The Magician And The Cardsharp

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Despite the Depression’s hobbling of other professions, Kennedy could still find steady work. He ran a regular poker game on Randolph Street with a partner named Midnight Underwood. And because Pleasant Hill was a division point for the regional train lines, there were always plenty of salesmen and others staying the night, eager to get into a game at the Tucker Hotel on Cedar Street or above the pool hall on First. If the poker action was thin, Kennedy could always join one of the floating craps games, which were plentiful in back alleys, in rail-depot sheds, even at farm sales. In those days, gambling was as much a part of Cass County as the fertile, rolling land that gave Pleasant Hill its name.

Kennedy also regularly made the short trip up to Kansas City, climbing into his Ford Model A coupe and driving the 25 miles to a city that by 1932, in the grip of the legendary political boss and horseracing addict Tom Pendergast, was a nationally known center of gambling action. There he could easily find all-night games, mingle with local and out-of-town card hustlers, and stop in at the K.C. Card Company, one of the country’s leading purveyors of gambling equipment both fair and foul.

Despite his unorthodox profession, and his apparent ability to make a steady living at it, Kennedy clearly wasn’t rich. And unlike many gamblers, he never dressed in a flashy manner, preferring to wear what amounted to a kind of uniform for him: a light-colored button-down shirt, dark work pants, and a plain felt hat. These were clothes that could serve him in both the city and the country. With family all over the area, and an easy, genial manner, Bill, as most in Pleasant Hill called him, fitted in and was accepted by townsfolk. But they wouldn’t go near him at a card table. Earl Mitchell, who died last year at the age of 85, had gotten to know Kennedy when he would stop to gas up his Ford at Earl’s father’s filling station. Mitchell summed up the prevailing wisdom of the time: “He was a gambler. He knew when to and when not to.”

 
FOR DAI VERNON, HEARING A REPORT OF THE CENTER DEAL WAS LIKE AHAB SIGHTING THE WHITE WHALE.

What Mitchell and most others in Pleasant Hill did not know was that in addition to his long nights, Bill Kennedy was putting in a lot of grueling hours during the day. One who did occasionally see Kennedy work in the daytime in the early thirties was Ralph McDonald, who is now 84. As a teenager, he had dated Kennedy’s niece May, the daughter of Kennedy’s sister Ruby, and when McDonald went to fetch her, he often saw Bill sitting at a table with a deck of cards in his hand, facing a mirror. “He sat in front of the mirror and dealt cards hour after hour after hour,” McDonald recalls. The image remains vivid almost 70 years later. Kennedy was practicing, working at something. “He’d deal you any card you’d want,” McDonald remembers. “He was good.”

For Vernon, hearing a report of the center deal deal was like Ahab sighting the white whale. The center deal was the ultimate move, the one that lay beyond even his exquisite dexterity and ingenuity. None of the top card men of the day could do it, though one, the Chicago magician J. C. Sprong, had been writing Vernon for years (his sign-off was “for pure sleight of hand”) to report rumors of a center dealer somewhere in the Midwest. He once offered Vernon $100 if he could turn up anything, but Vernon had never come close and had all but written off the deal as a fairy tale. Yet now, suddenly, here was a working sharp telling him of a man in the next city who had mastered the impossible.

To understand Vernon’s obsession, one has to return to The Expert at the Card Table . Erdnase made no mention of a center deal, but he devoted considerable space to the innocent cut. As any experienced cardplayer knows, rule and tradition require the dealer to offer the deck to the player on his right for a cut before dealing. This routine proffer is considered insurance against false dealing, and Erdnase made it plain that cheaters considered it a huge problem. Even if a sharp could deal the second or bottom card flawlessly, he would still have to beat the cut or his precious cards would be buried in the center. To get around the cut, a sharp requires either a confederate to his right or still more difficult and risky sleights—like the shift, which reverses the cut, or the palm. For the lone cheater, Erdnase concluded, the cut was “the bête noire of his existence.”

But a polished center dealer would conceivably have nothing to fear. He could offer the deck for a clean cut, gather it back up, and blithely fetch his desired cards from the center. He would, in the card cheats’ succinct phrase, “get the money.” Vernon knew the theory, but he also knew the logistical obstacles. Second and bottom dealing called for advanced technical proficiency and granite nerve. Professional common sense told him the center deal was probably out of the question. Still, the only logical course of action now was to ditch the silhouettes, get to Kansas City, find this sharp, and have a look.