Fooling Garwulf
"Penn & Teller Ring Someone's Neck," and Magicians and Card Sharps

Robert B. Marks | 29 Sep 2015 15:00
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Finding card sharps to learn from had other practical challenges. Most were nomadic, unable to stay in any one place for very long lest their unlikely winning streaks be noticed. Sometimes there were, however, card sharps who would talk to magicians in general, such as Walter Irving Scott (1895-1995), who became famous as "the Phantom of the Card Table" - Scott had been a magician before applying his skills to cheating, and therefore had a foot in both worlds. He was brought into the Inner Circle by Eddie McGuire (1891-1968), an amateur magician who wanted to demonstrate that not only was he worthy of being in the company of such illustrious conjurers, but that in Scott he had his own card sharp, and it was one who could beat Vernon.

Vernon, however, was a special case. The card sharps would talk to him, and he would cross the country at the drop of a hat to seek them out. What made Vernon special was that he had made his name on Coney Island not as a magician, but as a silhouette artist, during which time he had become considered an insider in the many carnival scams performed there. As a man "with it," card sharps thought of him as one of their own. He also knew enough to pass for a card cheat if he had to. This meant that he could get a sharp like Allen "Bill" Kennedy (1897-1961) to teach him the centre deal - dealing cards from the centre of the deck - a sleight long thought impossible, and one which Vernon kept to himself after mastering it. True to form, after Vernon brought it into the world of magic, instructions for no less than five different variations of the centre deal were published in 1940 by Jean Hugard and Frederick Braué in Expert Card Technique, although none were Kennedy's version - having learned that the sleight was possible, magicians had once again invented methods of their own.

To this day, Dai Vernon is remembered as the man who revolutionized close-up magic. However, while the magicians' hunt for card sharps has passed - for now - it remains a remarkable fact that many of the techniques behind the modern card trick were born not in the hands of magicians, but by cheats at the card table.

Author's Note: I was contacted over the weekend by Larry Wilson, one of the organizers of the Spellbinders International Festival of Magic, held in Reno, Nevada. This is a free event that started last year, and it's happening again this year from October 20-24. So, if you live in the Reno area, or you're going to be there in mid-late October, you should probably go check it out and see some magic! And, if you want to support Spellbinders, they are right now running an Indiegogo campaign to help keep it going every year. So, please take a look, and if you feel it is worthy of your support, donate what you can - after all, how many crowdfunding campaigns have dinner with Lance Burton, a magic lesson from Jonathan Pendragon, or a meet-and-greet with David Copperfield as donation rewards?

Author's Other Note: For those who are interested, Francis Minotti is doing an IAMA on Reddit today - you can find it here.

Author's Other Other Note: Since this is a feature about magic, we must ask for discretion when it comes to discussing methods in the forums. For the sake of preserving the mystery for those who do not want to know how the tricks are done, as well as to avoid accidentally exposing the hard work of some very talented magicians, please avoid revealing methods in the discussion threads. If you must talk about a method in a way that might expose it, please use spoiler tags.

Robert B. Marks is the author of the new and revived Garwulf's Corner on The Escapist, as well as Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, the original Garwulf's Corner, and the co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora. His current fiction project is The Eternity Quartet, with Ed Greenwood. His Livejournal can be found here, and he is now on Facebook. He can be reached by email at garwulf at

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