Derek DelGaudio has a fraught relationship with the word “magician.” He knows what it evokes: rabbits, top hats, leggy assistants getting sawed in half. Or maybe the overblown spectacles of David Blaine or David Copperfield. All the cringey clichés that make people love magic, or hate magic, or allow them to put magic in a box of preconceptions, covered in chains and submerged in a water tank. More than that, there’s something elemental about magic shows that bugs DelGaudio: he doesn’t like to deceive people, and that is, no matter how you slice it, a big part of the job.

This dilemma started a long time ago. DelGaudio, who is thirty-six and baby-faced, learned sleight of hand as a teen-ager in Colorado. He was living outside Colorado Springs with his mother, a gay firefighter whose sexuality made the two of them outcasts among their conservative neighbors. DelGaudio discovered a magic shop in town, and he started spending lots of time there, learning card tricks from the owner, who became a kind of surrogate dad. As he absorbed everything that his mentor knew, he also studied videos of the masters. He practiced for hundreds of hours in his bedroom. But, unlike most kids who learn magic, he had little interest in performing. “I did it for myself,” he told me recently. “It was sort of a meditative practice, if anything. It was something I could do in my room alone. It was a way of isolating myself from others at school.” When the magic-shop guy took him to see a veteran conjurer perform at a local hotel, DelGaudio felt a wave of revulsion, took a cab home, and scribbled in his journal, “I am not interested in fooling people.”

Now, if pressed on what he does for a living, he squirms and says, “I make things. And I try to use the skills that I have to reveal more than I conceal.” But it took him years to figure out what that would look like. His show “In & Of Itself,” directed by Frank Oz, opened Off Broadway in 2017 and ran for more than a year. DelGaudio jettisoned most of the trappings of magic shows and used his prestidigitation skills in service of a meditation on identity. The illusions were less “ta-da!” moments than metaphors for the stories that we tell about ourselves—and what we hide. As audience members came in, they passed a wall of pegs, from which each person would select a card that read “I AM,” with various descriptors (“a lawyer,” “a sister,” “the walrus”) printed below. The act of choosing was already part of the show: each spectator had to pick a self-definition that might be jokey, or profound, or as flimsy as the word “magician.”

In his finale, DelGaudio used the identity cards to pull off a dazzler of an illusion, roaming through the crowd like a sort of faith healer. I won’t give it away, because a filmed version was recently released on Hulu, so you can see for yourself. But I would like to take the tiniest bit of credit for the show’s conception. I first met DelGaudio in 2013, when he was in New York performing in “Nothing to Hide,” a double act with the Portuguese magician Helder Guimarães—a more straightforward show than “In & Of Itself,” but still philosophically minded. I invited DelGaudio and his wife, Vanessa, to a New Year’s Eve party at my apartment, where he met a theatre-critic friend of mine. The show had been reviewed well, but DelGaudio was irked by how many critics had used the word “patter” to describe the dialogue. When he asked my friend why that was, he replied, “When you go to see a magician, you’re not really there for what they’re going to say. You’re there for the tricks and the illusions, and so the words are just the filler, basically.”

This was not how DelGaudio saw his script, which he had put a lot of thought into. He researched the word “patter” and learned that it descended from Pater Noster, the Lord’s Prayer, which was recited so often in church that the words eventually devolved into a mumble. “It just became a sea of noise,” DelGaudio said. “Thieves started calling their whispers ‘patter,’ and that went on to carnies and vaudevillians and jugglers and magicians. And so the word ‘patter’—which started as literally the words of God—had been watered down over time to the current definition, which is ‘words meant to distract or fill time.’ It’s the most meaningless form of language. And this was problematic for me, to say the least, because I knew as long as people thought what I was doing was ‘patter’ they would not listen.”

For “In & Of Itself,” DelGaudio vowed not to do patter. Instead, he talked about the things that made him who he is, such as the homophobia his mother faced when he was young. He spoke to his audiences not with the rat-a-tat chumminess of a Penn Jillette or the brainiac sorcerer shtick of the mentalist Derren Brown—both forms of misdirection, forms of patter—but with the soft-spoken sincerity of a memoirist. And he wanted the spectators to dig into themselves, too. The show earned a cult following, with fans returning multiple times, because what happened onstage varied each night, depending on whom DelGaudio brought onstage and what they revealed about themselves. (This is part of the Hulu version’s appeal. Closeup magic shouldn’t work onscreen, because you have to believe that you’re seeing the impossible with your own eyes. But watching the montages of DelGaudio’s crowds is a jarring, lovely reminder of what it feels like to be an audience member, one identity that we’ve all had to forgo.)

