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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
One rainy afternoon in January 1932, Dai Vernon, the greatest sleight-of-hand artist in the world, sat in the Innes Department Store in Wichita, Kansas, bored out of his mind. The 37-year-old Vernon had come to Kansas with his wife, Jeanne, and their young son, Ted, for the new year, lured by invitations from his friend and fellow magician Faucett Ross and the promise of work cutting silhouette portraits of customers at the store. Ross had helped the Vernons get settled, and the two men did nothing for several days but practice and talk magic. One of their sessions ran from 3 in the afternoon until 11 the next morning. Then, finally, Vernon knuckled down and went to work.
Although he was best known for magic, the Innes job was no fluke. Vernon had been practicing the delicate, fading art of silhouette cutting since his teens, and whenever money was a problem—which was often—he relied on his scissors to pay the bills. By 1932 he was a distinctive and sought-after stylist, and the store agreed to his condition that he start work late, at 11 in the morning, and knock off by 5:30. Soon he was swamped with customers, and crowds waited for him to arrive in the morning. His only antidote to the clamor was to assert a harsh artistic prerogative: If he didn’t like the looks of a customer, he would refuse to cut that person’s silhouette.
But the silhouettes meant nothing to him. His consuming passion—his obsession—was magic, especially card magic built on the techniques of professional cardsharps. “He’s nuts … on the gambling stuff, and you’d be amazed how much he knows and can do in this line,” Ross reported to a mutual friend. Indeed, Vernon (his first name, pronounced “Day,” was a shortening of Dave) had spent much of the previous decade impressing the Manhattan smart set with his elegantly baffling style of conjuring. He preferred to turn his “card problems,” as he called them, right under the noses of his audience, and he took a particular pleasure in duping the masters of the art. By the late 1920s, the dapper Vernon, who went by the title of the New York Card Expert (the understatement was typical of the man), was in such demand at society parties that he sometimes commanded $300 per performance.
With the coming of the Depression, though, those lucrative shows vanished like one of his playing cards, and now Vernon was happy to have the Innes job. Still, he was more than ready for some distraction when Ross hurried into the store on that dreary afternoon to say he had arranged for them to go that night to the nearby Sedgwick County Jail to see a Mexican gambler (who was being held after a shooting) demonstrate his card-cheating moves.
Running after “mechanics,”as card cheats were called, was nothing new for Vernon. As a boy in Canada, he had absorbed an amazing book titled The Expert at the Card Table , a disarmingly literary illustrated manual of card-cheating methods by someone calling himself S. W. Erdnase, which was widely considered an anagram; Erdnase’s real name has never been conclusively identified. The book’s impact on Vernon was fundamental, and it became his lifelong fountainhead. Not only did he master the techniques detailed in the book, including the difficult and dangerous second and bottom deals, but he actually memorized it and spread its gospel. Magicians could learn a lot about naturalness and misdirection, Vernon believed, from cardsharps. If The Expert was his core curriculum, then his postdoctoral work consisted of tracking down mechanics. Magicians had always coveted the secrets of card cheats, but nobody had worked as hard as Vernon, who had spent 20 years diligently seeking out these guarded men.
So Vernon knew what to watch for when he and Ross sat down over a deck with the jailed gambler, and he was not disappointed. The Mexican made a thoroughly professional showing, running through several slick moves and false deals. But it was when the men began to talk shop that Vernon became riveted. While reporting on the local gambling scene, the Mexican told the magicians that he had seen a man in Kansas City who could actually deal cards flawlessly out of the center of the deck. Do you know his name? Vernon asked. No, no name. Vernon pressed him now: How was the deal? Did it look natural? he asked repeatedly. The Mexican gave the same answer over and over: “perfect.” Vernon, Ross reported to a friend, “got wildly excited.”
While Vernon and Ross were jawing with a gambler in a Wichita jail, Allen Kennedy was 200 miles to the northeast in the small farming town of Pleasant Hill, Missouri, preparing for another night of card playing. The soft-spoken Kennedy, 34, who was born just outside Pleasant Hill and had lived in the area his whole life, was considered something of a mystery man in town. Though he picked up the occasional odd job—he drove a taxi for a while—many knew that he made his living mainly as a gambler.
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.
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.
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 .”
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.”
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.