The following poem was written in 1971 by Milan Bulovic for the late magician Johnny Thompson as a closing routine. While Thompson’s account of the story was an 8-minute epic demonstrating his mastery of card manipulation for his close-up magic shows, only the poem itself will be provided here and not the moves. As you read, try to visualize it in your head the players assembled and every move of the cards.
One afternoon in Jake’s saloon,
Gamblers were in the back:
A breed of men in a smoky den,
All with a losing knack.
For three straight days they made their plays,
Wearily betting their dough.
Until there came that final game
And the slicker’s measured blow
It told on their faces: a spread of Aces
Took every buck they had.
And back of the chips, a grin crossed his lips
Sat the slicker… just a lad.
The brim of his hat hid eyes of a cat,
His skill… by some demon sent;
Cleaning out gentry, with sleights elementary,
Leaving them luck to lament.
By the breaking dawn the players were gone,
The slicker alone in his chair
Was turning up Aces in peculiar places
And fanning the deck with flair
Beyond the glow of the lamplight low,
A voice to the slicker said,
“Listen my son, although you’ve won,
Ne’er to those cards be wed.
Someday he’ll come, that sharpie dumb,
When stakes in life are high.
Then bet what you will on infallible skill,
His fingers will faster fly.
With a sudden stroke he’ll leave you broke,
Ruined where you sit;
A better master, dealing disaster,
Stacking folly in your mitt.
Old am I, now dim of eye,
No longer fit for the game.
But I’ve been on top with the best of the lot
And wagered my way to fame.
When I was young – one ladder’s rung –
I cleaved to cards and dice.
To Lady Luck and her easy buck
And her bosom made of ice.
I spend my youth with rogues uncouth,
Yet mingled with millionaires.
But I stuck with the men with the gambling yen,
Learning to deal bottoms… in pairs.
Before you were born, I heard the horn
Of the Natchez on her run:
Where the best of boys maneuvered ploys
And every known trick was done.
I remember well that lifelong spell;
That steamboat of my past,
Where spinning wheels and double deals
Told the world of our caste.
We tossed the broads and talked of frauds,
On that floating city of chance;
Giving odds on a fighter, bucking the tiger,
Living our lives in a trance.
Rouged up ladies, bound for Hades –
How they shilled their way to my heart!
Fluttering lashes on the deck of the Natchez:
Plying treachery into an art.
Sir Conrad Conte, he threw Three Card Monte,
There was a man of precision…
Dropping the Queen, deftly between,
Making a mockery of vision.
Came Dandy Lee with a rolling pea,
Imploring where it went;
Doing it slow, just for the show,
Baiting a sporting gent.
There was Mickey the Lame of Faro fame;
Lopez from the Rio Grande,
Frisco Pete of the Bay’s elite
And Duke with the velvet hand
Old Nifty Ned, his confederate, Red,
That tricky mechanic named Sid,
Deacon Dan, the blackjack man
And, of course… the Mysterious Kid.
They were all aboard, by the devil adored;
The Natchez with anchors aweigh,
Floating downstream on a moonlit beam,
Her tables all in play.
In the grand salon the game was on,
A crowd like never before.
The stakes were high, then by and by
The players dwindled to four.
Across from me a stranger be,
A man of my profession;
On either side, drunk with pride,
Two moguls with obsession.
The timber tycoon was wiped out soon;
In tow, a cattle king.
Then a thousand head went in the red
On a suicidal fling.
Betting like crazy with logic hazy,
Scribbling his name on a note,
‘Till nothing remained but a loss that pained
And the regret of all he wrote.
One more deal made him reel;
He was frantic to recover.
But I brought him down and took his crown
By means he couldn’t recover
With fortune amassed there came at last
My solo with the stranger,
– That final run where only one
Survives the pending danger.
… I gauged him keen, trying to glean
The merit of his skill;
Weighing the risk, riffling brisk,
Setting him for the kill.
With gloved hand limp he cut to my crimp
… This stranger I overrated!
The game was draw. Without a flaw,
I dealt the cards, elated.
Beneath my thumb the rhythmic hum
Was sounding his defeat.
To myself a deuce which would reproduce
And make my hand complete.
With four of a kind I didn’t mind
My rival’s haughty air;
His marble face, his icy grace
I’d sentenced to despair.
The moment arrived; I feigningly sighed
And called in winning style.
Then leaning to me in eerie glee,
He put his hand upon the pile.
In a frozen hush a Royal Flush
Was spread for all to see…
That Mysterious Kid, by holdout hid
… Made this derelict of me.
So, my son, there’s always one
Who’ll come along your way.
At rainbow’s end he’ll heaven bend
To make your blackest day.”
The old man’s story of gambling glory,
Whether it fact or fable,
Fell on an ear that didn’t hear
The wisdom, nor it’s label.
The slicker sitting, his boredom knitting,
By spreading a fancier fan,
Mulled the chatter of bygone matter
And said to the aged man:
“Well, ole’ timer, perhaps there’s primer
In your windbag of palaver,
Or a whiskey leaning has you dreaming
On that last rung of your ladder.
If you had a stake I’d give you a break
And have you a game that’s real.
Then you could tell how you once fell
To the world’s greatest deal.”
The old man’s face showed no trace
Of the insolence just spoken.
But with an urge he couldn’t purge,
He revealed a shiny token.
“Alright, sonny, I have no money
To pit against your coffer.
But this diamond pure can well procure
That greatest deal you offer.
‘Tis the very ring the cattle king
Lost to the game that night;
A precious rock I’d never hock,
No matter what the plight.
Yet I’ll match this stone, if you be prone,
Against what’s on the table.
And in the ride, let luck decide
Just who’s better able.”
Smitten by the jewel now pawned for duel,
Glistening on the table’s green,
The slicker cut deep in the squared off heap
And with a flourish turned a Queen.
“Now old bard, match this card
And you’ll beat the best in town.”
Then nonchalantly, he gallantly
turned the Queen face down.
The old man nodded, by the lingo prodded,
Stating, “I’ll do even more.”
I’ll find you three in a cutting spree
And make the total four.”
In rapid succession, by luck or deception,
He cut the deck in thirds.
And on every pile, in regal style,
Lay the promise of his words.
On the right, a stunning sight;
The portrait of a Queen.
To the left, neatly cleft,
A second in the scheme.
In the center, too, without a clue,
The last of the ladies was there.
Then over she went, towards the others sent,
Placed face down with care.
With the challenge breached, the old man reached
For his jewel and all he’d won.
But the slicker fast, made a grasp
On the move as it was done.
“Wait, Ole Dad, your eyes are bad…
Look again, and see my King.”
With a hole-card switch, he made his pitch
For the clutched and wagered ring.
The old man’s smile held deadly guile;
His silence told the story.
The slicker, enraged, his mark misgauged,
Had lost to captured quarry.
He overturned the cards concerned
And glared at what he feared:
By legerdemain now Kings held reign…
The Queens had disappeared!
The old man rose in stately pose
And turning a jaunty heel…
He bid farewell to the one who fell
To the world’s greatest deal.