Phantoms of the Card Table by David Britland & "Gazzo"
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 2003)
On June 14th, 1930, a stellar group of magicians assembled at the Brooklyn home of Al Baker to see a "phantom" in the flesh: a man named Walter Scott, who possessed, according to one Eddie McGuire, superhuman abilities with playing cards. Gathered that historic evening, along with Baker, Scott, and McGuire, were Dick Cardini, Sam Horowitz, Max Holden, Tommy Downs, and Down's friend, Eddie McLaughlin.
With a new deck of cards borrowed from Al Baker, Scott repeatedly dealt four Aces, Royal Flushes, and other winning hands from a deck fairly shuffled by others. Despite repeat shuffling by others, despite a change of decks, despite a cloth bag placed over his head as a blindfold, Scott was repeatedly able to do the impossible. As Holden would later report in his "Magic Around New York" column in The Sphinx, the elite of the New York card scene, which in turn was the elite of the nation's, was astounded.
Or were they? Were the decks borrowed and truly new? Was Walter Scott a master card cheat? And how had he accomplished his miracles? What happened that night continues to be a source of speculation, mystery, and dispute more than 70 years later. This is the latest book that attempts to solve the mysteries of Walter Scott—and while it raises some new questions and fails to answer some older ones, it does indeed go further than anything in the literature to date in unraveling the mystery of the Phantom of the Card Table.
Readers may already be familiar with some of the existing literature on the subject. Gamblers Book Club publishes The Phantom of the Card Table by the aforementioned Eddie McGuire (reviewed in Genii, March 1997), first reprinted by them in 1969 (when they thought they had discovered an underground treasure, which unbeknownst to them had previously run in Linking Ring), then expanded in 1978. This booklet includes reprints of McGuire's original manuscript describing Scott's work, along with Holden's Sphinx column, and other material in the later edition, including commentary from Rufus Steele and Bill Simon.
And now this new book by David Britland, much of which is as told to him by Gazzo Macee, yet in turn reputedly told to Gazzo by Walter Scott. That daisy chain is itself a curious tale, briefly recounted in the book. Gazzo—real name Gary Osborne—is a British street magician who, according to his account, was given a copy of the Phantom booklet at the age of 10, purchased at Davenport's magic emporium by his grandfather. (Grandfathers consistently appearing to be the stuff of legend in magic.) Though fascinated by gambling, and involved with a Monte gang at one time in his youth, Gazzo went on to become a successful street performer. His brash style is well known to many on both sides of the Atlantic, as he emigrated to the United States in the early 1980s and remains here today.
When Gazzo arrived on the U.S. magic scene, he created quite a stir with some of the Scott work he had mastered. I recall getting phone calls from some of those mystified by his skill with the punch deal, a then all but forgotten technique, seen by few and recognized by fewer still. (Countless magicians and laymen alike had long been fooled by Del Ray's superb work with the punch, which went unrecognized for decades. I well remember a mystified Gary Ouellet speculating unsuccessfully on Ray's methods in the aftermath of Ray's performance at a Fechter's convention.) According to the account given here, Gazzo actually came to the States with the intention of trying to track Scott down. Eventually, Boston's cherished resident expert in all things magical, Ray Goulet, tipped Gazzo to the fact that Scott was alive and living in Rhode Island.
Gazzo's account of his first meeting with Scott is amusing. For a time it seems like a Comedy of Errors was under way, with Scott thinking that Gazzo had come not for cardmanship lessons but rather for musicianship—since Scott had spent the better part of his life, believe it or not, as a musician and musical instructor, specializing in Hawaiian guitar. (John Thompson has recounted to me how, working in Atlantic City, he once encountered a former student of Scott's who had formed a band called "Walter Scott and the Cheaters.") Eventually the two worked out their motives and identities, and thus began a friendship between Gazzo and Scott that would last until the latter's death. The Phantom had come back to life, and Gazzo was there to record his story.
And that story comprises the bulk of this text, but not until the author, Mr. Britland, provides a brief primer of several chapters recounting background history to the literature of cheating, reformed cheaters, and gambling exposés. Beginning with a discussion of a 1552 book by Gilbert Walker, A Manifest Detection of Diceplay, which provides some of the earliest known descriptions of cheating with cards as well as its primary subject, dice. Britland proceeds to A Notable Discovery of Cozenage, a more readable 1591 pamphlet by Robert Greene, which provides some remarkable accounts of early team-operated scams and con games, the basic beats of which still echo today.
Jumping ahead to the year 1843, Mr. Britland provides some in-depth coverage of the American, Jonathan Harrington Green, who became a notorious self-confessed card cheat and anti-gambling crusader. Britland's account of cheating exposés continues with more familiar fare, discussing Robert-Houdin's The Sharper Detected and Exposed (the English title), Maskelyne's Sharps and Flats, and eventually devoting an entire chapter to Erdnase, intelligently discussing not only the book, but also summarizing the continuing search for its mysterious author. As Mr. Britland notes, "(Erdnase) had tried to make a little money and remain anonymous. Instead he would make no money and become legendary."
