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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
When Vernon got to Pleasant Hill the next day, as he reported to Miller soon after, his “troubles had only started.” While they weren’t under the thumb of Pendergast and Eazia, the residents of Pleasant Hill were not quick to give information to some well-dressed city slicker snooping around. “Everyone told me something different,” Vernon recalled. First he was stymied by asking for “Allen,” when most knew Kennedy as Bill. One person told Vernon that Kennedy lived above a grocery store, but when he found the place, it was deserted. Next, he was told that Kennedy lived behind a printshop. That, too, was a false lead.
Then Vernon stopped a “wise-looking fellow” on the street. “If you did find him, it wouldn’t do you any good,” the man said. “He never talks to anyone.” The man told Vernon that Kennedy sometimes worked as a taxi driver, sometimes as a printer, sometimes as an automobile mechanic. So Vernon tried the garages, where many knew Kennedy but no one knew, or would say, where he lived. Finally, in frustration, Vernon asked a little girl on the street. She pointed to a small white house. “They say in the Scriptures, ‘and a little child shall lead them,’” Vernon recalled. “So it came to pass.” He knocked on the door, and a man in overalls answered. He looked a little like the movie star Richard Dix. “Yes, I’m Allen Kennedy,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
Kennedy was clearly flattered that a mechanic who played a world away from Pleasant Hill would come so far to find him. But like a good professional, he was cagey and wouldn’t show Vernon anything at first. They talked a bit, Kennedy undoubtedly judging his visitor, and then he began to come out of his shell. Finally they moved to the dining-room table.
Kennedy instructed Vernon to sit across from him as he got down to business. He began with a simple riffle shuffle, and it was all Vernon needed to see to know he was watching one of the greats. Kennedy’s natural touch with the cards reminded Vernon of no one so much as Miller. Then Kennedy took three kings, put them on the bottom of the deck, and placed it on the table for Vernon to cut. Kennedy “carried,” or completed, the cut, placed the deck in his left hand, and began casually dealing four hands of stud poker around the table. Vernon watched every move closely.
Kennedy dealt the hole cards—the face-down cards—and then the first round of face-up cards to each of the four hands. Before dealing the next face-up card, called “the turn,” he asked Vernon, “Did you see anything?” Vernon assured him that “all was O.K. so far.” “Watch now , and tell me if you see anything,” Kennedy said, and he began to deal again. The next face-up card to drop in front of Vernon was a king. Vernon narrowed his eyes. When Kennedy returned to Vernon’s hand, another king dropped. Vernon was mesmerized. Then Kennedy told him to turn over his hole card. It was the third king—the killer for Vernon, as it struck him now that Kennedy had been dealing from the center all along. It was uncanny. “The deal was careless and innocent in appearance,” an excited Vernon wrote soon after in a letter to Miller. The conjurer then added the only description that seemed appropriate: “They come out as if by magic.”
Before Kennedy would go beyond a demonstration and give Vernon what card men call “the real work,” or the actual technique of the deal, he put Vernon through his paces. The man who later became known as the Professor, a beloved tutor to dozens of the greats of magic still performing today, was on this afternoon the student. Vernon showed Kennedy a pet shift, which interested the mechanic, but he immediately suggested a way to modify it for the gaming table. Vernon moved on to his second deal. “One of the best I’ve seen,” Kennedy nodded, “if you can do it without the seesaw.” Here was the cardsharp coaching the magician.
When Kennedy finally showed Vernon the technique of the center deal, he revealed a level of single-minded craftsmanship to rival Vernon’s own. He told of how it had taken him a full five years to perfect the deal and of how, on one of his trips to Kansas City, he had visited the music conservatory to learn exercises to strengthen his hands. Kennedy’s technique called for tensile finger strength to hold the pack correctly. One of the exercises involved placing corks between his fingers and then repeatedly flexing them, which Kennedy had done assiduously before honing the deal.
By the time the session ended and Vernon left, the two men were quite friendly. Elated, Vernon began the long drive back to Wichita. Along the way, he couldn’t resist stopping to send Miller a quick postcard. “Have just spent the entire afternoon with Allen Kennedy,” he wrote. The secretive magician didn’t mention the deal, writing instead in capital letters, “ HE REALLY DOES IT PERFECTLY .”