In the new TV western “Deadwood,” Ricky Jay plays a craps dealer and con man named Eddie Sawyer, and woe to the greenhorn who bellies up to his table. Not since the World War II hero Audie Murphy played a World War II hero has a role been so cunningly cast. Jay is perhaps the world’s greatest sleight-of-hand artist as well as a leading scholar of prestidigitation and illusion. The latest of his four books, published last year, is Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck. To write the history, Jay drew on his own collection of thousands of dice, some centuries old and many loaded, shaved or otherwise altered for cheating. That “Deadwood,” set in an 1870s gold-mining camp in what is now South Dakota, would make keen use of Jay’s arcane knowledge is no accident; he’s also one of the scriptwriters.
Jay has a devoted following, and if his fans thrill to him in “Deadwood,” which wraps up its first season this month on HBO, many also worry that the series and his movie career might cut into his stage performances, which are already as rare as a royal flush and usually the toughest ticket in town. His breakthrough show in New York City, 1994’s Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants—it was a solo gig directed by David Mamet, with the “assistants” being a deck of cards—sold out all performances and won an Obie before he took it to cities on five continents. Eight years later, his off-Broadway show Ricky Jay: On the Stem, also directed by Mamet, played before a packed house for six months. It was a paean to the old-time confidence artists along Broadway, or the “stem,” in huckster parlance, and in it Jay performed truly unbelievable feats of card dealing, card throwing, mnemonics, pickpocketing and many other lost or dying tricks of the bamboozler’s trade.
“The idea of crime based on wit is kind of wonderful,” Jay told me. “There’s not much admirable in a guy who comes at you with a gun and says, ‘Give me your money.’ But a guy who makes you sign a piece of paper, and then you find out you’ve bought the Brooklyn Bridge—the con is enormously appealing. And it’s theatrical. The con—the big con, especially—is an entire theatrical orchestration for an audience of one. It’s both lovely and diabolical at the same time.”
While other magicians rely on smoke and mirrors or leggy assistants or computerized pyrotechnics to distract, the essence of Jay’s artistry is its disarming directness. In On the Stem, Jay routinely invited an audience member onto the stage and asked him for a credit card. Jay pulled out his own wallet and displayed its contents—cash, theater tickets, a photograph—then placed the credit card in a small yellow envelope, put the envelope in his wallet, wrapped a rubber band around it and gave it to the man, who put it in his pocket. Pause. Now check the wallet, Jay would instruct. The man took out the wallet, removed the rubber band and opened it: empty, except for the envelope. Jay then reached into his own jacket and retrieved the cash, theater tickets and photo. The man opened the envelope to find that it contained only a “Brooklyn Bridge Ownership” card. Just then, an associate of Jay’s would run from the back of the theater toward the stage calling out the man’s name and shouting “Telegram!” He would hand the man his credit card.
A friend of Jay’s, the cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Passion of the Christ, The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff), says Jay, maybe the world.s greatest conjurer. says Jay has perfected a kind of psychological subterfuge: “I think a lot of why we are fooled by the things Ricky does is that he’s able to use our natural instincts against us, so that you look one way when you should be looking in another.” Deschanel recalls the time Jay worked wonders with a piece of paper. “As he folded and tore the paper, it took on the shape of a butterfly—and then magically the butterfly flew away. It was in fact a real butterfly. It is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. His magic is like great storytelling that brings life and reality to the level of myth. You don’t feel it’s a trick well done. You feel he is operating on another level that goes to the core of human instinct.”
Jay’s work is so astonishing that even magicians sometimes can’t believe it. Responding to a magazine account of a poker trick Jay performed privately, a magician wrote that the reporter must have been mistaken: the feat could not be carried out. Jay, not one to shrink from a challenge, went on to perform the trick every night in On the Stem. “This is the funny thing with magicians,” Jay says. “At one level, it’s awfully flattering to be able to create a piece that people just thought was the result of some guy in the press being hoodwinked. But it’s also why I don’t spend a lot of time with magicians.” Professional magicians, anyway; among Jay’s friends are many amateur magicians.
Jay, who appears to be in his late 50s or early 60s, recently married his longtime partner, Chrisann Verges, a movie and TV producer. They share a Los Angeles-area house and also a New York apartment. He writes, including the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s entry on magic. He delves so deeply into the history of bizarre entertainments, like singing mice and mindreading pigs, that the New York Times once referred to Jay and Mamet, his frequent collaborator, as the “wizards of odd.” He does a weekly public radio show, “Jay’s Journal,” and his consulting firm, Deceptive Practices, advises moviemakers on ploys and special effects, such as Gary Sinise’s “amputated” legs in Forrest Gump. He has acted in 16 movies in as many years. He insists he can continue to do it all. Still, he did hint to me that performing On the Stem, not to mention practicing for it hours each day, was exhausting. “It’s a hard show to do,” he said at the time. “It’s live theater. There is no television editing here. Every night. Most people don’t have the luxury of coming back. They’ve got one shot at seeing me do a show. They’re coming because they’ve heard I do a good show. I’ve got to give them a good show. Night after night. There’s never a night to relax, never a night to let up. Never. Never.”
Such talk makes some Jay watchers anxious that the man they say is the greatest conjurer of the last century may be slowing down. In fact, admirers have for years been paying him the ominous tribute of casting his performances as historic. “Some people can tell their grandchildren that they saw Muhammad Ali box,” political pundit Charles Krauthammer wrote in a 1998 column that urged readers to catch Jay’s act. “You’ll be able to tell yours that you saw Ricky Jay deal.”
