There’s a reason Dai Vernon is regarded as “The Professor,” and is one of the most esteemed, legendary names in magic. Actually, there’s a myriad of reasons, from his attention to detail and dogged determination, to his willingness to share what he’d learned with deserving students.
“The Magician and the Cardsharp,” by Karl Johnson, shows another reason: His dedication to pursuing sleight of hand. As the title suggests, the book covers two people: Vernon and Allen Kennedy, a shifty gambler who dealt his trade at card tables in Pleasant Hill, Missouri.
We’ve written before about the lengths Daniel Madison went to learn the moves and skills needed to cheat against actual players. That pursuit led to Mechanic and fueled the devotion to deception behind Moves. Vernon’s path to learn many of those same moves, and apply them to magical presentations, is similar, and well documented in Johnson’s book — making it a perfect summer read.
Vernon’s hunt for Kennedy began in the ’30s, after the Great Depression had quelled America’s appetite for magic. Long known as a persistent, focused artist, he approached magic from an engineering standpoint. He was one of the first to expand the gambling lessons of S.W. Erdnase’s “Expert at the Card Table” — while other magicians relied on trick cards, gimmicks and gaffs, Vernon saw how sleight of hand could help him accomplish the same kinds of miracles, only with a more natural flow and feel. The moves of the gambler fueled him, and gave him the skill to fool Houdini.
He had to learn firsthand, however.
In order to learn more than what Erdnase could teach, Vernon sought out gambling rooms and pass himself off as a mechanic so that he could win the trust of crooked dealers and learn their techniques. Johnson does a brilliant job of telling how Vernon risked his life in order to steal the secrets of the crooked and use them for magical purposes. Bottom deals, second deals, stacks, deck replacements; he learned them all.
So when Vernon heard about Kennedy, who had allegedly mastered a deal from the center of the deck — a move that appears nowhere in Erdnase’s book — he had to hunt the secret down. Instantly understanding the value of such a move, he started a hunt to track down the creator.
And speaking of Kennedy: Johnson also details his life, and how the dealer drifted through gambling halls, learning a lot, practicing his trade and learning crucial lessons about timing. One of the most powerful lessons he learned was that there was no need to fully stack a deck, because all it took to swing a hand was one single card. That lesson stuck with Vernon, who repeated it often to anyone who would listen.
There are plenty of fantastic passages in “The Magician and the Cardsharp,” including how Houdini was affected by Vernon’s “fooling.” But the most compelling part of the book is how it demonstrates how all-encompassing the pursuit of magic can be. We can’t recommend everyone follow Vernon’s exact path, especially in these dangerous days. But Vernon’s efforts show exactly what it takes to blaze a trail.