RIP Ricky Jay, Master of the Sleight of Hand Card Trick

posted by Jason Kottke Nov 25, 2018

Ricky Jay died yesterday, aged 72. He was a master magician with a deck of cards, an actor, writer, and historian. The definitive profile of Jay was written by Mark Singer in 1993 for The New Yorker. It begins like this...just try not to read the whole thing:

The playwright David Mamet and the theatre director Gregory Mosher affirm that some years ago, late one night in the bar of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago, this happened:

Ricky Jay, who is perhaps the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive, was performing magic with a deck of cards. Also present was a friend of Mamet and Mosher's named Christ Nogulich, the director of food and beverage at the hotel. After twenty minutes of disbelief-suspending manipulations, Jay spread the deck face up on the bar counter and asked Nogulich to concentrate on a specific card but not to reveal it. Jay then assembled the deck face down, shuffled, cut it into two piles, and asked Nogulich to point to one of the piles and name his card.

"Three of clubs," Nogulich said, and he was then instructed to turn over the top card.

He turned over the three of clubs.

Mosher, in what could be interpreted as a passive-aggressive act, quietly announced, "Ricky, you know, I also concentrated on a card."

After an interval of silence, Jay said, "That's interesting, Gregory, but I only do this for one person at a time."

Mosher persisted: "Well, Ricky, I really was thinking of a card."

Jay paused, frowned, stared at Mosher, and said, "This is a distinct change of procedure." A longer pause. "All right-what was the card?"

"Two of spades."

Jay nodded, and gestured toward the other pile, and Mosher turned over its top card.

The deuce of spades.

A small riot ensued.

Magic aside, Jay's performances were master classes in how to entertain. Even in grainy YouTube videos, it is impossible to look away:

In 2002, he threw playing cards at Jackie Chan, Conan O'Brien, and a watermelon on television:

When asked about "a world without lying" by Errol Morris in 2009, Jay replied:

When you're talking about Kant and trust, it made me think of one of the ways I tell people about the con game. I say, "You wouldn't want to live in a world where you can't be conned, because if you were, you would be living in a world with no trust. That's the price you pay for trust, is being conned."

The 2012 documentary film about Jay, Deceptive Practices, is streaming for free on Amazon Prime Video...I know what I'm watching tonight. Here's the trailer to pique your interest:

Update: A poetic remembrance of Jay from his friend David Mamet.

Our great sage Johnny Mercer wrote, "Go out and try your luck / You might be Donald Duck / Hooray for Hollywood." But Ricky, as the Stoics taught, did not enter that race. He achieved fame and adulation, but like the warrior monk or the Hasidic master, he sought perfection.

He spent five or six hours a day practicing. He did it for 60 years. And, like all great preceptors, he was, primarily, a student. His study was the metaphysical idea of Magic, which found expression not only in performance, but in practice, commentary, design and contemplation. They were all, and equally to him, but expressions of an ideal.