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Remembering Master Magician And Sleight-Of-Hand Artist Ricky Jay


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. On today's show, we're going to remember the master magician Ricky Jay, who had been known as the greatest living sleight of hand artist. Ricky Jay died last Saturday at age 72.

When he worked with a deck of cards, it's as though he lived in a different dimension than we do, where the laws of physics have been altered. He made cards disappear and reappear and move to different places in ways that are just impossible. He was also a scholar of con games and of the human oddities and exotic performers who worked the freak shows and traveling carnivals. They were the subject of his book, "Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women." And he played strange and sinister characters onscreen - a con man in David Mamet's film "House Of Games," the camera man who shoots the porno films in "Boogie Nights" and a card shark on HBO's "Deadwood."

Terry Gross did a number of interviews with Ricky Jay over the years. Let's start with an onstage conversation recorded in 1998 at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco at an event co-sponsored by FRESH AIR and City Arts & Lectures of San Francisco. They kicked off the evening with a clip from the film "House Of Games." Lindsay Crouse plays a psychologist who's being introduced to the underworld of con men. Her guide is a con man played by Joe Mantegna. He's brought her to a poker game. But Mantegna has just lost a lot of money in this game, and he's accusing Ricky Jay of cheating him.


JOE MANTEGNA: (As Mike) What the [expletive] are you going with a flush?

RICKY JAY: (As George) Does that beat trips where you come from? Give me the [expletive] money.

MANTEGNA: (As Mike) We lost.

LINDSAY CROUSE: (As Margaret) I have gathered that.

MANTEGNA: (As Mike) I...

JAY: (As George) And if you think I'm leaving here without that check, you're out of your [expletive] mind.

MANTEGNA: (As Mike) Hey, look.

JAY: (As George) I'll look later. Now give me the money...

MANTEGNA: (As Mike) OK, OK, OK, give me a moment, will you?

JAY: (As George) ...Because I won that money from you, baby.

MANTEGNA: (As Mike) I'll give it to you when I get to it. Now, don't get pushy.

JAY: (As George) Pushy, Jim, pushy - you don't know what pushy is. Now give me my $6,000.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Please welcome a man you don't want to play cards with - Ricky Jay.


GROSS: Now, you not only know a lot about cards, you know a lot about the history of con games.

JAY: I'm interested, yeah.

GROSS: Now...


GROSS: In the movie we just saw - in "House Of Games," Joe Mantegna, when he's teaching Lindsay Crouse about cons, he says, people think a confidence game is when you give the con man your trust. But a confidence game starts when the con man gives you his trust. Is that true?

JAY: I think it's a lovely subtlety. I've never seen that particular point mentioned by anyone but Mamet. But I think it is a lovely thing that you want to be able to do that. You want to be able to trust someone. I - a couple of times, I've been interviewed about cons, specifically. And the point that comes to me - and it's hardly profound - is that I don't think any of us would want to live in an atmosphere where we couldn't be conned because we would be so skeptical of everything in life that it would be a horrible way to live. So on some level, we have to do that. And the confidence man, you know, is able to inspire that by acting in cons, you know? It's very important.

GROSS: Tell us a con game that you find - a con that you find particularly interesting.

JAY: Again, it's nice - you know, just your questions are making me think of things. And I'll tell you a story from "House Of Games." There's a moment in "House Of Games" where Mike Nussbaum, who plays the older con man - a wonderful actor - is showing Lindsay a hustle. It's one of a variety of hustles called laying the note, which deal with short-change in various ways. And in this particular case, the idea is a man comes over to a cashier, and he says that he wants to send his mother $20 because, you know, she needs it. And I actually think Joey Mantegna says in the film - another wonderful Mamet line - make her your aunt. It sounds more pathetic.


JAY: And he has a bunch of signals. And so he says, you know what? Here - count them out. There are 20. And meanwhile, he's given a $20 bill in return. And when the cashier counts them out, he realizes there are only 19. Meanwhile, you've seen the con man very clearly take the $20 bill and seal it in an envelope. And now the cashier said, you only gave me 19. And the con man takes the 19 singles back. He hands the cashier the envelope with the 20. And he says, I must have left one in the car. Hold on. I'll be back. And the cashier isn't worried because he's a dollar ahead of the transaction at this point. And the con man goes out to his car and never comes back.

