Steve Harvey doesn't do card tricks. But he does do cards. You can call it magic. You can call it telepathy. You can call it a hustle.

But if you play, he is going to inflict pain on you.

Check it out. Point to any card you want. Right there? That card right there? Put your finger on it. That is the ace of spades. Look at it. See?

Get another one. Point to it. You sure? You following your heart? Busted you! That's the nine of diamonds. Now, shuffle 'em all up and let's do some more.

Don't try to figure it out, because you can't. You can shuffle 'em, you can stack 'em, you can even deal 'em. It doesn't matter. Steve Harvey's gonna get the cards he needs. And if you've been stupid enough to throw some dead presidents on the table, he's gonna get your money, too.

Not that he needs your cash anymore. Thanks to his WB sitcom, "The Steve Harvey Show," his stand-up act with the comedy tour "The Kings of Comedy" and his gig hosting the syndicated series "Showtime at the Apollo," Harvey is getting paid. A lot. At 42, he's got the lifestyle to show for it: Lives in the best, flies in the best, dresses in the best.

But there was a time when he wasn't getting paid, and when he wasn't getting paid, a deck of cards made life a lot sweeter. To hear him tell it, he's pulled in "about a million" duping the gullible at various bars around the country, but who's counting? Let's just say that in the lean days of his stand-up career, his "mental powers" helped him fill in the blanks of his checkbook and spiced things up when he was peddling insurance or working the assembly line. It also helped him get through--well, almost through--Kent State. (It's also helped him get in more than a few bar brawls, too.)

Indeed, if there's a metaphor for Harvey's life, it's that card hustle. Because, as he sees it, when it comes right down to it, everything in life is a hustle.

You hustle. Or you get hustled.

Taking It All

My parents are different. My mother is saved. My mama know Jesus. That's all my mama know: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. My daddy is a hoodlum, 83-year-old-ass hoodlum. He shoot everybody in here--'cause he don't see so good.

His folks were poor, poor as in po'. When your daddy works in a coal mine, and a garden in the back yard means the difference between starving and just getting by, you're not poor. You're po'.

That stays with you, even when your family leaves West Virginia for Cleveland when you're just a little kid so your dad can trade the coal mine for a construction site. In Cleveland, they went from being po' to just plain poor. Life got better. Still, the memory stays with you, even when you're sporting custom suits and you've got a bodyguard named Boomerang who sports custom suits, too.

It's with you, even though next year you can send your twin daughters to Hampton University knowing that they won't have to do the card hustle to get through college.

It sticks with his dad, who at eighty-something insists on growing his own food in his own back yard. Just in case. Because Hollywood is a flaky place.

So for Harvey, the comedy thing happened because he had no other choice. He couldn't do anything else. He started out stepping in front of the mike on amateur night at a comedy club in Akron. The gigs got good to him, so he set his sights on making folks laugh. Full time.

Still, he never intended to be a TV star. It just happened, first with ABC's "Me and the Boys," where he played a widower with three kids. After that he signed up for "The Steve Harvey Show," where he plays a musician turned high school teacher/assistant principal. The TV thing is cool, but it was an accident. They don't manufacture all that many college students, let alone TV stars, in his corner of Welch, W.Va. No one in his family had ever gone to college. Forget about starring in a sitcom that's been named after you.

Still, life has a funny way of defying expectations. So when the unexpected happens--the good unexpected--Harvey snatches it, clutches it to his pinstriped chest.

But the memory sticks. And because it sticks, Harvey takes.

"I'm in the take business right now," Harvey says. "I take what I think I should have. I take for my family. I take for my people who can't take. I take."

Taking means that he won't be deterred by what he sees as the racism in Hollywood. He sees racism in the scant coverage of "The Kings of Comedy," an arena-sellout comedy act in which he tours the country with comics Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley and Bernie Mac. And he sees racism at the big networks, which this season virtually ignored people of color in leading roles for their lineups of new shows. And it bugs him that it's a lot harder to sell ads for African American shows than it is for white shows--even when they're on the same network. (Until recently, his show was the highest-ranking show in African American households; now it holds the No. 6 spot.)

