The Amazing World of John Scarne

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Fooling the Card Sharks

4. Arnold Rothstein, et al: A Bid to Join New York's Gambling Fraternity

When I was nineteen years of age I again visited the theatrical agent by the name of Saul Bernie who later became my favorite booking agent and who now is a top-notch Hollywood talent scout. His offices were located then in New York's theatrical district.

I entered his office one afternoon, with nothing particular in mind other than finding out how show dates were shaping up, when Bernie greeted me and asked, "Say, John, how would you like to play a date for a political club? I had a call yesterday from their chairman and they need an act for this Saturday night. They're holding their annual banquet at the Park Central Hotel. The date will pay you twenty dollars for a half-hour performance, and I think your magic and card tricks will be just what they want."

I replied, "Sure, Bernie, I've nothing planned for this Saturday."

"Good," Bernie replied. "Let me call him on the phone while you're here and confirm the date."

That Saturday evening found me entertaining before a group of approximately two hundred men and women of a Democratic organization. I opened my performance by doing a few card flourishes in an attempt to warm up the audience. At that period of my career my act consisted of card tricks, the rope trick, and the lemon trick, which I would usually employ as a finale. The rope trick, you will recall, was so staged that I would appear to cut a length of rope into several small pieces and then restore it to its original length. However, the card trick which was indubitably responsible for my not becoming a gambler was performed for the first time that night in public. It was the one trick which I had practiced years to perfect, and was to bring me more fame than any other trick of my repertoire. But as it happened, I introduced it only on the spur of the moment after having completed the planned program.

Towards the end of my performance that evening, preparing to wind up with the lemon trick, I said to the audience, "Ladies and gentlemen, to complete the next experiment it will be necessary for me to borrow some money from someone in the audience but before I do so, I would like to ask any one of you to examine this lemon."

With that I produced a lemon from my coat pocket and handed it to an alert-looking woman in the audience for examination.

"Madame, I would like you please to examine the lemon you have in your hand and make certain that it is an ordinary fresh lemon and that it has not been tampered with."

The lemon was examined by the lady, who then passed it to a person sitting next to her. It made its way around the audience until they seemed satisfied it was just an ordinary lemon and tossed it back to me.

I continued, "Now, ladies and gentlemen, you have examined this lemon and are certain that it has not been tampered with. I would at this time like to borrow a dollar bill from someone in the audience."

This was immediately handed to me, as were ten, twenty and fifty-dollar bills, which I also requested. I then asked for a hundred-dollar bill, which I seldom received but which was actually a lead line for the following patter: "You know, ladies and gentlemen, the last time I performed this trick I received a thousand-dollar bill, but of course I was performing for J. P. Morgan."

This would usually bring a chuckle from the audience, but on this particular night, much to my surprise, a man seated at the head table said to me, "Here you are, young man." And with that he handed me a bill.

As I reached out for what I thought would be a C-note, I saw that it really was a thousand-dollar bill, the first such bill I'd seen in my life.

My patter was almost lost in nervousness as I folded the one, ten, twenty, and fifty-dollar bills, and finally the thousand-dollar bill, into a small pocket. I placed the bills under a handkerchief for the lady to hold and when I whisked the handkerchief away the bills had disappeared. With the bills gone, I took a knife from a table and held up the lemon, saying, "I will now cut this lemon in two, ladies and gentlemen, and if I'm correct, your money will be found inside."

With that remark I sliced the lemon in two and extracted the vanished bills from the center of the lemon. I returned the bills, wet with juice from the lemon, to their befuddled owners and finally had just one bill in my hand, which I held up for everyone to see. It was the thousand-dollar bill, which the man at the head table had handed to me.

Looking at him, I said, "Sir, you gave me the thousand-dollar bill, did you not?"

He replied, "I certainly did give it to you."

I then said, "Thank you very much, sir, for being so generous," and proceeded to pocket the bill.

The audience howled with laughter, as I looked at the man with a broad smile on my face. However, as I met his gaze I could see that his eyes remained cold, lacking any expression whatsoever. I realized he didn't appreciate the comedy taking place at his expense.

I quickly withdrew the bill from my pocket and returned it to him, saying, "Thank you for your help, sir."

The audience broke in to a round of applause, calling for more tricks as I bowed in acknowledgement. I then decided to do another trick, which I'd never included in a public performance before. Bowing to the audience, I said, "Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, for your kind applause. As a final experiment this evening I will employ a regulation deck of playing cards which I have here in this sealed card-case. You can see it still bears the federal revenue stamp. I would like one of you please to remove the deck of cards from this box and shuffle them."