And when the cashier does open the envelope, where, very plainly, there was a $20 bill a moment ago, there's only a piece of newspaper. And so he's been conned. And when David wrote his version of this initially, which had nothing to do with an envelope or these bills, there was something - he said to me, how is that? And I said, it's very good. And he said to me, that bad?


JAY: And I said, well, you know, there's some verisimilitude. Anyway, we had a small problem with that moment. And he asked me if I would come up with a solution. So I was in a difficult position. As someone who loves the con and still have friends who, actually, make their living laying the note, I didn't want to betray something that they would do. And so as a consultant, I did what I'm often asked to do, which is to think of a method that would be appealing for the context in which it was used - in this case, a film.

And I came up with a method of stealing the $20 bill that's shown in the film. And it worked for us in this context. The film came out. It seemed to do well. People liked the scene. About six months later, a friend of mine who investigates bunco stuff for the police sent me a clipping from Denver, which said, a con man arrested, learned technique from "House Of Games."


JAY: And so here - I mean, this is an amazing case of art imitating life imitating art. I mean, I'm purposely using a method that wasn't real - coming up with a method, you know, that I think was original and putting it in a film. And a man who was an insurance salesman - this is the funny thing. He wasn't a crook.


JAY: But he saw it, and he really liked it. And he thought, well, can I do this? And he went out, and he did it eight or nine times in Denver. And he was only caught - he was never caught in the transaction. Once a woman was explaining what happened to her to a policeman - she said, you know, two weeks ago, a guy - there he is. And they ran and grabbed the guy.


JAY: And I wrote - I remember sending this clipping to Mamet with a note saying, this is clearly the only practical thing I've ever done in my life.


GROSS: So what is your code of ethics as someone who knows a lot about con games? It sounds like part of the code is to protect the con men.


JAY: I guess I did just imply that, didn't I?

GROSS: Would you ever run a con on somebody? Have you ever done that?

JAY: Would I - oh, heavens, no.


JAY: No, no, not I. I have a company which consults on film that's called Deceptive Practices. And our motto - on the card, it says Deceptive Practices. And then underneath, it says, arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis.


JAY: And that is, in fact, the way that I deal with people in the film world or the theater world or the television world if I'm consulting, which is that if a director has to know how a piece works to shoot it better, I'll tell them unhesitatingly. Well, I'll tell them hesitatingly, but I will tell them. And if they don't have to know, you know, I'm just not interested in the gratuitous exposure of this kind of material at all, so I won't tell them.

GROSS: Now, you - as I mentioned, you're an expert on the history of really odd and eccentric performers. And you were in a carnival yourself...

JAY: That's true.

GROSS: ...Briefly as a barker. And I had asked you to do this on FRESH AIR. I'm going to ask you again to just give us a sense of what your rap was.

JAY: Oh, the pitch I used as a...

GROSS: The pitch, yeah - when you were a carnival barker.

JAY: Yeah. It's called the bally, more technically, on the platform. Yeah, I ran a 10-in-one show for...

GROSS: What is a 10-in-one show?

JAY: It means 10 attractions under a single tent.


JAY: So you pay one admission, and you get 10 acts. So there could be a five-in-one or a 10-in-one. I wish you had asked me about this earlier so I could have thought about it. But I have a feeling once I start, it'll probably come back. So - show time, circus time. See the magician, the fireman, apple-eater, the girl with yellow, elastic tissue, the electrode lady. Yes, the electrode lady.

At the age of 7, she and her sister were struck by lightning. Her sister died, but she lived to tell the tale - 20,000 volts of electricity through the young girl's body. The doctor said she lived because she was immune to the shock of electricity. See the monster child, the monster child from Johannesburg sat out. I got a monster child with one head, two bodies, three arms and four legs. You read about it in your leading periodicals. You read about it in the National Enquirer.


