Originally published in The Daily.
The most important rule of magic — other than remembering to check for rabbit-droppings before putting your hat back on — is never to perform the same illusion twice on the same occasion. The temptation can be excruciating: The trick has already proven its ability to fool, and the audience has proven its susceptibility. But the magician who gives his audience a second chance to catch him out always slips up eventually, especially if the audience includes an eagle-eyed fellow magician.
On Feb. 6, 1922, 27-year-old magician Dai Vernon broke this rule before the toughest of audiences: Harry Houdini. The bold gambit was one of the most storied events in the modern history of magic. Houdini, 47, was not only the world’s most famous magician but also its most famous debunker. He bragged he could figure out any illusion he saw three times, and he repeatedly proved second and third demonstrations unnecessary. Houdini had an enviable reputation as a card manipulator, and after diversifying into escape artistry, he had begun a third career exposing so-called “spirit mediums,” conjurers and seers. Some of the conjurers used elaborate setups, but Vernon challenged Houdini with nothing more than a blue-backed deck of Aristocrat playing cards.
Vernon was visiting Chicago for the Society of American Magicians gathering at the Great Northern Hotel. The honored guest was Houdini, who was in town debunking spiritualists at the Majestic Theatre and promoting his latest silent film. Magic had been practiced in the United States for over a century, but Houdini had revived it into a hugely popular spectacle, in effect making possible the careers of all 60 magicians present.
Vernon, by contrast, was a nobody. He was born in 1894 and raised in Canada, where he did his first magic at the age of 7. (He lived until 1992, and liked to say that his first six years, before he started thinking seriously about magic, were his only wasted ones.) By 1922, his obsessive devotion to sleight of hand had made him one of the finest card handlers in the world. But almost no one knew him. In fact, he was best known as a skilled artist, capable of cutting a recognizable silhouette out of black construction paper. He worked at New York’s Coney Island, scissoring silhouette portraits for beachgoers and practicing with cards between customers.
David Ben, a fellow Canadian prestidigitator and the author of Vernon’s biography, wrote that when another magician introduced Vernon to Houdini, the maestro rolled his eyes “as if [Houdini] were doing him a huge favor” by indulging an amateur. Vernon, however, proceeded calmly, handing Houdini a pen, riffling a pack of cards, and telling him to mark his initials on the ace of clubs.
Vernon then placed the ace of clubs underneath the top card, squaring the deck. A second later, he turned over the top card to reveal that the signed ace of clubs had risen to the top of the pack — an effect so striking and fast that when magicians perform it now, the audience typically isn’t aware that enough time has elapsed for even the simplest trick to be set up. The effect is now known as the Ambitious Card, since the signed card is seemingly irrepressible in its urge to rise to the top.
Houdini blinked. Could Vernon run the trick by him again? Vernon obliged with disarming slowness, as if to give the master every chance to correct the apprentice. This time, once the signed ace was inserted beneath the top card, Vernon even paused and tilted the deck so Houdini could see the face of his card sliding under the top card. He then squeezed the deck lightly, and again, the ace jumped back to the top of the pack, as if the top card had melted away.
This caused a minor roar, because the next iteration would be the third, and if Houdini couldn’t sniff out the technique, he would be the victim of his own boast. According to Ben, the assembled magicians urged Houdini to admit he was utterly baffled, but Houdini stood transfixed and demanded another chance. Vernon gave him his third chance — then two more tries, plus an extra performance just for Houdini’s wife, Bess. Houdini entertained and rejected theories (an extra ace, perhaps? But the card was signed …). After the seventh and final performance, the gathering broke up, and Houdini was forced to concede defeat.
The repeat performance was, for Vernon and Houdini both, a huge gamble. With each run after the first, Vernon hazarded his bragging rights. After all, he had already fooled the greatest magician in the world, and that would have been enough to make a reputation. As for Houdini, the ignominy of having been shown up by a no-name upstart could plague him for the rest of his life. Houdini would only have to endure that indignity for four years, though: In 1926, after a show in Montreal, he was gut-punched by yet another Canadian, Gordon Whitehead, and died soon after of peritonitis.
Vernon was henceforth billed as “The Man Who Fooled Houdini,” and he revolutionized magic nearly as thoroughly as — though much more subtly than — the master. Houdini awed huge audiences and taught magicians to be consummate showmen; David Copperfield is among his heirs. Vernon practiced before tiny audiences, producing shocking results at distances so close that his victims could only rub their eyes. Ricky Jay is among his best-known students today. For Vernon, the art of deception required not only practice but exploration: He spent the remainder of his life perfecting his technique and criss-crossing the continent in search of cardsharps and shameless cheats who had come up with sleights that would win poker games — or serve as good magic tricks.
For the last 30 years of his life, Vernon served as the resident card expert at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, where variations on his routines are still performed by his many protégés. To see Steve Cohen — a well-known magician who performs to small groups at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City — perform the Ambitious Card, watch the video that accompanies this story. Of course, unlike Houdini, you can watch it as many times as you like. Not that it will do you much good.