The bridge between Erdnase and Walter Scott is provided in a chapter devoted to Dai Vernon. A brief biographical sketch serves to place Vernon in the context of the American magic scene of the 1920s—in fact, squarely at the very center of it. The next chapter begins the story of Scott, opening with the tale of the famous Brooklyn session, and the identities of some of its players. The tale expands with the next chapter, focusing on Eddie McGuire—without whom the session would never have come to pass. Indeed, without McGuire, the legend of "the Phantom" might never have come to the fore, since McGuire himself had created even that very label from the whole cloth of his imagination.
That McGuire was a scheming, self-promoting, confabulating b.s. artist is not news. (Although the term "b.s. artist" was recently invoked in apparently complimentary fashion in a recent cover profile in another magic magazine, I have always taken the term to mean "inveterate liar," and have yet to be convinced otherwise.)
Desperate to connect with Dai Vernon and get close to the center of the New York underground but repeatedly unable to do so, McGuire came across Scott—at a magic club meeting!—and saw his chance (or thought he did) to spar with Vernon. Promoting Scott's legend to McGuire's New York contacts, he eventually arranges the famed Brooklyn encounter. Scott is trotted out for all the masters to see firsthand—or is he?
For a while the tale as told here takes much of the original McGuire line: namely that all and sundry present were flummoxed by Scott's work, and as reported by Holden in his next Sphinx column, which included this now notorious claim: "... Dave [Vernon] to me is the greatest in cards but now I have to pass the crown to Scott and the others all agree with me." This is the kick-off point for much of the thrust of this book, namely Scott's claim that the Brooklyn session began Vernon's lifelong resentment for Scott for having taken his so-called crown.
Of course, the notion is preposterous, and even where this book tries to make hay of the supposed feud, all of the additional detail concerning McGuire and Scott renders it no less dubious a claim than any of Eddie McGuire's other unreliable rantings. The purpose of the evening was largely to take in Holden—the one man at the session who was not by any stretch a card expert—so that he would write something up in his column. This end would thereby serve the self-promoting McGuire's ambitions to be seen as part of the inner circle, and perhaps secondarily to take the cocky Vernon down a peg or two—to, in the words of author Britland, "promote the Phantom legend and attack what he saw as the cult of Vernon."
Certainly Vernon was curious about Scott's work, and excerpts from his correspondence with some of the players—notably his friend Sam Horowitz—are provided in this account. But McGuire's twists and turns color the story throughout, and render much of the goings on suspect. McGuire leads Scott to believe that Vernon is down on his luck, leading Scott to write that, "I can plainly see that the fellow needs and wants to get a few dollars for himself." Scott, a con man and alleged cheat, was incapable of understanding the simple fact that Vernon was interested in cheating techniques not to put them to use at the baize of the poker table, but rather on a close-up mat. As Mr. Britland points out, "(Vernon) was interested in cards in the same way that an artist is attracted to paint."
Up to and including the infamous session, much of what is presented here will already be familiar to attentive students of the record, but many magicians less closely attuned to the details will certainly find this overview of interest and perhaps at times even newly informative. After the account of Gazzo's search for Scott, and about at the perfect halfway point of the book, the story takes on new interest because much of it becomes Waiter Scott's story, apparently as told to Gazzo. "Here then," we are told at this turn in the narrative, "is Scott's story. It may not be the whole story, that would be too much to expect from someone so practised in deception, but it is the one he told to Gazzo and the one he wanted to be remembered for. Finally, the Phantom speaks."
That story is an interesting if often unexpected one, and as the author wisely cautions us, it is not to be taken entirely at face value. A number of surprises are found therein, not the least of which is that Scott gave up cards in 1924 to devote his life to music, "three years before he met Downs and six years before he went to New York."
Interestingly, Eddie McGuire fares no better in Scott's story than elsewhere. Scott declares that "If it wasn't for Eddie McGuire, you wouldn't have a phantom of the card table," and he's not saying it with gratitude. Scott rues the creation of the original phantom manuscript—written up after the Brooklyn session, and marketed by McGuire without Scott's permission—and refers to McGuire as a "publicity seeker." McGuire's tale of tracking down Scott in exotic lands—a story intended to compete with Vernon's genuine tales of chasing down master card mechanics—turns out to be a chance encounter at a meeting of the National Conjurers Association in the exotic locale of Providence, Rhode Island!
