The Amazing World of John Scarne

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Better Than Lucky


1. The Fledgling Years: A Decision Is Made

The summer of 1916. Later that afternoon, I was standing behind Lucky's chair when I noticed that he held a very poor poker hand. He didn't even have a pair and yet he was betting heavily. I studied his cards again when suddenly I saw his right hand go under his coat toward his armpit. He brought forth a match which he struck, but my eyes were glued to the cards he had curved up in the palm of his hand. They were, no doubt, visible only from my vantage point. He quickly lit his cigar and exchanged the dealt hand for the cards he had curved in the palm of his hand. He matter-of-factly returned the dealt cards under his coat along with the box of matches. Lucky won the pot hands down. To a kid of thirteen years there appeared to be a lot of money involved. Lucky scooped in the pot and as he was straightening out the bills I was counting the money. When I reached ninety dollars I stopped, as that was my father's salary for three weeks. In about five minutes, with just a little switch of the cards, Lucky had earned what Papa had to break his back for twenty-one days to earn. The idea of becoming a gambler buried itself deep in my mind. I hustled out of the picnic grounds and bought a deck of playing cards for twenty-five cents.

I started to practice Lucky's feat, which, I learned on the following Sunday, was called palming cards. The cards were giving me a hard time though -- they were too big for me to handle. It didn't really matter, I figured, as I realized my hands would grow larger. However, I finally had to cut a little from each side of the deck in order to conceal the cards in my hand. I practiced and practiced all that week and with each mistake my zeal was renewed, as I was determined to become the greatest card shark in the world. After all, hadn't Lucky made ninety dollars in a few minutes? My father was a stone-cutter at the time and I certainly didn't want to become a stone-cutter, especially after what I'd witnessed that afternoon.

Lucky seemed to grow in stature before my eyes, and he kept right on growing as the Sundays slipped by. Each time I saw him switch the cards my heart would leap, and when he raked in those pots I couldn't stop laughing inside. Meanwhile, I kept on practicing palming cards for about three or four hours each day. I figured something had to happen. Eventually I had it down pretty good and -- I felt, at least -- as smooth as Lucky's operation.

About a month or so later I arrived at the picnic grounds earlier than usual, and after a few minutes Lucky and his pals showed up. Lucky tossed me a hello with a quarter in it as he asked for his usual chairs. He seemed in a pretty good mood and inquired if I thought I could still find the queen of spades if he flipped the cards. I countered: "Let me flip the cards and see if you can find the queen of spades." Lucky looked startled and queried: "What do you mean?" I repeated my offer as the other two men said, "Give him the cards, Lucky." He obliged.

I flipped the cards and Lucky picked a card he thought was the queen of spades. He looked startled when it turned out to be an ace. He quickly turned to his friends and said: "What do ya know, we have a thirteen-year-old broad tosser*." (*Name for Three Card Monte men in those days.)

Lucky was visibly shaken by the demonstration and his pals retorted: "Yeah, and he's better than you!" I don't think it was my rapidly acquired dexterity that hurt Lucky as much as the blow to his professional pride. He pressed his inquiry.

"How'd you know what to practice and the exact manner of holding the cards?"

"Gee, Lucky, all I did was watch your finger position the day you showed me the Three Card Monte." He seemed somewhat pleased as his pride revived by inches.

"Look, Lucky," I said, "I want to show you something." I reached in my back pocket and took out my deck of cards (which had been shaved off about a quarter of an inch).

My big moment had arrived. I extracted the four aces from the deck and placed them under my armpit. I dealt out a poker hand and used the armpit switch I had seen pulled. Lucky and his pals had a surprised look in their eyes and their mouths hung open in wonderment.

"Where'd you learn that, John?" they asked. They had learned my name over the weeks and I knew Lucky's pals were called Squint and Pete.

I then related the episode of observing Lucky do the same thing in the poker game every Sunday. Lucky got really excited.

"You didn't tell Joe, did you?"

Joe was the concessionaire for whom I picked up discarded bottles.

Lucky hastily continued: "Johnny, you have to promise me you will never tell anyone around here what you saw me do -- not even your mother or father."

On To
Henny Youngman

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