There is nothing intrinsically interesting about a person walking on a 4-inch piece of wood or pushing carved figures across a 64-square board. But if you've seen Nadia Comaneci grace the balance beam or Garry Kasparov dismantle an uncomprehending opponent in a chess match, you know you've seen a thing of beauty.
What about cards? I'm not talking about playing (say, bridge). I'm talking about manipulating them: making them fly, move, disappear, change colors. I'm talking about a man who invites two audience members onto a Broadway stage, lets them shuffle and cut at will a newly opened pack of cards, proceeds to deal hand after hand of blackjack and poker, winning every time, but -- the hustler's art -- always by the smallest of margins. More shuffles, more cuts, last hand. The cards are turned over. Player A: full house. Player B: four of a kind. The master: royal flush. The audience gasps.
It's not magic, though it might as well be. It's Ricky Jay, rightly called the greatest living sleight-of-hand artist.
Jay, who just completed a three-month run of his astonishing one-man show, "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants," is capable of all kinds of tricks. Using God knows what illusions, he made the quite able-bodied Gary Sinise appear legless through most of "Forrest Gump."
He is also something of an actor. He played the No. 2 heavy in the recent Bond movie. He's now co-starring in David Mamet's new film, a mind-bending enigma called "The Spanish Prisoner." This is no jailhouse saga. It's a thriller in the form of a con, a brooding con. It's "The Sting" as Edvard Munch might have imagined it.
The material is in keeping with Jay's talents as a scholar and historian of cons, frauds, cheats, gamblers, hoaxers, hustlers, conjurers, mountebanks, contortionists, prodigies, magicians and freaks. Author of "Cards as Weapons" and "Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women," editor of the quarterly "Jay's Journal of Anomalies," student of the bizarre and the abnormal, Jay frequents the other side.
In his writing, he reports from there. On stage, however, he takes you there. He can do with cards what you cannot believe you're seeing. This is no Vegas spectacular where tigers show up and disappear. This is a man who walks up to the front row of the audience (he deliberately chose a theater seating only 100) and asks eight of us to each point to a card from the deck he spreads out -- face to us, back to him. He then shuffles, reshuffles and reshuffles again. He then pulls each of our cards, one at a time, out from within the deck.
Is the shuffling an illusion? Can he make the shuffles cancel each other out? I have no idea. I do think, however, that he has not just perfect card sense (knowing where each one is) but perfect touch. I asked Ricky after the show if he can feel his way through a deck. Does he know which is, say, the 15th card from the top? He demurred and smiled. I took that to be a yes.
Jay's devotion to cards is total. He started out, believe it or not, as an opening act for rock concerts. One can only imagine how the stoned-out, boozed-up Allman Brothers fans took to his delicate art. And he spent years learning the arcane craft of throwing cards. Yes, throwing them. He can propel them at 90 mph, reaching a distance of 190 feet.
He can make a card boomerang (i.e., return in flight to him) and then, for fun, cut it in half in midair with a giant pair of scissors. And as part of the Broadway show (also directed by his friend, Mamet), he pierces a watermelon with a thrown card. The rind.
Jay does not just love his craft. He reveres it. Asked about the recent TV specials that reveal magicians' secrets, he responds with anger and disgust. They totally miss the point. Any idiot can learn how it's done. "But imagine the guy who invented sawing a woman in half," he says, breaking into a smile. "P. T. Selbid. He was a genius. When Selbid first started doing it, they had ambulances parked outside the theater."
It is not often that you see a student, historian and practitioner of an art rolled into one. Jay does not perform often. Next time he does, whether in L.A., where he lives, or on Broadway again, it's worth catching him. Some people can tell their grandchildren that they saw Muhammad Ali box. You'll be able to tell yours that you saw Ricky Jay deal.