By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Know that feeling you get when two of your favorite things get mixed into something awesome? That happened to me this week.
Several times, actually. I found out this week that Piff the Magic Dragon (one of my favorite performers; YouTube him right now) is in the background of the album cover for Mumford & Sons’ “Babel.” But that wasn’t the combo that got me geeked out.
I love history, and I love magic. The two combined brilliantly in a book I read called “The Magician and the Cardsharp,” by Karl Johnson.
That’s not the thing either, but we’re getting close: The thing that triggered my irrational exuberance is how an incredibly difficult, underground gambling move might have some roots in Joplin.
The book is the non-fiction account of Dai Vernon, regarded as the father of modern closeup magic, and his hunt to chase down an elusive move called the center deal. His hunt took him to Wichita, Kansas City and Pleasant Hill, Mo.
You’ve probably heard of dealing from the bottom of the deck -- a tough enough move to do without getting busted. But Vernon chased down a man named Allen Kennedy, who could deal from the center of the deck.
Part of what made Vernon such a trendsetting magician was how he used the moves of gamblers and card mechanics for magical purposes. The result was a much more natural form of magic that could be performed virtually anywhere with any deck.
So Vernon hunted down those secret moves of the conmen, the crooked dealers who could grant fortunes or failures with just one perfectly timed card.
Vernon eventually caught up with Kennedy, who said that he created the move himself. He trained his hands to be strong enough for the required motions and honed it for years with great success.
However, in their first meeting, when the magician and cardsharp showed each other their chops, Kennedy told Vernon that he had heard of a dealer who dealt from the center 50 years before. In Joplin.
That conversation happened in 1932, so 50 years prior puts Joplin squarely in its second decade of existence as an official city -- firmly in its lead and zinc mining days, when the House of Lords and others were running at full speed.
The gambler wouldn’t have been Titanic Thompson (aka Alvin Clarence Thomas), the famous conman who earned his nickname in Joplin. He was born in 1892, so that puts him out of range.
Kennedy may have been putting Vernon on -- the center deal may not have been born here at all. But it’s likely that Kennedy said it, because Johnson was able to confirm a high percentage of Vernon’s stories.
Vernon, as he aged and told other magicians about the move, changed the details of the story in order to obscure Kennedy’s identity (an honorable move, given the shrouds of secrecy and disgust of attention that cheaters have) and involved Joplin often in the story.
It simply blows me away that such a significant move has some roots in Joplin. It has me fired up enough to dig through some archives and learn about the gamblers who won and lost here -- right next to our building, in fact. Whatever I discover about Joplin’s shifty dealers, I’ll let you know. I’m pretty sure I’m in for some interesting reading.