Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

Illustration for article titled Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

People loooove getting hoodwinked by close-up magic, and Ricky Jay is a straight-up wizard at the art of sleight of hand. Watching him handle a deck is like seeing someone for whom playing cards are a part of the body—as though handling them is the most natural thing in the world.


Deceptive Practice is a documentary that offers insights into his early days and his many mentors—without revealing any howdedodat tips or tricks—and it's wonderful.

I didn't recognize Jay by name, but his face was definitely familiar (he's popped up in Boogie Nights, The Prestige, and done a handful of collaborations with David Mamet). He got his start as a youngun—age four!—with a nudge from his grandpa, who was an amateur magician. From there, he continued to refine his skills, learning from craftsmen from the Vaudeville era with pitch-perfect names like Cardini and Slydini, eventually leaving home and heading to LA to hook up with some of the preeminent dudes of the day: Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller.

He describes their relationships as a genuine kind of master-sensei connection, and Jay's passion for the history of magic makes him the ideal student (and now teacher). He's fascinated by what came before, and how those old maneuvers could be used to wow new audiences. "Magic is inherently honest," he says at one point. "You tell someone you're going to deceive them before you deceive them. In some ways, that makes it more difficult."

One of the best parts about watching magic is the reaction; say what you will about David Blaine, it's really, really fun to see how folks go fucking nuts when he does his thing. For me, one of the most powerful parts of this doc was hearing a Guardian journalist recount a feat Jay pulled years and years ago on a hot LA afternoon at a busy, sweltering diner, with no gathered crowd or cameras; it was just for her. At the time, she was so astounded by what he did that she actually just started to sob. Hearing her remember the story is worth a watch alone. [Netflix]


This is my favorite Ricky Jay story, from a 1993 New Yorker article.

"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."