Jay’s early years are famously sketchy, and one can only speculate whether it’s more natural for an illusionist to be disinclined to discuss the mundanities of childhood or for a child with a difficult home life to become an illusionist. He was born in Brooklyn, but won’t say when, though some sources put it at 1948. He grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, but won’t identify his parents and declines to divulge his surname. “Ricky” and “Jay” are his given first and middle names. He first left home at age 15 and broke with his parents a few years later.
Jay says his greatest influence was his maternal grandfather, Max Katz, a native of Austria, who was an amateur magician and such a serious student of chess, billiards and other games that he coaxed the finest players to teach him their moves. “He was a guy who took his passions seriously,” Jay recalls. “And so he had an influence on me far beyond just magic.” When Jay was 4 years old, Katz introduced him to Dai Vernon, a Canadian-born master magician and sleightof-hand artist (who would become Jay’s mentor). The setting was a family barbecue, and little Jay performed for the great conjurer—multiplying packets of coffee creamer.
Jay first performed magic on television at age 7. By 1962, an adolescent “Tricky Ricky” was being touted in one magic industry magazine as America’s youngest magician.
After leaving home, Jay attended four or five colleges, but never graduated. A Cornell University classmate was quoted in a 1993 article on Jay in the New Yorker as saying that Jay “sat in his room and practiced card tricks” about ten hours a day. Back then, Jay also worked as a bartender, sang in a doowop group called the Deaf Tones, sold encyclopedias, did accounting work on Wall Street and performed magic at resorts in the Catskill Mountains. He performed twice on the “Tonight Show” as a guest of Johnny Carson, himself an accomplished magician. On the road, Jay served as an opening act for the likes of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
In Jay’s sort of magic, there are no shortcuts. “To succeed as a conjurer,” said one of his heroes, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the 19th-century French master of illusion from whom Harry Houdini took his stage name, “three things are essential: first, dexterity; second, dexterity; and third, dexterity.” Jay is best known for his uncanny way with playing cards. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Jay has thrown a card farther, higher and faster than anyone. He captured the records one day in 1976; one card he threw traveled 135 feet; another sailed into a window several stories up; another flew 90 miles an hour. He throws a card with such deadly precision it can pierce a watermelon at 20 paces. In one motion he can spray an entire deck of cards at an open wine bottle, and all the cards splatter around it except a designated one, which, somehow, curls and slips into the bottle. His first book, 1977’s Cards as Weapons, is a collector’s item.
It is unwise to play poker with this man, as he demonstrated in On the Stem when he invited an audience member to join him for a few hands. Jay shuffled, dealt—and won. “Was that fair?” he said. “I . . . don’t . . . think . . . so.”He let the man cut the cards. Jay won. He let the man shuffle and cut. Jay dealt and won. “Was that fair? I . . . don’t . . . think . . . so.” Finally, the man shuffled and cut the cards while Jay sat with his hands flat on the table and said, “You pick a hand for me and a hand for yourself.” The man did so, then turned over the four cards he selected for himself—all losers. “Was that fair?” Jay asked, and one by one turned over the cards he had been dealt. “I”—ace—“don’t”—ace—“think”—ace —“so”—ace.
The only person I ever knew who saw both Houdini and Jay perform was the caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who died last year at age 99. Hirschfeld marveled at a stunt of Jay’s in which, sitting with his back to a giant chessboard, he called out moves to make a knight land on each square while he also recited Shakespeare, chanted snatches of field-holler songs and calculated the cube root of six-figure numbers selected by audience members from a stack of index cards. Hirschfeld also recalled Houdini’s physical prowess, which enabled him to, say, swell his wrists while being handcuffed, the better to slip out later. Hirschfeld, whose particular gift was capturing a personality with a stroke, offered this assessment: “Ricky is mental and Houdini was muscular.”
Jay suggests that Houdini, best known as an escape artist, isn’t in his league when it comes to illusions. “He was never a good magician,” Jay says. “He was one of the most amazing exponents of bombast in the world, a shameless self-promoter. He did some real inquiry into the history of magic and unusual entertainers, which I find very appealing. But he treated other magicians very badly. He is not my hero.” Closer to Jay’s interests was Max Malini, who lived from 1873 to 1942 and performed for luminaries worldwide, including presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Warren Harding. Malini, Jay writes in Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women, could “stand a few inches from you with a borrowed coin, a lemon, a knife, a tumbler or a pack of cards and convince you he performs miracles.”
The history of his secretive vocation remains something of an obsession for Jay, who says magic is the second oldest of all the arts, after music. His scholarly pursuits were dealt a blow a decade ago. For five years he had served as the curator of the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and Allied Arts in Los Angeles, doubling the collection and nearly quadrupling its value. In 1990, the library was auctioned off and sold for $2,200,000 to David Copperfield, who moved it to Las Vegas. Copperfield has reportedly invited Jay to see the collection, but Jay has declined and prefers not to discuss it.
Still, at Jay’s house near Los Angeles he has his own library of some 5,000 books and tens of thousands of lithographs, engravings, playbills and entertainment ephemera. “I’m very comfortable in my home, with my wife, my dog and my collection,” Jay says. “It’s where I read and write.”
Not so comfortable, fans might hope, that he gives up the grueling work of making magic.