Anybody who has an interest in magic or gambling will find themselves immediately absorbed by Karl Johnson’s book, a unique glimpse into the underworld of magic and card cheats. He focuses on one professional magician’s quest to find the expert cardsharp who, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, was rumored to have mastered the holy grail of cheating moves.
Expert card handlers usually fall into one of two categories: magicians or cardsharps. While the magician uses his tools to impress his audience, the cardsharp’s goal is to conceal his skill from his audience entirely. The cardsharp’s career and life depend on people not knowing what sleights of hand he is capable of performing. Since he uses his talents to hustle and cheat his way through card games, his skills must be perfect and completely undetectable. The Magician and the Cardsharp explores both types of character.
Dai Vernon was one of the greatest card handlers of all time, known by magicians in the 1920s as ”the man who fooled Houdini.” Growing up in Ottawa, Canada, he began doing magic at the age of 6, before he could properly handle a full-size deck of cards. In 1932, in the midst of his prime, Vernon met a Mexican gambler who told him of a man who could ”center deal” (that is, deal directly out of the middle of the deck while making it look like he’s dealing off the top). And the man could do it perfectly. Vernon had been exposed to similar moves, but the center deal was thought by magicians of the time to be impossible to execute perfectly. The man who came up with it wasn’t technically a magician; he was a cardsharp, a gambler, and a hustler named Allen Kennedy, who made a living cheating in a poker club in a small town outside Kansas City, Mo. Not only did Kennedy invent a method for this seemingly impossible move but he also practiced it to perfection — it took him five years. He did it so masterfully that even Vernon couldn’t spot it. After that, Vernon no longer thought perfection in magic was unattainable.
Throughout the book, Johnson details exciting anecdotes of scams, hoaxes, and instances of conjuring, written in the parlance of magicians and card players, using slang that is clearly explained for lay readers. His stories unfold like magic, with a constant flow of information and surprise endings, particularly the fateful meeting of the magician Vernon and the enigmatic cardsharp Kennedy. In the end, Johnson manages to reveal the density of the worlds of both the conjurer and the con. And as it turns out, they aren’t all that different.
(New York-based illusionist and endurance artist David Blaine first came on the scene with his 1997 TV show, Street Magic. )