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The art of guessing cards and reading minds

From ‘mind reading’ on stage to animating ads and social media, Valentino Demetriou is a specialist in manipulation, says THEO PANAYIDES

Mental Val, a.k.a. Valentino Demetriou, summons three spectators to the stage – this was at a show he did recently, actually his first paid show in Cyprus after years of being on the fence about going pro – and asks each one (they’re all male) to jot down the name of the girl with whom they shared their first kiss. Then he shuffles the names and presents one at random (without looking at it himself) to the three; he asks each in turn if it’s the name of ‘their’ girl, and asks them all to say ‘No’ – then successfully matches the name to the right man. Then he does the same with the second volunteer, this time asking them to reply in their heads instead of out loud – then, for the third man, he does something special. “Try to send me the first letter of the name that you wrote down,” he instructs. “And that’s where I do more direct mind reading,” he explains to me. The first letter of the last name, when he did his show a few weeks ago, was a ‘B’, for (he thinks) ‘Brenda’.

How does he do it? The first two parts seem explicable; a trained eye can tell when two people are telling the truth and one is lying. “You can pick up, like, micro-expressions,” he confirms in his fluent, lightly accented English (he’s totally Cypriot, but studied in the UK for years and lived in London for a while, doing open-mic nights and comedy clubs). “People are uncomfortable on stage, because they want to finish this quickly and go back to their seat… You can kind of pick things up”. Seems a bit risky to base one’s entire routine on reading the facial expressions of total strangers, but fair enough – but then what about the last part? There isn’t, as far as I know, any specific micro-expression that comes into play when one is thinking of the letter ‘B’.

Something else may be relevant too. The second part of Valentino’s show is called ‘Why you shouldn’t play cards with a mind reader’; it proceeds on similar lines (he successfully guesses what cards a spectator is holding) and meanwhile he also explains how it’s done to the audience, claiming to be using psychological tricks – e.g. choosing specific words – to manipulate the person into divulging the answer. It sounds quite plausible – but in fact, he admits with a chuckle, it’s “a fake explanation”. So maybe all his talk of picking up micro-expressions was also a fake explanation? How did he know that the third name began with a ‘B’, anyway? “I can’t expose that yet,” he laughs. “There are techniques involved. I mean, there are a lot of things happening in the background that you have to keep track of.”

So why even claim to be telling the audience how the trick works? He hesitates: “When I go onstage,” he explains carefully, “I give these pseudo-explanations because I don’t want people to think I’m better than them, or that I have powers, that I’m psychic. And I do say, like: ‘I’m not psychic, I can’t talk to the dead. I don’t read palms. I can’t predict the future. It’s just a show’. Because I don’t want people to think of me like that.”

They still do, of course. A few years ago, after doing some card tricks on live TV (like most mentalists, he’s also adept at traditional magic), he got a call from a woman who begged him to tell her future, and, specifically, to reveal if she was ever going to get married. People crave magic, even in our scientific age. Back in the Middle Ages, the magician was also the village shaman, a fortune-teller and medical doctor; villagers didn’t know any better, “they believed that these people had powers, so they worshipped them”. Things may have changed on the surface – yet in fact we continue to get tricked all the time; the magicians have just become smarter, and now wear suits instead of pointy hats.

“We’re really simple. I mean, we’re animals,” sighs Valentino when I ask what magic has taught him about human nature. “We’re easily fooled.” Onstage the trickery is blatant, but it’s also there (more subtly) in his day-job as an animator, working on adverts and social media – he works extensively with marketers, “and it’s amazing how easily they fool you into buying their clients’ products” – and indeed it goes beyond that; the degrees of separation between mentalism and the highest echelons of power are fewer than you’d think. “There are people who started off as performers, as mentalists, and then turned into public speakers and motivational speakers,” he recounts. “And I’ve met some people who, after they turned into motivational speakers, were hired by politicians to write their speeches”. One could even view a mentalist – especially if he’s also a hypnotist, like Valentino – as the ultimate 21st-century profession, a specialist in manipulation, an expert at controlling the flow of information, operating not by sleight-of-hand like the rabbits-out-of-hats conjurors of old, but through psychology, brazen self-confidence and people’s secret wish to believe in magic. It’s a fine line between fake readings – and fake explanations – and fake news.

These are weighty matters to be talking about in a rather dingy neighbourhood on what used to be the outskirts of Nicosia – one of the refugee housing complexes built after the war, and apparently not re-painted since. 32-year-old Valentino lives here alone (he and his girlfriend split up last year, after almost six years), in the house where he grew up, surrounded by a few straggly orange trees and white walls streaked yellow with time – yet the entrance to his flat is already interesting, with a doormat reading ‘Haunted House’ and the flat number spelled out in decorative metal pins. Inside, one wall is painted black and adorned with ‘Make Sh!T Happen’ in white block letters, while two bulky suitcases – one brown, one blue, both containing magical paraphernalia – sit atop a bookshelf. I sip water and glance at his fridge magnets, more letters spelling out a stark message: ‘YOU ARE GOING TO DIE’.

