Ricky Jay: Cards and the Art of the Con Sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay has astounded audiences with his physical abilities. And readers have also been impressed with the wealth of facts he has gathered from the world of carnivals and conmen. Jay has also acted in the films of David Mamet -- who produces his stage shows -- and in the HBO series Deadwood.
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Ricky Jay: Cards and the Art of the Con

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Ricky Jay: Cards and the Art of the Con

Ricky Jay: Cards and the Art of the Con

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And here are the headlines and some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News.

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Tomorrow, a new biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer traces the personal life and public humiliation of an iconic figure of the 20th century. Join guest host Frank Stasio for a talk with the authors about the complex history of the father of the atomic bomb. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

And now we turn to the world of card tricks, legerdemain and separating fools from their money. The essence of a con game is greed; not the con man's, but the mark's. Once he's convinced the fix is in, the mark plunges ahead with both hands, his judgment clouded by the dollar signs in his eyes. Author, actor and sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay is an expert in what happens next. He's also in Washington this month with his show called "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants." It's a one-man tour de force of mostly card wizardry accompanied by learned patter about the history of his ancient craft, and part of his act is a dissertation on the art of the con in general and the game of three-card monte in particular. Ricky Jay is with us here in Studio 3A, and if you have questions about any of his careers, give us a call. We'd also be especially interested to hear from those of you who've played the role of the pigeon or the confidence man in a card game. Our number is (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK, and our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Ricky Jay, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. RICKY JAY ("Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants"): Pleasure to be here. Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: The way you explain the three-card monte game in your show, this is about the most stripped-down version of the con game there is.

Mr. JAY: Well, it is. It's a choice of so few objects that it would seem to be pretty simple. You have three cards, and if you correctly pick one card, the designated card, usually a queen, cherche la femme, find the lady, a little game from hankypoo, the black for me, the red for you, 10 gets you 20, 20 gets you 40. But I mean, really, all you are doing is a two-to-one bet and you're paid if you find the queen.

CONAN: And it's a simple game, but what the mark usually doesn't know is that there's a third person participating in this game.

Mr. JAY: Not only a third person, most monte mobs are four or five people strong, so that the reason--I guess the basic problem with most people is that they think this is a game of chance and it absolutely is not a game of chance. It is a confidence game. There's a mob involved. There are a whole bunch of people who are there to separate you from your money, and that's really the nature of it.

CONAN: You perform, show off--I think it's the most basic trick, the dealer, the monte dealer says, `Look, I'm gonna make it even easier for you,' and he pulls back a corner of the red queen, the `it' card, and says, `You'll be able to find this,' and then some distraction turns him away and the shill unbends that card and bends the other one. The mark thinks it's a sure thing.

Mr. JAY: Well, actually you've got it slightly confused if you don't mind my trying to correct you.

CONAN: Oh, please.

Mr. JAY: What happens is that the monte operator is distracted, he might drop a card on the floor, and the shill bends the corner of the card, all right? The monte operator seems to know nothing about it. The shill bends up the corner of the marked card, the queen. The monte operator comes back to the game, apparently doesn't notice that the queen is marked. He might throw that card and the shill wins an incredible amount of money betting on the marked card. Now the sucker sees the mark, he bets on it, but this time when the monte operator throws the card, in an instant he takes the bend out of the queen and puts the bend in another card and the sucker loses all his money.

CONAN: And this is where human nature, judgment of human nature comes into this, because you've got to lure the mark in for the big bet.

Mr. JAY: Absolutely. What you spoke of earlier, the stupidity, the greed. That's the factor that does it. If you weren't trying to take advantage of the monte hustler, you would never have fallen for the con.

CONAN: There's another element involved, though, which you don't go into, which is the blow-off. Somebody's got to say, `Cheese it, the fuzz,' and everybody runs in all directions.

Mr. JAY: Well, you're right. Most con games do have a blow-off, and in this case that's an easy one where the monte mob just grab their wooden box and a couple of cards and they run down the road, so...

CONAN: Where did this game get its start?

