The Magician and the Cardsharp: The Search for America's Greatest Sleight-of-Hand Artist

A Gweek listener recommended The Magician and the Cardsharp to me (I can't remember who - sorry!) and I'm thankful he did. It's a well-told story about two men with intersecting lifelong goals. The first man was Allen Kennedy (1865–1961) a professional card cheat who spent many years perfecting his technique to deal cards from the center of the deck undetected. The second man was Dai Vernon (1894–1992), one of the most highly-respected sleight-of-hand magicians in history.

Vernon, who worked as a silhouette cutter in department stores, had been interested in card tricks (especially ones involving sleight-of-hand) since childhood. By the time he was an adult, he'd gained a reputation for being one of the best card handlers in the world. From time-to-time, Vernon would heard rumors that there was a professional cardsharp somewhere in Missouri who'd mastered the mythical Center Deal, a move that almost every magician dismissed as an impossible fantasy.

Vernon had his doubts too, but the rumors continued to spread, and his curiosity got the better of him. He embarked on a years-long quest, involving much travel and encounters with scary characters, to find out if there really was someone who had invented an undetectable center deal and, if he existed, to convince the man to teach him how it was done. This book is not only the story of Vernon's search for, and eventual meeting with, the man behind the rumor, it is also a history of the American midwest's rough-and-tumble past, replete with illegal gambling dens, speakeasies, con-men, whorehouses, and mobsters. Author Karl Johnson does a fine job of bringing the dusty, dangerous, boisterous, exciting atmosphere of small city vice to life.

The Magician and the Cardsharp

Video below shows a sample of the genius of Dai Vernon: