05 Jul 2013
Writer’s block is a terrible thing. You sit there in front of the typewriter or word processor with the blank paper or screen staring back at you. You keep thinking of ideas but then reject them after writing just a few lines. You search the Internet for stories or facts but nothing seems to jump out at you.
Well that’s how I am right now. So in desperation for my column I once again go to the dusty shelves of the library, shut my eyes and pull a book at random. Hopefully it will provide an interesting subject to write about and once again the Circle’s library has not let me down. The book I pulled was ‘Scarne on Card Tricks’. Now I fully realise that card magic is not everyone’s cup of tea. For the most part it is practiced as a close up art by amateur and semi professional magicians. Cards by their very nature are difficult to enlarge for a stage audience and so it becomes a very intimate performance. But nevertheless, there have been a few who have taken this art to the highest level and can perform what can only be described as miracles with the pasteboards. John Scarne was one such man.
Born on March 4th 1903 in Steubenville Ohio his real name was Orlando Carmelo Scarnecchia. Quite a mouthful, so he changed it to the slicker and anglicized John Scarne (pronounced ‘Skarni’). When he left school he learned from a local card sharp how to perform swindles like the three card monte and how to cheat at gambling by card manipulation. Scarne began practicing sleight of hand with the goal of becoming a card sharp, but his mother dissuaded her son from gambling in general, and cheating others in particular. She persuaded him to practice magic instead. Scarne soon extended his skill at handling cards to learning — and devising —magical effects with cards. He spent a few months learning about crooked gambling devices (including marked cards and loaded dice) at a nearby novelty store. Thanks to his endless practice, Scarne began making money as a magician.
Gradually, Scarne became quite an expert at not only magical effects, but games of all kinds as well. Articles were written about him in various magazines, and he was hired as a consultant or adviser by various companies, as well as by the US Army, which sent him to bases around the world in order to educate soldiers about the dangers of card and dice cheats. He wrote fifteen books and co-wrote a few more for a total of twenty-eight books on games and magic. He also wrote two autobiographies: The Amazing World of John Scarne: A Personal History (1956), and The Odds Against Me (1966). (While most of his books are still in print and available his Amazing World of John Scarne biography is now highly sort after and when the odd copy does come up for sale it sells for literally hundreds of thousands of pounds).
He served as a technical advisor on the 1973 film, ‘The Sting’ and doubled for actor Paul Newman’s hands during scenes that involved card manipulations and deck switching. Probably Scarne's most famous card trick was appropriately titled "Scarne's Aces". The trick involved taking a spectators shuffled deck of cards, performing a series of riffle shuffles himself and then cutting to all four aces.
Another one of Scarne's most notable card effects was the triple coincidence, in which a spectator and a magician each pick three different playing cards out of two regular decks of opposite colours and it is shown that all of the selections match. Scarne also created a quadruple coincidence, wherein a spectator selects a card and four impossible predictions of their card are made.
Scarne died on 7th July 1985 aged 82, he was often proclaimed by experts, magicians and editors of the time as the greatest card manipulator of all time. Whether you are into card magic or not, it must have been fascinating to watch Scarne do his card manipulations and believe it or not you still can. If you have access to the Internet and follow the link to: http://www.spicejar.org/asiplease/archives/000479.html you will find an old black and white film called Cheating at Gambling. Running for about 15 minutes it features John Scarne demonstrating many of his amazing skills including his Scarne’s Aces trick and what is more interesting, many of the manipulations are shown in slow motion.
Have a look at the copy of Scarne on Card Tricks that we have in the library. It is a book written by a man who was truly the master of his art.
Well that’s me done for another month. See you next time.