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The Search for America’s Greatest Sleight-of-Hand Artist

by Karl Johnson

Pub Date: Aug. 10th, 2005
ISBN: 0-8050-7406-6
Publisher: Henry Holt

Dealing cards from the center of the deck, a trick only the most exquisite dealers can manage, forms the heart of journalist Johnson’s story of a card artist and crooked gambler.

Dai Vernon was a magician, a fine hand at string and colored silks, cups and balls and coins, but he will be remembered for his finesse at cards, his astonishing, natural and casual grace. He was not a gambler, though, and spent much of his life working as a cutter of silhouettes, a pleasant art form affordable even in the Depression era. With Wichita for a hometown, the Vernon that Johnson reveals became a true obsessive: He would spend hours, weeks, years refining his magic technique—he never went in for smoke, mirrors and wires, preferring the sleight-of-the-unadorned-hand along with any psychological subtleties he might work on his mark. Allen Kennedy, on the other hand, was pure cardsharp and shadows: quiet, unassuming and in complete control of the game, stacking and peeking and dealing from the bottom. And Kennedy could deal from the center of the deck, something Vernon had only heard rumors of. Johnson follows Vernon as he manages to track Kennedy down outside Kansas City to learn the trick of the center draw (it requires doing finger exercises practiced by pianists; Johnson is good at explaining the mechanics). It almost seems that Vernon and Kennedy alone had the requisite touch for the center deal, until Johnson notes a tantalizing story. In 1982, a casino surveillance expert was patrolling the catwalks when he witnessed for the first time a sharp dealing from the center. He didn’t turn the man in—the stakes simply weren’t that high—but observed the rarity from afar and with utter admiration.

Like the ivory-billed woodpecker, the center deal may be alive and well, comfortably living in secrecy. Johnson’s tribute will make you hope so.