What Connects Sleight Of Hand Magicians & Card Cheaters? – Dai Vernon

What Connects Sleight Of Hand Magicians & Card Cheaters? – Dai Vernon

Over the years, a few sleight of hand magicians have sought out card cheaters and crooked gamblers to share ideas and perhaps add new weapons to their arsenal.

In the 20th century, Dai Vernon was most famous
for courting cheaters and adapting ideas for the art of close-up magic but
these two worlds are not as alike as you might think.

What works perfectly for one rarely works so
well for the other.

Cross Purposes

It’s often assumed that the methods of magicians
can easily be shared with cheaters and vice versa but in truth, while both
manipulate cards, dice and people in order to deceive; the actual techniques
created for either purpose rarely work outside of their intended context.

Very few sleights or strategies have
successfully made the leap from magic to cheating because magicians tend to
dictate the conditions in which they operate while cheaters must respond to
conditions dictated by the games they play. 

A sleight that controls a card to the bottom of
the deck in a magic show might never be possible in a card game if it requires
the performer to look through the deck or handle cards in a manner not
acceptable in a game.

Equally, a cheating move that adds an extra card
to a player’s hand might depend entirely on a situation that’s commonplace on a
gaming table but unusual or suspicious in a magic performance where the cards
are not naturally set for the move to work.

In order to be useful, a sleight must be adapted
to fit its new purpose.

This often requires too many adjustments to be
practical or deceptive, so magicians with a real interest in gambling sleight
of hand tend to recreate the gambling context as a means to practice or perform
(demonstrate) cheating techniques.

This can be an art in itself and highly
entertaining if you’re lucky enough to catch a live performance from a true
expert but card magic has also evolved to create impossible effects around the
idea of cheating, and these can be truly astonishing despite being performed
under test conditions.

Check out R. Paul Wilson’s video on card mucking to see some expert sleight of hand in action:

“The Vernon Touch”

Dai Vernon’s approach to card magic was inspired by the book ‘The Expert at the Card Table’ by S.W. Erdnase which taught two approaches to sleight of hand with ordinary playing cards; the first half being dedicated to cheating methods and the second half teaching methods for conjurors.

This combination inspired Vernon to continue
seeking out new techniques from the dark corners of the gambling world to give
him new ideas for his card magic.

In fact, Vernon’s finest effect was inspired by
a cheating technique that was conspicuously absent from Erdnase’s book but is
now in the repertoire of card magicians everywhere.

Of course, this was not always a one-way
exchange and Vernon was known to trade magic methods for cheating secrets with
one particular sleight being widely adopted from the conjuring fraternity and
used in countless crooked card games, but such transitions remain rare because
unless a move fits naturally into a magic or cheating context, it tends to feel
forced or unnatural.

From his time spent with crooked gamblers,
Vernon learned how to analyse and improve techniques for both magic and
gambling and this talent for making sleights more deceptive became known as “The
Vernon Touch”.

Dai VernonImage: Wikipedia

Vernon could watch a fellow magician demonstrate
a new idea for a move and immediately suggest a more elegant solution or devise
a new approach to old techniques that would make them more deceptive or

He championed this natural approach to card
magic where complex sleight of hand is concealed behind layers of subtlety to
create the illusion that nothing is happening except what the audience sees,
despite whatever secret actions are being performed beneath the surface.

This reputation made him a legend in the magic community,
but it also served him well when seeking out gamblers and cheaters who are
naturally wary of strangers asking questions.

After a few demonstrations and dropped names,
Vernon would quickly gain the confidence of cheaters but on one occasion, he found
himself ‘on the spot’ when a cheater refused to tip the secret of a technique
unless Vernon could solve a problem the cheater was having with a situation at
the card table.

The Card Cheater’s Problem

During a game, the cheater was able to steal an
extra card into his left hand but needed to transfer that card to his right
hand in order to return it to the deck and end clean.

The steal into the hand was beautiful and the
addition to the deck was perfect but getting the card from one hand to the
other proved to be a real problem since the cheater felt that existing methods
were too obvious or unnatural.

The challenge was for Vernon to find a way to
transfer the card without changing the position of the cards or any other
adjustment that might look odd or out of place to other players.

While there are many ways to move cards from
hand to hand, they often require a hand-washing motion that some people find
comfortable but for others, it looks (and feels) like an impersonation of Fagan
from Oliver Twist!

This was not the cheater’s only problem.

All existing hand-washing methods turned the
card over between hands but for the cheater’s purposes, the card needed to
remain face-down with the back of the card against the palm of the right hand.

But since it also started with the back of the
card against the palm of the left hand, the transfer would be doubly difficult.

Worse, it might require an additional action to
prevent the card from turning over and that would definitely attract unwanted

All of this had to happen above the table, in an
instant and without raising suspicion!

So Vernon retired to his hotel, laid a towel
over the dresser and spent several hours trying to find a technique that would
move a card from one hand to the other without turning that card over and
without calling attention to the action.

Time To Think: The Solution

Vernon worked for hours without finding a
solution until, in the small hours of the morning, he checked his watch and
decided to sleep on it.

Then he stopped— and checked his watch again.

Vernon’s natural action of looking at the watch
on his left wrist was to lay his right hand over the back of his left, framing
the right side of the watch as he glanced at the time.

In fact, this was a common action when most
people looked at their watch and Vernon instantly recognised the solution he
had been searching for.

The position of the two hands was perfect and
allowed Vernon to slide the card backward from the left palm, pulled away by
the fingers of the right palm after checking the time; invisibly moving the
card without turning it over and under cover of a completely natural action!

The cheater didn’t just need a move, he needed
‘shade’ to cover that move and avoid suspicion and was delighted when Vernon
shared the solution.

Vernon stumbled onto that solution after many
hours exploring everything that didn’t work and while the resulting technique
seems obvious today, without that Vernon Touch, I doubt anyone would ever have
come up with it.

Whether or not the technique shared by the
cheater in return was ever useful to magicians, I can’t say…

Author: Glen Ferguson