Magic of Numbers

How a fascination with numbers and magic led John Walton to the national stage.
Hilary Parker
Walton won the Fooled Us award from Penn & Teller.

John Walton, ‘78, stood in the dark wings of a Las Vegas theater, shivering near an open loading dock and waiting for his turn to take the stage. “You only have one chance with this trick,” he told himself. “So stay razor sharp.”

Walton stepped into the hot lights, and 3 1/2 minutes later he had achieved his goal: He’d stumped magician-entertainer duo Penn & Teller with his magic trick “DaVinci Outnumbered,” crowning a lifetime fascination of both numbers and magic.

“The magic bug first bit me at age 8,” says Walton, a speech communication graduate.

That year, Walton, his parents and his sister were vacationing at Disneyland, and on that first morning they stopped in at Merlin’s Magic Shop along Disney’s Main Street. 

Walton was immediately hooked. The rest of the family – not so much. They left him while they toured the park and returned to take him to lunch and then planned to continue exploring Disneyland.

“I must have thrown a fit,” Walton recalls, “so my dad gave me $10 … and told me stay all afternoon.”

Young John bought a classic cups trick and watched over and over as the demonstrators performed the sleight of hand. That night, he practiced it on his sister, trying to get her attention away from watching the boys at the hotel pool.

The next morning, John insisted on going back to the magic shop. He spent the day there, cementing what would become a life-long fascination with magic.

Walton continued to learn and practice magic for the next 40 years. Meanwhile he tried his hand at teaching, took over the family business in Bellingham, Walton Beverage, and raised three daughters with his wife, Loi. Magic was simply a hobby until he began tutoring 13-year-old Sterling Dietz. Within a year, Sterling was so good that that his parents started booking gigs for Walton and Sterling to perform together. (Today, Sterling Dietz is a professional magician.)

That’s when Walton says he finally started performing publicly. It was also around this time that Walton thought he was onto something with a new trick involving a mathematical feat called a magic square.

Magic squares, which have been around for more than 5,000 years, are square grids of, say, 16 numbers arranged in four rows of four numbers each. The magic happens when the rows of numbers all add up to the same sum, across, down and diagonally. Adding together the four corner numbers or the four center numbers will get the same sum, too. Walton first saw a magic square trick at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles and was immediately fascinated. Like his father, Walton has always had a knack with numbers.

“I set out to learn all I could about the magic square,” Walton says.

Once he mastered the magic square itself, Walton scheduled an appointment with the Math Fellows in Western’s College of Science and Engineering. The fellows, top math undergrads who work as tutors, watched Walton perform his trick, the first iteration of the trick he ultimately performed for Penn & Teller. The mathematicians were stumped, and Walton knew he really had something.

Over the next several years Walton crisscrossed the country performing in stage magic competitions, usually losing the top prize to younger performers with more spectacular stage feats. But during one competition in Washington, D.C., the judges asked him to explain his trick.

“The judges didn’t know how I did what I did,” Walton says.

While he hadn’t won the day’s competition, he ended up coming away with something much more valuable in the world of magic: In 2013 he was awarded the Society of American Magicians’ Originality Award. This honor has only been awarded a handful of times since the association was founded in 1902.

When Walton saw Penn & Teller’s “Fool Us” television show, he knew he had to get on that stage with his award-winning trick. He sent in an audition tape in November 2018 and filmed his trick for the show in March 2019 before it aired last fall.

On stage, Walton asked Penn Jillette, Teller and host Alyson Hannigan, to picture themselves rolling an imaginary die and to tell him the numbers they rolled. He added all three numbers to get the number eight, the sum he would use for the magic square.

Then, from the stack of numbered cards in his hand, he placed the numbers onto the square, column after column and row after row adding to eight. “Magic square,” Penn mumbled as Walton placed all the cards into the frame and a portrait of DaVinci’s Mona Lisa emerged.

Then Walton turned the board around to reveal a blackboard with a number written in chalk: 8. That’s what did it. When the trick was over, Penn & Teller had to admit defeat. They knew the magic square trick, Penn said, but couldn’t figure out how Walton wrote that 8 on the chalkboard. They were fooled.

Like other magicians who win the “FU, Fooled Us” trophy from Penn & Teller, Walton was invited to come back to Las Vegas to perform in one of the duo’s live shows. He also got to hang out in their “monkey room” lounge backstage after the show. For Walton, that was the biggest thrill of the experience.

But an even bigger thrill would be to do it again. As an encore, Walton is working on a new trick that he hopes will fool Penn & Teller once again.

John Walton, ‘78, stumped professional magicians Penn & Teller with a mathematical magic trick called the Magic Square.

95, B.A., journalism, is a writer and editor in Bellingham. Her most recent story for Window was about artist and entrepreneur Louie Gong, founder of Eighth Generation.

Photos by Rhys Logan '11