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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
Vernon returned to Pleasant Hill not long after with his wife and son. He wanted to consult on a technical problem with the deal, and he wanted his wife, who had jeered at him in disbelief, to see what Kennedy could do. She came away as amazed as her husband. Now that he had thetechniquee. Vernon practiced the deal constantly. By summer, he felt he had the basics down, though he told Ross he expected it would take him until the following fall to perfect it. He also set about devising new effects built around Kennedy’s deal.
A quiet seismic wave spread through magic’s inner circle, as the masters got wind of Vernon’s startling find. In an art where secrets are the most precious commodity, Vernon now possessed the ultimate treasure. He guarded the deal jealously and would decide, sometimes rather harshly, not only who was worthy of learning it but who was worthy of even hearing about it. He parceled out news of the deal judiciously and kept the story of the search for Kennedy strictly separate from the technique itself. “This thing is far too good to let out to any magis,” he wrote to a close magician friend. “Even if they knew all the details I doubt if any of them would ever give it the practice required.” He taught the legendary coin manipulator T. Nelson Downs the method (though he scoffed later that Downs had completely missed the finer points) and later instructed the renowned magicians John Scarne and Ross Bertram in it. But he gave Faucett Ross only the story, priding himself that while he was with him continually day and night in Wichita, he never once let Ross catch him practicing Kennedy’s deal.
At first, Vernon hesitated about “tipping” the technique to Miller. While Vernon genuinely admired Miller’s dexterity and creative mind—and Miller was, after all, a veteran of the hunt—he wanted to make sure he could be trusted. For his part, Miller was extremely careful to express just the right mix of caution and enthusiasm. “I guess you noticed that I kept rather quiet about the ———— of Allen Kennedy .” Miller wrote to him, not even daring to set the words center deal down on paper. “I’m very anxious to get it… but I want you to keep it, too.”
At some point that year, Miller passed muster, and Vernon enlightened him on what he called Kennedy’s “masterpiece.” By February 1933, a year after their foray into Kansas City, Vernon reported to a magician friend that Miller was “nutty” over the deal and was practicing little else. This sensitive man, a brilliant innovator of magic who would live the next 60 years in the shadow of his close friend Dai Vernon and who would wince a little every time Vernon told the dice-man story to elicit new guffaws, went on to learn “the Kennedy” so well that many in magic’s upper echelon believed he did it better than Vernon himself.
For Vernon, the quest for Allen Kennedy became perhaps the most celebrated and repeated tale in his long career. From time to time, beginning in the late thirties, versions of the story appeared in magic magazines or men’s magazines, usually wildly embellished. The method was finally published in the late 1970s in a book by Ross Bertram, with photographs of Vernon’s muscular, ageless hands demonstrating the deal. Nobody told the story better than Vernon, who became as accomplished a raconteur as he was a magician. He polished the story over the years, and by the 1970s, when he was ensconced at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, it was one of his staples. The sleight itself became a totem in the world of card magic—a status it has never achieved in the more utilitarian world of gambling—and when Vernon died, in 1992 at the age of 98, there were still only a handful of men who could perform it.
HIS QUEST FOR KENNEDY BECAME VERNON’S MOST CELEBRATED TALE.
For Allen Kennedy, the road after 1932 was neither as long nor as smooth as for Vernon. Although the old slang term for card cheat is crossroader , denoting the rambling nature of the sharp’s life, that term surely applied better to Vernon, who continually crisscrossed the country in pursuit of his art, than to Kennedy. This quiet master, who had unknowingly taught the best, was a cardsharp with roots in the community. Those in Cass County who still remember him say they only recall him working close to home.
The thirties and forties were probably relatively good times for Kennedy, primarily because he hooked up with the woman who would become his companion for the rest of his life. Kate Hipsher, who was 11 years older than Kennedy, became his “friend,” as some of her relatives still say, after her husband, Woodrow, died in 1933. The two never married, primarily because Kate did not want to lose her husband’s Spanish-American War pension. Dicksie Gray, 77, whose mother was Kate’s sister-in-law, remembers the couple at the house in the thirties, when she was about 12. Bill would entertain the kids by twirling the cards into a pretty flourish called the Gambler’s Rose. “He didn’t make a big to-do about it,” Gray recalls. “He’d very quietly do it for us.”