One of the world's preeminent sleight-of-hand artists, Ricky Jay has devoted his life to fooling others. His consulting company Deceptive Practices is often enlisted by Hollywood to perfect on-screen illusions. As an author, he's written such books as Learned Pigs And Fireproof Women and Cards As Weapons (both of which should be back in print by the fall), not to mention his quarterly Journal Of Anomalies. Playwright and director David Mamet has frequently turned to Jay for his films, and Jay in turn has appeared in Mamet's tricky House Of Games and the recent con caper The Spanish Prisoner. The Onion recently talked to Jay about the mysterious Mamet, the tricks of the trade, and the conspicuous history of the bowling con.
The Onion: You're a writer, historian, actor, and performer. Which do you find most satisfying?
Ricky Jay: I suppose that if I could only do one thing, a solid card effect would be pretty high on the list. That's the root of it all, sleight-of-hand. It's certainly the thing I feel most comfortable with. But to be honest, I love the diversity of what I do. I think that for years, it kind of worked against me, and for the first time in my life, it seems to be working for me. In other words, I wouldn't want to try to make a living as an actor. I think actors… I give them a lot of credit for what they go through, but putting myself on the line like that would make me crazy. Maybe if I were 20, I would think about it. So I'm pretty fortunate that I'm in the films I'm in largely because the directors have asked me to be in them. I'd love to do more of them, but the writing and historical stuff I'll probably always do. I like mixing it up. I'm the guest curator of an exhibition of magic prints at Harvard that will open in November. I mean, it's all over the place now. I was doing this show, the Ed Sullivan show Virtual Ed, with Portuguese hand balancers and Chinese acrobats. It was just great. Just walking through the halls, there are guys tap-dancing and balancing as you're going through. It's really fun.
O: How did this career fall in your lap?
RJ: From my grandfather. He also played pool fairly well, wrote the introduction to a checkers book, and was into cryptography. I was into all these interests that he had and conveyed, and then not only did I get to watch him, but I watched these sleight-of-hand artists, jugglers, and whatnot who were friends of his. I never really thought of it. It was just always there, and I always did it.
O: Have you ever used your magic powers for evil?
RJ: Can't think of a day when I haven't. [Laughs.]
O: Which is tougher to pull off, a good card trick or David Mamet's writing?
RJ: I think it's harder to write like David Mamet. I wish like hell I could.
O: How did you first meet him?
RJ: We met at a performance, a social sort of performance, and we really hit it off. It turns out we had a lot of shared interests, much of which were about the con and the language of the con. And his rather sorry attempts to do sleight-of-hand personally. [Laughs.]
O: Do you think something is lost when magic tricks are performed on television?
RJ: Yeah. As proud as I am of the HBO show, absolutely. The show is different live. Particularly something that deals with magic: The very essence of it is the spontaneity; that's the moment you're looking for. The very idea that you have a TV camera there, even though we went through great lengths not to cut away and not to use camera trickery… [Mamet] even came out and directed himself, which was very nice. But it's still different. It's a live show, and it's meant to be seen live.
O: Is there a code of integrity among magicians and performers, where someone like David Copperfield might be sneered at? You know, "So what if you made the Statue of Liberty disappear on TV? Steven Spielberg made dinosaurs appear in Jurassic Park."
RJ: It's a convoluted issue, that issue, because one can take advantage. Some people frown on it and some people don't. It's tricky stuff. I do think deception… There's something kind of odd about tricking people for a living, but ultimately, it's a remarkably honest profession, when you think about it. If you violate that code, and you say you're not using camera tricks, and then you do, I actually think that's a kind of serious moral issue.
O: How about people like Penn & Teller, who revel in revealing magic tricks? On TV, too, no less.
RJ: They are clearly interesting, and they've done it in a way that is interesting. At times, a particular thing they do might bother me, what they choose to expose. But the intent, I think, often justifies what they do, and they do present it in an interesting way. But again, many, many people don't like it.
O: Are any of the tricks you pull off devised by yourself, or are they part of a continuum?
RJ: Both. It's a cumulative art. You learn basic techniques, and then you embellish. Sometimes you invent a plot that's original. Sometimes it's the patter. Sometimes it's the secret equipment or sleight that's original. The more you know and the better grounded you are in the basic techniques, the more you'll be able to branch out.
O: Is there any truth to the romantic notion of a trick's secret dying with the performer?
RJ: That's a nice way to approach it, as a romantic notion. For the most part, magic secrets are available on a level that's overwhelming and frightening, and they are very accessible if you do the tiniest bit of digging. But, that said, there's a certain group of individuals, in which I am included, who are very tight about secrets and don't share them with anyone.
O: Obviously, during a performance, you have a great deal of control over your environment. Do you ever encounter a situation where someone is so intent on debunking you it's distracting?
RJ: Again, since I present this openly as deception rather than magic powers, I wouldn't necessarily call it debunking. But there are people who try to figure things out. Often, magic is presented in a way that sets up a challenge that I actually find kind of appalling. You know, "I'm clever, I can do something, and you don't know what it is." And that instills in the audience the idea that, "Yes, I do. You're not that clever." That's one of the reasons I don't like to use the word "tricks." I do think of them as theatrical pieces, and as pretentious as that might sound, there's a real reason for it. It's not the idea of tricking you; it's the idea of taking you along on this particular journey the way you would in any other theatrical situation. But, hopefully, you're going to be fooled at the end.
