might be different. Well, he didn’t gently and precisely force the ice pick through his hand this time. This time, he slammed his hand down aimlessly on it with great force.
Also — an ice pick through the hand will always hurt and is dangerous.
So why did he do it? What went wrong?
Blaine recalls, “I didn’t want to delay” the show, remembering feeling unsure about the cup selection. “I wanted to keep it exciting, so I just figured I’ll go for it even though I didn’t feel it was right,” he explained.
After suffering his hand injury, Blaine recalls thinking, "The show must go on, so I just cleaned up the blood and started again a minute later."
He’ll perform the trick again for the first time when his residency returns to Resorts World in Las Vegas. He’s actually eager to perform the trick again.
“I wasn’t a big fan of the trick until now,” he says.
Only Blaine would decide he likes a trick after it goes terribly wrong.