What the iconic director and actor told us about the con artistry of cold-reading marks (i.e., customers).
“Personally I'm interested in what makes [card readings] more meaningful. If you just want accuracy then watch body language. You can read as much or more from the querent as you can from the cards.”—Mary K. Greer, 1996, answering a question on the Usenet group, alt.tarot, distinguishing between what makes Tarot readings “more accurate” and “meaningful”—and confessing that she employed cold-reading techniques to obtain accuracy in her readings.
“Most (ethical) Tarot readers subscribe to a code of ethics.”—Brigit Esselmont, whose code of ethics includes peddling Tarot certifications to people for $1000, which certifications have no other meaning than that Brigit Esselmont says the person is certified to read Tarot cards. Brigit calls Mary K. Greer the “grandmother of Tarot”.
“A cold reading is where you warm up the sucker…after they’re warmed up…they start telling you [things about themselves]. Because you just say is this it?—and you see from their faces if it is or it isn’t. Then you tell it back and they say how did he do it?”—Orson Welles, explaining the basic two-part attack by fake fortunetellers used on “suckers” and “marks”—and which attack is employed by a lot of the modern Tarot-reading industry.
People like to pretend to themselves that they are very smart, much smarter than the people who were in the past—who are SO STUPID they’re all dead. But the truth is people are just getting dumber every day. That isn’t just my misanthropic bias. It’s science, which tells us the process of domestication is sheepifying the vast flocks of humanity, turning them from smart predators into dull-witted farm animals.
Who is Orson Welles?
While people may have heard the name “Orson Welles”, most likely they know very little about him. Recently, some attention began again to be paid to Welles because the 80th anniversary of his infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast will be on October 30, 2018. In a seminal event in entertainment and pop culture, Welles and his Mercury Theater players presented H. G. Wells’ science-fiction story of a Martian invasion of Earth in a radio play for Halloween. Welles thought it would be interesting to do it as a modern news report of the invasion (maybe the first fake news ever broadcast), and only listeners who paid attention to disclaimers about the program being a radio play readily understood that what they were listening to was not real. Exploiting the general fear people had of impending war and being invaded by human aliens—this was 1938—the radio broadcast, which again was a Halloween feature, terrified millions of Americans—OK, yeah—the gullible portion of the population, but check out who is running America right now. Gullible has always been big in the USA.
And, just like that kind of reality radio worked great to exploit people’s fears and faiths about what could be true, so fortunetellers have taken advantage of people’s fears and faiths for centuries to allegedly tell them the future. All kinds of things can be used to conduct the fortunetelling exercise: dice, crystal balls, and of course playing cards—especially Tarot cards.
As it turned out, Orson Welles, in addition to all his other talents, had trained as a stage magician when he was a young man, and at some point he was introduced to the art of mentalism and of pretending to be able to tell a person’s fortune. In a couple of interviews, Welles explained how once in Kansas City during his legitimate stage career, he had filled in his off time by donning a turban, a cape and setting up shop as Dr. Swami, Fortuneteller, charging $2 a reading.
Welles also explained the nature of the basic tool of all “psychic” or fortuneteller swindling operations—the “cold reading”.
Here is what Welles says about this:
“A cold reading is where you warm up the sucker, by telling him things that he says how could he ever know that, you see. You say, you know, between the ages of 13 and 15 you had a great change come in you life. And it happens in everybody’s life. But he says he came in and told me things like he has a scar on his knee. Everybody fell down and has a scar on their knee. Those are cold readings, you see. The point about this is that after they’re warmed up, they’re amazed by this knee bit and the rest of it, they start telling you. Because you just say is this it, and you see from their faces if it is or it isn’t. Then you tell it back and they say how did he do it?”
First off, we should note that in terms of anyone claiming to be a real fortuneteller, Welles plainly says this is bad:
“Please understand that I hate fortunetelling. It’s meddlesome, dangerous and a mockery of free will—the most important doctrine man has invented.”
OK. Whatever. Actually science suggests such a thing was free will might not exist, but fine. The point is that Orson Welles has explained in basic terms how what he calls his “tricks” were used to read and “warm up” a cold customer.
By employing generic observations that readily impress a customer who is seeking validation of the powers of the reader, the fake fortuneteller or mentalist conditions the customer or victim to then participate in their own defrauding, but answering questions the reader asks which are intended to supply the reader with all the correct answers they’ll ever need. Naturally, the customer is satisfied by what the cold reader has told them, because the reader is just repeating back to the customer things the customer had just said to the reader.
However, much as with sleight-of-hand magic tricks, if a cold reader is well practiced and deft with his delivery, it can very much seem to the customer or client that something profound and magical or psychic has just occurred.
Now, you might think to yourself if everybody knows about these cold-reading tricks, and that they have been tools of criminals for decades—or centuries really—then nobody claiming to be a fortuneteller would use those tricks unless they too were running some kind of fake fortunetelling operation.
Yes, you might think that.
But you would not have counted on the audacity of what passes for clairvoyant or cartomantical expertise in what is called with no irony intended whatsoever the Tarot industry.
Again, recall Mary K. Greer’s advice at the top of this article, that if you want accuracy in your readings:
“Watch body language. You can read as much or more from the querent as you can from the cards.”
Sounds pretty much like the cold reading tricks Orson Welles was talking about, huh?
In fact, that is precisely what it is, and I have written more about how Mary K. Greer for years taught cold reading as a key component of her Tarot reading practices, only to then claim years later that she was SHOCKED! to learn that there might be anything wrong with doing so. Of course this confession came many years after I had explained this to Greer on the old Usenet group, alt.tarot.
So, if Mary K. Greer, the “grandmother of Tarot” as current chief Tarot goddess (or huckster) Brigit Esselmont calls her, was using and teaching standard operating procedures for con artists for years, what else might be fake about the culture and practices of modern Tarot readers?
One thing more about Welles. In his brief career as Dr. Swami, after honing his cold reading techniques to the point where he was quickly assessing his marks, Welles says he began to process things more subconsciously or intuitively—saying “the first thing that came into my head”. And Welles says in one of these intuitive assessments he looked at a woman who had just sat down in front of him and told her:
“You’ve just lost your husband.”
Welles says the woman burst into tears, because this reading turned out to be true. Welles says he was so startled by this, he tossed away his turban and gave up on fortunetelling right then and there. Welles concluded he was falling for what he called the occupational hazard of fake fortunetellers—becoming a “shut-eye” or believing that one actually has some kind of clairvoyant or prophetic power.
Of course, for a person such as Welles, who was a legendary raconteur, adding a mysterious ending to this career as a fake fortuneteller just makes the story sound better, so whether or not this actually happened, it helps Welles confirm what he wished listeners to accept—that even when fortunetellers themselves cannot explain how they know things, that does not mean anything metaphysical has occurred, but it can be explained by the combination of the odds (if you predict the same things to people you’re going to eventually hit some right) and by intuition—which in Welles’ idea of the word is NOT catching a spirit wave of insight but is instead a hyper-efficient processing by the brain of data so that it seems to the conscious mind one knows something without thinking about It.
For my part, I will say while I mainly agree with what Welles says about cold reading and the inclinations of so many people in Tarot to employ tools of fraud while convincing themselves that is somehow OK, if his story about using his intuition to correctly read the woman whose husband was “lost” is true, perhaps it is the case that Welles got a taste or a hint of something real operating at the edges or the twilight zone of what is usually just a bunch of fraud and fakery.
This is one reason why occultists—the real ones not the pop Tarot brand—have always taught that skepticism is a key tool to employ in the assessment of what may seem to be true and real magickal or metaphysical experience.