Friday, February 01, 2008

The Best Card Trick Ever Done

Of all the casino scams, poker scams and gambling scams I've ever heard of, this one is the best of all-time. And it has a special twist. You see, I, Richard Marcus, probably the best poker-casino-cheating con man of all-time, was the victim! It went down like this:

One night twenty years ago while getting drunk in a New York Irish pub, the conversation turned to gambling and card playing. I was there with a girl I had met hours before in another pub that might also have been an Irish one; I can’t remember. There were twenty or so people engaged in this conversation and it was quite lively. Two Irish guys—I mean real Irish guys from Ireland with red hair, white skin and freckles— had everyone cracking up with their little gambling anecdotes leading to one catastrophe or another. Then a woman who was plainly Italian pulled a deck of cards and slapped them on the bar.
“Anyone want to see a great card trick?” she beamed, probably at least as sauced as I was.
Everyone pitched in with encouraging laughter to say how thrilled everyone else would be to see her card trick. She then proceeded to do that classic dopey poker-hand trick everyone has seen performed by at least four generations of his family: the one with the four hands of seven-stud ending up four jacks, four queens, four kings and, of course, four aces for the dealer.
Everybody applauded her, anyway, and then another schmuck took the cards and began shuffling. When he’d finished, he dealt three columns of seven cards face up. He said to the girl who’d just finished her crummy trick, “Pick a card, but don’t tell me what it is. Keep it in your head.”
The girl was either stupid enough or drunk enough to blurt, “Does it have to be one of the cards you dealt on the bar?” The rest of the deck was lying off to the side.
The guy indulged her with a smiling nod. She was kind of hot and had big tits, so obviously he didn’t care how dumb she was.
The girl’s drunken eyes passed over the twenty-one cards. “Okay, I chose a card.”
I recognized the trick as soon as the guy started dealing out the columns. It was one of those mathematical numbers that could never go wrong if you didn’t fuck up the procedure. The version he was doing was the one with the petals and the flowers, goading the victim to pick this petal then that one after she’d already picked the two columns that didn’t contain the card. I think the first time I saw the trick done was in kindergarten.
The woman, ever so drunk as she was, managed to play along and finished by affirming that the card the guy flicked over at the end was indeed hers.
I’d just about had my share of card tricks when one of the two redheaded Irish guys clamored, “Those tricks are for bloody boobheads!” Anyone here want to see a real good one?”
For some reason I volunteered, surely hoping it would be better than the previous two and the last of the night.
He picked up the deck off the bar and fanned them face up in front of me. “Pick any card,” he said.
I looked at him. “Just like that, face up?”
The other Irish guy piped in behind him. “Yeah, mate, just like that.”
I slid out the 9♠ without hesitation. I looked up waiting for one of them to do something.
The one next to me spoke. “What would you say if I told you I know someone back in Ireland whom I could call right now, hand him the phone without saying a word, and he’ll tell you that the card you picked was the nine of spades?”
I looked at my watch. It was eleven o’clock at night in New York, which meant it was four o’clock the next morning in Ireland.
“I’d say the guy either goes to bed late or gets up early.”
They laughed heartily, then the one behind suggested slyly, “Care to make a little wager on that, mate?”
I looked at the girl I was with. I could see she knew as much about cards as I did about the theory of relativity, which was zero.
“Come on, mate,” the one who’d spread the cards said. “Why not put a little fun in the evening. Soon it’ll be the top of the mornin’.”
“Okay,” I said pulling out my wallet. “I’ll go twenty bucks saying you’re friend in Ireland can’t tell me my card if you don’t tip him off.”
“Twenty bucks!” they exclaimed in unison. Then they took turns telling me I insulted their chivalrous play. The one behind finished off with, “The phone call over there will hardly be covered for twenty bucks, mate.”
Well, whatever their gig was, it was clear they knew I’d lose the bet. And this in spite of the fact they didn’t know whom they were trying to hustle. But I was curious about their trick, plus I was in a good mood knowing I was going to get laid once I got out of there.
“So how much do I have to do this for?” I asked them.
“You got fifty.”
“Sure.” I laid the fifty on the bar. They did not hesitate to lay theirs alongside it. “Now let’s make that call.”
You have to remember that twenty years ago there were no cell phones. There was just a cranky old pay phone near the entrance. The front guy asked the bartender, “Pat, gimme ten bucks in quarters, would ya?”
“It’s okay,” Pat chimed, you can use the bar phone.” He reached underneath the bar, pulled it out and slapped it on the surface next to the nine of spades. “Who you calling, anyway?”
“Some bloke in Ireland.”
The phone slid off the bar and disappeared faster than you could say “Dublin.”
