Of Sidelings, Soft Hands, and Old Saws
Card Clinic II – Santa Barbara, California – April 2003
by Karl Johnson
        Johnny Thompson kept using an unusual word in an unusual way. He was cutting a deck at the table, boxing it up like a casino dealer might before the final riffle shuffle. As he cut the bottom portion and gently stripped packets of cards from it, he paused and held it out to highlight what he was doing. Then he used the word again – “sidelings.”
        It’s an old word. Sideling. It goes way back to the early 14th century, which would make it Middle English, to be precise. You rarely hear it, and if you do hear it anymore, it’s usually used as an adverb, meaning “sidelong or sideways.” Occasionally, it might still show up as an adjective – “having an oblique position.”
        Thompson, the “mystery” lecturer at the second Card Clinic in early April, used it in a different way, an original way, as a noun and in the plural. “Sidelings.” The word sounded almost cute that way, like Thompson was describing a school of tiny North Atlantic fish or a bundle of twigs. Sidelings.
        But what Thompson was demonstrating wasn’t cute. It was smooth. It was perfect. Oh, it was perfect. It was so perfect it was touched with wickedness.
        Here, buried in a demonstration of several classic card effects, including perennials created by his good friend and one-time mentor Dai Vernon, was an ingenious solution to a nagging card problem. A conjuring hangnail, if you will.
        Thompson was forcing the bottom card and he was doing it with one of the simplest methods of all, the Hindu Shuffle Force. Everyone’s familiar with this venerable beginner’s sleight. Indeed, everyone’s probably too familiar with it. You can see it coming at least a mile off. That’s why it’s usually dumped almost as soon as it’s learned, especially by these “advanced card men” we’re always reading about. It’s a move, goes the conventional wisdom, strictly for tyros.
        And yet … it is so easy and so dependable. As the old gunpowder salesmen used to say, it’s surefire. That’s why it’s in all those beginner books and that’s why it endures. Still it’s like a hammer in a Milky Way wrapper – there’s no mistaking what it is. Odd and obvious. Hence, the irritation.
        But what if you could take something best left for the nerds with stale patter – “I bet you didn’t know that this is how they shuffled cards during the last days of the raj” – and cool it up? What if you could take something out of Mark Wilson and make it look like it came straight from Erdnase? That’s essentially what Thompson has accomplished. He had the Hindu shuffle on the table, kept what’s so simple and effective about it, and then dressed it up in the snappy vest and bowtie of a poker dealer. And he did it all deliberately, with soft hands and sure, economical movements. Hey presto! – the Hindu shuffle force goes from rube to riverboat. It’s not for nothing they call Johnny Thompson the greatest all-around magician in the world.
        The 18 Card Clinic students hung on his every word and flutter of hand. Some were clearly stunned to be sessioning with Thompson. They had come to this cramped meeting room at the Santa Barbara Hotel for a saturation weekend of card instruction with Jamy Ian Swiss and Roberto Giobbi and wound up getting hours with Thompson as well. To see him walk nimbly through “Triumph” and other Vernon masterpieces at Card Clinic was like going to a fantasy baseball camp for the weekend and finding Willie Mays there detailing exactly how Joe DiMaggio managed to hit for average and hit for power. A classic steeped in the classics. (That whole self-deprecating Polish magician shtick Thompson lays on is not only part of his immense charm, it has got to be one of the best short cons in the world of magic. The irony imbedded in the foolishness of “The Great Tomsoni” is that Thompson truly is one of the greats.)
        Up close, Thompson has a soothing tone of voice, which lends his instructional style a reassuring tone that seems to confirm the logic of whatever approach he may be demonstrating. As he stripped a series of top cards off the bottom half of the deck, he stopped and displayed the bottom card. “Sidelings,” he said reassuringly, as if they were the most natural things in the world. Beautiful.

