Newsletter 7 - The Twilight Cheat

Rediscovering a forgotten documentary

An Introduction To Cheating

Do you remember the first time you ever saw a card cheating demonstration? For me the memory is vivid. A memory of a documentary on late night television that warned of card cheats with incredible skills inviting the unwary into card games they could not win. This was the world of the Twilight Cheat.

The show revealed the secrets of second dealing, hopping the cut, false shuffles and card switches. Sleights I’d only read about in Scarne on Cards, now exposed in full colour and glorious slow motion.  Only one other person I’ve spoken to remembers this documentary, my friend John Fealey. We lived in the same TV region, were both late night birds and equally surprised when, long past midnight, the Twilight Cheat appeared on our screens.

Relive Your Childhood

Every now and then I’d search the internet for mention of the show. The techniques demonstrated were well executed and I wondered who the card men were. For some reason I had a vague memory that Frank Thompson might have been one of the card players. I never got to verify that idea. Recently I mentioned it in passing to gambling and card aficionado Jeff Connor. ‘Relive your childhood,’ replied Jeff and sent me a link to a video file. Unbelievably, it was the documentary Twilight Cheat.

Actually it was called Twilight Cheaters, which Jeff points out is a reference to one of the chapters in Mickey MacDougall’s book Danger in the Cards. Until then I had no idea where the documentary had got its title. Chapter Five of Danger in the Cards is titled Twilight Cheating and is devoted to the non-professional card cheat. That was one detail I had not remembered, that the show focused on the cheats you’ll find in your own neighbourhood, the players who have a trick or two that gives them an edge.

Tricks of the Twilighters

It was time to do another search of the Internet. And now, because more data is being added to the web every day, there is more to be found. I found a TV listing so I can tell you that John and I most likely watched Twilight Cheat at one-o’clock in the morning on Sunday August 24th 1975. It was repeated almost a year later on Friday 13th, August 1976. I do recall seeing it twice. We had remembered the title correctly, that was the name of the show in the UK newspaper listings. Maybe it was marketed under two slightly different names. The same thing happened with one of my favourite movies, Night of the Demon, retitled and reedited in the USA as Curse of the Demon.

Having rewatched the documentary I’m pleased to say that my memory of it was fairly accurate. I recalled the knowing voice-over explaining the scams. And the scenes at various locations where card games are played: a home card game, a casino and a camping trip. Here is the introduction to the show as we watch six men playing poker. The narrator picks out one of them, Jack:

‘Jack is what is called a twilight cheat. Now a twilight cheat is a guy who is not a professional, not what they call a mechanic. A Twilighter is just like anybody else who plays cards that’s why you have to watch out for him. Remember, he’s not a professional, he’s just one of the guys. Somewhere along the line he’s picked up what is called a move. A special discard, a holdout, whatever. More often than not it was a simple trick and he worked on it until it was good enough to get away with. Once he gets away with it there’s no stopping.

We see a poker game at the beach, cribbage played on a camping trip, blackjack at the casino and bridge at home. The scams explained include second dealing, hopping the cut, trading cards between accomplices, tabled faro, mucking, double discard, peek, Mexican Turnover, bridge deal, crimp and palming.

Who Was Jim Cooper?

The copy of the video Jeff gave me has most of the end credits missing so I don’t know who all the skilled players were in the documentary. One of them is female. But the technical consultant was Jim Cooper. I’ve been asking around for information about Cooper. He was often at The Magic Castle in Los Angeles during the sixties. I’ve seen him in a photo published in The Gen sitting next to Vernon. And read a number of accounts of his performances at The Magic Castle and elsewhere. He gave gambling demonstrations for commercial sponsors and appeared many times on local TV broadcasts promoting these events.

‘Big Jim’ as he was referred to by fellow magicians had been talking about filming a gambling exposé since the 1960s. One interview in 1968 for The Los Angeles Times indicates that it had been filmed but perhaps not edited, a collaboration with Don Stern of Don Stern Productions. It would be a one hour film, ‘teaching you not to play cards with strangers, a film he will later edit down for lectures and armed service programs.’

Jim Cooper - Photo Credit Los Angeles Times December 1968

The Hand Is Quicker

Cooper said the tentative title of the film was, ‘So You Think You Know Cards’ and the moral is that ‘The Hand is Quicker than the Eye.’ Cooper had been using ‘The ‘Hand is Quicker’ title since at least 1963 when a film of that name, starring Jim Cooper, was syndicated on local television. In September 1965 Cooper had shown a film with the same title at the meeting of the Boston, Massachusetts Ring of the IBM. The film showed ‘how not to get taken.’ This did make me wonder whether the movie was already ten years old by the time I saw it in 1975 or is there another film out there with Jim Cooper’s name on it?

Newspaper Advertisement 1963 for Jim Cooper local TV broadcast

The Los Angeles Times piece (December 8th, 1968) told us a little about Cooper’s background. He was a rancher, former World War II pilot, producer of 130 children’s shows (Trick & Treat with the Magic Hands), occasional dropper-inner at The Magic Castle, star of a syndicated 15-minute television short.’

‘Once he starred in “Believe it or Not” back in 1949, he started to take his show on the road. He’s been on Johnny Carson’s Tonight, You Asked For It, and hundreds of local television shows around the country.’

In interviews Cooper often said that he started ‘mechanicking’ as a kid by watching the carnival workers, ‘And if you can’t learn from a carney, you can’t learn.’

