TC50: Penn & Teller Show Off Their iPhone Magic Trick

The magicians Penn & Teller have this card trick. Except it’s not really a card trick, it’s an iPhone app. You tell a friend that you know Penn & Teller and that they can guess cards remotely. To prove it you ask them to name a card, then you pull out your iPhone and tell your friend to send an SMS message to Penn (or sometimes it’s Teller). They always respond, because you are such good friends.

Update: also check out our TC50 backstage interview with Penn Jillette.

Sometimes they are in a good mood, and sometimes in a bad mood, depending on the time of day. They always have a funny quip, and they always know what card your friend picked. How do they do it? Spoiler alert: stop reading now if you don’t want to know how it’s done. But since Penn Jillette just explained the trick onstage at TechCrunch50, I’ll reveal it as well.

As with all good magic tricks, this one relies on some clever misdirection. The Penn & Teller app mimics the icons on your iPhone. As you are fumbling around to launch your “SMS app,” you are actually entering a code with the card that the person you are trying to fool has named. Then when you hand them the iPhone, the SMS chat is all automated, and is actually not a chat at all. It is programmed with some small talk from either Penn or Teller, along with the correct card. The trick is in fooling your mark that they are actually chatting with Penn or Teller.

On stage, Penn makes one of the judges, Microsoft’s Don Dodge, puts a card on his forehead and then asks Teller what the card is. Having trouble typing on the phone while holding the card to his forehead, Dodge exclaims, “This is an iPhone, I’m from Microsoft!”

“We wanted to create a trick somebody could just download and do instantly with no instructions,” says Penn. “We also wanted a trick that would fool the shit out of people.”

The app will be available soon in the iTunes store for $1.99. Now, if only Penn & Teller could predict when Apple will approve the app, that would really be magic.


Q: What’s the business model?

Penn: It’s not so much a revenue generator for us. It’s more a public service to get guys laid.

Q: Am I investing in Penn & Tellr or the app?

Penn: There is no venture capital required. We are done, and it is for sale now.

Q: So what’s next?

Penn: I am going to go to Las Vegas and shoot bullets at my partner Teller.


Other Coverage

TC50: With Penn & Teller, your iPhone does card tricks too
Penn and Teller Unveil New iPhone Application #tc50 Techgeist
TechCrunch50: Penn and Teller, the iPhone app LA Times.