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The Magician and the Cardsharp by Karl Johnson

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 2005)


In February of 1932, Dai Vernon, accompanied by his friend Faucett Ross, sat in the Sedgwick County Jail in Wichita Kansas, talking to Amador Villasenor "a gambler, a card-sharp, a thief, and a killer." Vernon, at ease with Villasenor, was not about to be distracted by the Mexican gambler's colorful résumé. "You've been a gambler all your life, haven't you? Well, have you ever witnessed anything unusual... ? You've played cards all your life, have you ever seen anything you don't understand?" The prisoner gave it some thought. "In Kansas City, I see a fella. He deals cards from the center of the pack ...."

Thus began Dai Vernon's search for the chimera of the card table, the elusive Center Deal. Magicians and hustlers alike made fun of the very thought literally laughed in his face nobody would ever want to work that hard, the idea was ludicrous. Vernon himself wouldn't believe it unless he actually saw it, but he was willing to believe in the possibility of it. And that was a notion he shared with a man named Allen Kennedy. Kennedy was a professional card cheat from Pleasant Hill, Missouri, making a full-time living fleecing marks that passed through the bustling little town, with its population of a mere 2,500 people, via the 25 trains that came and went every day. The town was so busy that druggists and grocery stores stayed open until one or two a.m., while Allen Kennedy dealt cards in a gaming room that overlooked the station, the source of his ready prey. Amador Villasenor didn't know where Kennedy lived exactly, but he had encountered his fellow cheat in the rough and ready gambling metropolis, Kansas City, where Kennedy had demonstrated his impeccable impossibility. Now, in the jailhouse, Villasenor gave up a paltry amount of information. He provided no name. But eventually, he pointed Vernon toward Kansas City.

What kind of man would then do what Vernon did to pack up and head to Kansas City, his young friend Charlie Miller in tow to seek this will o' the wisp? Author Karl Johnson tries to explain what kind of man Vernon was: "By 1932, Dai Vernon had been chasing cheaters and their tricks for almost three decades, since he was a small boy in Ottawa. He had met and learned from some of the best cardsharps on the grift... He had befriended and swapped tricks and techniques with most of the greatest magicians Leipzig, Downs, Jarrow, Malini, Elliott. He had fooled the legendary Houdini himself. He had performed for the elites of society ... And later, Vernon ... would appear at Radio City Music Hall and the Rainbow Room. He would entertain the most famous figures in the celebrity universe in New York City and Hollywood."

As hard as it was for Vernon to believe a Mexican gambler who described the Center Deal with one arresting word—"perfect"—it's almost as difficult for the average person to imagine that a man like Dai Vernon could really exist. Even today, within the world of magic, there am those that doubt the veracity of Vernon's legend, who look at the tales of Vemon's life and, somehow, seemingly because he knew how to tell a good story, now try to convince us that therefore the stories were fiction.

Karl Johnson, an accomplished journalist (and former editor at the New York Daily News) is not a magician. He brings the fresh eyes of an outsider, along with the newly informed passion of an insider, to the story of Dai Vernon's search for the Center Deal, and in the course of his remarkable narrative allows us to rediscover the reality of Vernon, and his adventure, with those newly widened eyes.

Mr. Johnson's book grew out of a magazine article he wrote for American Heritage magazine (and which was subsequently expanded and published in the December 2001 Genii). Now, after years of intensive and thorough research, Mr. Johnson has written the first book for the public about Dai Vernon. With a life as rich as Vernon's, the 300 pages of The Magician and the Cardsharp make no attempt at providing a thorough biography; rather, it requires this much space to explain the unarguably true story behind a particular episode in the life of the most important and influential magician of the 20th century.