This rankles Harvey because, he says, lower advertising rates for his show means a lower salary for him. And while he will say that he isn't paid the same as his white counterparts, he won't say how much he is paid. ("Then I'll have even more people asking me for money.")

So he takes. Which means that he has no problem stirring up a fuss, that he doesn't hear the word "no." It means that he surrounds himself with African American talent: a black bodyguard, black business manager, black lawyers, accountants, even black designers to replenish his considerable wardrobe. Taking means that even though his show is in its fourth season, he's talking to CBS about a development deal and is working on starring in a buddy flick with his good friend Cedric the Entertainer.

"See, I knock on your door," Harvey says. "But you keep on letting me knock, then I will start kicking. You don't answer the door, I will step back and ram it with my shoulder. If you still don't answer the door, I'm gonna get a couple of my friends that's got some money and we gon' come and we gon' knock your door down. That's my attitude. That's not a violent attitude. That's not a racist attitude. It's just, 'Hey, hey, hey, look at me. Look at me, goddammit. Stop ignoring me.' "

These days, taking means that he gets a chance to give, giving pep talks at youth detention centers and feeding needy families at Thanksgiving. He's also developing a scholarship program for underprivileged kids.

Says "Kings of Comedy" promoter Walter Latham: "As far as business goes, he understands the business better than anyone I've worked with. He's a businessman first and a comic second. It kind of surprises me that he can even be funny, because he is so into what goes on behind the scenes.

"He's a leader, for sure. Like a good president, he has a way of convincing you to believe what he believes. If he's on your side, that's a great thing. If he's not . . . it's a bad thing."

No Jokes to Spare

Here's a man who makes his living being funny, but when it comes to real life, he's not funny. His life hasn't exactly been funny. What's funny about watching your 37-year-old manager/best friend drop dead in front of you while you're cracking jokes in the limo. When your mama dies of a stroke the year before. And then your daddy falls sick. When these things happen, you suffer.

"This guy has gone through so much emotionally," Latham says. "It seems like everyone who he's really let in has let him down by dying. It's happened all at one time, and I think it's overwhelming him. He's caught between a rock and a hard place. He wants affection from others, but he won't let them in. He's really defensive. He's afraid to show the emotional him. He's not mean, but . . . he comes across mean."

Harvey will be the first to tell you that his life has been deep. So he doesn't have a whole lot of jokes to spare. Saves 'em for the stage, the HBO special, the sitcom. When you stop him in the street, don't expect him to tickle your funny bone.

Especially not if you're waving a camera at an airport. Airport time is private time. And if he's got his kid with him, then you best stay away. Because if you get too pushy, as one overzealous fan found, he just might hit you.

"I'm a good guy," he says. "But if you press me, I can be something else. And if you mess with somebody I love, you've got a problem."

Which is exactly what one "fan" found out not long ago when Harvey was taking his 2-year-old son for a walk at a Dallas mall. As Harvey tells it, two white men, a father and son, approached him: Would he let them kiss his son?

Absolutely not.

They insisted. He demurred. They insisted. He demurred.

One called him a "nigger."

So he punched him.

They got the message.

It takes a lot for fans to get the message. Like the woman who followed him out of a D.C. nightclub this fall, sticking out her tongue and wagging it at him as she boasted of her sexual prowess. Or the woman who started hurling insults at him when he turned down her autograph request.

Most of the time, however, Harvey lets his bodyguard, Boomerang, a bruising hulk of a brother with a fondness for gray pinstriped suits and fedoras, run interference with the fans.