I followed the two Irishmen to the pay phone. At least ten people followed me, everyone with either a drink or cigarette in his hand. As the one dropped a load of quarters into the phone’s slot, he piped at me, “Are you ready, mate?”
I nodded.
“I’m not going to say a word to my buddy on the phone about your card. I’ll just see if he’s home and pass you the phone when he comes on. Okay?”
He dialed a number, then after a few seconds said into the receiver, “Is Mr. O’Leary there?” Then he said, “Hold on,” and passed me the phone.
I put the receiver to my ear. “Mr. O’Leary?”
The cheery voice on the other end was indeed Irish. “That’s me, mate. Your card is the nine of spades.”
At first I thought it no big deal that he knew my card, but when it finally hit me that he knew my card I was flabbergasted. For some reason I thanked him before hanging up.
When I turned back to the two Irishman, they were already at the bar scooping up my fifty-dollar bill. Everyone else was asking if the guy on the phone guessed my card.
“He didn’t guess it,” I informed the crowd with a bit of thespian delight. “He knew it.”
The two Irish guys were laughing as I came over. “You want to do it again, mate?” one of them asked.
“Yeah,” I answered immediately, “but how ‘bout for less money.” I knew that I was outhustled but I wanted to see this again, figure out how they did it. I knew they wouldn’t give it up for nothing.
“Okay,” the second one said as he picked up the cards and gave them a quick shuffle with a fancy bridge. He spread them and told me to pick a card. I fingered the width of the fanned cards and slipped out the 4♣. Then the first Irishman put a twenty-dollar bill on the bar and told me to match it.
I laid the bill on the bar and followed them back to the phone. Evidently enough quarters remained in the Irishman’s pocket to make the second call. He dialed and again asked for Mr. O’Leary. When O’Leary came on the line, he told him to hold on and passed me the receiver. I bid the familiar voice hello and he answered with “Your card is the four of clubs.”
“Wanna go again, mate?” The Irish guys were having a ball with me.
“How the fuck did you guys do that?” I demanded.
The first one gave me a peppered shrug and said, “You know magicians don’t give away their secrets.”
“It’s not magic,” I protested. “It’s a goddamn card trick.”
The second one had a great retort for that. “It’s not a trick. O’Leary just read your mind. He knows you’re thinking of your card when you get on the phone. So he just hones in on your brain and finds the part of it thinking of the card.”
“You guys got a good line of shit,” I said, and they got off laughing at me. The whole bar was getting in on it, including the bartender who seemed to have already borne witness to their little gag. I approached the bartender and asked him how they did it. He just chuckled and said in an Irish accent, “I haven’t the foggiest idea, mate?”
How the hell did they do it? That thought prevented me from both getting laid and sleeping that night. I lay awake for hours in the girl’s apartment, in her bed with her lovely body sprawled naked in the same spot where she’d finally given up on me and fallen asleep.
Not only am I a fairly intelligent person but I know how to navigate pretty well around logic. The first thing I was sure of was that somehow that Irish guy in the bar told Mr. O’Leary what my card was. The only way that certainty would not be true was if there had been another unseen phone extension inside the bar and somebody else told Mr. O’Leary the card. But after being led on a tour of the place by the bartender, during which I felt like an idiot, I had to accept the fact that there was no other phone there.
So then how did the Irish guy tell O’Leary which card I’d selected? I had been right by his side when they spoke. Twice. Each time, the Irish guy said nothing more than “Is Mr. O’Leary there?” and “hold on.” Neither utterance contained words that would indicate the nine of spades and the four of clubs. But somehow those words did indicate those cards. And it was killing me to find out.
I racked my brains. Somewhere in those lines was a hidden code that told Mr. O’Leary what my cards were. But how could the same exact lines give him the correct information for two different cards? I even asked myself if it were possible that the inflection in the caller’s voice tipped off O’Leary. But if that were the case then O’Leary would have to be sensitive to fifty-two different inflections. Impossible.
The unknown solution ate at me an entire week. Then finally, not being able to take it anymore, I returned to the pub on a busy Saturday night. The place was packed, and sure enough the two Irish guys were hustling another customer with their trick. Only this time the bills on the bar were hundreds and the guy getting taken was sweating and did not look happy.
I watched all this from a distance. The Irish guys either didn’t see me or didn’t recognize me. The victim followed them to the phone, probably for the second or third time, and upon hanging up came walking back toward the bar in disbelief, then did an about-face toward the exit. The second he was out the door, I saw one of the Irish guys pass a bill off to the bartender, who promptly stuck it in his pocket.
So the bartender was in on it as well. They were working a major scam with this trick, or whatever the hell it was.