Mr. JAY: Well, we--theories differ, but they differ basically to whether it was originated in Mexico or in the United States. Certainly the period seems to be around the 1820s, the 1830s, and most people say that they do think that it came up from Mexico. But I've never seen what I thought was conclusive evidence on that, and I really have looked into the history of the game pretty carefully.

CONAN: And it's a game largely, as I understand, played in New York City?

Mr. JAY: Well, it's been played in every metropolis, including Washington, although I'm gathering it rarely is played here now. But certainly you can find it in many streets. It's most prevalent, I suppose, in New York, most associated with it, but it's moved in its areas a lot. At one point you would find it all over Times Square, at certain points even Fifth Avenue, then certainly Lower Manhattan, so it has--as soon as it's broken up, it finds a new place to relocate.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Now this only comes on a little bit on your central area of expertise in this show, which is manipulation of cards. It's that instant moment of bending one card back and bending the other card up.

Mr. JAY: That's true.

CONAN: Yeah. It doesn't involve, oh, the enormous skill involved in what some of the things you do, dealing from the middle of the deck or--well, it seems to me there's like three basic kinds of card tricks. There's the, `Oh wow,' kind of trick, the entertainment trick, `Pick a card, any card,' there's the cheating at cards, dealing from the bottom of the deck, dealing from the second card, that sort of thing, and these confidence games, three-card monte.

Mr. JAY: Well, this is a taxonomy that I've never encountered before, so I have to register what you're saying and see whether I agree with that. I mean, there are many ways to divide up a pie, and what you're saying makes some sense.

CONAN: Well, we'll find out that I'm totally foolish a little bit later in the broadcast. Anyway, let's get some listeners on the line. If you'd like to talk with Ricky Jay, our number is (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK, and the e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And Ron is calling us from St. Paul, Minnesota.

RON (Caller): Hi. Actually I don't really have a question, I just have a story, speaking of New York City. There's a shoeshine guy who sits outside of the Newton Hotel on the Upper West Side, and when my wife and I go there for our anniversary every year, he is always asking somebody--or he's always trying to make a bet with somebody that he can tell you where you got your shoes at, and, you know, these are people who are tourists, you know. He'd have no way of knowing that I bought my shoes at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. So I say, `Sure, $20. That sounds good.' He says, `Well, you got your shoes on Broadway. That's where they're at right now.' And I'll tell you, he got me once 10 years ago, and I've been able to tell this story at least $20 worth for this past 20 years--or 10 years, and every time we walk by, coming or going, as you do when you visit New York City, he's always working somebody. It's just hilarious.

CONAN: And if my recollections of the Newton Hotel are accurate, it's about to fall subject to the laws of gravity and collapse in on itself. Not one of New York's more distinguished hostelries.

RON: No, no, but it's always had a good price and we've been staying there for years and years, so it's kind of tradition at this point.

CONAN: OK, Ron. Thank you very much.

Mr. JAY: As is the con you described, which...

RON: Yes, Jay.

Mr. JAY: ...has been done for many, many years.

CONAN: Many years?

Mr. JAY: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. Oh, it's...

Mr. JAY: I'm actually pleased to hear it's still being played.

CONAN: Let's talk with Bob. Bob's calling from Minneapolis.

BOB (Caller): Yeah. I was just gonna say that three-card monte is not restricted to the US. I watched a good friend of mine lose about 75 bucks trying to beat the game in Naples, Italy, at one point, and I've also seen it in the Far East, so it's one of our beloved American exports, I guess.

Mr. JAY: You're absolutely right. Again, it's certainly true. Yeah.

CONAN: Hmm. Bob, when you watched your friend lose this money, did you try to say, `Wait a minute. Don't do this?'

BOB: Yeah, there were about five of us trying to say, `Wait a minute. Don't do this.' And this crew was pretty good. He was originally planning on only putting down $2, but when he opened his wallet and these gentlemen saw that it was full of lira and American greenbacks, they jumped all over it and were encouraging him to ...(unintelligible). I think he wound up putting down $20 the first time and lost and decided he was gonna make it back. By the time it was all said and done he was out about 75 bucks.

