Vernon’s fooling of Houdini shows why we should never stop learning

October 1st, 2012 | Joe Hadsall | Filed Under General

So I’m reading “The Magician and the Card Sharp,” by Karl Johnson, which is about Dai Vernon and the hunt for an elusive mechanic who can center deal like nobody’s business. Vernon’s search is pretty important for a number of reasons:

  • ~ Vernon was relentless in his pursuit of knowledge, and went to great lengths to learn about cons, sleights and other hustles.
  • ~ While other magicians thought S.W. Erdnase’s “Expert at the Card Table” was so technical that it was impossible to learn from, Vernon devoured it and found it incredibly detailed.
  • ~ At the time, a center deal was fairly unknown. Not even Erdnase tackled it.
  • ~ Because Vernon favored the mechanics of the sharps over the gimmicked gadgets of the stage magicians, a method for a reliable center deal was invaluable.

The book is, so far, quite compelling. Johnson has taken the biographies of two interesting figures and woven them into a compelling narrative that reads like fiction. It’s almost like Erik Larson wrote one of his “Devil in the White City” books about magicians. As far as the first few chapters, anyway… I’m not done reading the book yet, and a part about Vernon’s famous moniker kind of distracted me.

Vernon is known by two nicknames: The Professor, and the Man Who Fooled Houdini. The story of how Houdini was taken by Vernon’s Ambitious Card Routine is legendary, but what struck me was what happened afterward.

Vernon’s trick had shaken Houdini, according to the showman’s wife, Bess. She wrote that he stayed up half the night trying to figure out how he had done it, and didn’t get close.

At a meeting of the Society of American Magicians two years later, Houdini spotted a deck of cards on a table where a group of magicians and their wives sat. He picked up the deck and started to do a series of tricks. Apparently, Houdini flashed his palms so bad that even some laymen noticed. From the book:

“Later, once the magicians were alone, (Sam) Margules piped up, ‘Harry, why don’t you let Dai show you how to palm a card?’ Vernon had perfected a simple and elegant plaming technique called ‘topping the deck’ … which was becoming the preferred method among magicians. That’s all Houdini had to hear. He went berserk.”

According to the book, Houdini went on a rage bender, calling the magicians at the table “amateurs” and other colorful metaphors. Where the group thought they were helping a fellow magician with an innocent suggestion, Houdini had taken the criticism personally.

So Houdini was a jerk once. Why should we care?

Had Houdini been more like the Professor, maybe his reputation as a magician would be better. Remember that while Houdini was regarded as a legendary escape artist, it was Howard Thurston who was arguably the era’s greatest magician. While Houdini was a public relations machine, his escapistry never struck Vernon as very magical.

“To Vernon, these escapes were not magic. There was little mystery, he felt, in wriggling around in a straitjacket.”

Contrast that with Vernon, who came to be known as The Professor because of his dedication to research and practice. He is truly the forefather of the modern close-up magician. And he picked up a lesson on public relations from Houdini, evidenced by his other nickname.

We never stop learning in magic. We will always be novices, because someone, somewhere, knows more than us, and can teach us something valuable. The more we thicken our skin to criticism and learn from others’ feedback, the more we can benefit from what others say.

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