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Review: In ‘Unfair Advantage’ at Steppenwolf, magician Harry Milas makes cards bend to his will

At the beginning of “The Unfair Advantage,” a fascinating little experience in the Steppenwolf Garage space featuring the young Australian card sharp Harry Milas, you are asked to sign a confidentiality agreement, including an assertion that you will not use any of the knowledge gained from the show to rip off your local casino or, more likely, your regular Monday night poker game with your pals.

It’s mostly a gimmick, but a very savvy one, given that Milas promises in his promotional materials to teach you how to do some nefarious things with a deck of 52 cards, thus gaining the benefit of his own years of practice with deuces, aces and second-card deals, not to mention his prior employment as a guy who walked around casinos and watched out for any shenanigans coming from either dealers or players.

Does he deliver? To some extent, yes, although Milas really is a highly skilled close-up magician who well knows that he has to walk a fine line here between offering up insider information, for which his audience is clearly hungry, and giving away the secrets of card tricks, a no-no in the magic world and something likely to subject him to considerable opprobrium from his peers, especially in this magic-obsessed town. So he makes a sharp distinction: he tells us he is willing to give away some gambling secrets but not magic secrets. At least, not to any great degree.

Moreover, this guy is so skilled with his 52 assistants — to nod to Rickie Jay who also appeared once on Steppenwolf real estate — you’ll struggle to apply any of Milas’ actions yourself. He’s just too good.

His fake deals are flawless; the speed with which he can memorize the order of an entire deck is a sight to behold and his phony shuffles, of all varieties, are beyond compare (and I’ve seen a few in my time). Aside from the cheating and trickery, the show also contains a lot of truly fascinating material related to mnemonics, the science of training your memory. In the question-and-answer section that concluded on Tuesday night, Milas said that he uses 52 rooms inside his old high school to situate each card in his head, allowing him to locate any diamond he wishes in any pack of Bicycles.

Suffice to say here that poker players, blackjack lovers, memory fiends and fans of old-school card tricks will be in seventh heaven here and will both love the intimacy of this parlor-like experience (there are multiple nightly shows and audience for each is limited to less than 50) and also recognize the quality of Milas’ work. He’s yet another former student of the late Chicago magic guru Eugene Burger, whose obituary I wrote in 2017, and who would surely be proud more of Milas’ sophisticated, often improvised storytelling and his embrace of weighty themes than his inestimably clever flicks of his fingers.

But you can meet this guy wherever you may land and, as someone who sees a lot of magic, I can say with confidence that you will not have seen anything quite like this. Some people around me Tuesday provided a veritable soundtrack of gurgles of amazement.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

Review: “The Unfair Advantage” (3.5 stars)

When: Through April 21

Where: Merle Reskin Garage, 1624 N. Halsted St.

Running time: 1 hour (plus optional 20 minutes of questions)

Tickets: $70-$85 at unfairadvantage.show