CONAN: Opening your wallet, Ricky Jay, a classic rube mistake.

Mr. JAY: I would guess there are a few that are sillier than that.

CONAN: Bob, thanks very much for the phone call.

BOB: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go on. You not only perform, you're a collector of books and other elements of the craft of illusion and the stage. Some of your personal collection is being published in a new book. Tell us a little bit about that.

Mr. JAY: I'm very pleased with this. It's just coming out. It's called "Extraordinary Exhibitions," and it's a book which features broadsides, little show bills of performance artists from the 17th, 18th and 19th century that I've collected over a period of 25 or 30 years. There was just an exhibition of them at the Yerba Buena Center for Arts in San Francisco and we're quite sure this is gonna move on to other museums.

But what I find fascinating about it are that these pieces have survived. Many, many of the hundred pieces in the exhibition are unique, we think. I mean, certainly they're unrecorded. They start in about 1618 with the performance of a learned horse who responded to many languages and did card tricks, to an armless dulcimer player and then wind up in 1898 with Paul Cinquevalli, who is the greatest juggler in the world and who would, among other stunts, suspend a 44-pound washtub on top of a series of sticks on his shoulder that would go up about 12 feet in the air, and even though he was dressed in a leotard, he would wear a pointed German army helmet, would knock away the sticks, the washtub would drop to the top of his helmet and revolve.

CONAN: Wow. You'd pay to see that.

Mr. JAY: I would.

CONAN: Now if these were broadsides, they were printed, I guess if not on newspaper, pretty cheap paper.

Mr. JAY: Yeah, on very cheap paper, which is one of the reasons that their survival is amazing. And yet at certain periods, you find them printed on beautiful, beautiful laid, hand-made rag paper, because that's all there was. Up until about the 1830s there is no acid-based stock. They're all printed from rag stock. So actually they have a far better chance of surviving than things that are being printed right now.

CONAN: Hmm. We're talking with author and legerdemain artist Ricky Jay. He's currently appearing here in Washington, DC, in a show called "Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants." Well, it's a one-man show. There's some hard-working property masters and stage hands who shuffle things around behind the curtain, but the 52 assistants, of course, are a deck of cards.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line, and this is Tom. Tom's with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

TOM (Caller): Hi. How y'all doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

TOM: Good. I have a friend of mine who--years ago--he's been dead for years. He was a big con man in the Southeast. His name was Clyde Biggerstaff. They called him Wide Clyde. He was 6'5, weighed almost 600 pounds. He was notorious in the Southeast. But he used to run the three-card monte game in my bar, and I was the bartender naturally, and he'd beat everybody out of most of their money and then he'd say, `I'm going to the bathroom,' and when he did, I'd say, `Hey, let's get this guy back, guys. Let's bend the queen.' And he was the best in the world. He'd come back, he'd act like he was drunk. He'd drink a few beers be--of course, he could drink a case of beer and it wouldn't even faze him, and then he'd come back and, you know, everybody would go for it. They'd just unload on because they knew I'd bent the queen, and they knew I wasn't in on the act, and then he'd straighten it out and take all their money. And, you know, naturally you couldn't say, `Hey, wait a minute. We bet the queen. That can't be it.' And he'd bend the deuce and that'd be all over.

CONAN: Hmm. I assume you got small percentage?

TOM: I was in on the cut, needless to say, yeah. He--one other thing Clyde could do that I've never seen anybody do in my life, he could tear a deck of cards in half long ways as they were stacked.

CONAN: I wonder, did you have a lot of repeat business in this bar?

TOM: Well, we moved it around--we moved around several bars. But let me ask the guy something. Has he ever seen anybody tear a deck of cards in half long ways?

Mr. JAY: I actually have, but you're right, it's much more--harder.

TOM: Have you seen it? I've never seen anybody...

Mr. JAY: It's much harder to do it long ways than across the other side.

TOM: Yeah, I never have seen anybody else that could tear a deck of cards long ways.

Mr. JAY: Yeah.

