It's not often you see a card sharp at work. That's the whole point of the profession - to have honed one's skills to the point of invisibility. Whether Ricky Jay is the best card handler in the world is impossible to say. Of the ones we know about, Lennart Green and Juan Tamariz are two that could run him close. But who knows what prodigious talents are working away in lucrative secrecy, plying their dextrous trade on the baize surfaces of Las Vegas, Atlantic City and the Middle East? That was one of the pleasures of seeing Jay perform recently ('Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants') at London's Old Vic: the illicit thrill of seeing something you shouldn't, of being on the inside for once. His assistants are, of course, the 52 playing cards in a standard deck, and he can make them do things that seem barely credible. His show is a bewitching object lesson in card stacking, cutting, palming, crimping and jogging, in false dealing, false shuffling and the art of the hustle. At one point he throws a card so hard it embeds itself in the skin of a watermelon. (His throws can reach 90 miles per hour, and will snap a pencil at three feet.) He tells you he's hustling you but, even forewarned, it's impossible to see how it's done. And like any magician, he's not saying. Instead, he immerses you in a running commentary that gives each trick its own historical context. He tells stories, recounts picaresque anecdotes and quotes verses of long-forgotten songs. He rolls the names of his 19th-century predecessors, such as Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin and Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser, around his mouth like bon-bons.
The show, directed by David Mamet, fosters this sense that Jay is part of a living tradition. The simple set mimics a Victorian parlour, its shelves cluttered with children's toys and magical knick-knacks. He fondly evokes the memory of his teachers Charlie Miller and Dai Vernon, 'The Professor'. One five-minute interlude has him operating an old-fashioned automaton, slowly and silently twisting its handle like a barrel-organ as it appears to make a torn card whole again. Nothing could be further from the ersatz spectacle of David Copperfield or the manic vulgarity of Penn & Teller. Jay is one of the leading authorities on the history of illusions and conjuring, an author and curator. But as academic Sara Crasson points out: 'Historians of magic face a rare challenge. The job of historians is to separate the truth of what actually occurred from the myths created by time, misinformation, confusion, and outright falsehood. The unusual problem for magic is the profusion of lies told about magic and magicians. Magicians lie by the very nature of what they do.' 1 When a magician says he is putting the ball under the cup, he's lying. When he says there are four aces on the table, he's lying. Many go further. Robert-Houdin, widely acknowledged as the father of modern magic, lied in his autobiography, inventing his teacher, Torrini. Erich Weiss reinvented himself as Harry Houdini. And the famed 19th-century Oriental illusionist Chung Ling Soo was in reality a Scotsman named William E. Robinson.
Jay tells the story of immigrant Max Malini, who made his name in 1902 by biting a button from the coat of US Senator Mark Hanna on the steps of the Senate, then magically restoring it to its place minutes later. Of course he didn't actually do this, at least not in the way the story is told. Why? Because it's impossible - there is no such thing as magic. What the illusion of magic teaches us is the extraordinary strength of our desire to believe in it, and the pleasure we take in being deceived, even momentarily. We know the newspaper that is torn up in front of our eyes is not the same newspaper that is then unfolded and found to be whole. We know this, but by ignoring it for a few seconds we can once again feel a child-like wonder. (Interestingly, audience members under the age of 18 are banned from Jay's performances.) Magicians are secular miracle workers, and it is this same human desire to believe that sustains all the world's religions. This, despite the fact that turning water into wine is one of the most common conjurors' tricks and that even the greatest of all Christ's miracles, bringing himself back from the dead, can be approximated by any Indian fakir with a rubber ball.
Jay is an elegant and exquisite performer, but perhaps his most effective sleight-of-hand is that his carefully cultivated aura of exclusivity (just 20 performances in London) and intimacy (the 160 audience members share the stage with him) allows him to command a price of £75 for a front row seat, a London theatre record for a show that had its off Broadway debut in 1994.
The ultimate in exclusivity, of course, would be a performance for an audience of just one. And this, as David W. Maurer's recently republished 1940 classic The Big Con makes clear, is a reasonable working definition of the confidence trick. A team of actors is assembled; a set, costumes and props are found; and a performance is given. The only difference from the legitimate theatre is that the con artist's performance is staged in the real world.
Like Jay's show, The Big Con is a cultural history of a world rarely documented. Maurer was a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Louisville, a specialist in the study of underworld dialects. Containing, by necessity, a great number of technical terms, Maurer found the argot of 'the grift' a particularly rich seam, with its roll-call of 'pigeons', 'blutes', 'buttons', 'cold pokes' and 'fitted mitts'. By elucidating such terms, Maurer explains the methods of the various classic con tricks. (The third chapter's summary of 'the wire' provided the blueprint for the The Sting, 1973.) Jay does something similar when, early on in his act, he demonstrates the art of that hardiest of short cons, the three-card monte, as performed on street corners around the world. Only instead of a single mark, Jay has 160 on the stage with him. He may have gone legit, but he's still a hustler, right?
1. Sara Crasson, Magic History and Magical Myths: The Historian's Challenge, www.uelectric.com/pastimes/crasson.htm