It's funny how things go, sometimes. Back when I started in magic, the Cups and Balls was the one routine I spent hours and hours on, trying to get everything just so. We're not talking some Vernonesque, sleight mad piece of craziness; this was the basic routine I found in The Amateur Magician's Handbook. But there was something about it that just grabbed onto me and I couldn't put the thing away.
I loved the Cups and Balls, it seemed, though as is typical with such loves, explaining the why of it was impossible.
When I first stumbled across the man who would be my mentor, the first thing he taught me was a Cups and Balls routine. As with my first exposure to the routine, there were no difficult sleights - certainly nothing above a false transfer or two - but it was through this simple routine that I first learned things like timing, pacing, blocking, and a score of theatrical concepts I never dreamed about.
Hard to believe the education I got from three silver-colored plastic cups and four little cloth pom-poms.
So, here I came, tumbling back half-pass over side-steal into magic after a couple of decades and the first routine I picked back up was ye olde Cups and Balls. But I had a problem.
You see, I wanted to do something more with them than just do 'em; I wanted there to be some meaning to the things. I was in the throes of giving my magic some meaning, making it a bit more important, giving it a story complete with characters and conflict and resolution and...well, you get the idea. There was just a part of me that wanted to make the Cups and Balls as important to an audience as it was to me, at least give them a glimmer of their status in my little world.
Hey, give me my little dreamings, will ya?
Anyway, quickly the question became "What the Hells can you do with the Cups and Balls?"
A quick jaunt through magical literature would apparently reveal the answer to be "Not much, dammit." The vast majority of presentations are showpieces, designed to show spectators just how skilled the performer is. While there's nothing wrong with that, certainly, it's not much help when you're wanting to make the classic into a performance piece.
Presentations that vary from that are scarce. Of those that actually attempt some sort of idea other than "Watch me do this 'cuz my mom thinks it's neat", most are comedic in nature. Some of these had me rolling on the floor (Ron Bauer's version, using confederate money and paper cups, still has me giggling) but, again, they weren't what I was after. Paul Gertner's routine in his wonderful book, Steel and Silver, was much closer to what I was after. Mr. Gertner, you see, took the classic, replaced the balls with ball bearings, and gave the trick meaning through that change. It also doesn't hurt that the routine itself is gorgeously constructed. Looking around at other sources - what we sometimes refer to as "bizarre magic" - was disappointing in that most relied on final loads of eyeballs and shrunken heads and the like to make the routine different.
Again, nothing wrong with any of that, if that's your thing, but I wanted something more.
And promptly ran into a brick wall. And with alacrity put the idea aside. It just wasn't meant to be, I figured, that I should succeed in doing something with my favorite trick.
That's when it hit me. I stopped thinking of the Cups and Balls as a classic, as something of some strange reverence, and went back to this one basic thought: it's a trick. It's a damn fine trick, in many ways the perfect trick, but it's still just a trick.
The light bulb was officially on, and the result was The Sting.
Essentially, The Sting is a very simple version of the Cups and Balls combined with another old piece, the "Two in the Hand" routine. You won't find a lot of complicated sleights here - don't worry about wand spins and strike vanishes and the like - so that you can concentrate on the real work here, which is the presentation.
Don't fret; the presentation itself is nothing more than a story. It doesn't force the spectator into introspection, it carries no deep, dark meaning. It's a tale to be enjoyed and, with the magic involved, it certainly is enjoyable.
Oh, and it revolves around assassination and death.
Well, I told you I didn't want a comedy piece, didn't I?
This is really a crime drama, but "Cops and Robbers" or "Hotel Detectives" it ain't.
As to the magic, The Sting is packed. You've got the transpositions you'd expect from "Two in the Hand", plus the penetrations you know and love from the Cups and Balls, but you've also got some neat transformations and an unexpected load for the finale just for good measure.
If it sounds like I'm proud of The Sting, it's because I am. After a lot of time, it still remains one of my pieces that provokes the most comment and, to be honest, that makes me all the more proud of it. What follows is the routine as it appeared in my book, Pentalogy, with a few additional notes at the end which didn't appear in the original publication.