The Magician and the Cardsharp: The Search for America’s Greatest Sleight-of-Hand Artist
by Karl Johnson
Dai Vernon, The Professor, was the greatest card magician of the 20th century, maybe of all time. David Verner—his name was botched by a Welsh reporter early on and the approximation stuck—was born in Ottawa in 1894 and used to joke that he wasted the first six years of his life before he came to magic.
Once he did, he was obsessed. Throughout his life he would be lost, sometimes for days on end, to a deck of cards as he worked on a “problem”. He would session with other magicians for endless hours, forgetting to eat or to go home.
Vernon understood the importance of psychology in magic. Johnson relates an incidence where Vernon told a New Orleans casino dealer to take a deck of cards Vernon had shuffled and start dealing them out, stopping wherever he liked. The dealer laid out 50 cards and stopped, only two cards left in his hand, a grin spreading across his face. Vernon asked him the card he was thinking of. “Six of clubs,” he said. Vernon told him to turn over the top card in his hand, which was, of course, the six of clubs. Another magician asked him how he did it. “I just knew the son of a bitch would deal out 50 cards.”
He would often begin card tricks with no goal in mind, no idea of where the trick would go, or even what method he would use. Johnson likened Vernon’s brand of magic to improvisational jazz, that music just getting its start the same time Vernon was practicing. This style allows luck to take part. While at military school, Vernon was heading to the showers when he noticed a card lying on the floor. He took it into the shower and fiddled with it. When he had finished, he came into the locker room where the commandant, who knew of Vernon’s fascination with magic, bellowed, “Let me see you produce a card now!” Vernon “answered by reaching down between his legs and apparently bringing out a soggy card. The commandant nearly fainted.”
Vernon did not perform for the public generally, and made his money selling scissor-cut portrait silhouettes. Apparently, he was pretty good. Even in the Depression, he was able to support his family and live well.
The Professor saved his best stuff for other magicians. Houdini claimed to be able to discover the secret of any trick after seeing it three times. Vernon showed Houdini his “Ambitious Card” over six times and it utterly fooled him. Houdini, who had an enormous ego and was not considered much of a close-up artist by his magical brethren, stomped out and refused to admit he had be stumped.
As good as Vernon was, he knew that the best card magicians were not magicians at all, but gamblers. Card mechanics, cheaters. All mechanics, and all magicians, know the bottom deal, wherein a card is seemingly, and fairly, dealt off the top but actually comes from the bottom of the deck, a place where wanted cards were stacked. There are dozens of variants of the bottom deal, and hundreds of methods to stack cards in certain spots in the deck. Further, all gamblers know this and so insist on a cut before the deal begins.
The cut spoils any stacking the cheat might have hoped for by removing the cards to a random spot in the middle of the deck. If somebody could figure out how to deal those cards from the middle, he’d be unbeatable. But how? Everybody who had tried it had failed. It was always obvious that the cards were coming from the center.
There were whispers that one man had done it. Vernon chased down these rumors—his travels are the book’s main plot—and found Allen Kennedy, a card mechanic in a town just south of the wide open Kansas City, home to the best cheats and every vice known to man. At the same time Vernon was passing through, so were Pretty Boy Floyd and Alvin Karpis (whom we met last week in Public Enemies).
Vernon eventually found his man and learned the center deal, and kept it a closely guarded secret for years. It’s well known now, but takes extraordinary skill and strength to pull off, so it’s not seen often.
The Professor eventually moved to Los Angeles where he became a permanent fixture of The Magic Castle, a hideout, club, and theater for nothing but magic. Everybody came and sat at the feet of the master, learning from him and being entertained by his stories and his magic right up until the end.
Vernon lived to 98. He also smoked (cigarettes until his 70s, then cigars) and drank daily. Which either means those activities are good for you, or he pulled off the best trick of his life.
Incidentally, one of the Professor’s students was mathematician Persi Diaconis (now at Stanford). Diaconis was the man who proved that you have to riffle shuffle a deck of cards at least seven times to thoroughly mix them. Shuffle them less than that, and the card’s order can be predicted to high degree. Persi (who was briefly my advisor when he was at Cornell; we shared an interest in showing how people fool themselves into thinking they have paranormal powers) developed a trick based on this, which is a story we’ll leave to another time.