I came back the next night determined to crack the case. Irish pubs in Manhattan usually drew crowds every night of the week. Sunday night at this one was no exception. The Irish guys were flirting with a couple of women by the bar. I decided to wait patiently until they went into the routine. I knew they would eventually because these guys were not there for just booze and women. The place was their livelihood.
At midnight, just before I was about to pack it in, two slick looking black dudes walked inside the bar. They had that instant air of loose cash, either pro athletes or musicians. The Irish pair adroitly got them into conversation and within a half hour the bartop was crawling with hundred-dollar bills. I was thinking to myself that the scammers had better be careful with these black guys. They looked like the kind you didn’t want to fuck with. But obviously the Irish duo was very well rounded and knew how to handle whatever situation arose during the working of the scam.
Well, we’ll see about that, I said to myself.
After it happened, I realized I’d been destined to do it. But at the crucial moment I still had to make sure not to blow it. Bad timing could have blown the whole thing, and I would’ve been in a lot of pain for nothing.
As soon as the Irish guy dropped the quarters into the phone’s slot, I made my way through the thinning crowd toward him. I watched him dial and waited until I knew instinctively that the moment had arrived to make my move. I charged the pay phone and grabbed the receiver from the guy’s hand. He protested but I quickly knocked him out of the way. I then put the receiver to my ear without uttering a sound. What I heard at first made no sense. It was indeed O’Leary’s voice and it was counting…“two, three four, five, six…” The Irish guy made a lunge at me but I knocked him out of the way again. His buddy was coming after me too, but one of the black dudes stuck out a big arm and held him at bay. By that time O’Leary had reached “king.” And then his voice rasped in my ear, “What’s the fucking card, mate! Did I miss it?”
“You sure did, scumbag!” and I hung up the phone.
There’s an old New York joke about asking a bartender what time his Irish pub closes. He doesn’t answer you with a time; rather he says, “As soon as the first fistfight breaks out.”
Well, that meant that this Irish pub would be closing real soon. In the ensuing brawl I got whacked with a few good shots that drew blood from my mouth. The poor Irish guys, whose names turned out to be Arnold and Donald Lorrigan and who were currently on their way to the hospital ward at the Rikers’ Island jail, got the shit kicked out of them. The arresting cops asked me what it was all about, and when I told them, one of the coppers, who was also Irish, quipped, “Musta been a pretty good card trick.”
It was simply the best card trick I had ever seen. The way it worked was in reversal. It was true that the caller was transmitting the information to O’Leary, but he was doing it in reverse. That’s why virtually no one can figure it out. The key to deciphering it is that you have to know it was O’Leary speaking first, not the Irish guy. The first words I had heard from the caller were “Is Mr. O’leary there?” Upon hearing those words you naturally assume that whoever answered on the other end had picked up with a “hello” or something to that effect. Then when the Irish guy says “Hold on” and passes the phone off to the victim, you naturally think that O’Leary had just come to the phone after having been summoned by the person who had picked it up.
But it is really O’Leary who answers the phone. And instead of saying hello, he goes right into a recital of counting the cards…“ace, two, three, four…” Then when he arrives at the card you had chosen, the caller says “Is Mr. O’Leary there?” That stops O’Leary’s counting dead in its tracks. For if the last card O’Leary said was “jack,” then he knows it’s a jack.
Next only the correct suit needs to be transmitted. Once O’Leary receives the signal that the card is a jack, he begins reciting the four suits…“spades, clubs, hearts, diamonds.” As soon as he hits the correct one, the caller says “Hold on,” which tells O’Leary he just said the right suit, and passes the phone to the victim who’s about to be stunned.
What makes this trick so unbelievable is how natural the talking sounds. The set-up guy just dials a number, asks to speak with someone and then asks that person to hold on while he passes the phone to the victim. I had never been so impressed by a card trick or phone trick, whatever you want to call it. Learning it was well worth the seventy bucks I lost and the busted lip.
Over the years I’ve done that trick dozens of times, though never for profit. The most fun performing it is at parties or anyplace with large gatherings of people. Listening to people trying to figure it out is as funny as any comedy routine you’ll ever see. The ridiculous theories people put forth to solve the puzzle are as unreal as they are hilarious. You hear everything from high-tech satellites eavesdropping on the room to infrared lenses spying on the deck of cards from another galaxy.
One time at a party while doing the trick, a cute girl made me come with her into the bathroom with the lights off. She said she wanted to be sure that no one else could see which card she chose. I wondered if it was a pretext to jump my bones, but when she struck a match to create a small light while she picked the card, I realized how nuts this trick drove everybody, as it had once done to me.