Ricky Jay and his 52 assistants.
Photo: Ken Hively/LA Times via Getty Images
For decades, Ricky Jay dazzled audiences with his card tricks, both up close and as far away as he could throw them (a world-record breaking distance, in fact). With his flowing mane and fast hands, the magician quickly became a fan-favorite both for his showmanship and his undeniable talent. During his career, Jay performed across many major late-night shows, appeared in movies like Boogie Nights, and wrote 11 books. He had three stage productions dedicated to his magic and was featured on numerous television shows, as recently as 2014. Far beyond magic, Ricky Jay was an artist, an intellectual, and, at all times, a comedian. It’s easy to see below, in just ten of his best tricks.
In 1988, Ricky Jay awes Arsenio with a simple Three Card Monte. Or so you think. Ricky quickly switches cards from red to black and back, almost guaranteeing that Arsenio can’t win. Even when the host tries to rig the game, magic prevails. He performs the card trick so fast, you don’t have time to be amazed until the very end, when Arsenio yells “Magician from hell, stay away from me!”
Years earlier, Ricky Jay and Steve Martin plotted the exact same trick, albeit with one, showstopping card switch at the end. The tan and confident Martin bet $50 on it and ends up $50 short at the end of the bit. The two magic enthusiasts remained lifelong friends, making this a particularly special performance.
Doug Henning’s World of Magic was an annual special starring magician Doug Henning, right around Christmas time. Ricky Jay showed up in 1976, fresh from beating a Guinness World Record for card throwing. He tosses them high and far, almost defying gravity. The cards are at his will and sometimes come back to his hand. As a close-up magician, Ricky does whatever he can to add flair, often with his words, outfit, or, in this case, a beautifully bedazzled hostler for his giant scissors.
In one of several appearances on David Letterman’s show, the unshakable Ricky Jay actually pulls the wrong cards. But he maintains his showmanship and gets it right the next time. With Ricky, it’s not always about the presence of magic, but the skill it takes to get these tricks right and he is a master.
Instead of witnessing this trick, you’ll have to settle for the story. While at lunch on a hot summer day, Ricky Jay, ever-fascinated with the history of magic, told a reporter for The Guardian about Max Malini’s famous ice cube production. While performing a coin trick, instead of heads or tales, a giant block of ice would appear underneath a borrowed hat. There was no coin at all. And as he’s telling the story in a Southern California restaurant, as the sun beat down on their table, Ricky Jay revealed a perfectly frozen ice block in front of the reporter. Out of the air.
Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants was his magic show at the Soho Playhouse in 1994. During the performance, he invited an astrology fan to join her. Instead of guessing her sign, Ricky used a series of seemingly random questions to whittle down the pack all the way down to nothing. Her card isn’t there. And even a team of wind-up toys can’t find it.
A perfect example of Ricky Jay’s ability as a performer, he does his classic Four Ladies card trick on the Merv Griffin Show. In it, instead of just demonstrating the cards, he creates an entire story, gives life to these 2-D rulers, and adopts a character for himself. Ricky Jay built worlds out of a few playing cards and his words.
Ricky Jay shared a 2002 appearance on Late Night With Conan O’Brien with Jackie Chan. He demonstrated his iconic card throwing on Jackie and was shocked when the martial arts master was able to block a few of the cards. Later, he attacked a watermelon with cards, managing to land two cards in the same spot. “A feat so impressive,” he remarked, “I am forced to mention it myself.”
In this performance, Ricky Jay provides a history lesson. He describes the ways different cultures in different eras used the cup and shell trick. As he does it, Ricky hardly ever takes his eyes off of the audience, even when balls are coming out of every possible container. It leaves you wondering “How many balls were there?” but it’s more fun if you believe it’s just the original three.
Although he insists he’s not a cheater, Ricky Jay knows the cards so well, he probably could if he wanted to. In this video, he plays a fun group of poker lovers, including John C. Reilly and Willie Garson. He explains the history and the process of the trick he’s playing, but when he inevitably wins the deal, he admits “There won’t be too much in the way of explanation.” With Ricky Jay, it’s easiest to believe that every night was the luckiest night of his life.