LIANE HANSEN, host:
Ricky Jay estimates that he has had a deck of cards in his hand almost every day for nearly half a century. You may have seen the world-renowned sleight-of-hand expert as the guy who runs the saloon's gaming tables in the HBO series "Deadwood." His stage show, "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants," won an Obie Award.
The last time he appeared on this program, he talked about his book "Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women." Ricky Jay's in the studios of NPR West now to lead us into his new collection of poker music and history. It's called "Ricky Jay Plays Poker." Welcome back, Ricky.
Mr. RICKY JAY (Magician): Pleasure to be here.
HANSEN: The title's a bit of a misnomer. You used to play poker. You don't anymore. Why not?
Mr. JAY: Well, my grandfather told me years ago - he was the man who got me interested in sleight of hand, he was a wonderful amateur conjurer - and he said when people asked him to play cards, he realized it was a no-win situation for him because if he did take their money at the poker table, they would think he was cheating, and if he lost, they would think he was a poor magician. So I've kind of decided to live by that advice as well.
HANSEN: This collection, there's a DVD, a CD, 21 tracks of poker music, liner notes with history. There's even a deck of cards in this package. Tell us, what was your first poker pleasure?
Mr. JAY: Boy, there's so many, there's so many. You know, I was surrounded as a kid by some of the world's great sleight-of-hand artists, so I got to see them manipulating cards often in the context of gambling situations. But I also think it's possible that it was watching Phil Silvers on the great Bilko show, conning the boys in the barracks.
(Soundbite of television program, "The Phil Silvers Show")
Mr. PHIL SILVERS (Actor): (As Bilko) All right, men, what have you got?
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Two pair, jacks and nines.
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) I got three queens.
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) What have you got, Sarge?
Mr. SILVERS (Actor): (As Bilko) Well, as Tommy Mamba(ph) once said when he invited all his ex-wives to a reunion, I got a full house.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) (Unintelligible) with cards. Bilko just takes it.
Mr. SILVERS: (As Bilko): Now, now, now men, please. when you play cards with me, you don't lost money, you learn a trade.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JAY: The memory of Phil, that still makes me smile. I'm sitting here smiling thinking about.
HANSEN: Just thinking about him. He was a hustler, though. Are you attracted to them, I would imagine?
Mr. JAY: Oh, I don't know that - you weren't implying that Phil Silvers was a hustler.
HANSEN: No, but I'm suggesting that Sergeant Bilko may have been.
Mr. JAY: Ah, indeed. Well, absolutely, the hustler with the heart of gold, I support. But sure, I've been incredibly attracted to hustlers and black legs and scallywags and reprobates on every level. It's one of the abiding passions of my life.
HANSEN: Yeah, so cheating at the game is almost more interesting than playing the game?
Mr. JAY: Well, I suppose for me it is. I'm not suggesting anyone else take up such nefarious pursuits for themselves. But yeah, it really is fun to think about and fun to practice.
HANSEN: Yeah. What are some of the great dodges? One I read about in your liner notes was this idea of putting a knife on the table that was...
Mr. JAY: Oh, actually, yeah, yeah, that's a great one, Liane, a straight razor. Part of the lyrics of some of the tunes, particularly "Darktown Poker Club," the great Bert Williams tune from 1914.
(Soundbite of song, "Darktown Poker Club")
Unidentified Man #1 (Singer): (Singing) They can see the brand-new razor. I had it sharpened just today. I want to tell you all some new rules to follow here after when we play. Keep your hands above the table when you're dealing, please, and I don't want to catch no aces down between your knees. Don't be making funny signs or tip your hands, and I don't want to hear no kind of language that I don't understand.
Mr. JAY: And there's a great dodge where a hustler would take out a straight razor. You know, he'd open it up, and he would see this glistening, unbelievably sharp blade, and he'd put it on the table, and he'd say there'll be no cheating here, and then he has the audacity to deal cards over the reflective polished surface of the razorblade to tell what cards he was placing in his opponents' hands. It's just great.
HANSEN: Bert Williams did poker songs. Poker music, you say, exists in every genre. Bert Williams was the first black man to appear on Broadway. What's his poker story?
Mr. JAY: Well, he did a silent poker piece in his act that was great. I mean, he was the star of the Ziegfeld Follies in 1914, and that's when he introduced "Darktown Poker Club." But he also had a very famous piece where he simply with facial expressions opened up a hand of poker in a game with other players, and I've had a number of friends of mine, older friends who actually saw Bert Williams do this, say that it was one of the funniest pieces that they ever saw.
HANSEN: You write that cheating at cards, cheating at poker, provides a bridge to the blues. What do you mean?
Mr. JAY: Well, I think that a lot of the music that we call the blues is based on events which might have happened in the community, and the idea of gambling and womanizing was a rather common theme to be expressed in song. So I think probably there are more songs in the genre of blues in this collection than any other, songs by Harry Willis(ph) and by Blind Blake, and of course the Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie. and these become a reflection of life using cards as a metaphor.
HANSEN: And cards as kind of a double entendre. Robert Johnson's tune "Little Queen of Spades."
