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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

All this week we've been talking about the underworld in America, and today we'll get a little history and the seedier side of gambling.

At the turn of the last century, you had to work pretty hard to not find an illegal card game or somebody shooting dice, and if you were caught cheating you could end up at the bottom of a river. But NPR's Barry Gordemer reports on one gambler who could hustle the hustlers.

BARRY GORDEMER reporting:

This is a story about mob bosses, con men, shady characters and a magician.

(Soundbite of music)

In the 1920s and '30s, Las Vegas was still a few poker chips shy of fame. The gambling center of the country was Kansas City.

Mr. KARL JOHNSON (Author): Kansas City was run by a political machine, run by a guy named Tom Pendergast. Boss Tom, they called him.

GORDEMER: Karl Johnson is author of The Magician and the Card Sharp. It's the story of a man named Dai Vernon and his search for the world's best card cheater.

Mr. JOHNSON: Vernon was the single greatest magician of the 20th century, certainly the single most influential. There's not a magician today who was not influenced by his methods and his theory.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDEMER: Dai Vernon had a passion for sleight of hand, and he was obsessed with learning the secrets of crooked card dealers.

Mr. JOHNSON: Perhaps his greatest quest was to find a guy who could do something that even the great magicians and the great gamblers assumed was a fairy tale, which was the center deal, dealing a card from anywhere out of the deck, undetected.

(Soundbite of playing cards)

GORDEMER: Card cheats usually work in pairs, and if a crafty dealer can slip his partner the right card at the right time, it could make the difference between winning big or losing your shirt.

(Soundbite of playing cards)

Mr. DARWIN ORTIZ (Gambling Consultant): You can see that the faces of the cards are riffling past you, so you say stop whenever you want.

GORDEMER: Stop.

Darwin Ortiz is a magician, but he's best known as a gambling consultant. He helps casinos spot card sharks who do stuff like this.

Mr. ORTIZ: Okay, can you remember that card?

GORDEMER: I can.

Mr. ORTIZ: I'm going to fan them out so that you can see I did not palm the card out.

GORDEMER: The card is still in the deck.

Mr. ORTIZ: I will attempt to deal it. Was it the jack of clubs?

GORDEMER: Amazing.

Dai Vernon could do moves like that and pretty much every other one in the book. But a center deal was the one sleight that escaped him, and he became consumed with finding the man rumored to be doing it.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDEMER: Vernon uncovered his first clue in 1932, in a jail in Wichita, Kansas. That's where, says Karl Johnson, Vernon met a crusty Mexican gambler.

Mr. JOHNSON: This guy, Amadore Viasinoire(ph), had shot a man who had stolen from him in a game.

GORDEMER: Vernon quickly struck up a friendship, and then...

Mr. JOHNSON: He said to Viasinoire, have you ever seen anything you don't understand? And he said, oh yes, yes. In Kansas City I saw a guy and he was dealing out of the center of the deck. And Vernon was just thunderstruck.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDEMER: Faster than you can say pick a card, Vernon was in Kansas City. He went to bars, nightclubs, pool halls, looking for clues. Eventually he talked his way into a seedy backroom poker game. He asked if anyone there had heard of the mythical dealer.

Mr. DAI VERNON (Magician): And they said, if anybody would know, there's a guy here named Snaky Davis(ph).

GORDEMER: That's Dai Vernon. He was nearly 90 years old when he talked to a group of magicians about his quest in this 1982 interview.

Mr. VERNON: This Snaky Davis, he was the czar or the king of the underworld. If anybody can deal from the center, he would know. So I asked, I said, where could you meet this guy, Snaky Davis? And they said, you can't meet him, he's the head of the Mafia in Kansas City.

GORDEMER: That lead, like so many others, did not pan out. But Vernon continued to go from one sleazy dive to another. Then, finally - jackpot.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDEMER: An old dice man gave Vernon a name: Allen Kennedy. And he lived in a little Missouri farm town called Pleasant Hill.

Mr. JOHNSON: And he goes down there and he sees a little girl with an ice cream cone, and he said, do you happen to know a Mr. Kennedy in town? And she points her finger and she says, Mr. Kennedy lives right up in that white house on the hill over there.

GORDEMER: Vernon knocked on the door and a wiry man with big hands answered. It was Allen Kennedy, and he didn't disappoint.

He showed Vernon what he came to see.

Mr. VERNON: He said pick out three kings. Now he says, cut the deck. And he dealt around like this, and a king hit me. So I said, my God, how in the hell did he do that?

GORDEMER: Well, he showed Vernon exactly how to do it. And 50 years after their meeting, Vernon demonstrated on videotape how to do the Allen Kennedy center deal.

Mr. VERNON: You pick the pack up like that, and this finger, the second finger, shoots the card out like that. The card pivots...

(Soundbite of music)

GORDEMER: Dai Vernon passed away in 1992, a couple of aces shy of his 100th birthday. But at the Magic Castle, a Los Angeles club for magicians, there's a seat permanently reserved for Vernon, just in case he wants to deal one more hand.

Barry Gordemer, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: You can see video of Dai Vernon demonstrating the center deal at npr.org. And at the same place you can read a reporter's notebook by Barry Gordemer, who was himself once a magician.

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