Who Was Dai Vernon?

By Damian Jennings - Saturday, August 27, 2022


Thirty years ago this month, the magic world lost the most influential magician of the last century, if not all time. But, who was The Professor?

David Frederick Wingfield Verner, more commonly known as Dai Vernon, The Professor or The Man Who Fooled Houdini was born on June 11 1894 in Ottowa, Canada. He influenced magic, especially card magic, with his original thinking and approaches to performance and specifically a natural handling of props and sleight of hand moves.

He became interested in magic at the age of eight and famously says he wasted the first seven years of his life.

Vernon relocated to New York City and changed his family name from Verner to Vernon, thanks the the popularity of the dance Vernon Castle - and because native New Yorkers had a tendency to mispronounce his name anyway! How did Dave become Dai though? Turns out it’s all down to a typo in a newspaper advertisement for his stage magic act. He liked it and it stuck.

Fitting right in to the New York magic scene, The Professor was quickly accepted thanks to his ability in a broad range of magic, his Linking Rings and Cups and Balls routines are still performed as he wrote them today all around the world. But it was his prowess with a deck of cards that really established him as a force to be reckoned with. He even fooled Houdini.

At the time, Houdini billed himself as “The King Of Kards”. He claimed that if he saw a card magic trick performed three times, he’s be able to work out the method. Famously, Vernon showed Houdini a version of The Ambitious Card. He placed a selection into the middle of the deck, tapped the cards, and turned over the top card to reveal the selection. He made Vernon perform this not three, but seven times. Each time, ordering The Professor to do it again. After seven times, his wife said “Face it, Houdini, you’re fooled.”

For years after this event, Vernon billed himself as “The Man Who Fooled Houdini”, which is—even to this day—a brilliant piece of marketing.

It wasn’t just publicity that Vernon was a master of though. By the age of 13 he had not only read, but learned all of The Expert At The Card Table. But, he wasn’t afraid to take chance with bold ideas and methods too, even at a young age. Famously he was approached by another young magician in his home town who asked Vernon what kind of magic he did. Vernon asked the kid to name a card, then proceeded to take a deck from his pocket, remove the cards, turn over the top card, show it as the named card and put the cards away. “That’s the kind of magic I do. What kind of magic do you do?” he asked.

Another fascination of Vernon’s was in the murky world of card cheating. He traveled across the USA for most of his life searching out card cheats or anyone who might know anything he didn’t know about sleight of hand. When it was published, Vernon was famously hugely under-credited in Hugard and Braue’s Expert Card Technique. The material Vernon amassed through his move-finding travels make up a large chunk of the book. In many ways, Josha Jay aped this “move search” travels with his "Talk About Tricks" column that has recently been published as a huge, beautiful book.

Vernon spent the last three decades of his life as Magician-in-Residence at The Magic Castle in Los Angeles. During this time, he taught a huge number of incredible magicians including Ricky Jay, Doug Henning, Larry Jennings, Michael Ammar, John Carney and so many more. Everyone interested in magic would make the pilgrimage to Hollywood just for the chance to see Vernon there, in his love seat in the corner of the main bar, cigar in hand, sharing wisdom—and often chastising what he thought of as mistakes—to anyone who cared to listen.

Bibliography

  • $20 Manuscript (Ten Card Problems) (1932). Republished in Early Vernon.
  • $3 Manuscript (Five Close-up Problems) (1933). Republished in Early Vernon.
  • Select Secrets by Dai Vernon (1941 & 1949).
  • Dai Vernon Book of Magic by Lewis Ganson (1957).
  • Dai Vernon's Inner Secrets of Card Magic by Lewis Ganson (1959). Republished as part of the Inner Card Trilogy.
  • Dai Vernon's More Inner Secrets of Card Magic by Lewis Ganson (1960). Republished as part of the Inner Card Trilogy
  • Dai Vernon's Further Secrets of Card Magic by Lewis Ganson (1961). Republished as part of the Inner Card Trilogy.
  • Malini and His Magic by Dai Vernon (1962).
  • Dai Vernon's Tribute to Nate Leipzig by Lewis Ganson (1963).
  • Dai Vernon's Ultimate Secrets of Card Magic by Lewis Ganson (1967).
  • Dai Vernon's Symphony of the Rings by Lewis Ganson (1958).
  • Revelations by Dai Vernon (1984).
  • The Vernon Chronicles, Vol. 1: The Lost Inner Secrets by Stephen Minch (1987).
  • The Vernon Chronicles, Vol. 2: More Lost Inner Secrets by Stephen Minch (1988).
  • The Vernon Chronicles, Vol. 3: Further Lost Inner Secrets by Stephen Minch (1989).
  • Vernon Touch (2006).
  • Revelation by Dai Vernon (2008).

For a detailed biography of Dai Vernon, we recommend David Ben’s wonderful book.

We’ll be doing a pick of our favorite Vernon titles later in the week.


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