And that is the breath-stopping beauty of it, because the story is true. Countless magicians will already be familiar with the major elements of the tale: The Mexican gambler in jail for murder. Vernon mixing with gamblers in Kansas City, and Charlie Miller's cover story of "the dice man." The little girl with the ice cream cone who points Vernon to the home of Allen Kennedy. All the bits and pieces, polished by Vernon (and his acolytes) in countless retellings, until the story grew more and more entertaining, and yet somehow less and less believable. But when Vernon told the tale, as the author reminds us, he could also grow insistent. "Now, this is not funny ... This is true!"

Young men who don't know any better, and old men who should, have tried whatever their motives to cast doubt on this Vernon tale and others. And while much of what passes for magic history is often anecdote relayed by amateurs, no matter how well meaning, the same can often be said of historical critics and revisionists. But Karl Johnson is no amateur, he's a pro, and his 40 pages of rigorous reference notes and seven pages of bibliography should provide pause for armchair internet bloviators.

The author went to the scene of the crime, and to primary sources: to Kennedy's home town of Pleasant Hill to talk to surviving family members and town elders who remember him; to Kansas City; and to newspapers and photographs of the era. The notes at the back of the book are as engaging a read for magicians as the book itself will be for any lay reader, because both are adventure stories: the main story of Vernon and Kennedy, the other the adventure of the author's dauntless research. The verdict: Vernon told the truth. Karl Johnson confirms Vernon's story with a depth of detail and authenticity that is beyond any reasonable expectation. Everything is substantiated; anything in quotation marks has a source, there are no imagined conversations. He finds the Mexican gambler, and provides a photograph. He finds Allen Kennedy, and provides pictures of him, too. He finds the rough and tumble card games of Kansas City circa 1930, and provides photos, some never before published, taken under-cover by photojournalist Jack Wally. He finds advertisements and newspaper stories about Vernon cutting silhouettes in the Inns department store, the finest store in Wichita, and provides photos of Vernon cutting a silhouette (albeit else-where) with his professional display in the background. He finds Old Man Lee, who ran the dice department at the famed KC Card Company in Kansas City, the man who gave Kennedy's name to Vernon. He confirms Vernon's account of the "raw, rainy weather" on the night the magician first went to the Sedgwick County Jail. In short, Karl Johnson has verified every significant element of Vernon's tale, with the sole exception of the actual girl with the ice cream cone but even then, he confirms that you could buy ice cream in Pleasant Hill at the time of year Vernon met her!

History is not just "one damn thing after another," as one wag once put it. The story of The Magician and the Cardsharp is thoroughly grounded for us with historical con-text, framed in the culture of its time and place. Similarly, the author does a remarkable job of communicating to a lay readership the nature of Vernon's place in the history and art of magic, and the extent of his contributions. "Quickly, quietly, he had begun to steer his art in a new direction. ... He became magic's Picasso, its Hemingway, its Duke Ellington."

More than once, the author makes comparisons between Vernon's fluid brand of magic and another art form of the era: jazz. He quotes the cornet player, musician Bix Biederbecke, commenting on jazz's improvisational radicalism, "It's one of the things I like about jazz, kid. I don't know what's going to happen. Do you?" The author adds, "Vernon didn't always know, either."

The result is a compelling true-life adventure story, filled with vibrancy and vitality. And that is perhaps the best part, because this is no dreary litany of facts and random detail. The story is given an arc, a structure, and a flow that serves to drive the narrative and bring all of its diverse elements together, and very much to life—the time, the place, the people. The intense Vernon and the laconic Kennedy, locked together, unwittingly, by their parallel playing card obsessions. And the supporting cast on both sides of the table: magicians like Charlie Miller and Faucett Ross, and others of Vernon's inner circle, and gamblers like "Midnight" Underwood, Kennedy's employer and the local gambling kingpin of Pleasant Hills. The temper of the times, the sound and smell and the color of it all, the bootlegging, the racism, the Klan, the crimes great and small including a young Allen Kennedy pleading guilty to robbing boxcars and paying a $90 fine.