I handed the unopened card-case to a man in the audience who was sitting toward the front. He carefully removed the deck of cards and, after shuffling it, handed it back to me.

I returned to my place and continued, "I will now attempt to cut an ace from this deck of cards, which the gentleman has thoroughly examined and shuffled. If any gambler, ladies and gentlemen, could perform at will the following feat of cutting an ace from an ordinary deck of playing cards, he could of course win a fortune within a very short time -- perhaps after only one cut. You've no doubt heard of Bet-A-Million Gates cutting Diamond Jim Brady high card for a hundred thousand dollars. Now imagine what a gambler could earn with this effect."

I then requested that a spectator cut the deck of cards and expose his cut card to the rest of the audience. This was done by a man in the front, who showed a king. I made my cut and produced the ace of clubs. With that, I then proceeded to cut the remaining three aces from the deck, flipping each one to the floor.

As the audience started to applaud I threw the deck of cards into the air, signifying that my last trick had been performed, and walked off the floor. Turning around to acknowledge the final applause, I noticed a number of men picking up the cards which were strewn all over the floor. But what drew my closer attention was the man who had given me the thousand-dollar bill. He quickly moved to the center of the floor and picked up only one card, which was lying face up. It was the ace of spades, the last ace I had cut from the deck. I continued watching him as he moved back to his table and noticed he seemed to be examining the ace very closely. Then he handed it to another man who was sitting alongside of him, who did likewise. The examination went on for about five minutes, when another man from this group got up and walked to the center of the floor and picked up a few more cards. He went back to their table and they started to compare these cards with the ace of spades.

The chairman of the affair called me aside and I lost track of the men momentarily. He handed me my fee plus a ten-dollar tip, and said that he was pleased with the show. As I was packing my grip to leave, three men approached me and I recognized among them the man who had handed me the thousand-dollar bill.

They congratulated me on the performance and then the thousand-dollar-bill man said, "What are you doing tomorrow night, Mr. Scarne? I'm giving a little party at my apartment in this hotel and would like to have you entertain my guests." Before I could answer he continued, "What is your usual fee?" When I replied twenty dollars for a half-hour show, he said, "I'll give you two hundred dollars to be at my apartment at nine P.M." He handed me his card, which read:

Arnold Rothstein
Real Estate and Insurance Broker
Park Central Hotel
New York, N. Y.

The next morning I looked up a local gambler in Fairview by the name of George Bottles, and he told me of Rothstein's reputation as the biggest racket man in the country and that he was without a doubt the shrewdest gambler in the East. I remembered that the night before I'd stated that any gambler who could cut the ace at will could easily win a fortune within a very short time. The question arose in my mind as to whether Rothstein was hiring me at a two-hundred-dollar fee, the largest amount I'd been offered up to that time, just to see another show or to get me to tell him how I did it. I banished the latter thought from my mind, as I recalled that he had said he was giving a party and wanted me to entertain his guests. I remembered also my boyhood ambition of becoming a great gambler -- for that matter, a crooked gambler -- and here was just the opportunity I'd always wanted: a chance to observe at close range the most celebrated gambler of the era, to see what kind of friends he had, how they acted, and how they lived.

I arrived at Rothstein's apartment at the Park Central Hotel at exactly nine o'clock. When I rang the buzzer at the door Arnold Rothstein answered and greeted me.

He took my hat and coat and asked me to follow him into the living room. There were seven men seated about, and as I entered the room their conversation seemed to stop. Their gaze covered me from head to foot. If they had any feelings about me they certainly didn't show them by their expressions.

Rothstein, as if sensing my uneasiness, broke the silence, saying, "Gentlemen, this is John Scarne, the young magician I was telling you about." Placing his arm about my shoulder, he said, "Johnny, I'd like you to meet George McManus [whom I recognized by reputation as the operator of New York's biggest dice game, which was run at a place called Warren's], and this is Fats Caldwell." Rothstein continued introducing the men to me, one by one. I later learned that two of the men were his personal bodyguards. Their sole job was to see that no harm came to Mr. Arnold Rothstein.

With the introductions completed, I asked Rothstein where the party was being held and when he wanted me to start entertaining. He smiled at me and said, "This is it, Johnny."

Then I realized that this hard-looking group of gamblers was to be my only audience. I felt rather important at having such a select group of mobsters for a private showing. In those rough and tough days of the roaring twenties, an invitation from Arnold Rothstein was practically an imperial command.

In a half-joking manner Rothstein turned to me and said, "Let's go, Professor. On with the show."