Something had indeed gone down at the Brooklyn session, but it seems to me that the various players were far from united in their motives. Holden was interested in promoting his magic business, and was otherwise a relative innocent. As the years went by he would reward his "crown" to any number of lights that caught his eye, but no one really cared, as it never left Vernon's cranium in the first place. As pointed out above, most of Vernon's friends were interested in little more than an evening's entertainment and perhaps a gentle poke in the ribs of a valued and respected friend. McGuire had developed a relationship with Downs—one that would cool once McGuire had run out of use for him—and Downs was advising him on how to penetrate the inner circle. In a 1933 (unpublished) letter to Horowitz, Vernon offers that Downs eventually confessed his own role in the events. "Downs claims that the whole thing was his idea to fool the New York crowd—he met Scott the year before, [Faucett] Ross also, and told him to mark up some cards, also 'punch' a few and then go with Eddie [McGuire] to N.Y. and fool the boys. Downs then told him that all the inner circle would tip off all the good stuff to Eddie. In turn he was to pass it on to Tommy. The latter is such a 'conniver' that I do not know what to think."
Exactly. And while everything that comes from McGuire must be taken with the tiniest grain of salt, some of Scott's perspective must also be similarly seasoned. As Scott's first person story unfolds, we discover an interesting but embittered and cynical character. For what is evidenced here—albeit not admitted to explicitly by Scott himself—is that far from being the self-styled cheat that both McGuire and Scott presented the latter to be, instead he was likely more of a con man. Rather than "move under fire" with his exotic if beautiful techniques, Scott was probably engaged in double-cross cheating scams, in which a mark is supposedly given a chance to take part in a cheating scam, becoming the front man with the money while others would do the dirty work. In setting up this classic con, Scott would have been the flash—the eye candy used to hook the real victim, who would eventually find himself in a game gone somehow horribly wrong, only to leave his money behind, and unable to seek assistance from the law since greed had led to his own attempted malfeasance.
While not an entirely new revelation—having been referred to previously in a Charlie Miller letter, and in Vernon's column in Genii—this offers insight into Scott that must not be ignored. Like all con men, Scott takes an invariably cynical, dark view of humanity. Like all con men, he offers elaborate rationales for his work, claiming to feel bad for taking money from a woman—a huge amount of money if he is to be believed—and offering the age-old Robin Hood defense that he only stole from those who could afford it. Scott comes across as a man with a deep fault line of self-loathing, upon which his experience as a con man was built. Scott heaps disdain upon the many magicians who came to visit him, for their inability to actually cheat at a card table, yet in the end he is revealed as a pseudo-cheater himself: one whose time making an illegal living was spent as a demonstrator—virtually an exposé man—rather than a genuine cheat. No wonder he was comfortable doing a blindfold deal for magicians, because although he was not an entertainer, he was indeed more of a performer than he ever let on. The man who claimed to "cheat the cheaters" was dissembling all the while he made that claim; the cheaters he cheated were not real cheaters at all, but inexperienced marks.
And so the only evidence that Vernon was ever troubled by Scott, much less envious or resentful, are the claims made by Scott himself, and they are dubious in the extreme. Scott insists that Vernon "hated" him, yet Vernon credits Scott in letters with being highly skilled. Scott claims that Vernon was rude and hostile to him at a visit accompanied by Charlie Miller, but there is no corroborative evidence of this beyond Scott's own claims. While Miller recounted those meetings (which occurred decades after the Brooklyn session) to others in his life, to the best of my knowledge he never reported Vernon's alleged rudeness.
Once one sets aside the most extreme of Scott's claims about Vernon, however, the Scott story and much of what follows is certainly of great interest. Gazzo provides Scott's commentary on much of the original Phantom manuscript, and further details on his techniques, including the punch. He also explains Scott's work on edge marking, which McGuire withheld from the phantom manuscript. In the course of the newly described technical work, a detailed explanation is provided of Scott's work on the "bug"—a kind of holdout used to hide cards beneath the table to be switched in and out of play—taken from a McGuire letter to Vernon. The book concludes with a contribution from experienced cheating expert Steve Forte.
Mr. Britland is an excellent writer, and he has constructed a readable and entertaining story. On occasion I found myself wondering if there are some small gaps to Mr. Britland s expertise, or if he is telling a simplified or exaggerated story for his intended public readership, as there are several small inaccuracies that crop up on occasion.
Along similar lines, this is not an academic text. There is no index, and unfortunately there are no footnotes or source citations. Much of the Scott biographical material is put in quotes, apparently taken from audiotapes made by Gazzo. But while unpublished letters are quoted from and articles excerpted, the path is not clear for future explorers. A "recommended reading" list at the book's close is merely that, and not a bibliography. These are regrettable gaps.
That said, this is a wonderful story of mysteries past, and its ghosts come back to walk the earth again in its evocative pages. Those spirits are not yet put to rest, and I enjoyed visiting with them. Their tales are bound to keep you up for more than a few evenings, and I encourage you to invite them in for a visit: they still make for fascinating company.