Magicians who know about pieces of this story, those who know about Vernon, or even knew him late in his life, will still find themselves riveted as a new Vernon comes to life for them: the spirited young Vernon of the '20s and '30s, trans-forming his art while relentlessly running gambling moves to ground. It's no wonder really that people disbelieve the leg-end of Vernon, but it's not enough to merely acknowledge that this or that story was real; the overriding point one grasps in reading this evocative work is that his very life was real. Mr. Johnson understands this, and tries to help the reader comprehend it in turn: "In 'Cutting the Aces,' [Vernon] told of an intriguing encounter with a one-armed gambler down in Mexico who could always cut to an ace. He called it a 'realistic story' and urged his students to feature similar stories. Of course, for Vernon it was a realistic story. 'Let me show you what happened to me in Tijuana many years ago,' he would begin as he picked up the deck to start the trick."

And what about that move, that Center Deal, that no one wanted to believe then and some still refuse to believe even today? Well, believe in it we must, as Mr. Johnson tracks Vernon's trail, and his ongoing correspondence with friends, during the chase and after the hunt was completed. There are those who say that the Center Deal can't exist because it is unnecessary which is as convincing an argument as saying that all art doesn't exist. Why would anyone ever create a painting? A statue? A song? What good is it? The author addresses this with great insight: "Allen Kennedy certainly could have gotten by with far fewer skills than the ones he developed. But he obviously wasn't satisfied with just getting by. He had a natural talent for card handling, he had seen that early on when he first started dabbling as a youth, and he let that talent flower now." Elsewhere the author acknowledges that, "As a class, mechanics tended to reject out of hand all techniques considered impractical, flashy, or overly complicated. They were unnecessary, so why bother with them? Kennedy was certainly steeped in that ethic. ... He certainly had no need to take on the Center Deal, none whatsoever.... And working with confederates, as he did most of the time, was 'quite sufficient to answer all purposes,' as Erdnase had put it with finality ...."

But so what? So what if Vernon already knew 20 ways to shift the cut he still needed to know another card hustler of a sort, Walter Scott, who didn't even cheat under fire but was basically the flashy front man for a con game that took down unskilled players, certainly didn't need the Punch Deal and edge marks for his pretty little blindfold demos. But he mastered them just the same.

Kennedy was clearly of the same breed, except that he did the work under fire. He made something beautiful and extraordinary for himself. He enjoyed the challenge, and doubtless enjoyed his victory over it even more. He's pleased when Vernon tells him that the legend of his move has spread, although he'll never realize how far. It's futile to insist that the Center Deal was pointless, because no one would have understood that better than Allen Kennedy, but he created it nonetheless. And even if no one ever used it under fire again, that too makes no difference whatsoever. Then again, that's apparently not the case, as Mr. Johnson explains, as he relays a report from the renowned but soft-spoken poker and security expert, Ron Conley, who, as an eye-in-the-sky in a Gardena, California poker room, witnessed the Center Deal in play in 1982.

Magicians cannot help but enjoy this book. I didn't just enjoy it, I was thrilled by it. And your laymen friends, to whom you would like to explain something about who and what Dai Vernon was, will enjoy and appreciate this engaging story as well. Vernon spent his life trying to elevate the art of magic and earn it the respect it deserves. To his great credit, Karl Johnson upholds that tradition in the spirit of Vernon, and for this we should be grateful. And even as he explains so much, and examines all so closely, he never loses the sense of mystery that makes magic, and the story, so beautiful. Recounting that in 1933, Vernon wrote to Sam Horowitz that he was creating new tricks making use of the Center Deal, the author reminds us: "He never released any of them publicly." Long after the incredible life of Dai Vernon has passed, the magic and the mystery live on. (Full disclosure: this writer's name appears three times in the book's index.]

The Magician and the Cardsharp • Karl Johnson • 349 pages; 6" x 9" hardbound with full-color dustjacket; 8 pages of photographs: Henry Holt