Last night the CW aired this season’s penultimate episode of Penn & Teller: Fool Us, and it was another strong one, with some really great acts. So, without further ado, onto the performers:
Victor & Diamond: I’m almost not sure where to start with this one. It may even need a new term coined for it – “rapid-fire magic.” It began with a wonderful fire-based opening where Victor procured first a bird and then his wife, and then the two managed to sustain a rate of at least one effect every five seconds, with birds and rabbits appearing, disappearing, and multiplying. It may have been the busiest routine so far this season, and that includes Shin Lim. But most of all, it was joyful magic, and that elevated it with ease to the best performance of the night. It wasn’t enough to fool Penn and Teller, but I don’t think we’ve had this strong an opening to an episode since Jon Armstrong and his tiny plunger.
Francis Menotti: You can usually tell when a performer is really enjoying him or herself, and Menotti was no exception. His patter was a delightful wordplay that fit into an overall theme of words and vocabulary. The trick itself was a version of a book test, with the prediction made from Scrabble pieces selected by multiple members of the audience, which is a great way of making things appear random. If I have one criticism of Menotti, it is that he actually outdid himself – his patter was so impressive that it overshadowed the reveal of his effect, making it feel like an anti-climax. Still, he fooled Penn and Teller and had fun doing it, and what more can a performer ask?
Nash Fung: This routine was wonderfully entertaining. Fung was lively, funny, and charming. As Penn noted, his trick is a traditional type – the borrowed object appearing in an impossible location – and Fung pulled it off with panache, and even managed to fit in a redemption plot when it seemed that he had accidentally burned Penn’s driver’s license… until it appeared in a pop can. He didn’t fool Penn and Teller, but he still pulled off one of the most entertaining performances of the evening.
Chad Juros: Rope tricks are an old staple of magic, and it can be tricky to keep it fresh. In this, Juros succeeded with flying colours – he was energetic throughout his performance, and his linking rings with ropes was a welcome surprise. Penn and Teller weren’t fooled, but Juros managed to very nicely hold his own.
Penn and Teller: This wasn’t so much of a trick as a demonstration of how magic works in the mind. The magic happens inside the volunteer’s head, and is entirely tactile. In the end, it’s all about perception and how we understand it – if we put ourselves in the place of the volunteer, closing our eyes and letting things happen, the experience is truly magical. On the other hand, if we continue to watch as the audience, we only see the method, and the magic is lost. After all, sometimes magic doesn’t necessarily come from where we think it does, and this brings us, in a roundabout way, to this week’s commentary.
As I mentioned in a previous installment, the most famous magician in history may be Harry Houdini (1874-1926), but the man magicians revere is Dai Vernon (1894-1992).
In many ways, Vernon revolutionized and even created modern close-up magic. But Vernon did not turn to magicians to learn most of his craft, although he certainly did learn some magic from other magicians. Instead, he went to where the real close-up magic was happening in the early 20th century: the card table. Vernon’s magic “Bible” was no mere book on tricks for performers – it was S.W. Erdnase’s The Expert at the Card Table, a treatise published in 1902 on the art of cheating at cards that has been considered the Bible of card handling, and remained in print, ever since.
The Expert at the Card Table is a remarkable book, and at the heart of one of the most enduring mysteries in magic – nobody knows who Erdnase was. For some time it was thought that he was a card cheat named Milton Franklin Andrews, who died in a murder-suicide in 1905. This theory seemed solid until a picture of Andrews was shown to the book’s illustrator, Marshall D. Smith, who had met the author… and had never seen Andrews before in his life. Magic historians seek the identity of Erdnase to this day.
Regardless of who wrote it, the first half of The Expert at the Card Table is a practical manual for cheating at cards, with detailed instructions on everything a card cheat would need to gain advantage during a game. The second half is an instructional manual for magic sleights, along with some tricks. This dual identity has fuelled another debate – that of whether it was a book written for cheaters with some magic thrown in, or a magic book masquerading as a manual for card sharps (also known as “card sharks”).
For the young Dai Vernon, who acquired the book in one of its first printings, it was a revelation. Unlike a magician, a card sharp has to perform his sleights under risk to life and limb. This means that every single move he makes has to look natural, to the point that dealing from both the top and bottom of the deck must appear identical. This naturalness was a key point preached by Erdnase, and a stark contrast to the flashy style magicians had developed. Applied to magic, it would make an effect seem even more magical, as it would appear that the performer had done nothing out of the ordinary. Vernon memorized the book and became Erdnase’s apostle to the magic world.
