It started with a dim memory from childhood. I was seven and the Groves family was holding a reunion at a park. This older man in a stylish suit arrived with a flourish. He was tall, white-complected, and looked like a variation on my Grandpa Roy.
“This is your Uncle John,” my mother said.
It was actually my great-uncle. I shook his hand.
“Pleased to meet you, son.”
“Don’t say yeah,” my mother prompted, “say ‘Pleased to meet you, too.'”
“Pleased to meet you, too.”
All around at the reunion, there were introductions, handshakes, jokes, laughter, and catching up.
A bit later, in a moment when everyone’s attention was averted, John took me aside.
“I have a gift for you,” he said in low tones, squatting down to my level.
Uncle John took out a maroon velvet cardboard box. I opened it up. It contained two new decks of playing cards.
“These are yours,” Uncle John said. “They’re marked.”
He used the term marked as if it were illicit–that is, prohibited and quite sexy.
“Yes, you can tell what card it is by looking at the back.”
And so Uncle John proceeded to show me how to read the backs. Once I understood, I smiled at the deception. It was like I was one of the few people in the world who had the secret of winning. It was one of my earliest joys in the art of magic, and to tell you the truth, even now that I’m a professional, learning those secrets is still quite a thrill.
That’s when Uncle John glanced over his shoulder, as if to make sure nobody was listening.
“I’ll tell you the secret to winning at cards,” John said. “The only way to win is to cheat.”
That’s when my mother came over.
“Hey, what’s going on here?” she asked.
“Don’t tell her,” Uncle John said. “It’s our secret.”
“David, what’s going on?”
“It’s a secret,” I said with a grin.
Later, I learned that Uncle John was a professional gambler. He wasn’t a weekend gambler, but was actually the real thing, my parents said. He had been kicked out of Vegas for cheating. He was the proverbial black sheep of the family. And when I say kicked out, let me emphasize that getting kicked out of Vegas in the 1950s was quite a bit different from getting kicked out today, which is more akin to getting escorted out of Disneyland for smoking marijuana on Tom Sawyer’s Island. You could sustain bruises. You could fall down a flight of stairs. They could make you cry.
Years passed, and as an adult, I eventually became a professional magician. I learned card sleights, learned to treat 52 as 1, learned how to use gravity to my advantage, worked for 20 years on my double until it got really good, and even once performed an exceedingly difficult card trick 25,000 times over a period of three years to make it really sing. To this day, it’s my calling card, the trick I do if I really want to impress someone.
There’s a subcategory of card magic that focuses on gambling sleights. The holy grail in this arena is a trio of sleights that makes people believe you’re dealing off the top of the deck when in fact you’re not. There’s the second deal, in which you deal the second card down from the top while seeming to deal from the top. There’s the bottom deal, in which you deal the bottom card while seeming to deal from the top. And there’s the center deal, which is the holy grail of holy grails, and I can count on one hand the number of people worldwide who can competently pull it off.
Once, I asked a gambling magician how long it took him to learn the second deal.
“About 20 years,” he said with a sad grin.
I’ve experimented with it, and can clumsily execute something approximating “a second,” as they call it, but I wouldn’t try it under fire. It’s just not ready for prime time. And besides, once you’ve mastered it, you can’t really show it off. It looks like nothing. It’s designed to look like nothing. If it looks like something at a poker table, you can come down with a case of lead poisoning. On top of that, the types of magic tricks you can do with it aren’t that amazing, and you can pull off the same effect with much easier sleights. The only arena in which they can accomplish miracles is at a real-life poker table, where false deals can earn you loads and loads of money.
A couple years ago, I read a book about the center deal. The Magician and the Cardsharp is about Dai Vernon, the 20th century’s best closeup magician, who moved to Wichita in 1930 after the Stock Market crashed. While there, he met a Mexican card cheat named Amador Villasenor, who had been charged with murder and was being held in a local jail. Vernon met with him because of his prowess with card sleights, and during the conversation, was told that there was a man in the Kansas City area who could deal from the center of the deck.
