I recently had the opportunity to sit down with J Life Magazine, which was interested in telling my story from my childhood in the Soviet Union to my career and the Penn & Teller stage. Here's the story in full, told by the talented Allison Slater Tate.
Fool Me Once...
The tension was high on the Las Vegas stage where Kostya Kimlat waited to hear a verdict from two of his personal heroes, renowned magicians Penn Jillette and his mostly-silent partner, Teller. A few minutes earlier, after briefly squeezing his eyes shut and taking several deep breaths to focus, Kostya had successfully plucked Penn’s chosen playing card out of a full deck – while it was in mid-dribble (the quick cascade of cards from a magician’s hand). Had he been able to fool the duo with a card trick he had been practicing and perfecting for 17 years?...
This was the 35-year-old Orlando-based motivational speaker and corporate magician’s second appearance on the television show Penn & Teller: Fool Us, in which the hosts try to figure out the most clever tricks of magicians from around the world. During his first appearance on the show in 2015, Kostya had also performed a card trick. That time, he asked Penn & Teller to join him on stage, where they helped him by shuffling a deck of cards in a haphazard way and picking two before returning them to the messy pile. Some of the cards were face up, others face down.
Kostya grabbed the muddled deck and immediately fanned the cards out on the table. Only this time, the cards were all magically face up. All, that is, except the two Penn & Teller had chosen. Those two dutifully remained face down, waiting for Penn & Teller to flip them over and confirm that they were, in fact, the right two cards. The reveal made Penn dramatically leap from his chair, pick it up, and threaten to throw it at Kostya in frustration. Kostya had, indeed, fooled the master magicians.
“I hate you,” Penn playfully deadpanned when he admitted that victory was Kostya’s. “I hated the way you looked. I hated the way you cleanly handled the deck of cards. I hated that I should have known it.”
Later, Kostya explained the root of Penn’s over-the-top reaction. In magic, he says, there is a method and there is an effect. Penn & Teller knew and understood the effect of Kostya’s trick – the idea of restoring haphazardly shuffled cards is more than 100 years old – but he used a method to do it that they had never seen before. The performance won Kostya a chance to appear in one of Penn & Teller’s shows at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas in front of a live audience of 1,200 people.
Fooling his heroes was the beginning of a deep friendship between Kostya and Penn & Teller, a relationship Kostya treasures. In fact, Kostya has used magic to make connections to people since he was a child. The goal of his magic, Kostya says, has always been not actually to fool his audiences, but instead to create joy and wonder, no matter who his audience is.
There is an element of magic to Kostya’s life story. He was born in Kiev, Ukraine – then still part of the Soviet Union – at a time when Jewish citizens were not very welcome. His Jewish identity was not something Kostya advertised in his early childhood; he still remembers being beaten up by his Soviet classmates for being Jewish.
In 1989, Kostya’s parents began applying for the chance to leave Kiev and find a new life in the United States. They took English classes while they were still in Kiev and patiently waited. When they finally were granted permission to immigrate to the United States as refugees, Kostya’s parents, Boris and Irina, were given the choice to either live in New York or wait for a sponsor in another part of the country to invite them. They decided they did not want to settle in New York’s Little Russia neighborhood, as so many other Soviet expatriates did. They felt they would not fully assimilate to their new country if they were surrounded by so many other Russian Jewish immigrant families. Instead, they waited and took their chances. Ultimately, it was the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando that invited and sponsored the Kimlats.
Kostya was nine years old in 1992 when he arrived in Orlando with his parents, grandmother, Inna, and 14-year-old sister, Jenya. From the moment the family stepped off the plane, the Orlando Jewish community wrapped them in support. They were greeted by supporters of the Jewish Federation at the gate and taken to the home of a family from Congregation Ohev Shalom, where the Kimlats spent their first week in America.
Kostya even attended summer camp at The Roth Family Jewish Community Center the day after he arrived in the country. It became one of the first places where Kostya would show off his magic tricks.
“I could mess up a card trick there and no one would care,” laughs Kostya, thinking back to his earliest performances.
Later, Kostya would become a JCC camp counselor himself. And he would eventually meet his wife, Amy Schwartz Kimlat, through the JCC in 2013.
“The first year in America was tough,” Kostya says. “Both my parents had master’s degrees in engineering – my dad has two master’s degrees – but that didn’t matter when we got here. So they just started all over.”
Kostya’s father Boris worked in a steel factory 12 hours a day. His grandmother Inna, who was 70 when the family came to the U.S., volunteered as a translator for other Soviet immigrants. The Kimlats’ willingness to start over and rebuild their lives, learning both a new language and a new culture at the ages they did, still inspires Kostya today.
To help the family thrive, Jewish Family Services of Orlando and members of Ohev Shalom donated clothing and furniture, taught Kostya’s parents how to open a bank account and write a check, and helped them get jobs and an apartment. They funded tuition for Kostya to attend the Jewish Academy of Orlando, and they even bought Hanukkah presents for Kostya and his sister Jenya for each of the eight nights – a gesture that brings tears to Kostya’s eyes even now.