JAY: See Adam and Eve, boy and girl, brother and sister, all in one - one of the world's three living morphodites (ph) who will expose itself, not to be rude or vulgar but to show you one of mother nature's corious mistakes. Show time, circus time, lets go - be going. They're all on the inside. They're on the inside.


GROSS: Did you write that yourself?

JAY: No, far from writing it. It's very much part of an oral tradition, including the mispronunciation of words like morphodite for hermaphrodite and corious (ph) for curious. And, you know, often, you know, the guys I knew doing the bally were illiterate, you know, didn't read. I mean, they learned the pitch they were handed down. And yet pitches were pitches were topical.

For instance, what in one year might have been the giant rat of Sumatra, during the Vietnam War would become the giant rat of Cambodia. You know? Or a deformed animal might be presented as having come from near the nuclear testing site in Los Alamos, N.M., or later, Hershey, Pa. You know? So that was the one thing I loved about the pitches, is that they would vary depending on topical news.

GROSS: Now, didn't you do an electric chair act with a woman?

JAY: I did. Yeah, as part of that carnival. The electric chair was, basically, a woman sat in a chair, and you would walk up to her and hold an electric lightbulb or a fluorescent bulb to various parts of her body and they would light. And the finale was usually that she would hold out her tongue, and you would light the bulb on her tongue.

GROSS: And so it would look like she was getting electrified?

JAY: Well, it was never really specified. I mean, you know, it...


JAY: And then there was another thing that we did with the girl afterwards, which was called the blow off, which is you then put the girl in a box. You put her in this box and then take her dress off while she's in the box, approving she has yellow elastic tissue because the box would seem to be too small for her. You would put swords in the box, as well. Take them out. Then take the dress off.

And for an extra 25 cents or 50 cents, you would allow people to come up. Please, come up and look at the box, but realize the lady lives entirely on the proceeds from the box, which she didn't, by the way. The owner would take far more of the proceeds than he ever gave the girl. And then the sad blow off, as it was called, is he would come up, and she would, of course, be wearing a bathing suit.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JAY: You know? So it was, you know, yet another con on top of the con.

GROSS: So how did she light up when you would hold the lightbulb on her?

JAY: I'd say that that was arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis.


BIANCULLI: We're listening to an interview from 1998 with the late master magician Ricky Jay, who died last Saturday - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Ricky Jay, the master sleight of hand artist who died on Saturday. Let's get back to his conversation with Terry Gross recorded onstage in 1998.


GROSS: You were introduced to magic, I think, by your grandfather when you were a kid. What was his magic act like?

JAY: Well, he didn't so much do an act. At times he did. During the Second World War, he did perform for servicemen. He did USO shows. And so I imagine he did an act then. But that's before I was born. He was an amateur in, I think, the best sense of the word. He was a lover of magic. And he was just interested, and he took lessons from, you know, remarkable people and was a very patient and good teacher. And so it certainly inspired me.

GROSS: And did he teach you things?

JAY: Yes, absolutely, yeah, very specifically, absolutely. And then not only did he, but he got the great people of the day who were also his friends and his teachers to spend time with me, as well.

GROSS: Like Slydini.

JAY: Like Slydini.

GROSS: Who was Slydini?

JAY: Well, Slydini, Quintino Marucci, was an Italian man who lived in the city who did this wonderfully poetic magic and was a wonderfully artistic fellow. I mean, he actually made me in those years - he was a wonderful tailor, and he made suits that were, like, Spanish toreador outfits, where every flower was dyed by hand and put on with sequins. And these were - and that's what I actually performed in when I was a young boy, 13 or 14. And, you know, with penciled-in sideburns.

But Slydini was wonderful. And he was considered a master of misdirection of the art of - well, I always like to deal with the concept of misdirection positively rather than negatively. The idea was to direct an audience's attention exactly where he wanted it directed. But Slydini was a man who did miracles. He would take a cigarette from someone, a lit cigarette, and clearly break it in half, you know, and show you both halves of the cigarette and roll it between his finger and hand back a perfectly restored cigarette. I mean, it was as close to real magic as you could hope for.

GROSS: Now, you're semi-famous for not liking children very much. And...


