When Shane Cobalt was eight, a relative inadvertently set him on a lifelong journey.
“I saw my grandfather doing a card trick at a family gathering. And it fooled me badly,” says Cobalt.
He had a fallen victim to “the sucker effect,” where everyone in the room except you knows how a trick is done.
“No one in my family would tell me how it worked, which, if you think about it, was pretty messed up.”
Fast forward to today and Cobalt is representing Canada at the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques (FISM) World Championship of Magic in Quebec City.
This week thousands of magicians from more than 50 countries are at this one-of-a-kind competition, where 110 magicians are hoping to claim the coveted grand prix along with the title of world’s top magician.
It’s the first time the competition has taken place outside of Europe and Asia, something that Canadian magician and 2009 magic grand prix winner Shawn Farquhar says is an emotional moment.
“I literally wept right there,” Farquhar says after learning Quebec City would be the host city during 2018’s competition in Korea. “As a Canadian, my heart swelled 10 times its size”
First held in 1948, the championship takes place every three years, although this year’s event was delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to the competition, magicians will be swapping secrets, attending “jam sessions,” and even selling their illusions to the highest bidder.
‘I’m excitedly terrified’
Two Canadians are competing this year, including Yannick Lacroix from Quebec and Cobalt, who will be competing in the close-up card magic category.
“I’m excitedly terrified,” Cobalt told CBC News. He qualified for the championship after competing in an event last fall for the first time.
The Toronto-based magician says there is added stress and excitement when thinking about the audience.
“It’s literally every great magician I grew up reading about… or ask[ed] for an autograph who’s going to be in there now watching me do this act.”
There’s a lot on the line for the magicians, according to Canadian illusionist Greg Frewin.
“If you place even in the top three of this competition, your life changes,” he says.
Frewin speaks from experience having won first place in the general magic category at the 1994 world championships in Yokohama, Japan. He currently performs shows at the Greg Frewin theater in Niagara Falls, Ont., and has been training the next generation of magicians. One of his students, Ding Yang of China, is also competing at FISM.
“I can’t give away what she does, but I will say this, there is one part of her act that nobody, male or female, has ever done and probably won’t do for a long time because of the skill level and the skill set besides magic that it takes.”
Canada’s success in magic
Renée-Claude Auclair is president and co-organizer of the current FISM world championships, as well as president of the Canadian Association of Magicians. Auclair hopes hosting the competition in Canada will bring more awareness to magic at home.
“I don’t think that in North America, it’s as well-known and recognized … the level of the competition or how important it is,” she says.
Auclair in her youth was a diver but when she started to get involved in the world of magic later in life, she realized Canadian magicians didn’t have the support system she had in her other career.
WATCH | Shane Cobalt shares some trickery:
“I had the chance to have all those tools when I was young and I didn’t see the same type of sponsorship or support,” she says.
For those Canadian magicians who are recognized, change can happen quickly. After winning the grand prize at the 2009 championships in Beijing, Farquhar’s career went to another level.
“Ellen DeGeneres invited me to be on the show was kind of the first thing, which was kind of crazy,” Farquhar says. He made news around the world but says it was “a little quieter in Canada.”
Having the event on Canadian soil could play a role in boosting the profile of Canadian magicians.
“The more we talk about magic and care, the more magicians get to perform and the better we become,” says Farquhar.
Evidence of that can be found in the thousands of magicians who aren’t competing but are still in Quebec City for the weekend. One of them is Farhan Islam who goes by the stage name Brown Magic. The Montreal-based magician grew up practicing magic in Bangladesh after seeing US illusionist David Blaine on TV.
“I figured out a trick and I started doing it in the streets of Bangladesh,” he says.
Islam is hoping to compete for Bangladesh in the next FISM championships and is in Quebec City to check out the level of competition. He says he knew about Frewin before coming to Canada, and says Frewin and Farquhar are “superstars.”
“They’re very inspirational,” he says. “They’re all rockstars”
Modern day magic
Farquhar says top hats and capes come to people’s minds when they think of magic, but really, at its core, magic is about something else.
“Nowadays, when you see magic, it’s not about pulling rabbits out of hats. It’s not about a top hat and tails. It’s really about creating a sense of wonder and allowing people to escape,” he says.
That sense of wonder can exist even between magicians. One of Farquhar’s duties in Quebec City will be lecturing to some of his peers.
“Rarely do magicians get to tell how their secrets work. I’m going to fool them and then teach them,” he says.
The desire to learn why you were fooled can be a powerful motivator, something that promoted Cobalt’s journey to the world championships, one that began when he was fooled by his grandfather.
“He planted an incredible seed that grew a remarkable tree that has become my career.”