BILL GLADWELL DOESN’T READ MINDS. HE READS PEOPLE. IT JUST LOOKS LIKE HE READS MINDS.
BILL GLADWELL HANDS ME FIVE CARDS: the ace through five of clubs. In his hand he holds the ace through five of hearts.
“OK, now pick one of those cards, and repeat the number on it to yourself,” he said. His brown eyes take in my every reaction to this direction with intensity. He never tells me what he’s looking for, exactly, but I see his eyes bore into mine, flicking across my face here and there looking for … what? A subtle raising of an eyebrow? An imperceptible flaring of a nostril?
He’ll get no such luxury here, I tell myself. My face goes stone, an Easter Island moai betting his rent money on one last hand of Texas Hold ‘em.
He lays a card face down. I lay my card, the four of clubs, face down.
This bit with the cards, this isn’t in Gladwell’s show, currently running at the intimate upstairs club atop the new Pelican’s Point Seafood, Steaks & Spirits — formerly Kingfisher restaurant. As he puts it, “When I bring the cards out, people expect a trick.”
Instead, what he does in his show is — in his own words — lie, cheat and steal. His volunteers (he calls them victims) come up on stage and through a combination of years of practice and educated guesses, Gladwell stuns the crowd as he coaxes the thoughts right out of their heads.
“I’ll get three people on stage; one thinks of a favorite childhood toy, one thinks of a cherished pet, one thinks of their fi rst kiss. I go through and name all three,” he said. “It’s fun. It’s not like standup comedy, but there’s a lot of funny things that get revealed.”
For now, even though it’s not in the show, Gladwell is reading my thoughts via the cards. “OK, now once again for the next card,” he tells me.
Again, my eyes scan the cards. I’ve taken off my glasses so there’s no telltale reflection. I’ve angled the cards away from the narrow windows of the upstairs stage space at Pelican’s Point, safely hidden from both any reflection on the window and from the seabirds lazily circling outside.
He lays down another card. I lay down the ace.
The story of how Gladwell, a Lima, Ohio, native with a background in business, came to read thoughts for a living is so unlikely that no mentalist on earth could possibly guess at it. Shortly after high school, Gladwell found himself at a seminar hosted by famed motivational speaker and hypnotist Tony Robbins. A chance encounter with a fellow Lima native who happened to be friends with Robbins led to Gladwell actually meeting the man behind the life coach movement. Their meeting led to a mentorship of sorts.
“Tony’s a hypnotist, but he never calls himself that,” Gladwell said. Gladwell was soon working with Robbins and volunteering with his organizations, all while learning the subtle science of divining people’s innermost thoughts.
His apprenticeship led to him opening a clinic to help clients quit smoking and lose weight through the power of hypnosis. Which led to a stage show at a local restaurant. Which led to a 23-year career traveling the country doing seminars. Ultimately, his show led him to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where he launched a three-year run of a mentalism show that quickly became the No. 1 attraction in the touristy mountain town known for its glut of attractions.
Which led him here, to Pelican’s Point and his new show. Which, again, does not include the card trick in which we are currently embroiled.
Gladwell lays down another card, still scrutinizing me for whatever imperceptible cues I’m unwittingly giving off. I take a quick glance at his tattoos: a string of musical notes across his left forearm, a pair of lips on his neck that I’m sure have a story behind them. Gladwell has a slew of stories, generally hilarious, only a few of which you’ll find here due to space constraints and general editorial sensibilities of a family magazine.
He lays a card down. I lay down the five. “People are taught we have five senses,” he says. “Scientists have now come up with about 18 to 20. So if you know how to use those with people and pick up on the signs that they’re giving, the body language and verbal cues, physiological cues, you can get a lot from people. It’s like a poker tell.”
And like a poker game, we continue to lay our cards down. I put my two down on the turn and my three on the river.
Gladwell asks me to pick the cards back up, restacking them in the same order they were laid down. He does likewise with his, his eyes never leaving mine.
We lay the cards down. I put down the four. He puts down a four. I put down the ace. He puts down an ace. The five, the two the three, they each leave our hands in unison.
The whole time we were laying down cards, he was reading me. With each card, I was betrayed by the nearly microscopic tells that I wouldn’t even know were projecting my every thought to Gladwell’s trained eye.
It’s not mind reading that Gladwell does, as he’ll tell you. It’s thought reading.
And somehow, because there’s no fraudulent mysticism behind it, because there’s just a guy who know exactly how to read a face like a book, it’s that much more impressive. It actually feels more like magic than some simple trick.
Gladwell performs Sunday through Tuesday at Pelican’s Point, and hosts nationally touring comics Wednesday through Saturday.