JAY: Well, I always wondered about an epitaph. I guess we've got it now. I don't know.


GROSS: And I think you've been known to even end a performance if there were too many children in the audience. Do you...

JAY: You're not going to tell that story about me killing hundreds of them?

GROSS: No (laughter).


GROSS: Oh, that story. What is it about children when you are performing that is problematic for you?

JAY: I think it's pretty simple. It has nothing to do with the children. It has to do with having an art which I take seriously and which has existed since the beginning of time written off as an entertainment for 15 minutes at a child's birthday party. It's that simple. That's not what it's about. And it's not what it's about to me. And I don't want any association with it. Which doesn't mean that a child can't enjoy a magic show, and it doesn't mean that there aren't people who like to perform magic for children and who do it well. You know? It just means that I'm not interested in it.

GROSS: Now, what kind of kid were you when you were doing magic? I mean, did...

JAY: I was never a child.

GROSS: You were never...


GROSS: I should mention that you had a magician at your bar mitzvah.

JAY: Should you? Yes. You should mention.

GROSS: What was his name? Al?

JAY: Al Flosso. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. And I think he ran the magic store that you frequented?

JAY: But more than ran a magic - Al Flosso was one of the great magicians who ever lived. I mean, this was actually the - I think I say in Mark Singer's piece, the only kind memory I ever had of my parents was that they told me that Flosso always worked Grossinger's and the Concord - you know, he worked the Catskills all the time, and he was on the "Sullivan Show" many, many times. This was a great act - and that, you know, he was unavailable to be at the particular - you know, at my bar mitzvah, and they were, you know, conning me and in fact had hired him and he came.

So that was actually wonderful. But, I mean, here's a man who did often perform for children, who was absolutely brilliant. You know? But then again, a good deal of his act was going on on a level involving entendres, which the children could never begin to understand.

GROSS: Did he make your yarmulke disappear? (Laughter).

JAY: (Laughter). No. But...


GROSS: You...


GROSS: Now, did you think you'd be able to make a living...

JAY: Sure you don't want to switch the papers and go to a new page here, Terry?


GROSS: You could make my notes disappear, probably, too. How did you end up in the carnival?

JAY: I ended up in the carnival - I was in my very poor academic career. I was at Cornell, and every year, a fair would come to Trumansburg, which was very close to Ithaca. And a bunch of buddies went out to the Trumansburg fair. And there was a magician performing in this 10 in one. And he wasn't very good.

And as buddies will do - particularly in those years - they go, oh, show him something, Ricky. Show him something - you know, which is terrible. I would never in a million years do this to anyone's act no matter what level it was on. But this guy picked up on it and started going, yeah, show me something, Ricky. Show me. And I just said, no, no, this is - you know, please continue. I'm very sorry. I apologize for this. And he just wouldn't get off me, you know. Show me something, Ricky. Show me, you know. And this was a guy with gold lame hair, and I was...


JAY: Anyway, so the show finished. And even after the show, the guy came out approaching me again. He just wouldn't let this drop. And at that point, I did take the cards and did something for him, and he was surprised. And he said, if you ever want to come out on the road with me, you know, it'd be - you know, I would love to have you work in the show. And I was - it was a summer. And I was tending bar in a bar in Ithaca and doing some sleight of hand behind the bar.


JAY: That was the job description, I might add - conducting turtle races, all the usual stuff. I got a call one day from this guy. I mean, he tracked me down to this bar and said that someone had dropped out of the show and would I come join the carnival, which was then in Canandaigua or one of those little Finger Lakes communities. And that's how it actually happened.

GROSS: Now, when you started doing magic professionally, I think it was in the 1960s or '70s. And it was during what was in part, you know, like the LSD - or a lot of people in your audience were probably hallucinating while you were performing this sleight of hand stuff. It must have been a pretty strange time, in a way, to be doing magic.

JAY: Well, one of the jobs - I mean, I was doing it professionally quite young, doing TV and stuff.

GROSS: That's true. You were 7, I think, when you started performing.

JAY: In the '60s, I did get a job in the Electric Circus, which was the great psychedelic nightclub in New York in the '60s. And I literally performed sleight of hand in between Ike and Tina Turner and Timothy Leary lecturing on acid. That is true.


