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The Magician And The Cardsharp
After 20 years of looking for someone who could perform the “middle deal,” Dai Vernon had pretty much decided this supreme piece of sleight of hand was a fable. Then, one night in a Wichita jail, a prisoner told Vernon he’d seen a man do it…
May 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 3
One rainy afternoon in January 1932, Dai Vernon, the greatest sleight-of-hand artist in the world, sat in the Innes Department Store in Wichita, Kansas, bored out of his mind. The 37-year-old Vernon had come to Kansas with his wife, Jeanne, and their young son, Ted, for the new year, lured by invitations from his friend and fellow magician Faucett Ross and the promise of work cutting silhouette portraits of customers at the store. Ross had helped the Vernons get settled, and the two men did nothing for several days but practice and talk magic. One of their sessions ran from 3 in the afternoon until 11 the next morning. Then, finally, Vernon knuckled down and went to work.
Although he was best known for magic, the Innes job was no fluke. Vernon had been practicing the delicate, fading art of silhouette cutting since his teens, and whenever money was a problem—which was often—he relied on his scissors to pay the bills. By 1932 he was a distinctive and sought-after stylist, and the store agreed to his condition that he start work late, at 11 in the morning, and knock off by 5:30. Soon he was swamped with customers, and crowds waited for him to arrive in the morning. His only antidote to the clamor was to assert a harsh artistic prerogative: If he didn’t like the looks of a customer, he would refuse to cut that person’s silhouette.
But the silhouettes meant nothing to him. His consuming passion—his obsession—was magic, especially card magic built on the techniques of professional cardsharps. “He’s nuts … on the gambling stuff, and you’d be amazed how much he knows and can do in this line,” Ross reported to a mutual friend. Indeed, Vernon (his first name, pronounced “Day,” was a shortening of Dave) had spent much of the previous decade impressing the Manhattan smart set with his elegantly baffling style of conjuring. He preferred to turn his “card problems,” as he called them, right under the noses of his audience, and he took a particular pleasure in duping the masters of the art. By the late 1920s, the dapper Vernon, who went by the title of the New York Card Expert (the understatement was typical of the man), was in such demand at society parties that he sometimes commanded $300 per performance.
With the coming of the Depression, though, those lucrative shows vanished like one of his playing cards, and now Vernon was happy to have the Innes job. Still, he was more than ready for some distraction when Ross hurried into the store on that dreary afternoon to say he had arranged for them to go that night to the nearby Sedgwick County Jail to see a Mexican gambler (who was being held after a shooting) demonstrate his card-cheating moves.
Running after “mechanics,”as card cheats were called, was nothing new for Vernon. As a boy in Canada, he had absorbed an amazing book titled The Expert at the Card Table , a disarmingly literary illustrated manual of card-cheating methods by someone calling himself S. W. Erdnase, which was widely considered an anagram; Erdnase’s real name has never been conclusively identified. The book’s impact on Vernon was fundamental, and it became his lifelong fountainhead. Not only did he master the techniques detailed in the book, including the difficult and dangerous second and bottom deals, but he actually memorized it and spread its gospel. Magicians could learn a lot about naturalness and misdirection, Vernon believed, from cardsharps. If The Expert was his core curriculum, then his postdoctoral work consisted of tracking down mechanics. Magicians had always coveted the secrets of card cheats, but nobody had worked as hard as Vernon, who had spent 20 years diligently seeking out these guarded men.
So Vernon knew what to watch for when he and Ross sat down over a deck with the jailed gambler, and he was not disappointed. The Mexican made a thoroughly professional showing, running through several slick moves and false deals. But it was when the men began to talk shop that Vernon became riveted. While reporting on the local gambling scene, the Mexican told the magicians that he had seen a man in Kansas City who could actually deal cards flawlessly out of the center of the deck. Do you know his name? Vernon asked. No, no name. Vernon pressed him now: How was the deal? Did it look natural? he asked repeatedly. The Mexican gave the same answer over and over: “perfect.” Vernon, Ross reported to a friend, “got wildly excited.”
While Vernon and Ross were jawing with a gambler in a Wichita jail, Allen Kennedy was 200 miles to the northeast in the small farming town of Pleasant Hill, Missouri, preparing for another night of card playing. The soft-spoken Kennedy, 34, who was born just outside Pleasant Hill and had lived in the area his whole life, was considered something of a mystery man in town. Though he picked up the occasional odd job—he drove a taxi for a while—many knew that he made his living mainly as a gambler.