In the foyer of a hotel in downtown Stockholm, a stunning twenty-two- year- old Belgian girl with dark brown eyes and long chestnut curls had attracted a small crowd. She held an ace in each hand, and as she twirled her arms through the air, the cards transformed into kings. The audience had seen this sort of thing before—they weren’t the kind of people who would go wild for a single change. But then, in one fluid sequence, she coiled her wrists again and the kings became queens. The energy in the room quickened as her arms snaked through the air like a flamenco dancer’s—once, twice—and the queens faded into jacks, then tens. The people around her began to cheer. Another whirl and the tens turned into jokers. She is one of the only magicians in the world who can pull off five transformations in a row, and the audience was now crazy for her.

Toward the back of the lobby, a florid man in a black pork-pie hat demoed a shell game—that age-old gypsy swindle with three hollowed-out shells and a pea. In the corner by the entrance, a gaggle of teenagers in red lounge chairs were performing an acrobatic kung fu of card stunts known as Xtreme Card Manipulation—a flurry of cuts, spins, and flourishes. In the hands of these kids, the cards became pyramids and snowflakes, whorled mollusk spirals, mandalas of cycling angels. The leader of the group, a chubby alpha nerd in a black skullcap, flaunted a move in which stacks of cards formed intersecting geometric patterns that resembled an M. C. Escher illusion.

Then there were the mentalists—mind readers, spoon benders,second-sight acts. Dressed mostly in black, they’d staked out a pair of round tables in the middle of the lounge, and I would have given a kidney to be a fly on one of their beer glasses. Everywhere you looked—in the hallways, at the bar, in the restaurant, by the elevators, even in the bathrooms—men and women were sharing secrets, trading moves. I clutched a worn deck of blue Bicycle cards in my fist and drank in the scene.

It was almost ten o’clock on a balmy weekend night in early August, but the Stockholm sky was not yet dark, and a gauzy dusk seeped through the skylights, casting a maze of shadows on the carpet of the atrium lobby. In Sweden during the summer months, the sun hardly sets, and the insomnia of endless daylight can throw you into delirium. Not that I planned to sleep. Here I was sharing the same air with the world’s greatest magicians, many of them my heroes. We were all in Stockholm for the 2006 World Championships of Magic, otherwise known as the Magic Olympics. Every three years the greatest conjurors from around the globe descend on a chosen city, armed with their most jealously guarded secrets, and duke it out, trick for trick, to see who among them is most powerful. The Twenty-third Olympics in Stockholm were the biggest in history, with nearly 3,000 attendees from 67 countries and 153 competitors vying for medals in 8 events. This year I was one of the challengers.