JAY: And I dare say, you know, most of the people who were watching it were blazed out of their minds. And it was a very peculiar experience. I'm not unhappy that I did it. And I - sure.

GROSS: They must have just read all of this stuff into what you were doing.

JAY: Yeah, it was strange. I mean, I had people throwing punches at me and grabbing rosary beads and running out of the club. And, I mean, it ran through the gamut of emotions, sure. And probably it's the experience of my life where I had the least to do with the reaction that was in fact happening. I don't...


BIANCULLI: Ricky Jay speaking with Terry Gross in 1998 at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. He died last Saturday at the age of 72. Coming up after a break, knife swallowers, carney performers, con games, crooked dice and the finer arts of pickpocketing - more with Ricky Jay. And Justin Chang reviews the new film "Roma." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 1998 interview with master magician and author and actor Ricky Jay. He died last Saturday at the age of 72. Their onstage conversation was recorded at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco.


GROSS: Now, a lot of what you've learned, you've learned from actually knowing con men. How did you find them?

JAY: Well, I guess it was that ad in the New York Times.

GROSS: Yeah, no, exactly. Exactly. I mean, a magician performs. You know where to find them. What about a con man?

JAY: No, I mean people who are - I don't know how to - I really don't know how to explain that. I mean, you meet people - I want to say with like interests.


JAY: But I will say that. You meet people with like interests somehow, and then you do.

GROSS: But where - I mean, carnivals, carnivals? How can I find a con man?

JAY: Oh, one will find you.


GROSS: Would I be a good mark? Would I be a good mark, you think? Are there certain people who are good marks?

JAY: It's a difficult question to answer. I think we're all susceptible to being marks unless, as I said before, we're so callous and so jaded that we trust no one in their lives. And I imagine that you are trusting, and so you probably are a good mark.


GROSS: Isn't there a part of you that, instead of just not telling how you do things, really wants to say, this is how I do it; this is how I figured out how to do it? Like, isn't there a part in magicians that would really like to kind of brag about how they do what they do instead of hiding it?

JAY: Absolutely is the answer. Absolutely. There are times where you're crying to tell someone, well, look what I just - you know, you really want to do that. You absolutely do.

GROSS: But you can't.

JAY: But you can't. I think - yeah, I think you can't. You go home and tell your friend, you know, your best friend, you know...

GROSS: Who's also a magician.

JAY: Oh, yeah. Clearly, that's the implication, right?


JAY: Who's also a sleight of hand artist. Yeah, this is what - yeah, you really do. And here's another funny thing. There are a number of effects in the panoply of magic where the method is really better than the effect, where, you know, if something happens - I wish I could give you a good example for radio, but I don't think of one at the moment - where what's happening behind the scenes is 20 times more interesting than what you're actually seeing. And you're dying to say to the audience, boy, if you could just see what - and you really can't.

BIANCULLI: The late Ricky Jay speaking with Terry Gross in 1998. The first time Ricky Jay appeared on FRESH AIR was in 1987, when he had just published his book "Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women."


GROSS: Ricky Jay, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JAY: Thanks.

GROSS: Before we talk about your work as a magician and your knowledge of con artists, let's talk about some of the people in your new book. I want to ask you about John Cummings, who really (laughter) - he was a knife swallower who literally swallowed knives whole.

JAY: Yeah. I guess the most interesting thing about John Cummings is he was a sailor - an American sailor - on some boats in Europe. And he no doubt witnessed the performance of a French magician who pretended to swallow knives. In some drunken, boisterous aftermath, he decided that he could do anything this magician did and really swallowed these knives.

He had a dinner of five or six knives and then, after his initial success, ran around having people gather all the cutlery in the ship until he had eventually swallowed every knife on the ship. And - so he was a totally impromptu and an unprofessional sword swallower. But later, there were three other times in his career he actually swallowed many, many knives.

GROSS: And apparently, when they did the autopsy on him, they found about 14 knives embedded in his stomach.