O: How about tricks like the watermelon-piercing [where Jay impales a watermelon with a playing card from about 10 feet away]? It's not a trick?
RJ: Well, it's a physical stunt.
O: How did that even occur to you to try to stick playing cards into a watermelon?
RJ: [Laughs.] Obviously, some depraved moment years ago. I don't know what first got me to attack melons. It's not like I ate a bad one and got an upset stomach. It just eventually seemed like the appropriate fruit. "The most prodigious of household fruits," I call it in the show, which is reason enough to attack it.
O: How did you end up in Boogie Nights?
RJ: Well, [director Paul Thomas Anderson] literally came to my office. He sent me the script first, and then we had a meeting. He told me he was a big Mamet fan, and he really is. He told me Bill Macy was going to do the film, and Jack Wallace. I liked him and I liked his passion. It was very real. We've become friends. He's more than just a guy who wrote a clever script and decided to direct. It's a passion. He really loves film.
O: Do you find it flattering that these directors seek you out?
RJ: Yeah, although that's not the point of it in terms of me working in film. The idea that I don't have to read scripts has much more to do with the fact that I never learned to do that than my ego telling me I don't need to do that.
O: At this point in your career, do you think it's possible to be part of an audience and still be surprised by other performers?
RJ: That's one of the very nice things about the show I was at last night [in L.A.]. I felt really great watching these other acts. Some of them were young comic acts I hadn't seen before; some of them were old troupers. I like being fooled. When I watch someone who does sleight-of-hand and fools me, it's a great feeling.
O: Do you think the fact that audiences seeing The Spanish Prisoner pretty much know in advance that they're going to watch a con ruin the effect of the con?
RJ: I do think it is different from House Of Games, where people didn't know what to expect. It's a con movie and a thriller, but one of the nice things about that is that there are some red herrings. There are characters who turn out to be straighter than you would think. Without tipping that, that actually becomes fun. It probably is harder to fool people when they know they're going to be fooled. People like to talk about card cheaters, and how it's much more difficult than fooling someone in a theatrical situation. Even though it does take a remarkable temperament and skill to cheat in a game where there's high risk, the one thing a person has in that situation is that they're not announcing it in advance. When you go to a show where someone's doing magic or sleight-of-hand, you know you're going to be deceived. People are on guard. I think the whole concept of the willing suspension of disbelief in magic is unwilling—that people do not come to a theater and give up that disbelief. They know they're going to be fooled, and it makes it more of a challenge.
O: Not to insinuate that you would actually do this, but do you think there are big pictures of you at casinos that say, "Don't deal to Ricky Jay"?
RJ: There are some casinos that have asked me not to play, but these days I don't have much interest in playing cards.
O: What's the best con you have ever read about or experienced?
RJ: It's almost impossible to call one the best. I read about them constantly, and I collect them, so to narrow it down to one would be impossible.
O: I guess any con that works is the "best" one.
RJ: Well, one of the best things about the con is that it's situational. Over hundreds and hundreds of years, it's hard to whittle down. I just wrote something about cheating at bowling.
O: How do you cheat at bowling?
RJ: In the 16th century, there was a scenario set up like the big con, a betting situation where all the other players are in on it, which is a big con strategy. There were also particular gaffes—you know, weighted balls, water in the alleys. Even stuff as obscure and, to be honest, unlikely as putting a magnet in the toe of your shoe and a piece of metal in the ball, and then running on a lawn alongside your ball and making it stop where you want it to. Some of these are fairly far-fetched, but the basic hustle, the basic con element, is the same as today: Get a guy who thinks he's better than he is, and put him in a situation where he thinks he's bowling well and has no idea the people he's bowling against are better than him and controlling the game. It's kind of like the modern pool hustler. I love reading accounts of this stuff. The one I'm thinking of is from 1591. It really shows the cyclical nature of these cons.
O: Obviously, the Paul Newman movie has corrupted the issue, but there doesn't seem to be anything particularly glamorous about being a bowling hustler.
RJ: Yeah? Maybe so. Card hustlers, I suppose, kind of have some glamour. The think I liked about this article is that people at one point talked about marbles as the great corrupter of youth.
O: How do you even go about researching the art of deception? I wouldn't even know where to begin.
RJ: In that case, you start with museums themselves, like in the Museum Of Jurassic Technology [a collection of dubious historical artifacts portrayed in Lawrence Weschler's book Mr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder]. But I think it's safe to say that the second someone first came up with a game, there was someone looking for an angle. I mean, for me, it starts with the printed literature. The manuscripts are fairly inaccessible, so once you get into the era of the printed book, it gets a little easier. After years and years, you make a serious survey of that literature, and then you make it more specific depending on what kind of case appears. I never set out to collect material on cheating at bowling, but I found out that after 20 years, I had a lot of material on cheating at bowling.