TOM: The long ways, yeah.

CONAN: Is Wide Clyde new to you, Ricky Jay?

Mr. JAY: He is. I can't say that I've heard of Wide Clyde. But, you know, you have presented with an opportunity for me to explain the basis of the con in three-card monte because we really haven't discussed that. So this is why it's a con game and this is why there are a number of different people in the monte mob. Let's say that someone just deduces that it's too easy with the bent corner, and that the queen now must be one of the other two cards, and they bet their money on the card that's the right card. So they've actually won the bet at this point. The reason that monte is a confidence game is because then a shill will bet more money on the wrong card, and the operator will say, `I have to take the biggest bet,' and he'll purposely take the wrong bet and never pay off the guy who's won. That's why it's such a devious game.

CONAN: Ahh, so that the mark can then be strung along without actually getting any more money back. He's not losing any, but he's not winning any.

Mr. JAY: Absolutely.

CONAN: Ahh. Tom...

Mr. JAY: You can't win.

CONAN: You can't win.

TOM: Yeah.

CONAN: Tom, when was the last time you did this?

TOM: I'm gonna say it was 15 years ago when we ran that scam, and I had two different bars and we used to run it at both of them.

Mr. JAY: I hope the statute of limitation has run out.

TOM: It has, and I've grown up a little bit. I wouldn't dare do that again. But it was--the guy was a very fascinating guy. In fact, they used him to consult for the movie "Flim Flam Man." You remember the movie "Flim Flam Man?"

CONAN: George C. Scott, yeah.

Mr. JAY: Yeah.

TOM: Yeah, 'cause they hired Clyde as one of the consultants to show them some scams to run.

Mr. JAY: That's funny. I remember...

TOM: He was a great...

Mr. JAY: ...there was a fellow named Jay Ose, who I thought was the consultant on that.

TOM: He was a great short-change artist, too. I mean, just--you could never figure--he could short-change, you'd never figure it out. And they'd do the whole thing, the torn 20, you know, when you go through the line, and the guy (unintelligible) behind him gives him a 1 and then they make change and the guy says, `Oh, I gave you a 20,' and the guy says, `Well, no, you gave me a 1,' and he says, `Well, I think I even had the corner tore on it,' which the mark put in there, you know, two places in front of him, and the guy looks at the 20 and the 20 naturally laying there has got a torn corner, and he says, `Oh, that must have been a 20.' And they ran every scam in the list. It was fascinating things back then.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call...

TOM: Yeah, thank you.

CONAN: ...and stay out of this business.

TOM: I'm out of it.


Mr. JAY: That's one of the many versions of the short-change hustle, which con men usually call laying the note, and there are myriad varieties of that as well. It's great fun to hear about those.

CONAN: Before we let you go, Ricky Jay, and get ready for tonight's show, we are, in fact, on the way to Las Vegas. Frank Stasio's gonna be doing the show here tomorrow, and I assume your picture is in the control room of every security center in Las Vegas, along with a few other people who know how to manipulate cards.

Mr. JAY: Well, I don't know if that--I mean, there have been times in my life where I've been asked not to play, but--in Vegas casinos, but a long time ago I decided that you couldn't make your living both playing cards and then performing as someone who demonstrated with them, so the choice for me was pretty clear.

CONAN: As young people, card manipulators come up, clearly counters in blackjack and various--is there any way--have you ever met anybody who could beat the game in Vegas?

Mr. JAY: Well, I mean, certainly card counters can make sure that at certain times the deck is in their advantage, and they bet more heavily at those times, yeah, but the casinos will do everything they can to combat that, by shuffling as often as they can, or by banning the people from playing, which I've always questioned in terms of ethics, if not legality.

CONAN: Hmm. Ricky Jay, good luck with the show tonight. Good luck with your new book.

Mr. JAY: Thanks so much.

CONAN: Ricky Jay is currently performing his show "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants" at the Studio Theater in Washington, DC." His new book, "Extraordinary Exhibitions," comes out next month. He was kind enough to join us today in Studio 3A.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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