JAY: Yeah, that's - he actually once swallowed so many knives that he began this fairly visible emaciation in the weeks that followed his last knife-eating bout. And the autopsy did reveal these knives all in his stomach. He just swallowed case knives whole - you know, folding knives in cases and tableware cutlery - and eventually died from the lodging of one of the knives in his body.

GROSS: Going to ask you about somebody else that's in your book. And this is Johnny Eck, who some of our listeners might also know as one of the actors in "Freaks."

JAY: I find this literally the single most bizarre tale in the annals of conjuring. What happened was that in the 1930s and '40s, a magician named Rajah Raboid used to work a fairly large illusion show. Actually, I'll tell you an odd anecdote about Rajah Raboid, which is not in the book. But since you mentioned I throw cards, Rajah Raboid was a great card thrower in terms of this old game of throwing cards into a top hat. And he used to hustle in the millineries on Broad Street in the '30s. So there were all these hat boys - used to sit in the backs of these shops and throw cards into hats and got very good at it.

But Rajah Raboid was actually quite remarkable at this stunt. And he would go in and find these hat boys who thought they were great and get them to bet him, you know, a dollar per card for whoever throws the most cards in or side bets of hundreds of dollars, whatever he could muster up. And if the hat boy would throw 42 out of 52 cards in the hat, that would be really wonderful. And Raboid would miss just as often as he had to have 40 cards in the hat and three cards left in his hand and just happened to get all the last three in so he would throw in 43. If the person threw in 28, he'd throw in 29. And he supplemented his income by hustling - throwing cards in the hat.

Anyway, he had this show, which was not a top-level show by any stretch of the imagination. But one year, he decided he would do this variation of the standard sawing a magician's assistant in half. And he thought it would be much more interesting if he borrowed a volunteer from the audience because everybody assumes the magician's assistant is in cahoots or that there are two of them, and there are actually two people in this cabinet instead of one. And so he went into his shows, and he asked someone in the audience to stand up. And instead of a woman, a man stood up in the audience. And this man, in full view of the audience, walked on to stage.

And Rajah Raboid placed him in this box. And his assistants brought out a saw and they sawed the box in half and pushed the two halves aside. And everybody applauded. And then they pushed the two halves back together and the man got up and started walking back to the audience. And as he took a few steps downstage, suddenly his body toppled over in half. Literally, the trunk started walking off the stage to the left and the pair of pants - the waist and legs of the man - started walking off the stage to the right. And people in the audience were gasping and fainting and screaming as they actually watched the trunk move into the left part of the aisle and the pants move into the right part of the aisle.

And the way he was able to accomplish this - even though I don't make a habit of exposing all these illusions, this is truly bizarre enough to talk about for your listeners. He had Johnny Eck, who was in "Freaks" and was only half a man - he stopped at the waist - actually, a little lower than the waist, but the photographs always made it look like he was cut off right at the waist. He, of course, was the half of the man that walked into the audience - you know, crawled into the audience using just his arms. And the other half was a midget with a pair of pants pulled up over his head.

But the thing that made this such a remarkable story was that the original volunteer from the audience was Johnny Eck's twin brother - full-sized, completely normal twin brother. So I think that's what gave this this remarkable verisimilitude and made people truly scream - is that they saw this man walk up. They switched him for the midget and Johnny Eck. And people just went wild.

GROSS: Now, you're also interested in con games. Do you consider magic a conning act?

JAY: Well, you know, I at times feel that I have to draw the line. I mean, here we are talking about freaks and cons and all sorts of fields with some sort of pejorative connotation. And yet I believe that many of the people I write about in this book were great artists and that, somehow, one doesn't preclude the other. There can be people who are absolutely wonderful artists, whether they're in this sort of netherworld area or not. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's very exciting.

GROSS: Are there interesting swindles going on on city streets today?

JAY: Yeah, sure. I mean, the things - one of the observations that I try to make in the book - and I don't spend a lot of time doing that. I mean, mostly, I'm just presenting facts about people. But it does seem to me - and I mention in the introduction that I believe people are swindled the same way now that they were in the Elizabethan times 400 years ago. They're fooled by the same things, and they're delighted by the same things. Very little has changed. There are swindling and cheating techniques done with cards and dice that are absolutely explained in detail in books from the 1550s that are still being done now.