Vernon lit up. Up to that time, the center deal was merely a theoretical dream for magicians. The world of gambling cheats was necessarily a secret world. If people knew they were cheating, nobody would ever again let them sit down at a poker table. Unfortunately, Villasenor didn’t remember exactly where this man lived. He knew his name was Allen Kennedy, that he worked crooked card games in the greater KC area, and that he could execute a perfectly undetectable center deal, but that was it.
So Vernon set off on a months-long search. The book chronicles Vernon’s quest, which ended in the little town of Pleasant Hill, Missouri, in a session with this Allen Kennedy, who had worked five years to build up the muscles in his hand well enough to master the sleight. He died in the early 1950s in obscurity, the Pleasant Hill town drunk who was once the greatest gambling cheat in the world–and only a handful of people ever knew it.
Magicians idolize such characters, for they can borrow from their real-world sleights and tales. They are exciting. There are anecdotes involving deception and retribution. Sometimes, people die. In fact, there are several magicians today who have staked their reputation on being students of gambling cheats and other con men.
When I became a magician, then, I began to wonder if I could find my Uncle John.
About five years ago, I became interested in genealogy, and one of the first things I did was look up Uncle John. Unfortunately, I discovered that he had died in 1990. However, he had a daughter, Carol Ann, and I wondered about her. I asked my mother about her.
“Oh, she married a rich lawyer in the late ’60s,” Mom said. “I think they live in Huntington Beach.”
I did some Internet research, and after a few weeks, discovered a disappointing document: her death certificate. She had died in Broward County, Florida, in 1995. The trail for my Uncle John went cold. My mother said that they never had children. I wondered where the photographs had gone. I wondered about the stories that I could have been told.
Over the next couple years, I continued researching my roots. It became a true obsession. Then a couple days ago, I received an astonishing email from a long-lost Groves relative.
“We’ve been exchanging Christmas cards with Carol Ann for the past few decades,” he said. “Carol Ann is alive. Here’s her phone number….”
This morning, I called Carol Ann. She was delighted to hear from me, and at 76, sounded 20 years younger than that. Her mind was quick, her voice, strong.
“I heard you thought I was dead,” she said wryly.
“Yes, I did.”
“Well, I’m not!”
We talked, and as we did, tears filled my eyes and I worked hard to hide my cracking voice. We talked about many things. Their retirement in Hansville, Washington. My father’s death. The fact that so many people in our line had died of respiratory ailments. My life, first as a journalist, and then as a magician.
Carol Ann had never met me. She’s many years older than me and our family was not particularly close. That side of the family never had holiday parties, for example. However, she mentioned that she had always regretted that. My parents had met her a couple times. My mother said that she was a statuesque redheaded beauty. Talking to her, it was clear that she was pretty smart, too.
As the conversation stretched to 20 minutes and longer, I began to worry whether I should mention her father or not. After all, children of con men are often filled with anger and shame. Perhaps her father had been narcissistic and selfish. Perhaps I shouldn’t mention John until the third or fourth conversation, if there even was one. I didn’t want her to clam up and close off communication.
Still, as the conversation came to a close, I felt like I had to take the risk.
“Since I’m a professional magician, I do a lot of card magic,” I said, “and I heard growing up that your father was a professional gambler. He must have been good with cards.”
“I have to tell you up front that he was a card cheat,” Carol said.
And then Carol proceeded to tell me the story of her life. Her parents divorced when she was 7, and after that, she rarely saw her father.
“He made his living driving a cab in Los Angeles,” she said. “He would pick up fares and then steer them to a poker game. He would sit in on the poker game and secretly work with a partner. Together, they would take the fare’s money by cheating.”
It was a life that sometimes had deleterious consequences, though. Once, he had a pool cue broken over his head.
“I have a bunch of his marked decks,” she said. “I’ll give them to you, if you like.”
Carol’s 12-year-old grandson is crazy about magic, and I promised I’d send her a copy of my instructional magic DVD. It’ll make a great Christmas gift. By the end of the conversation, Carol invited me to visit her up in Washington, and I look forward to the visit. At the moment, though, I’m flying high, not just to be reunited with a family member that I thought I had lost, but also, to be exposed to the world of my most colorful relation, the scoundrel who was kicked out of Vegas.