After demonstrating some gambling work for the journalist Cooper put a red card and black card face up on the table and had the reporter sort the cards into colours just by touch. I like the idea of using Out of this World in a pseudo gambling demonstration.

Newspaper Advert 1964

The Linkletter Show

One guest appearance on television that was remarked upon by magicians took place on The Linkletter Show in July 1969. The host, Art Linkletter, promised to show viewers why they ‘shouldn’t play cards with strangers’ using ‘tight camera close-ups and very slow speeds’ as Jim Cooper revealed the tricks of the card cheats. Cooper’s twelve-minute spot featured second dealing, peeks, a blackjack deal, false shuffle, tabled faro, hopping the cut, Mexican turnover and hand mucking all smoothly and confidently performed. Many of these techniques subsequently appeared in the Twilight Cheat.

Gambling in Canada

In 1969 Cooper was engaged at an event in Vancouver where, he said, he would be on the lookout for card cheats. Working events in Canada comes up quite a lot when you check press reports about Jim Cooper and 1969 is a significant year in the history of Canadian gambling. Though a loophole in the law gambling had been allowed at agricultural events but in 1969 they changed the law to also allow year-long gambling for ‘charitable purposes.’ This included lotteries, bingo, wheel of fortune and also poker. A country opening up the doors to poker games might well be interested in making sure those games weren’t crooked. Probably a good year for Jim Cooper to be performing a gambling exposé act.

Incidentally, one cheating story that Cooper tells involves bingo. The scammers had a printing machine hidden in a truck outside the venue. They would print the numbers onto a blank bingo card as they were called. Then they’d run back into the hall and shout ‘bingo!’

The Perfect Tabled Faro Shuffle

Not many magicians today seem to remember Cooper though he did hang out and performed at The Magic Castle in the 1960s. Mike Perovich, in The Vernon Companion, says that he performed for guests in The Blackstone Room at the request of Geraldine Larsen and that a photo of Cooper on The Linkletter Show hung on the wall of the staircase to the library. Mike remembers Jim Cooper as a man of few words and goes on to say:

‘He sat at the Castle almost every night, constantly running up hands with a table Faro (really the only person I’ve seen do that impressively).  He was very good at forcing cards and would have different people choose a card and always get the ace of spades.  He would demonstrate false cuts, hops, blackjack switches and other gambling moves.  He would sit there doing that.  His patter was limited and serious.  His delivery was world-weary.  He would often say: "A mechanic only has to move once a night to win big, he does not have to win every hand,” or some such phrasing in a very serious but not pompous way. Matter of fact is perhaps a good description.  This was the way he was and not some put on air.’

Jon Racherbaumer told me that Jim Cooper was one of the first performers he had heard about who did a tabled faro, and that Marlo, in a 1969 letter to Mel Brown, asked whether Cooper could control the ins and outs of these tabled shuffles. The tabled faro was one of the techniques used on the 1969 Linkletter show and revealed on The Twilight Cheat. Martin Lewis also recalled Cooper sitting in the Blackstone Room at The Magic Castle practising those tabled faros. He adds that Cooper’s strike second was the best he’s ever seen. The photo below was taken by Martin Lewis. It shows Jim Cooper with Eric Lewis and. Bruce Cervon.

Jon Racherbaumer referred me to Ron Wilson’s book Tales from an Uncanny Scot. Wilson confirms that Cooper worked a lot in Canada and was the only person he ever saw who performed perfect tabled faros. I’d heard from Howard Hamburg that Cooper and Martin Nash were close friends. Independently, Jon Racherbaumer forwarded a mention of Cooper from Nash’s Sleight Unseen. It’s in the section describing The Delayed Center Deal where Nash talks about a centre deal that Cooper taught him in 1966 when Cooper was in British Columbia. The previously mentioned festivals would have taken Cooper there for work.

The Gambling Exposé

Many performers have made a living by exposing the skills of the card cheat. Most of them are magicians, acting as expert witnesses and sharing what knowledge they have with the public, gaming authorities and law enforcement. Howard Hamburg reminded me that not everyone was enthusiastic about these exposures. Tony Giorgio in particular considered magic and cheating very different professions and those who aided the authorities in prosecuting cheats were ‘rats.’ But from Robert-Houdin onwards there has been a steady stream of magicians who have earned a living by first mastering cheating techniques and then revealing them. These demonstrations for the public have remained largely unchanged over the years and those in the know would argue that, while entertaining and apparently informative, they no longer reflect how cheats currently operate.

While writing this piece I was shocked to learn that Cooper died just one year after his appearance on The Linkletter Show. Mike Perovich shared with me a note by Bill Bower, possibly published in The Magic Castle newsletter, reporting that Jim Cooper died on August 9th, 1970, from a heart attack. He was working in Edmonton, Canada, at the time where he was giving demonstrations of crooked gambling to the Northwest Mounted Police. He was fifty-years-old. This was five years before John Fealey and I watched Cooper deftly dealing cards on late night television.

Watching the Twilight Cheat again did take me back to that early fascination for the work of the card cheats. I’ve no doubt that the Twilight Cheat played a part in my own curiosity about the work of the card hustler and those who expose them. It is an area of sleight of hand and psychology that continues to beguile. Thank you Jim. And a big thank you to everyone who helped put together this article.

If you made it to this far, reward yourself with some extracts from The Twilight Cheat.