The following is an excerpt from "Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind" [Harper, $26.99]:
With his black Stetson hat, lizard-skin boots, and wide Doc Holliday moustache the texture of dried tumbleweed, world-class card manipulator Richard Turner looks like a saloonkeeper from the Badlands, a Victorian-era cowboy, or a ghost town tour guide. When I first saw this apparition at a closed-door lecture of the Society of American Magicians in a sterile auditorium at the back of the Mount Sinai Medical Center on Madison Avenue, I checked his hip for the scabbard and six-shooter, seemingly the only things missing from his getup. Nope, no holster, just a solid gold belt buckle in the shape of a five-card poker hand—three aces and two eights.
Still, Turner is licensed to carry a sidearm. Nearly three decades ago, when the top organized crime families in New York and overseas were pursuing him relentlessly, offering him millions to work for them and threatening to kill him if he declined, he was armed for his own protection by the head of the San Diego SWAT team. What the mob wanted so badly—what they were willing to kill for—was Richard Turner’s sense of touch. It’s an underappreciated sense in this audiovisual age, but within the rarified domain of the professional cardsharp, a finely tuned sense of touch is everything. In Turner’s case it almost got him killed, and after witnessing a demonstration of his Midas-like abilities the night of the lecture, along with a dozen or so other local magicians who’d come to watch him perform, I understood why.
“Do as I do,” Turner opened, in a warm antebellum drawl, flashing a bandit’s grin as he offered a deck to the volunteer he’d chosen from the crowd, a blond woman in her mid-thirties with light, freckled skin. “When you play poker, blackjack, bridge—whatever your game—you wanna make sure the cards are very evenly mixed. Let’s start with some simple cuts. Takes no skill to do this.” Turner started to cut the cards, gradually speeding up as he spoke while his volunteer did her best to keep up. “Now alternate it. Now try a flying three-way.” Up until this point she’d been with him, but that phase was about to end. “Now try a one-two-three-four-five-six-seven way. Or strip cutting, as in the casino.”
The audience chuckled as Turner’s hands moved in a blur and his volunteer tried in vain to follow. “No skill at all,” she cracked wryly, as Turner moved on to a series of shuffles, each one more intricate than the last. The woman now stood haplessly by, no longer trying, a portrait of defeat.
Ignoring her and addressing himself to the audience, Turner went on. “Aaaright,” he said. “Now you’re ready for the way they shuffle in a casino. Just give it a closed riffle shuffle. Perfect. Now how ’bout the faro shuffle? Break ’em in half and lace ’em up every other card then bridge ’em down.” There was more laughter as Turner split the deck exactly in half and interleaved the two stacks with one hand, then executed an acrobatic one-handed flip-around cut. He paused. “Well, I’ve shown you half a dozen ways of shuffling and cutting,” he said. “The deck should be pretty evenly mixed, right?” He smiled triumphantly and spread the deck face up on the table to reveal the cards in pristine numerical order.
Not bad for a guy who’s legally blind.
That’s right: Turner is blind. Actually, his vision is six grades below the cutoff for blindness, the result of a rare degenerative tissue disease that began ravaging his retinas at age nine. “The macula is pretty much dissolved,” he told me later, referring to the oval cluster of nerve cells near the center of the eye. “And the rest of the retina looks like someone took a shotgun with birdshot and blew it full of holes.”
Most other people with this disease would probably have given up on the dream of becoming a world-class card manipulator, a goal Turner had set his mind on at age seven after watching an episode of the TV show Maverick. But Turner kept at it. He practiced day and night. He ate and drank and slept with cards in hand. He still sleeps with his cards, and five years ago, when forced to undergo hernia surgery, Turner clutched a deck while on the operating table. To hear Turner tell it, his abilities are not something he developed in spite of his disability, but rather because of it. “I have to do it all by touch,” he says. “Which is a real blessing.”