Some time ago I wrote here about celebrated people to whom Ithaca can lay partial claim as one-time residents. I didn’t get any questions from readers about Nabokov, Hans Bethe, Carl Sagan, or any others besides Ricky Jay. Who is Ricky Jay?

Ricky Jay is not a novelist, physicist, astronomer, or anything else that might win a Nobel Prize. He is a sleight of hand artist, the best in the world. 

Ricky Jay lived in Ithaca for most of a decade in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s while attending (and not attending) Cornell. He made his first appearance on national TV then. He’s had a prodigious career ever since. 

This week, Jay is appearing for three nights at the Sheen Theater in Manhattan in a program called “Cons, Cards, and Conversation: An Evening With Ricky Jay.” The event gave little advance notice: Jay’s appearances don’t need much promotion. The three shows will sell out, even though they are on weeknights, are not full-scale performances, and tickets are $177. (Orchestra seats are currently on StubHub for $280, even before the shows sell out.) The front row of Jay’s shows tend to seat people like Jack Nicholson and Jay Z.

Sleight of hand involves a choreography of slight, furtive movements and large, distracting ones, accompanied by a fluid verbosity (“patter”) to misdirect and frame the perceptions of the audience. Jay’s capacities in this realm are practically supernatural, although achieved, like a concert violinist’s, through singular dedication and endless practice. In his art, Jay is like Paganini, but without any Heifetz, nor any other player to compare.

Sleight of hand also, of course, involves entertainment. Few of Jay’s tricks (or, more properly, “pieces”) are simple enough to describe in a paragraph, but here’s one.

Jay asks two audience members to each think of a card, and hold it in mind. He elaborately shuffles a deck of cards (in fans and cascades, with a rapid rap of jokes and asides) and cuts it into two stacks. He asks the two people to announce their cards. When they do, Jay flips the top card of each stack. There are the two named cards.

(Even if it were a set-up, and Jay knew the two cards in advance, it would hardly matter. He still has to make those two cards turn up.)

The Guinness Book of World Records certifies Jay’s ability to throw a card 190 feet at 90 miles per hour. That is further, faster, than a major league catcher can throw a baseball from home plate to second base. A baseball is considerably more aerodynamic than the Jack of Hearts.

Jay can throw a card through the rind of a watermelon. He can throw one from a stage of a 1,500-seat theater to the back row of the balcony. He can toss a card ten feet into the air in an arc that brings it back to him to catch like a boomerang.

Jay has written eleven books on the history and practice of eccentric arts and entertainments. His latest one was augmented by an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He is the subject of a 2012 feature documentary, “Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.” Cornell Cinema screened it in September, 2013, and Jay came back to his alma mater to speak.  


Jay famously, in interviews, does not (as in, will not) revisit his past, but he did that night. He mentioned having attended the Hotel School, and taking a long time to graduate because he spent so much time each semester not in Statler Hall, but in the Royal Palm Tavern on Dryden Road, practicing shuffles and pieces on the bar. He said that his academic listlessness deepened an estrangement from his family, and fostered an aversion to looking back too much.

“Genius” does not refer to the ability to graduate from the Hotel School in four years. Nor does it refer strictly to numerical I.Q.  It refers to exceptional creative power and natural ability.

In his decades of renown as a prestidigitator, entertainer, and scholar, Ricky Jay is arguably more exceptional in his field than Nabokov, Bethe, or Sagan in theirs. There are other brilliant novelists, physicists, and astronomers. There’s only one Ricky Jay. Even if “genius” doesn’t apply, “sui generis” does.  

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