The Magician And The Cardsharp

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But first Vernon told a new magician friend, Charles Miller, about the Mexican’s story. The heavyset, baby-faced Miller, only 22, had just come up from El Paso, Texas, to visit Ross and to see the great Dai Vernon of New York, whom he had impressed by sitting him down and performing Vernon’s own effects. The twist was that Miller had only read the descriptions of the effects in a magic magazine and had been forced to work out his own techniques. “He is a genius,” Vernon confided to a friend. When Miller heard Vernon’s plans, he announced to his new comrade-in-arms, “I’ll go with you.”

It would be difficult to picture a scenario in the history of the American arts to match the sight of these two superb magicians heading into a mob-dominated city in search of a mythic, primitive master of their discipline. Imagine Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman joining forces to locate a Kentucky mountain fiddler or Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner hitting the road together in search of a backwoods storyteller. Vernon and Miller’s trip to Kansas City was a unique blend of artistic obsession, romantic jaunt, anthropological fieldwork, and foolhardy, even dangerous errand.

The popular perception of the city they sauntered into was of a wild town teeming with crooked gamblers and gangsters. But while it was indeed chock-full of both, Kansas City was actually tightly controlled by the Pendergast organization, which relied on the mob boss John Lazia and a wholly owned police department to keep the wards in line. Gambling was “the heart and soul of the Pendergast machine,” according to the Kansas City historian William Worley, and Lazia made sure the cash flow was heavy and unimpeded. (When he told the story in later years, Vernon gave Lazia the colorful alias Snakey Davis.) Lazia’s biggest worry was not law enforcement but outside mobsters looking to cut in on some of this fruitful local action. Anyone unfamiliar caught nosing around was likely to be subjected to what Worley delicately calls “an examination.”

 
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN, DEALING FROM THE CENTER OF THE DECK?…THAT’S A LOT OF HOOEY. NOBODY DOES THAT.”

But once Vernon and Miller proved they were gamblers and not gangsters, they would have been generally free to roam in search of action. Vernon posed as a natty sharp who played the transatlantic ships. Miller, the greenhorn, was under strict orders to keep quiet. Vernon told him that if asked, he was to say only that he was a dice man and not go into details. Above all, he was not to mention that he was a magician; if the cheaters knew, they would never talk.

The two doggedly made the rounds, hitting gambling joints, bars, and pool halls. But when they asked about a center dealer, they came up with little except shakes of the head. It began to look as though the Mexican had merely passed along another version of Sprong’s fairy tale. When they visited the K.C. Card Company, they were directed to still another gambling den, a tough, rundown joint guarded by a man who kept a .45 revolver openly displayed on his wheelchair. Vernon gave the name of K.C.’s manager, Elbert (“Red”) Langworthy, as a reference and got past the guard to face the stern men who ran this backroom dive. What do you want here? they demanded of Vernon, as Miller hung back. Vernon casually stuck to his cover, explaining that he was a mechanic and had heard there was a cheater in town who could deal from the center of the deck. He told them he was eager to get in contact with the man. The men stared at him, and then one of the toughs spoke up. “What mail-order catalog’ve you been reading? What do you mean, dealing from the center of the deck? It’s tough enough to get the second card! That’s a lot of hooey. Nobody does that.”

There was little Vernon could say in response. He and Miller were shielded from both information and harm by the sheer preposterousness of their goal. Then one of the men pointed at Miller, asking, “What’s the fat boy do?” Before Vernon could respond, Miller piped up, answering in a nervous, boyish quaver, almost a squeal, “I’m a dice man!” That froze the room. Vernon made a motion to the men to indicate that Miller was a bit off, and then the two undercover magicians beat their retreat.

Coming as it did in his very first foray into the world of cheaters, the dice-man episode was something of a humiliation for the young Miller. Deflated, he dropped out of the hunt and returned to El Paso, but Vernon was back in Kansas City almost immediately. This time he concentrated his efforts on the K.C. Card Company, figuring this center of gambling gossip just a block from city hall would hold the key. There he ingratiated himself with the staff by showing off his rigged faro box, a beautiful antique designed for cheating at the popular turn-of-the-century card game, and he pressed them again about a center dealer. Eventually they sent him to an old man. He proved extremely reluctant to talk, but Vernon worked on him, and finally he admitted knowing “the only man in the world who can do this.”

“He’ll let you cut and replace or even triple-cut’em,” the man told Vernon. “Yet any time he wants them, out they come.” The old-timer said that although he didn’t have a definite address, he did have a town and a name. The town was Pleasant Hill. The name was Allen Kennedy.