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Art of the deal, tale of discovery

STYLE & CULTURE | BOOK REVIEW

The Magician and the Cardsharp The Search for America's Greatest Sleight-of-Hand Artist Karl Johnson Henry Holt: 352 pp., $26

December 12, 2005|Crispin Sartwell | Special to The Times

YOU won't realize this until you start trying, but manipulating a simple deck of cards is as hard as mastering an oboe. Among the many virtues of Karl Johnson's "The Magician and the Cardsharp," with its prodigious research and compelling settings and characters, is that it conveys the allure of playing cards and the singular focus required to learn to manipulate them. At its heart, it is a tale of art and obsession.

The story Johnson tells is one of the foundation myths of modern card work: the meeting of the great sleight-of-hand magician Dai Vernon and Allen "Bill" Kennedy, a gambler who had crafted the perfect center deal. In the course of a money game, Kennedy could cull the cards he wanted to the top or bottom of the deck, then hand the deck left to be cut. Then he could deal his cards from the middle of the deck, undetected.

Vernon was the 20th century's most influential performer of magic, responsible in large measure for its conversion from huge stage simulations of the supernatural to table-top demonstrations of sleight of hand. He emphasized naturalness achieved by prodigious skill, the result of thousands of hours of practice. Johnson rightly places Vernon's achievement in the context of art history, particularly that of Impressionist painting and jazz music.

From the start, card conjuring was dependent on sleights developed by gamblers, such as bottom dealing, palming and the pass. And card conjurers have always admired and perhaps romanticized gamblers because they could use these devices under fire, in situations where their lives and fortunes might depend on the success of their maneuvers.

Vernon tracked down several great card cheats during his long life, but the coup he brought off by pursuing Kennedy through the Kansas City gambling dens of the 1930s to his home in Pleasant Hill, Mo., became the stuff of legend.

Many have doubted that it actually took place, thinking it part of Vernon's self-created myth. But Johnson demonstrates that Vernon's accounts of the meeting were accurate. For example, the jailed Mexican gambler reputed to have put Vernon on the scent is named and pictured here for the first time.

Magicians seek publicity, while gambling cheats seek anonymity. While Vernon's story has been fully, indeed obsessively, documented, Kennedy's remained in the shadows until now. Relying on peripheral sources for Kennedy's early life, Johnson gets great mileage from small-town newspaper archives. "Constable Mose Mahaffey continues to work his dragnet in Pleasant Hill," reported a small-town Damon Runyon in the Cass County Leader in April 1921. "On Friday afternoon of last week Mose suspicioned several of the Pleasant Hill inhabitants of flirting with the fickle Goddess of Chance."

Johnson's narrative oscillates from New York magic circles where Vernon rubbed shoulders with legends such as Max Malini, Nate Leipzig and Harry Houdini to the world of vice in Pleasant Hill and Kansas City. There, jazz was exploding along with gambling, and Count Basie and Bill Kennedy honed their chops simultaneously. When these worlds collide, Vernon and his protege Charlie Miller almost get killed walking into the wrong rooms and asking after the card mechanic with the impossible move.

The story climaxes when Vernon tracks Kennedy to his home and learns the center deal. Vernon and Kennedy never meet again, and as Kennedy declines into alcoholism, Vernon becomes the personification of conjuring for generations of magicians, holding forth into his and the 20th century's 90s at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles.

In one sense the discovery of the perfect center deal turned out to be of dubious importance: Even Vernon, after perfecting it, had a hard time figuring out how to use it in performance. And the secrecy surrounding it, which Vernon eventually broke, publishing the deal in the 1950s, is fundamentally unnecessary: Even if you know how to do it, you're going to have to abandon all other tasks and devote the next five years to mastering it. Few gamblers other than Kennedy have used the center deal to "get the money."

That Vernon cared so much about something so essentially useless is his illumination of art and of the human condition, of our inspiring or sad ability or need to make something unnecessary into the meaning of a life.

Crispin Sartwell teaches political science at Dickinson College and wrote "Six Names of Beauty."

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