I then repeated the same routine Rothstein had witnessed the previous night. When I was performing I took a good look at my small but select audience and noticed their cold, impassive faces. I recalled what Bernie had so often said about opening-night audiences at a Broadway show being the most critical in the world, but I realized I was facing a much more critical audience right now. I continued to study their expressions and they gazed right back at me. I was beginning to feel even more uncomfortable when I noticed they were talking about Jack Dempsey, heavyweight champion, and who would be his next opponent, while I was trying my best to entertain them with the rope and lemon trick. When I finally put the paraphernalia aside at the end of the act they generated a sigh of relief. I then realized that my first hunch had been correct. This hard-boiled audience only wanted to see one thing, and that was the card-cutting which was to follow.

Of course I knew that many card-table decisions were made by cutting for high card and naturally it followed that if you could cut an ace, you could win all the decisions and consequently any money involved. I recalled, too, the high-stake stud game that Rothstein was said to participate in, and that some of these games were said to have pots which totaled well over a hundred thousand dollars.

Rothstein arose from his chair and walked toward me saying, "That was good, Johnny. Now would you cut high card with me?"

The undercurrent of conversation in the room among the seven men slackened, and finally came to a dead stop when I said, "All right, Mr. Rothstein." I reached into my grip and removed two decks of cards. But Rothstein said, "You don't mind, Johnny, but we prefer you use our cards." And with that he opened a drawer of the table and removed several decks of cards. He then removed the wrapper, tore off the revenue stamp, opened the card-case, and removed the cards. As he started shuffling I forced a smile and the other men started gathering around as close as they could. Rothstein handed the deck over to Fats Caldwell to shuffle, and then on to another one of the men, and finally the cards were handed to George McManus who did likewise and handed the deck to me.

I gave the deck a riffle shuffle and placed the cards atop the table squarely in front of Arnold Rothstein. Rothstein took his cut and turned up the ten of hearts. I squared the remainder of the deck and cut the ace of spades. A hushed silence covered the room as each of the men looked at one another as if to say, did you see how he did it?

George McManus picked up the deck and eying it suspiciously said, "Do it again."

I riffle-shuffled the deck several times and placed the deck on the table again. Rothstein bent forward and gave the deck several cuts and then placed it in front of George McManus. McManus made a cut and showed the jack of clubs. I made my cut and brought out the ace of hearts. Fats Caldwell then leaned over and got into the act by cutting a low card, and I countered again by cutting another ace. After the cards had been reshuffled and this was repeated several more times, I turned to Rothstein, saying that my half-hour's performance was up and that I really had to be going. I was getting anxious to get outside and relieve the mounting tension I felt.

Rothstein said, "O.K., Johnny," and with that took two one-hundred-dollar bills from his wallet and handed them to me. I thanked him and said good night to the men, who scarcely seemed to notice my departure as they were whispering to one another. Rothstein saw me to the door and thanked me again for a pleasant evening's entertainment.

When I arrived at the Forty-second Street pier and boarded the ferry I went right to the top deck of the boat to get some fresh air and sort out my thoughts. As I put my hand in my pocket and felt the two crisp hundred-dollar bills I felt happy over the fact I'd just earned so large a fee for a single half-hour show. The night air perked me up and as the ferryboat pulled into Weehawken I was really jubilant.

About thirty minutes later I arrived home and found Mother asleep in a living-room chair with the evening paper resting in her lap. She awakened as I entered the room and I went over to her, pressing a hundred-dollar bill in her hand.

"Buy yourself a new outfit, Mom," I said, smiling happily.

She smiled at me rather sleepily and said, "See, John, isn't it much better to do magic tricks for a living rather than mingling with all sorts of cheap gamblers and crooks?"

I felt rather guilty as Mother continued speaking of gamblers, and moved to turn off the lights and retire. I didn't dare tell her that only a few hours before I'd been entertaining some of the biggest and toughest gamblers in New York.

The next morning I was awakened early by the ringing of the telephone. It was for me, and when I answered the phone a soft voice said, "Johnny, this is Arnold Rothstein. Would you like to perform again this evening? I'm having another party and you can make the same fee. Two hundred for another half-hour show."

I replied, "O.K., I'll be there. Same time, same place?"

"That's right, Johnny, we'll see you tonight then."

When I arrived at Rothstein's apartment that evening I found the same seven men whom I had left the previous night.

As I opened my grip Rothstein turned to me and said, "Skip the magic, Johnny. We like that rope and lemon trick, but anyway let's skip it tonight." It wasn't long before I was cutting the aces again for the men. After a half hour of this I received my two-hundred-dollar fee and left as I'd done the night before.

The telephone rang again the next morning. "I'm giving another party tonight, Johnny. You're hired again. Same time, same place."