GROSS: Things like Three-Card Monte.

JAY: Three-Card Monte doesn't go back that far. That's a fairly recent origin. But the three-shell game, which is a version of thimble rigging, goes back to - I've been trying to trace it back to the 17th century. And I haven't been able to, but I've certainly been able to trace it back to the very early 18th century. By 1714, there are clearly references to swindlers using a pea under a thimble. And that game has changed very, very little in the ensuing years.

GROSS: Have you ever gone up to swindlers or conmen and tried to beat them at their own game?

JAY: It's a very dangerous thing to do. It's a very bad thing to do. I think there are some people in this field who think that if they're magicians and know something about this, this is a great opportunity for them. One has to make the distinction that these people are, for the most part, criminals. And even though I have, like I say, this respect for what they do and some great feeling, you can be in a very bad situation if you see somebody playing three-card monte on the street and want to go up and say, I know something about cards, too; I know how to do this move and make the queen go into the middle when it doesn't look like it's there.

So no, I don't do that. But I have some friends and have had friends for many years who are on that side of the fence and still maintain my connections with them. But I don't walk up to people in the midst of a game and point out the queen even though I can do that. It's not healthy.

GROSS: (Laughter) What kind of venues have you come up with to perform your magic act in? Where did you start establishing yourself?

JAY: Well, I've really run the gamut. I mean, early years where I would just do close-up magic, I rebelled against being on a stage. And I would wear - I think when I did "The Tonight Show" the first time 20 years ago with hair down to my waist wearing a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, I mean, that was a very strange way to be presenting it. But I hated that classic image of a magician then and refused to work onstage.

Then I went through a period where I may have been the first magician to ever work consistently with rock 'n' roll bands. I used to go on tour for almost 10 years of my life opening shows for a wide variety of music acts - Cheech and Chong and Emmylou Harris and Herbie Hancock and, I mean, just the B-52's. I mean - and, you know, over a long period, I did that. I worked carny freak shows. I worked on the street. I worked in theater. I worked every opportunity I could, and the venues were as different as they could possibly be because that was a learning experience.

But particularly the most difficult thing of all of those was working close up. Now the concept of close-up magic has gained a great deal in popularity. In most major cities, somewhere in a good restaurant or hotel will have a magician who comes to your table and does magic. But when I first started, I don't think there were more than a half a dozen people in the country who made a full-time living doing that.

GROSS: Is close-up magic more difficult because the person's eyes are that close to you?

JAY: Well, technically it probably is. It's also why it gives me so much pleasure. Yeah, it's usually done with sleight of hand rather than with some tricked boxes or odd apparatus, you know? And as you say, if you're doing it surrounded with people, you know, right on your coat sleeves, you have to be good. And, you know, that just made it more fun.

BIANCULLI: Ricky Jay speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. The master magician died last Saturday at age 72. After a break, we'll hear about loaded dice and the lingo of the pickpocket from Terry's final interview with Ricky Jay recorded in 2002. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: We're listening back to Terry's interviews with Ricky Jay, the master magician who died last Saturday at age 72. Terry interviewed him for the final time in 2002 after the publication of his book called "Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck."


GROSS: You quote your grandfather who said that - he was a magician, and he said he never played with cards because if he lost, he was thought to be an incompetent magician. And if he won, he was suspected to be a cheater. I was figuring that would probably be true with dice also.

JAY: Well, it is. I think I actually mention it in that aspect in the book because of the same thing - of people being suspected of being cheaters if they simply won. I mean, that bears to mind one of, I think, the most interesting anecdotes in the book. In 1544, we find the first serious account of cheating with dice in the English language. And of all places, it appears in a study on archery called "Toxophilus" by Roger Ascham. And in it, he talks about what, I think, is just a truly diabolical method of a cheater gaining his advantage.

So he says in this particular game, a man that the cheaters want to take for their money is actually winning honestly. So what they do is to switch false dice into the game. Let the honest man throw the dice once and accuse him of cheating, and then take his winnings. And that's in 1544. I mean, the level of duplicity is just wonderfully minor.