        By the time the last exhausted student left on Sunday afternoon, Card Clinic II could have been redubbed Card Classic Clinic. Thompson’s pristine, personal handlings of a series of card classics – besides Vernon’s signature “Triumph,” he performed and explained “The Biddle Trick” and Vernon’s “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” and “The Travelers” among others – was in keeping with Swiss’ educational mantra that the finest, carefully executed and thoughtfully presented card magic can reach the same exalted entertainment and enrichment level as any of the great performing arts. He and Giobbi – two pros who showed again that while their performing styles may diverge wildly their underlying artistic worldviews are practically in lock-step – certainly teach, perform and even live according to that aesthetic. They again tag-teamed their way expertly through an alternating series of lectures, workshops and performances.
        Card Clinic II generally followed the same program as the first Card Clinic, with a few key differences. A pair of split sessions was provided, with Giobbi teaching a session on advanced technique and Swiss accommodating those students who sought more basic tools. Herb Zarrow had provided the “mystery lecturer” duties at Card Clinic I; Thompson filled the surprise role this time. Maybe Swiss is planning on featuring only the nicest gentlemen in magic?

        If Vernon had been something of an official ghost at the first Card Clinic, so frequently were his name and techniques invoked, with Thompson guesting at Card Clinic II he was practically in the room. (Both Swiss and Giobbi rarely let a paragraph of written or spoken instruction go by without mentioning The Professor.) Thompson was close to Vernon and learned a great deal from him during their many shared years in Los Angeles and he’s a proud performer and proponent of his work. He’s also the best mimic of the later Vernon, an amusing skill he put to beautiful artistic effect in Santa Barbara with his recitation of “The Gambler’s Ballad (An Incident at Jake’s Saloon).” This rhyming long-form poem by Milan Bulovic details a card-table showdown between a wily old cheater and a young turk and calls for a staggering display of gambling-related sleights. Thompson performed it as the closer of his formal card lecture, and he recited the old master’s lines in the elder Vernon’s craggy, slightly singsong voice.