As Harvey sees it, "telling Boomerang how you feel is a little bit more difficult than telling me how you feel. I'm 6 foot 2, 220. He's 6 foot 6, 345. There's 120 more pounds. He a whole 'nother man. He can be a little more persuasive than me. Then he becomes the bad guy and I stay cool with the public."

Ever the mimic, he starts aping the voice of an annoyed fan: "Steve look like he want to sign it, but that old funky bodyguard says 'Naw.' "

Talking the Talk

You can't describe how we talk. Black people are a colorful people. Now they're trying to rush through an Ebonics dictionary. But do you know Ebonics change every week. If you got an Ebonics dictionary, it better be in pencil.

All of it is deliberate, the "ain'ts" and the "cain'ts," the double negatives and the split infinitives. You could call it an embracing of all things Ebonics, a lolling in the lushness of the language, the "relaxness" of not having to speak "proper." He's bilingual, speaking both the language of the street and the language of the boardroom.

"If I say, 'Dis here,' it's the same as 'this here,' " Harvey says. "But if I need to, like when I'm doing a job interview and such, I've got a button I can press and I can be the bomb. I'm a free man. I'm not beholden to anything institutionally, so I can say anything."

He says because he's not pulling down a 9-to-5 gig, he can pretty much say what he likes and wear what he likes. Not that he'll wear just anything. He's a big, pecan-colored brother who gets his fade trimed five times a week and isn't above indulging his clothing jones. He believes in suits, cigars and Old School music.

He's had his heart crushed once, one good time by his first wife. He put his emotions in, and as he tells it, she kicked them around. It hurt him. So much so that it took him nearly a decade of dating to marry wife No. 2.

The family, however, is off-limits. Don't ask him about his kids. Don't even think about interviewing them. Ask him about his kids, and he'll mention his teenage twins and his stepson. Like, that's it. And then in another conversation, he'll let it slip that he and his second wife have a toddler son.

Says Latham: "What he'll tell you depends on the mood he's in."

He's a college dropout who got most of his learning from the street. He studies people. Notices everything. What he learns he uses onstage: "Black people handle getting fired different from white people. You can't fire a black person. It ain't gon' go good. 'Say I'm fired, Tom. Say it. Say it. I'll kill yo' kids.' "

His comedy isn't found in sidesplitting lines, but in the storytelling and the observation of human foibles: "You know, on Judgment Day there's gon' be one brother standing in line looking for a hookup, trying to see if he know somebody at the gate."

God and church figure prominently in his routine. He freely admits that he's broken a few commandments, but he says he knows God. He's got his eyes on the movies, but he's interested only in "squeaky-clean" roles, like the Sidney Poitier-Bill Cosby buddy movies from back in the day. He's serious about being a role model--and he figures PG-13 pays a lot better than NC-17.

He won't use the N-word in his act, even though he laces it liberally through his off-the-record conversations. He's a nondrinker who says he never once inhaled, but who's spent many a night hanging out in bars, doing the card hustle.

Which brings us back to his theory on the art of the hustle.

It's after a "Kings of Comedy" show at MCI Center, and Harvey is teaching class in his dressing room.

Class, that is, in the school of hard knocks.

Listen to him break it down.

"It's when you bet that you stand to be hustled. Only time you can be hustled is if you put something of value up of yours that you really can't stand to lose. That's when the hustle begins. That's when you get hustled in a relationship, too. Only person I know who hasn't been hustled in a relationship is my bodyguard."

"I never gave my heart," Boomerang says, almost apologetically.

"He's never been in love and he's 45 years old," Harvey says. "That's heavy. But that's how you cain't get hustled. 'Cause you ain't put nothin' up on the rack. When you put your emotions up there, that's when you get hustled."

So has he, Harvey, ever been hustled?

The lecture stops.

He pauses. Considers.

"About one hundred 'leven times."

And he laughs.

He laughs because these days, life is pretty good, all things considered.

And because at the close of '99, doing the hustle means nothing more than a little shoop-shoop around the dance floor.