(Soundbite of song, "Little Queen of Spades")
Mr. ROBERT JOHNSON (Singer): (Singing) Mmm, she is a little queen of spades, and the men will not let her be. Ooh, she is the little queen of spades, and the men will not let her be.
HANSEN: He writes about little queen of spades playing the spread, and it's actually a cheating technique, and it doesn't have any - well, it does have a double entendre.
Mr. JAY: Well, in his case he didn't really even know about the cheating technique, so it might have just been a single entendre for him.
(Soundbite of song, "Little Queen of Spades")
Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing): Well, well, little girl, since I am the king, fair brown, and you is a queen. Oh since I am the king, baby, and you is a queen, let's we put our heads together, fair brown, then we can make our money green.
HANSEN: Playing poker is almost like entering a different country. I mean it has its own history. You have the first written account of a poker game, 1836. Today there are cameras that show us the cards of these high-stakes players in tournaments. We can see what they have, and it has its own vocabulary and obviously its own music. You've collected it here. Why does it attract so many citizens?
Mr. JAY: I guess it's just a wildly appealing game and it has ebbs and flows like so many other pastimes in our society. Something will make it more popular at one time than another, and variations come in and out.
At the moment, the idea of the television camera, which actually shows you the hole cards of the players, is what I think has increased the popularity of the game enormously. It also creates a false sense of security, with people who get so used to seeing the hole cards that they actually think they're far better poked players than they are, and I'm sure they must have a rude awakening when they start playing the game themselves and realize they don't know what their opponents hold.
HANSEN: The first Broadway show you saw was "Fiorello," and it includes the tune "Politics and Poker" by Howard Da Silva. Why do you think poker is so attractive to politicians?
Mr. JAY: God, it always has been. It's perhaps, you know, the great American concept of bluffing, which Europeans, certainly in the early days in poker, found a Yankee concept, the idea that you would actually lie. But the lyrics to that song - you know, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who did "Fiddler on the Roof," just wrote the most wonderful lyrics. The whole idea of recruiting a politician is just marvelous.
(Soundbite of song, "Politics and Poker")
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) (Singing) Gentlemen, how about some names we can use, some qualified Republican who's willing to lose?
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) (Singing) How's about we should make Jack Riley the guy?
Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) (Singing) Which (unintelligible)?
Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) (Singing) I say neither one. I never even met him.
Unidentified Man #5 (Actor): (As character) (Singing) I say when you got a pair of jacks, bet 'em.
Unidentified Men (Actors): (As characters) (Singing) Politics and poker, politics and poker (unintelligible)...
Mr. JAY: Howard Da Silva's singing of it is - I mean I remember it literally from being a kid on Broadway.
HANSEN: And you were mesmerized by it.
Mr. JAY: Yeah, just wonderfully rich and really funny, I think.
HANSEN: Yeah, yeah. How extensive is your poker ephemera collection?
Mr. JAY: I mean, it's - I think it's fairly substantial. It was great fun to take this - this whole project had been so personal. These were simply books and pieces of ephemera and music that I'd collected for my own interest for years, and I'm truly happy that the people at Sony and Octone and Legacy wanted me to put this together as a collection. It really was a personal pleasure.
HANSEN: It's interesting that some of the performers too play poker. I mean Townes Van Zandt you have in there. You have Bob Dylan in there. I mean there seems to be also kind of a poker connection with whoever is doing the song.
Mr. JAY: Well, somewhere I read that all American men think that they're good at three things: at sports, at sex, and at poker. And you can interpolate from that in pretty much any direction you want. But people do think that they have these skills.
HANSEN: I'm going to give you a choice of music to end our time together. What would you like us to play and why?
Mr. JAY: Boy, that's actually the toughest question you've asked.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JAY: The idea of just choosing one piece out of all of this is very difficult.
HANSEN: I know.
Mr. JAY: For the moment, I'll say the piece that was the latest arrival on our album, a very strange piece from the '20s by Frank Crumit, who was a real star in those days. It's just a piece that I think is most unlikely that anyone in your audience would've heard. It's called "Dolan's Poker Party."
(Soundbite of song, "Dolan's Poker Party")
Mr. FRANK CRUMIT (Singer): (Singing) Four aces and a joker is a lovely hand at poker. All the money in the pot is yours, according to the law. Though I never like to gamble, let me say without preamble that I am a trifle partial to a quiet game of draw.
On Thursday night, McCarthy(ph) organized a poker party. There was Dolan, Martin, Doyle, and Riley, six of us in all. Oh, the game was very quiet, but it ended in a riot. Sure, they overturned the (unintelligible) and smashed the pictures on the wall.
HANSEN: "Dolan's Poker Party" can be found on "Ricky Jay Plays Poker," a new collection complete with a deck of cards, a CD and a DVD. Ricky Jay joined us from the studios of NPR West. Thanks a lot. It's so nice to talk to you again.
Mr. JAY: My pleasure. Thanks, Liane.
(Soundbite of song)
HANSEN: To hear more poker songs and watch Ricky Jay cheat some honest men, visit npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.