“They are just amazing people,” he says. “They supported us during an integral part of our lives, and we’re so grateful to the community here.”
Many of the same families who helped bring him to America attended Kostya and Amy’s wedding and are still close friends today. Some of the business leaders who donated funds to help Kostya immigrate so many years ago have even hired him to inspire their employees with motivation and magic.
Now You See Me
Kostya’s interest in magic began at eight years old when his dad showed him a card trick, but it really took off after he moved to the U.S. and saw magic performed on TV. For a kid who often felt like an outsider – first as a Jewish child in Kiev, then as a Soviet immigrant in Central Florida – magic soon provided a way for Kostya to transcend differences and draw people to him.
“Magic suddenly allowed me to connect to everybody,” he says. “It was a way of bringing joy and happiness, and it didn’t matter how old someone was or their religion or race. If they wanted to have fun and laugh, magic broke through all those barriers.”
Kostya studied the craft of magic, reading books, watching other magicians, and practicing countless hours. It paid off. Even as a young teenager, Kostya began performing in public and getting noticed for his magic. At the same time, he began seeking out mentors in their 70s and 80s, magicians at the end of their careers who took note of his commitment and work ethic.
“They were very willing to share their knowledge with a kid because they wanted it to continue,” Kostya says.
He’s now doing the same for the next generation, teaching classes locally and at a magic camp in Pennsylvania for the past 15 years.
“I was given so much by my previous generation, I feel a responsibility to pass it on to the next one,” says Kostya.
Despite his busy, often-globetrotting schedule, Kostya still performs for the young patients in children’s hospitals, too, bringing smiles to those in the midst of treatment. It’s “the purest form of joy for me,” Kostya says.
At 18, Kostya began studying philosophy, psychology, and literature at UCF, and he wrote his honors thesis on the connection between philosophy and magic. Kostya decided that he would be happy even if he remained a local magician – just to wake up every day and make a living with magic would be enough for him. Along the way, though, Kostya was hired to entertain and inspire at more and more corporate and business events, and he began applying the business strategies he learned through his clients to his own magical enterprise. As a result, each of the past 18 years has been more successful than the last.
“It really is the American Dream,” Kostya says.
One thing Kostya has never liked about magic is the invisible barrier that separates magicians from their audiences. While continuing to hide the technical secrets of magic, Kostya finds it much more fulfilling to share the psychological principles of magic that can be used by non-magicians in their everyday lives and businesses.
So while Kostya still performs regularly in a dinner show with a team of magicians he hires and assembles at Christner’s Prime Steak & Lobster in Orlando, most of his work now involves performing for and speaking to corporate clients all over the world about how they can be more successful if they think like a magician. His wife, Amy, serves as his partner, providing her creative and strategic support.
Kostya helps those in industries from hospitality to engineering understand that they all have audiences of their own, no matter what their business is, and how important point of view is in their relationship to that audience, just as it is in magic.
“The biggest lesson for businesses, or really, for anybody, is that you have the ability to influence people’s perception with your language, the way you walk, the way you talk, the way you present yourself,” Kostya says. “Everything we do creates perception. In order to avoid miscommunication and misperceptions, we have to be able to see things from our audience’s point of view, whether that audience is a client, a customer, a patient, a child, or a spouse.”
Fool Me Twice...
Between his whirlwind stops at conventions and corporate events around the globe, Kostya once again found himself on the Penn & Teller: Fool Us stage. His trick complete, Kostya leaned forward slightly as he waited for Penn to deliver the news. Out of 52 cards, all in the midst of a furious falling cascade, Kostya had snatched the one and only card Penn had chosen, seemingly out of mid-air. Had he fooled the famous magicians, or did they see right through his spectacular trick?
After much deliberation, Penn & Teller guessed that Kostya’s trick was not a magic trick at all. It wasn’t sleight of hand, the magicians surmised. It was a straightforward show of skill that Kostya had developed since he first came up with the idea when he was 18 years old.
“We think you actually did it,” Penn said, referring to Kostya’s impossible catch of the correct card. “We don’t think there was a trick. We think you actually did what you actually said you were going to do.”
He had not fooled them, Penn asserted, but he had blown their minds. It was exactly the effect Kostya hoped for when he chose to showcase such a difficult skill-based trick on the show.
“It was a huge compliment,” he says. “I selected this trick, knowing that if they figured it out, they would essentially be acknowledging to the world the time and effort that went into it.”
Normally, Kostya has to hide his method when he performs a trick on television, leaving the audience to debate how he executed it afterwards.
“This was the rare opportunity to have the method be acknowledged publicly and serve a greater purpose,” says Kostya, “to showcase to the public the work that goes into perfecting a magic effect.”
In a world where a little internet savvy can spoil the magic of just about anything, and viral fame is more prevalent than flourishing careers, Kostya’s trick serves as an example of an achievement that cannot be duplicated by watching a YouTube video or perfected in a day, a week, or even a year – and that is what makes the performance, and Kostya, truly magical.