Still, DelGaudio had more to learn about himself. Not long ago, while he and Vanessa were relocating from Los Angeles to New York, he stumbled across a shoebox of old journals. Its contents reminded him of an experience that he had when he was twenty-five, when he was midway between a card-crazy teen and a professional performer. That experience, which he spent the lockdown turning into a new book, “Amoralman” (Knopf), lasted barely six months, but it gave him the insight he needed to step onstage and be honest in his dishonesty. During that time, he worked at a private poker game in Beverly Hills as a bust-out dealer, which is another way of saying that he was hired to use his sleight-of-hand abilities to cheat people out of their money.

At the time, DelGaudio was living in L.A., drifting from job to job: waiting tables, selling cell phones, and reluctantly performing a little magic. “From time to time, I would do a show at a night club, private events, and things like that,” he recalled. “It was never satisfying. More than that—it was painful.” One day, he got a call from a friend, an older man he calls Ronnie. He had met Ronnie years earlier, when DelGaudio was still soaking in sleight-of-hand techniques in Colorado. Ronnie had spent years as a card sharp in Las Vegas. He taught DelGaudio what he knew, but with the understanding that DelGaudio wouldn’t use the knowledge for nefarious ends—just for his own enjoyment.

By then, Ronnie was part of a dying breed. Technology—say, tiny cameras hidden in cigarette boxes—had mostly replaced manual sleight-of-hand techniques, such as riffle stacking (when you shuffle the cards into a predetermined order) or cold-decking (when you swap in an entirely new deck with the one on the table). These were similar to the skills that magicians use for card tricks, but harder, because in the gambling world you have to blend in as a normal dealer rather than reveal your deceptions with a flourish. DelGaudio was hungry for the technical challenge, even if he had little interest in entering the card-cheating underworld. The risks of that life were written in the knife scars on Ronnie’s back.

When Ronnie called years later, he was in a bind: he’d been commuting from Vegas to L.A. for a dealing gig, but had been busted for crossing state lines, violating his probation. Could DelGaudio fill in for him while he served his short sentence? DelGaudio agreed to meet Ronnie’s employer, a gray-haired man in a Polo shirt, who put DelGaudio through an audition that he passed easily. The game that the man oversaw was not at a casino but at a private mansion. “Imagine a house in Beverly Hills, hidden behind a tall wall with green vines growing on it,” DelGaudio recalls. “This is the kind of house that those Hollywood-celebrity-tour vans drive by, and they say, ‘Behind that wall, Brad Pitt lives in that house.’ ” Inside, it was decorated with rented furniture and autographed sports memorabilia, which DelGaudio discovered was fake. The whole place was like a stage set. “They would host what are essentially parties,” he recalled, “and in one of those rooms was a gaming table. And this house also included a professional chef, who would make whatever you wanted, and a bar with a bartender and a few cocktail waitresses. From time to time, they’d have a masseuse come in and rub whoever’s shoulders needed it. It was just a nice place to play a game of poker—at least, that’s what it looked like.”

DelGaudio was one of several dealers who rotated throughout the night, but only he, his employer, and one or two others knew that he was there to rig games. “Everything was legitimate as far as everyone else was concerned,” he said. “I was a living, breathing secret.” He told people he was Cody, the boss’s nephew. The guests were mostly middle-aged men: athletes, businessmen, C-list celebrities. The cheater’s term for them was “donks,” or marks. According to DelGaudio, “It was a ten-thousand-dollar buy-in, so at any given time there was as little as thirty to forty thousand dollars on the table, up to a hundred and fifty thousand dollars.” He got a ten-per-cent cut.

Although he was practiced at sleight of hand, DelGaudio had never dealt a professional card game. His very first hand, he screwed up and dealt to the wrong player first. DelGaudio’s boss had promised him that he could just deal normally and find his footing that first night, which is the only reason he didn’t bail. He wanted to help Ronnie, but he was understandably skeeved out. If he was exposed as a bust-out dealer, he could get beaten up, arrested, even killed. But, when his employer saw how clueless he was about dealing poker, DelGaudio recalls, he told him to go “cold-deck the sons-a-bitches.” Incompetence was the perfect cover: Who would ever suspect that this clumsy novice could pull off a move like that? To swap in a cold deck, though, he had to have it hidden somewhere, and the pockets on DelGaudio’s uniform were sewn shut—a theft-prevention measure intended for the “real” dealers. So he hid the deck in his left sock and improvised, inching it up when the players were distracted, from his foot to his hand and, finally, onto the table. “I didn’t know what I was doing at the time,” he said. “It was like jazz.”



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