Because I’ve been going to Las Vegas several times a year for many years, I get asked by friends who are going there, especially for the first time, whether there are any shows worth seeing. I have three shows I usually recommend, all featuring terrific magicians, appropriate for all ages. In no particular order they are:

Penn & Teller at The Rio. I’ve seen this one so many times I’ve lost count. They add new bits and bring back classics on a regular basis, so it’s never the same year-to-year. Penn has added a lot more skepticism and ballsiness to his verbiage, and Teller’s silent solo spots — including his new red ball illusion and the water tank full of coins — are nothing short of brilliant.

Lance Burton at the Monte Carlo. Years ago, I asked Penn to recommend a show, and he sent me to see Burton, saying “the first 12 minutes of Lance’s show contain some of the best sleight-of-hand you’ll ever see.” That’s quite a statement, considering he works with Teller every night. He was right. The rest of Burton’s show consists of big theatrical illusions and some good in-person stuff with young members of the audience (my daughter was invited up once and was holding onto a small birdcage while Lance vanished it, and although his hands were on top of hers, she couldn’t see how he did it — nor could anyone else). I was told recently that Lance is going to end his long run in his own theater at the Monte Carlo on September 4, 2010. He hasn’t announced a new venue deal, so see him there while you can.

Mac King at Harrah’s. I first discovered Mac when he was doing his comedy-magic act in nightclubs like the Funny Bone in St. Louis. We talked afterwards, he came to do my show a couple of times, and then he found a permanent home in Vegas, where I’ve seen him on several occasions. Unlike the others, his is an afternoon show (1pm and 3pm five days a week), and he’s alone onstage except for audience volunteers he brings up — he has a remarkable knack for picking just the right people out of the crowd to enhance the banter and make the show better — not to mention a half-dozen Fig Newtons in supporting roles. If you’re not stunned by his goldfish illusion, then you weren’t paying attention.

A friend of mine went to see Mac on my recommendation just a couple of weeks ago. When I asked him afterwards, he told me that he enjoyed the show, but he knew how Mac did a couple of the tricks. For example, he mentioned one where Mac makes a card (which was signed onstage by a woman from the audience) appear out of nowhere, and then does it again and again and again. I asked my friend how he thought Mac did the trick. He replied that it was obvious Mac had met that woman in the lobby before the show and had her sign her name in the exact same way on several cards, which he then pulled out and displayed onstage. I shook my head in disbelief and then asked him to think this through with me.

If what he was saying was true, then the woman was kind of a confederate. And since Mac does his show ten times a week all year long, that means he’s had 500 people a year help him this way. And they each probably brought someone with them, and told their companion about it, so that’s a thousand people a year. And Mac has been doing the show at Harrah’s for about a decade, so that’s nearly 10,000 people who would know that Mac cheated. Isn’t that a huge number of people to conspire to keep one magic trick secret?

My friend was taken aback by my answer and asked me how I thought Mac did it. I explained that Mac is an extremely talented magician, very skilled at sleight-of-hand, and wasn’t it more likely that Mac was simply that good at his job?

When I saw Mac a couple of nights later at The Amazing Meeting, I told him this story and he hung his head. He said that, a few times a year, he hears this from people who have seen his show (like Penn & Teller, he leaves the stage and goes straight to the lobby to talk with fans as they depart the theater). It always bothers him, because it means those people didn’t appreciate his true talent, and they don’t understand that using plants in the audience would make his job harder, not easier.

I realized that what was going on here was that my friend didn’t want to admit that he couldn’t figure out how the trick was done, and that frustrated him. There are lots of people who walk out of magic shows spouting theories about how the performer pulled off some illusion, and there are others who, knowing that I know a little (very little) about magic, come running to have me explain the trick to them. Even if I know, I never tell them, not because I’m bound by any magician’s promise, but it’s the mystery that makes the magic so good.

For instance, I’ve seen Penn & Teller close their show with the Magic Bullet Trick at least a couple dozen times. It’s a beautiful illusion, in which each of them fires a .357 Magnum at the other, who catches the respective bullet in his mouth. I have no interest in knowing how they do it. Sure, I could spend a few minutes searching online to find a perfectly valid explanation of the method, but I don’t want to know. I prefer to be astounded at their technique, the staging, the subtle changes they’ve made to the bit over the years, and I like wondering how the hell they pulled it off.

That’s the magic.

So when you go to Vegas, treat yourself to one of these shows. Then, on the way out, tell each other how much you enjoyed what you just saw without trying to unravel the methodology behind it. Because in the case of all of these magicians, the answer to “How did he do that?” is “Very well.”