        Let’s stick with that voice:
        “When I was about ten years old, my father took me trout fishing,” Vernon once recounted to magician-journalist Richard Buffum during a week of reminiscing in the mid-’60s in Buffum’s home in Montecito, California, coincidentally a suburb of Santa Barbara. Buffum assiduously taped everything and those tapes became the basis much later for the severely disjointed but still valuable volume “He Fooled Houdini,” part of “The Vernon Chronicles” series. “There was this other fisherman who was staying at the same inn as we were,” Vernon continued, “and he would join us on the veranda and pull out a pack of cards and begin doing some tricks. He’d ask me to shuffle the cards and pick one and then he’d produce it with as clean and smooth a pass as I’d ever seen.
        “I thought at the time that I would give all the tricks I knew if I could just do that one trick as neatly and as cleanly as he did it because I couldn’t detect any false move of any kind. I asked my father about this man and he said he was a gambler …”
        Vernon surely would have loved the other special guest presented by Swiss at Card Clinic II. Ron Conley, a manager at a Los Angeles-area casino, has been around cards, card players and what he calls “card thieves” for almost 40 years as a professional poker player, casino surveillance expert and casino administrator. He’s one of the country’s leading experts on poker in its many permutations and is also a grand master of gambling-related sleight of hand.
        Conley periodically lectures on cheating and other card-related topics to the gaming industry but has rarely appeared formally before magicians, though he openly confesses a love of good conjuring and jokingly describes himself as a “latent magician.” He came up to Santa Barbara with a display case full of cheating paraphernalia that he’s collected over the years and a surveillance video culled from tapes shot in the early ’80s from the catwalks of some now-defunct card clubs in Gardena, California, just south of L.A. proper. That period two decades ago marked the twilight of the wild and wooly days of passing the deck around the poker table for the deal and the video served as a sublime-to-the-ridiculous tour of the baize.
        Conley’s tape featured a full share of raggedy, almost humorous work by some ill-starred cheaters – Conley wanted to drive home the point that, just as in any profession, there are a lot of lousy cardsharps out there – but it also showed some frighteningly superlative work as well, picked up only because Conley and his colleagues knew what to look for. The tape showed the hands of real-life cheaters, under fire, doing hops, false deals, mucking and check copping. One clip even showed a hustler working a “machine” – a Kepplinger-style holdout – his arm frozen to the table Dr. Strangelove style, a modern electronic glimpse into prehistory.
        Yet even more entertaining was Conley’s own demonstration of an array of classic cheating moves. He’s made an especially close study of false shuffles and deals, as well as mucking techniques as they apply to poker. He demonstrated several false riffle techniques – both regulation on the table and in the hand – including several versions of the Zarrow, as well as a superb bottom deal from a full, perfectly squared deck.
        Conley also showed off a surprising discovery that he practically stumbled upon while working with the plastic bridge-size KEM cards that are standard-issue in most casinos. (In what would be taken as heresy in some magicians’ quarters, Conley does much of his best work with plastic cards. You go with what you know.) He has toyed with these quaint, durable little decks for decades now, and went on to demonstration a use for his odd discovery in combination with one of the chimera of conjuring: a perfect center deal. The result was “any card called for” dealt instantly from the pack. So, there it was, a new twist – an honest-to-god center-deal demonstration launched from the gambler’s, rather than the magician’s, side of the table. The only people in the room more amazed than the registrants were their two hosts.
        Conley is a friendly, soft-spoken guy who wears glasses and favors casual short-sleeved shirts. He looks for all the world like an unassuming state-college English professor. So it was difficult to foresee how thoroughly he would dazzle a roomful of magicians with his pet move, an original “break off” – or palm – set in a thoroughly natural poker-player’s sequence. Conley dealt several hands to the table, picked his up, fanned it and then threw it down as if disgusted by the cards he had been dealt. His hands rested naturally at the edge of the table after he threw the cards down. Then he turned over his right hand to reveal a card clipped back in the palming position favored by gamblers. He repeated the move as a concealed transfer, moving the card from the right to the left land under cover of the same throwing action.
        Dai Vernon often reached for his greatest superlatives when he described the moves of the most skillful of cardsharps, men like Old Dad Stevens, Allen Kennedy and Dan Cummings. “He was so good tears came to my eyes.” … “I never thought I’d see the day when I’d see a man do what he just did.” … “Skillful was not the word.”… “It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw.” To feel the appreciative buzz in the room as the magicians took in Conley’s sharp, dangerous work, was to reframe Vernon’s reflections. They weren’t hyperbole after all, we could see that now with this 21st century demonstration of moves from an almost-gone craft. Those emotion-charged remembrances of Vernon’s were nothing but clear-eyed reportage.

        It’s a little early to talk about traditions with Card Clinic when there have only been two of them. But it is fair to say that certain trends are emerging. Swiss and Giobbi may have traded their Manhattan hotel in rainy September for a Mission-style Santa Barbara inn in sun-blinded April, but they still brought the same unerring range and elegance to their work and their teaching at this second Card Clinic. Swiss packed it – packed is an understatement – with meaningful and inspirational content. Sure, it’s demanding and exhausting. Sure, it’s not cheap. But everyone knows the old saw: “If you end up using only this one sleight/trick/routine whatever, you’ll have something worth far more than the price etc. etc.” It’s an old saw, but who says the old saws can’t still have some bite to them?
        So pick one. Giobbi’s extended lecture on think-a-card? Thompson on “The Travelers”? Swiss’ by-now classic workshop on Vernon’s “topping the deck” palm? Conley’s highly original handling of the Zarrow? Take one. If you end up using just that one … well, you know how it goes.

Writer Karl Johnson covered the first Card Clinic for Genii magazine. He is writing a book for the Henry Holt publishing company about Dai Vernon’s quest for the center deal in the 1930s. E-mail him at karl0207@earthlink.net.