Ricky Jay R.I.P

Ricky Jay was one of my heroes. I first became aware of him in the pages of the remarkable “Cards as Weapons,” an oversized paperback that I bought at age 13 because it had a few pictures of topless women in it (you really can’t appreciate how much the Internet has changed the adolescent male experience). But “Cards as Weapons” additionally laid out a path:

  • some straightforward guidance on technique (although unlike Jay, I gripped the cards along the short side, trading accuracy for spin)
  • tales of increasingly difficult and improbable tasks (splitting string cheese, penetrating a newspaper, sticking in to a watermelon)

  • and then, catnip to an adolescent in the 1970s, a Guinness World Record distance

It’s an axiom that all magicians are nerds: enthusiastic about a subject to a degree that overwhelms social decorum. One of Teller’s rules of magic is “make the secret more trouble than it seems worth.” Jay, who was one of the best close-up magicians in the world, was crystal clear about the obsession with which you had to practice the simplest of passes: thousands of hours, a lifetime of practice, a set of folding mirrors that you carried in your valise.

I could never drive myself to master palming a card or (to my great regret) walking a coin over the backs of my fingers, but Jay did give me permission to throw pack after pack of cards into trashcans, through the sports pages, and, while I never managed to stick a card into a watermelon skin, I eventually went wall-to-wall in our school field house (a distance, I am compelled to mention all these decades longer, 30’ greater than Jay’s Guinness World Record).

My obsession with throwing things shifted to Frisbee discs, and a complete accounting of that will have to wait for Volume III of my memoirs.

But Jay also modeled a different set of virtues, less spectacular but perhaps more useful to a young nerd. The magicians of the time came in two flavors: waist-coated or unicorn t-shirted. Either way they were flamboyant: the spectacle of magic called for dramatic gestures, plummy line readings, and a transparently pathetic demand to be the center of attention. Jay went a different route: a matter of fact affect bordering on subdued, a patter that took as its foundation true scholarship, and an invitation to look as closely as you wanted at the trick. If you admire the craft of David Blaine, you should watch some Ricky Jay routines to see some true polish.

I see Jay’s influence in another obsession that began around that time and which, unlike throwing cards or Frisbee’s, I still pursue: programming computers. Like close-up magic, software development is a task of unrelenting precision. A trick fails if the palmed card is even glimpsed, a program fails if a semicolon is misplaced or a count to a million is off by one. For professional programmers, the precision is a given. The scholarship is not. The self-effacement is not. There are many blowhards of software development who are missing only a cape and a tophat to complement their boasts of their tours of the courts of Europe and their mastery of hidden secrets.

A magician’s magician, he was apparently well-employed as a consultant in Hollywood and, to the extent that people would recognize him, I suppose they’d recognize his basset-faced visage as the craps dealer in “Deadwood” or from the movies of David Mamet, where Jay would deliver Mamet-like lines such as “Everything in life, the money’s in the rematch.” Jay played a craps dealer; he was the world’s foremost expert in dice.

Obsessive practice, scholarship, and a sardonic sense of humor : those were the elements to Jay’s success. Ricky Jay was not well known, but he was well admired.