When Vernon settled in New York at the end of World War I, he joined a community of magicians that became known as the “Inner Circle,” which he soon came to dominate. Alongside Vernon were Al Baker (1874-1951), Dr. Jacob Daily (1897-1954), Arthur Finley (1887-1958), and Sam Horowitz (1894-1971), as well as Cardini (1895-1973) and Nate Leipzig (1873-1939). They took Vernon’s lead, turning the techniques of card cheats into staples of card magic. And as they did so, the magicians’ hunt for card sharps began.
Magicians and card sharps have long had a love-hate relationship. Particularly after the creation of Vernon’s Inner Circle, magicians were hungry for anything a card sharp could teach them. However, they also had a disdain for how card sharps earned their living, and were quick to incorporate exposés of how gamblers cheat at cards into their acts, or set themselves up as anti-cheating consultants such as Mickey MacDougall (1902-1996), who billed himself as “The Card Detective,” and John Scarne (1903-1985). This meant that while magicians were eager to track down and learn from the card sharps, the card sharps – who thought that magicians were idiots for wasting their sleight of hand skills on card tricks – were considerably less eager to talk to the magicians.
Finding card sharps to learn from had other practical challenges. Most were nomadic, unable to stay in any one place for very long lest their unlikely winning streaks be noticed. Sometimes there were, however, card sharps who would talk to magicians in general, such as Walter Irving Scott (1895-1995), who became famous as “the Phantom of the Card Table” – Scott had been a magician before applying his skills to cheating, and therefore had a foot in both worlds. He was brought into the Inner Circle by Eddie McGuire (1891-1968), an amateur magician who wanted to demonstrate that not only was he worthy of being in the company of such illustrious conjurers, but that in Scott he had his own card sharp, and it was one who could beat Vernon.
Vernon, however, was a special case. The card sharps would talk to him, and he would cross the country at the drop of a hat to seek them out. What made Vernon special was that he had made his name on Coney Island not as a magician, but as a silhouette artist, during which time he had become considered an insider in the many carnival scams performed there. As a man “with it,” card sharps thought of him as one of their own. He also knew enough to pass for a card cheat if he had to. This meant that he could get a sharp like Allen “Bill” Kennedy (1897-1961) to teach him the centre deal – dealing cards from the centre of the deck – a sleight long thought impossible, and one which Vernon kept to himself after mastering it. True to form, after Vernon brought it into the world of magic, instructions for no less than five different variations of the centre deal were published in 1940 by Jean Hugard and Frederick Braué in Expert Card Technique, although none were Kennedy’s version – having learned that the sleight was possible, magicians had once again invented methods of their own.
To this day, Dai Vernon is remembered as the man who revolutionized close-up magic. However, while the magicians’ hunt for card sharps has passed – for now – it remains a remarkable fact that many of the techniques behind the modern card trick were born not in the hands of magicians, but by cheats at the card table.
Author’s Note: I was contacted over the weekend by Larry Wilson, one of the organizers of the Spellbinders International Festival of Magic, held in Reno, Nevada. This is a free event that started last year, and it’s happening again this year from October 20-24. So, if you live in the Reno area, or you’re going to be there in mid-late October, you should probably go check it out and see some magic! And, if you want to support Spellbinders, they are right now running an Indiegogo campaign to help keep it going every year. So, please take a look, and if you feel it is worthy of your support, donate what you can – after all, how many crowdfunding campaigns have dinner with Lance Burton, a magic lesson from Jonathan Pendragon, or a meet-and-greet with David Copperfield as donation rewards?
Author’s Other Note: For those who are interested, Francis Minotti is doing an IAMA on Reddit today – you can find it here.
Author’s Other Other Note: Since this is a feature about magic, we must ask for discretion when it comes to discussing methods in the forums. For the sake of preserving the mystery for those who do not want to know how the tricks are done, as well as to avoid accidentally exposing the hard work of some very talented magicians, please avoid revealing methods in the discussion threads. If you must talk about a method in a way that might expose it, please use spoiler tags.
Robert B. Marks is the author of the new and revived Garwulf’s Corner on The Escapist, as well as Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, the original Garwulf’s Corner, and the co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora. His current fiction project is The Eternity Quartet, with Ed Greenwood. His Livejournal can be found here, and he is now on Facebook. He can be reached by email at garwulf at escapistmag.com.