Before I could answer or say anything he'd hung up. That evening I was cutting aces once more for the same seven men. For six successive nights Rothstein hired me at two hundred dollars a show, and all the group wanted to see was the high-card trick. I wondered if the rest of the men paid part of my fee but felt it really didn't matter just as long as I got paid.

I later learned the real reason that Rothstein and his friends went to all the trouble they did. Two men in the group were professional card sharks and they had told Rothstein if they saw me do the trick several times they could detect my method and do it themselves. They felt that I might reject any proposition they offered for an explanation, and this was their method of finding out how the trick was accomplished. It was also a matter of professional pride with these men who were supposed to know all the angles of gambling, crooked or otherwise. For these gamblers to admit that a young kid from New Jersey was fooling the daylights out of them was just too much. However, being fooled six nights in a row and paying twelve hundred bucks for the privilege was the final blow to their pride.

Finally, on the sixth night Rothstein said, "O.K., Professor, give. How do you do it?"

George McManus then interrupted, saying, "When Rothstein told us about this we thought at first you were using slick aces [an ace treated with a wax that permits the waxed card to be cut easily]. Then, when we gave you our own deck and you did it again we thought you were using a fine crimp [a card bent during a shuffle]. But, we have to admit, kid, we don't know what it's all about."

"Well," I said, "I always give the deck one or more riffle shuffles and hold the cards in such a manner that I can glimpse the indices on the cards as they fly past during the shuffle. When I sight an ace I count by feel the number of cards which fall on top of it. Then I calculate the number of cards a player cuts, and I cut down to this total and there is the ace." (At that early stage of my career I could cut any number of cards called for in the deck; otherwise I would never have given these racket men such an answer.)

With that reply McManus put the deck of cards on the table and said, "O.K., now cut me twenty-five cards." I realized he was testing the veracity of my statement. I squared off the deck and made a cut which I then handed to McManus. He counted the cards aloud and reached exactly twenty-five.

They had me repeat this feat about twenty times and I finally said to Rothstein, "If you do the same thing for three or four hours a day you'll be able to do it too, in about twenty years." I wasn't trying to be smart but they had asked me a question and I was trying to give them an answer as best I could.

"And how old are you?" someone asked rather skeptically.

"I'm nineteen," I replied matter-of-factly.

His rejoinder was quick in coming as he said, "You're nineteen and you practiced twenty years!"

"No," I replied. "But I practice ten hours a day."

Rothstein turned to the rest of the boys and said, "See, I told you this kid was terrific. Have you ever seen anything like that in your life?" Then looking at one of the men he said, "You're a card shark. What do you think?"

"Geez, I always thought The Hiker was good but he's nothing compared to sonny-boy here."

(The Hiker was a noted card man who frequented resorts and preyed on wealthy tourists and vacationists.)

As the men were discussing the trick, I mentioned to Rothstein that it was getting late and I had to be going as Mother was probably waiting up for me until I got home. He said O.K. and handed me the usual fee of two hundred dollars, and walked me to the corridor saying, "Johnny, come over and see me sometime. I might be able to get you a few more shows now and then."

I thanked him for the offer and said good night.

A lot of thoughts raced through my mind during the next few weeks. I realized how wrong were the ideas I previously had concerning gamblers. The foolish notion of becoming a bigtime gambler diminished when I remembered Lutzie pulling a knife at the Apex Restaurant. Now, after seeing Rothstein with two bodyguards who carried guns on their persons, the whole thing just didn't seem to make sense to me. It was thrilling and exciting to fool the top gamblers and racketeers of the era, but I certainly did not want to become one of them. I had heard and read of many gamblers being killed when they refused to take orders from higher-ups in the racket world. I realized more than ever that the illegal gambling and casino operators were actually mobsters themselves. It was obvious from the daily accounts in the newspapers that if any such operator tried to take over anyone else's operation and met with resistance, it was a case of killing or being killed.

With these thoughts fixed in my mind, and as Mother's strong and constant religious teaching concerning the evils of professional gambling began to mean more to me, I recalled my promise. I vowed to myself that I would never in my life turn a crooked card or indulge in any casino gambling of an illegal or dishonest nature. I was positive by now that to become a bigtime gambler, by their standards, you had to be tough and rough and that skill and strategy did not count. You not only had to use force to prevent other mobsters from moving in on you, but you had to carry a gun to protect either your property or your life. I knew, too, at the age of nineteen, that if a man carried a gun for protection or show and was a gambler or racketeer at the same time, he would find cause to use it some day.

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The Magician Who Fools Magicians

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