Why that, out of all possible mottos? “People take their life for granted,” he replies pleasantly, sitting on a low sofa with his legs folded under him. “I mean, they keep saying ‘I have dreams, I want to do this, I want to do that’, but they never take action – and we keep getting old! So we keep losing time”. The phrase on the fridge motivates him to act, he explains – and he does come across as very focused, not the type to procrastinate and feel good about it. The trim beard and crew-cut give him a neat, vigorous look (the earring and eyebrow-ring add a touch of the hipster), and meanwhile his hands keep moving.

They’re important, those hands: they shuffle – and palm – cards and coins, they paint, draw and animate, they can knead pasta (he loves cooking, and makes his own ramen noodles) and do tricks with a yo-yo. “I like anything that involves using my hands as a skill,” he replies when I ask about hobbies. When he’s working, in his job as an animator, Valentino’s hands sometimes take on a life of their own, unconsciously practising tricks with a pen or a coin while the rest of him works on projects, or just tapping restlessly on the desk till his colleagues complain.

That kind of restless creative energy isn’t easily sated; it’s an open secret that he’s not too fulfilled in the corporate world. “I’m considered to be among the top five animators in Cyprus,” he declares – “but I don’t feel that way, because we keep doing the same stuff. Because the clients are, like, stuck in the 90s, and they don’t listen to us”. I seem to have caught him at a transitional stage, the energy about to be siphoned off in new directions. A year ago, he recalls, everything seemed fine. He was with his girlfriend (“I still care about her,” he adds hastily), they were even planning to get married – but “I kinda got into a routine of just going to work, come home, watch TV series, spend time with my girlfriend, then go to bed and keep repeating that”. One day, he says, he woke up with a weight on his chest and a sense of profound indifference for the life he was leading. The routine was stifling him, work was uninteresting – and even his passion for performing was fading. The magic, so to speak, had gone out of magic.

At the start of 2019, he gave himself a challenge, “to draw a monster every single day. A little monster on a 10×10 canvas… I had some rules, it had to be [done in] 20 minutes tops and only use two colours”. The results, posted on the Instagram account mental_artwork, were a massive hit (he currently has 52,459 followers) and helped him regain his creativity. (He also had it out with his girlfriend, who confessed she was also feeling stuck in a rut; they broke up soon after.) So here we are in 2020, a few weeks after his first paid gig – hopefully the first step in a new chapter that’ll see him guessing cards and reading minds, gaining exposure abroad, and travelling the world as a full-time mentalist. “That’s what I want to achieve with my life, before I die.”

What kind of person is Mental Val, a.k.a. Valentino Demetriou? His stage persona is “cocky and funny,” he says – and some of that confidence spills over offstage too (hence the ease with which he refers to himself as “a natural-born artist”, not to mention one of the top five animators in Cyprus), though it’s really a chicken-and-egg situation: “Magic made me more confident,” he admits, “made me more sociable”. As a kid he was “pretty quiet”, and rather solitary; he did have friends, but spent most of his time playing computer games and practising magic tricks. “I think the first time I went out – like actually out, to a club – my mum forced me to. I was almost 18.” Some would say he’s exactly the type who’d be drawn to magic – because, of course, magic is power. Magic is a form of control, and a source of charisma. He recalls being at a party at the age of 16, rather reluctantly doing card tricks – and suddenly realising he’d become the life of the party, all his classmates sitting on the floor watching his nimble hands as if hypnotised.

He doesn’t want control, he insists; he wants creativity. He doesn’t want to be some shamanic figure. He has no spiritual beliefs (I suspect most magicians tend to be materialists; it comes with the territory), and assured the woman who approached him after that TV show that her future was entirely in her own hands. Still, “I’m not going to lie”, it feels good to be up on stage mystifying people, touching on some primal memory from a time when the world was inexplicable. In the old days, this was simply accepted as ‘magic’; nowadays we ask ‘How does he do it?’, and look for answers in technology or psychology – but still, at some level, yearn to be seduced, calling for the trick to be exposed while secretly hoping it remains mysterious.

Valentino recalls how it all began, for him – at 14, on a family trip to Platres, where a magician was doing card tricks (and singing a song at the same time; being a showman is also important). He pestered the man for two days, till he finally “saw that I was serious” – then came hours of practice, the hours stretching into years, then the sideways move to mentalism and hypnosis. He extracts a deck of cards from one of the bulky suitcases to show me the first trick he ever learned, the one the guy in Platres was performing (“a really old trick, I think it goes back to the 1900s”). Valentino shows the top card – it’s the Two of Clubs – then he covers it, half-reveals it again, covers it up once more, then removes his empty hand with a flourish – and now it’s the King of Diamonds! The birth of a lifelong obsession, culminating in a kid from a refugee housing complex holding a room (rather like a hidden card) in the palm of his hand. And how, exactly, does he do it? My lips are sealed.

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