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'Bluff' combines magic, poker and long cons

2 April 2018

By Clare Fitzgerald

When you sit down at a poker table, you want the game to be clean. The poker industry is, justifiably, a bit obsessed with shedding its historical image of disreputability, because players want a fair shot at winning.

But when you sit down to read a poker book or watch a poker movie, let's face it: You want the exact opposite. The grand tradition of cheating at poker is great stuff, story-wise. As an audience, you probably want as much disreputability as the writer can give you, with people risking life and limb if they get caught, and probably a Mafioso or two in there somewhere.

Bluff, the newest novel by Michael Kardos, takes an unusual line on the venerable con-job genre: His protagonist isn't a longtime card player or career criminal, but rather a professional magician. The close-up magician profession, apparently, takes its respectability very seriously, probably to compensate for its reputation as a bunch of goofy party tricks, and nobody in the craft will go within 10 miles of poker cheats, even though the sleight-of-hand techniques required for cheating at poker are basically all the same techniques a magician uses when doing card tricks.

Our protagonist, Natalie Webb, is 27 years old, and has already peaked. She was the youngest winner of the World of Magic competition at 18, made some naive choices that tanked her reputation within the tight-knit magician community, and now lives in a small apartment in a grubby corner of New Jersey and scrapes by doing bachelor parties and corporate schmoozing events. Despite the magic community's ill use of her, Natalie remains dedicated to her craft, and to upholding the respectability and professionalism of the industry. Or at least, she does until she gets into some legal trouble, and decides to try and scrape up some extra cash by writing an article comparing magicians to cardsharps, which outrages the one person in the magic community who was still speaking to her. In attempting to find a cardsharp to shadow for research purposes, rather than getting out of her legal trouble, Natalie winds up as the junior partner in an elaborate plot to win $1.5 million at a private Texas Hold'em tournament at some rich guy's house.

The rich guy is, of course, not just any rich guy, but the rich guy who used to be her father's boss — the one who gave Natalie her first magic kit when she was eight, who laid off Natalie's dad for refusing to help him launder money, and who is now running for Senate. In short, the perfect target to tempt Natalie off the straight and narrow. Ellen doesn't know any of this.

Ellen is the cardsharp. Yes, this book is about a two-woman team of card cheats, one of whom is a professional magician and the other of whom is a career criminal, conspiring to steal $1.5 million dollars from a wealthy capitalist in his own home. Since this is not a YA book, we can skip over all the hand-wringing about what terrible role models they are and just rejoice that we have something to tide us over until Ocean's 8 comes out in June.

The chance to get back at her dad's ex-boss is only part of why Natalie learns to become a card cheat. The rest truly is the craft: Ellen is the best false dealer Natalie's ever seen. It would be easy for this book to get bogged down in the combination of magic jargon and poker jargon, but mostly it works as intended, allowing the intensity of Natalie's dedication to come through. Despite all the personal drama behind her drive to master magic, it's undeniable that Natalie derives real pride from perfecting new techniques, and that the technical mastery required to cheat at modern poker is considerable. A proper con or heist plot derives much of its appeal from watching people be hyper-competent at something complex--at least, until it inevitably goes off the rails in the third act — and Bluff delivers this in spades (and clubs, and diamonds, and . . . I'll see myself out).

Unfortunately for Natalie, card tricks are just about the only thing she's an expert at. Her personal relationships, when she has them, are not strong, and her friendship-slash-criminal-partnership with Ellen quickly becomes the most important relationship in her life. If you think having a con artist be your best friend sounds like a recipe for trouble, you are correct. But the development of the partnership between these two women, as they go from annoying and insulting each other to working as one well-oiled machine to, uh, the third act (I'm trying not to spoiler you here), forms the real emotional throughline of the story, I think, more so than Natalie's unpacking of her messed-up family backstory or what a giant jerk literally everybody in the magic community is.

There are a handful of other people who exist in Natalie's life, despite her best attempts at shunning all human contact outside of her shows. My personal favorite is a dopey neighborhood kid named Calvin with no discernible life skills who mostly provides comic relief, but other readers might get a kick out of Natalie's dog-obsessed upstairs neighbor, or the incredibly bad but nonetheless very arrogant cardsharp that she tries to shadow before she finds Ellen. Frankly, with the sort of people Natalie keeps finding herself around, it's unsurprising that she just wants to stay at home with her birds. I wouldn't want to be friends with any of these people either.

A discerning reader will pick up some fun small details, such as that the chapters are numbered like a deck of cards — Chapter A instead of Chapter 1, Chapter J instead of Chapter 11. I'll admit it took me until halfway through the book to notice, because it's too fast-paced for me to have been looking at the chapter headings.

I won't talk much about the final third of the book, other than to note that things take a considerable turn for the darker, so consider yourself forewarned.

If you like a good long con and you've got the stomach for the final act, Bluff is an excellent, fast read, full of twists and misdirections and layers upon layers of deception.

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Clare Fitzgerald
As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.
Clare Fitzgerald
As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.