During a late-May performance at Soho House, magician David Kwong, 32, held up a deck of cards and asked a woman in the audience to pick one and keep the suit and number to herself. While the average magician might then reach for a sword, rabbit, or flash pot to further his trick, Kwong instead unveiled a poster-size piece of paper covered with a blank crossword puzzle grid. He asked for a few long words to write across the grid, then began filling in connecting words while tossing out verbal clues to the audience (“Southeast Asian water buffalo?”). Within minutes, he had created a New York Times–caliber crossword puzzle, with a twist. A row of diagonal letters spelled out eight of clubs, the card that the woman had selected.
The crowd — mostly under-40 professionals — went crazy. Even David Copperfield, who had been checking his own iPhone and whispering to his fiancée in the audience for much of the night, sat upright in his chair. The two Davids have been collaborating on developing film projects that feature magic, puzzles, and illusions ever since the highest-earning magician saw Kwong perform in Vegas in April, and Copperfield is still surprised by what he can do. Kwong is the cerebral yin to Copperfield’s flashy yang. Could Kwong become the David Blaine for the Words With Friends crowd?
Until recently, the young Harvard graduate had been working in film development — mostly at DreamWorks Animation — while practicing magic on the side. Last December, he quit his day job to focus on illusions full-time. Today he performs at private parties and venues like Soho House and the Core Club, on tour with the band Mumford & Sons, and for companies like Google, where his mix of “puzzles and prestidigitation” appeals to young, techie crowds. “It feels to me like a modern version of an old stage act,” says New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz, a friend. “It’s parlor magic done before a small group of people — an act that will please a general audience and amaze even magicians.”
One of Kwong’s signature set pieces is designed to blow any Scrabble addict’s mind. First, he has an audience volunteer supply a dollar bill and draw on it for verification. And then, the wordplay: Kwong pulls 60 random tiles from a bag and attempts to make three eight-letter words — known as “bingos” in Scrabble — in under four minutes, and then intersects the remaining 36 tiles in smaller words. And then comes the reveal that brings back the dollar bill and had Vulture’s video editor mutter, “That man is a witch.” It is better seen than explained.
To keep his skills honed, Kwong memorizes thousands of Scrabble words and other elements, like the periodic table, Morse code, and the significance of different naval flags. (His favorite words include cwm — a vowel-less, Welsh word that means “a small link between valleys” — and facetious because it has every vowel once and in order.) To develop a new trick, he spends hours at his kitchen table, surrounded by playing cards, Scrabble tiles, coins, string, double-sided tape, super glue, and the occasional soldering iron. (The latter, he says, is for fusing things together and “creating secret flaps, hooks, and places to conceal objects.”) The process is “mostly tactile … I rearrange objects I have on my table and see what kinds of codes I can make out of them,” says Kwong, who began playing Scrabble with his mother, a University of Rochester history professor, when he was 10. Tricks can take up to a year to develop; Kwong tests them out while Skyping with friends or performing for small groups at the Magic Castle, a private Los Angeles club.
Kwong is continuing to develop his projects with Copperfield and consulting on movies (he first performed for Copperfield while consulting on Now You See Me, a thriller about a team of bank-robbing illusionists that stars Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, and Jesse Eisenberg). But his primary focus is his own show. He’s busy teaching himself Morse code; figuring out how to simultaneously play the piano, sing, and perform magic; and looking for new tricks to enrich his niche brand of brainy magic. “I just bought five Rubik’s Cubes from Target, just to have them around,” he says. “My friends saw them in my car. They were like, ‘Only you, David.’”