The Magician And The Cardsharp

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For a time, Kennedy kept up his rigorous daily practice schedule. Kate’s grandson Harold Capper, 70, spent summers as a boy with Kate and Bill and remembers Kennedy sitting at a mirrored dresser with his Bicycle poker cards or kneeling on the living-room floor practicing switching loaded dice in and out of his shooting hand. Then he’d sit Capper down at a table and ask the boy to watch as he stacked the deck, or challenge him to detect his false deals. Capper never did catch him.

But by the fifties, Kennedy had begun to slip. As it has for so many cardsharps before and since, drink got the better of him. Charlie Scott, 70, who ran a poker game with Bill above a liquor store in downtown Harrisonville, remembers how he would play for a few hours and then turn the chair over to Bill. When Scott returned, they’d be deep in the hole. “He’d get drunk and give all the money away,” Scott remembers.

G. J. Clary, 73, inherited Bill, in a sense, from his father, who had gambled with Kennedy in the thirties. Clary beams as he recalls driving around Cass County with Bill in the fifties looking for action. Kennedy would use a piece of canvas cut from his convertible top as a dice blanket, and all they had to do to get a craps game going was to walk up to a farm sale, lay the canvas out on the grass, and start shooting. But Clary also remembers Kennedy’s skills eroding badly. One night Kennedy was so drunk while he shot dice that every time he leaned forward to collect his winnings, his opponents grabbed some cash from between his legs. Neither Scott nor Clary—nor anyone else who knew Bill in those days —had ever heard of Vernon or the center deal.

Finally, Kennedy found most games in Cass County off-limits, as the gambling action shifted more to private parties and country clubs. His old reputation as a sharp was replaced by a new one as a drunk. But he and Kate Hipsher hung together, and as Scott recalls, she “took care of Bill just like he was a baby.”

By 1960 Kennedy was gravely ill with lung cancer. He died the following March, almost 29 years to the day after Vernon first found him. They sang “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere” and “The Old Rugged Cross” at his funeral and buried him in Pleasant Hill Cemetery without a headstone. His obituary in the Pleasant Hill Times identified the man who perfected the center deal—which Vernon had once written was the “FINEST THING I KNOW” —as a laborer.

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