10 May 2023


Harry Lorayne died last month.  He was 96.  Most people, if they were familiar with his name, would have thought, “Oh, the memory guy,” because that’s what he was famous for.  He’d tell you it wasn’t a parlor trick; he could teach you how to exercise your memory, and he did it in corporate seminars as well as on Johnny Carson – twenty-four times – I’ve Got a Secret, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Good Morning America, the list goes on. 

For me, though, Lorayne was a close-up card magic guy.  He wrote ten or a dozen books about it, one of them, The Ha-Lo Cut, explaining his single most useful sleight, which is essential to performing Gary Ouellet’s show-stopper of an effect, Finger On The Card.  (This is inside baseball, Gary Ouellet another influential popularizer of close-up.)

A vocabulary note.  Magicians don’t perform tricks.  They perform effects.  And the dizzying variety of lifts, palms, forces, counts, spreads, peeks, breaks, culls, and false shuffles are called sleights.  Any given effect can involve one or many sleights. 

Buddy Karelis.  Buddy Karelis was a classmate and a pal of mine, who lived out in Belmont, a bus ride away.  We were both into magic, but we were at the age where we were more into gimmicks, not sleights, per se.  We were ten.  I can pinpoint this, because I remember watching Davy Crockett and the River Pirates together, a two-part broadcast event of enormous significance.  (Davy had gone down at the Alamo the year before, the Mike Fink riverboat episodes were a prequel.  Disney recognized a merchandising bonanza when it presented itself, coonskin caps, “flintlock” muskets, and lunch boxes, we had ‘em all.)  Buddy and I were gear freaks, always getting new stuff to show off to each other, a lot of it mail order: spring-loaded paper flowers that compressed into a wrist-held clip, and exploded into a full bouquet; Chinese boxes, where giant dice changed spots, as you slid them back and forth behind their doors; the baby guillotine, where a finger in the upper slot was magically unhurt, but dad’s Chesterfield in the slot below was sliced in half. 

Daddy & Jack’s.  Daddy & Jack’s joke shop was on Bromfield St., off Tremont, behind the Parker House.  Like its cousins, Little Jack Horner’s, and Jack’s Joke Shop in Park Sq., they were nervous about kids coming in, because the back of the house was adult novelties, but they were serious enough about magic to have guys behind the counter who could demonstrate effects.  A lot of the tricks were gaffed, like a Svengali deck, with shaved cards, so if you reverse a card, you can strip it out.  This isn’t magic, in the classic sense, because A) anybody can do it, and B) it’s no mystery how it’s done.  Magic is when the ordinary is made to do the impossible.  The punchline of a joke, the reversal of expectations.  The reveal.

                                      Carl Bertolino, house magician, performing at Little Jack Horner's:

David Reddall.  Dave Reddall, an adult pal of mine, and another mystery writer, as it happens, comes by the house one afternoon, and out of the clear blue, whips out a deck of cards and does – I don’t remember – maybe the Elmsley Count, or something like.  I’m watching with my mouth hanging open.  I haven’t done any magic in something like twenty-five years, and I’m astonished not only that he’s into it, but that he hasn’t said anything about it before.  It takes me back to Buddy Karelis and Daddy & Jack’s.  Dave is amused and gratified to find a kindred spirit.

On his recommendation, I buy a couple of Harry Lorayne’s books, basic sleights, passes, double lifts, shuffles, card control.  This of course leads to Erdnase, The Expert at the Card Table, as annotated by Dai Vernon – acknowledged by and large to be the best living card handler, at the time – and the book sets me back something like $75, which seems like serious money.  But what I come to realize is that I’m not particularly interested in performing the tricks.  I’m interested in the process, the method.  It’s the sleights I want to learn, the techniques.  I don’t care that much about fooling people. 

Looking back, I see a development, maybe what I’ve thought about before as The Approach To The Canvas.  I was just a kid when I saw Blackstone (Harry, Sr., not Harry, Jr.), and it was a marvel.  Years later, I saw Doug Henning, also a terrific showman.  But quite recently, I saw a guy named John Carney, who’s among the best current close-up card people (and who did in fact study under Dai Vernon), and I have to say, seeing somebody do close-up, in a fairly intimate setting, is enormously more satisfying than seeing a big stage show.  It’s not the circus, it’s just for you.


And watching close-up, literally close up, isn’t so much about being manipulated as it is being invited into the performer’s confidence.  There’s a sense of participation.  I might suggest a link to the notion of craft, that much of it could be said to be hiding in plain sight.


  1. I think this is the first time as an adult I realized how much I missed growing up without television. I was eventually able to bring the name Harry Lorayne to mind, although for the memory practice rather than cards. Just the titles of his books seem magical.

    I like figuring out tricks, but I enjoy either outcome, deducing the method or being fooled. I felt immense satisfaction grasping how a trick was done when Penn & Teller missed it. (I've derived a rule: Anything unusually odd, out of place, or gratuitous is probably the key to the trick.) Card sleights are the most difficult for me to get, and now I know why.

    A client assigned a guy to work with me on one of my consulting visits. After hours, when I would normally have dinner and return to the hotel, he told me he was a member of a magic club and invited me to attend. The centerpiece of the evening's show was supposed to be a demonstration of hypnosis, but it went flat when the subject couldn't go under. The best part came from my host himself. His speciality was cards and he had a simple little trick that blew me away. He patiently repeated it as often as I requested, rolling three cards in his hand, which seemingly made the cards do impossible arrangements. No matter how slowly he repeated it, I couldn't see it. Perhaps the cards were gimmicked, I don't know, but it was fun.

    John Carney… there's an appropriate aptonym.

    1. For those at home who follow Penn & Teller Fool Us, the guest magician had his own narrow stand, part booth and part podium. The booth had a string of colored lights (like old-fashioned Christmas bulbs) suspended above the front. But why?

      That was, I'm positive, the key to the magic. I don't recall the remaining particulars, but the trick was already done before the magician set foot on state.

  2. Elizabeth Dearborn10 May, 2023 13:15

    Years ago I went to a corporate event which was held at a dinner theatre. Before the dinner & the main show, a magician came around to every table & did magic. Nobody could figure out how he did any of it ... it was fascinating!


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