GROSS: (Laughter) How are loaded dice made? Like, what makes - what's the principle there?

JAY: Well, the principle is that a foreign substance is placed into the dice at some specific spot to make it favor the throwing of certain points so - I think that's a reasonably accurate analysis of this - so that if it's heavier on one side, it'll make - that side would tend to be thrown to the bottom so that the opposite side would surface. And various materials could've been used over the years - lead, gold, quicksilver, mercury. And then the placing of these loads within the dice became more and more sophisticated.

GROSS: You actually reprint a quote from - it's a craps dealer, and his rapper has come on. Do you have your book with you?

JAY: Yeah.

GROSS: Can I ask you to page - turn to Page 38? Maybe you know this by heart.

JAY: Yeah, I'd be happy to do this for you.

GROSS: Thanks.

JAY: (Reading) Ladies and gentlemen, get your money down. It's betting time. The hard six and the hard eight gets you 7-1. The hard 10, the hard four gets you 8-1. I repeat, get your money down. It's betting time, and we're off. Coming out for a point, bet the big 11. Seven is a crap. Bet the field. They come, or they don't come. Five and after five - the field. They come, or they don't come. Leave your money set, and win a big bet. Don't cut it thin, or you won't win. Leave it go, and watch it grow. And the winner - five on the frontline. And we're coming out for another point - E-O-lev the winner.

GROSS: What year is that from?

JAY: Boy, I would guess that that's probably the litany of a craps dealer in the '50s or '60s - you know, just somebody doing their spiel, trying to get someone to lay down money in a casino situation.

GROSS: Why do you think the underworld and illicit activities have always had their own language?

JAY: Well, this becomes a very complex question and one for someone whose skills are in areas other than mine. But I think the general thing that you hear is the idea that this language is used to be exclusionary. But I think people who study this carefully will tell you that's rarely the case.

Perhaps, the only thing that comes to mind as an absolutely exclusionary use of real language is the language of the pickpocket, where the pickpocket - the hook, the wire, the cannon, the man who actually takes the wallet - talks to his shill - his confederate, his stick, his stall - and literally gives him directions in actual conversation that would allow the stall to know where to set up and what pocket the dip wants to reach to take the wallet away. And the idea that that actually happens during the transmission of the crime is pretty wonderful to me. But it's the most specific example that I can think of.

GROSS: So that they can talk in code and no one will understand.

JAY: Right - and then the concept of the office, which is giving a signal. It's a wonderful 18th-century term that's still used by gamblers all the time. It's a method of communicating from one gambler to another. It could be silent. It could be through language. Now that I say that, I mean, it can be used in a monte game with the operator telling the shill by language the shill can't follow which is the actual card to be chosen - you know, where the queen is amongst the two black sixes. And so the operator in the course of doing his spiel will actually manage to tell the shill which card he should bet on.

GROSS: Before you became a master of the con game and a historian of the con, were you ever taken - I mean, when you started to really love this stuff before you knew how it worked, did you play three-card monte and lose all the time? Did you play dice with people who were cheating but you didn't quite know how, so you were losing?

JAY: Let me say that I have been in card games and games of chance in which people were moving. That's the correct term. People were absolutely moving. And sometimes, you can determine it while it's happening. And other times, you might have to go back after the game and recall, aha. That must have been what happened in this situation. I think anybody who thinks that they can't be cheated in a game is the perfect person for you to play against.


JAY: Because they're clearly suckers. Anybody can be cheated.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JAY: I mean, they're just levels and new work that's being done all the time.

GROSS: Well, Ricky Jay - a real pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

JAY: Terry, thanks very much, indeed.

BIANCULLI: Ricky Jay speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. The author, actor and master magician died last Saturday at age 72. Our onstage interview with Ricky Jay heard earlier on today's program was produced in cooperation with City Arts & Lectures in San Francisco. We want to acknowledge the help of the founder of City Arts, Sydney Goldstein, who died earlier this year. Coming up - film critic Justin Chang reviews the new movie "Roma." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSETTE EXPLOSION'S "DOUCE JOIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.