R. Paul Wilson On: The Charming Cheat

R. Paul Wilson On: The Charming Cheat

I’ve been extremely fortunate in my career to have known and befriended many of the great names in magic and was always drawn to those who specialized in sleight of hand with cards.

A few of these characters crossed between the world of gambling and cheating and magic.

Martin Nash was a legend in the conjuring world, and I was fortunate to spend many hours in his company.

In that time, Martin taught me a great deal and fooled me countless times with sleights and subtleties but on two occasions, I had the opportunity to the turn the tables on the old master.

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night…

It rarely rains in Los Angeles but when it does, many people choose to remain inside, especially at night.

On such a wet and windy evening at the Magic Castle in Hollywood – a private club for magicians, celebrities and wealthy supporters of the art – the showrooms were only half full and the (many) bars and corridors were mostly empty.

I found myself alone at the end of the Palace Bar, sitting at a green baize-covered table where members could perform for guests or trade secrets and ideas.

I took advantage of the quiet time to practice a move I had recently learned from a professional card cheat and was busy shuffling and dealing when Martin Nash pulled up a chair to sit down and chat.

Meet Mr. Nash

Martin Nash - The Charming Cheata
Image: Instagram/magichampion

For most of you, Martin’s name will be unfamiliar but for magicians and sleight of hand enthusiasts, Martin was a legend – and deservedly so.

He was a magician and entertainer who performed under the name “The Charming Cheat” and could bring an audience to its feet with astonishing demonstrations of skill and expertise.

Martin himself was something of a mystery: In the world of magic and magicians he was a legendary figure, but he often hinted towards a shadowy other life that he rarely discussed, even with friends.

It’s possible he was nothing more than a performer who had adopted the methods of cardsharps but there was a note of guilt in his voice whenever he talked about making moves for real.

The Real Deal

I used to spend a lot of time with a gaggle of crotchety curmudgeons at the Farmer’s Market on Third and Fairfax, long before the modern Disney-like “Grove” carbuncle was built next door and the market filled with wannabes, posers, and fakers.

In the good old days, it was filled with a rogues gallery from all walks of life, including old crews from the bad old days of the Gardena Card Rooms.

Those guys thought Martin was just a pretender but when I asked if they’d even seen him in action, none of those retired railbirds had even seen a show.

Except one.

“Phil H” – a well-known former cheater (and illegal bookie) – would sometimes visit the Magic Castle to see friends and quietly enjoyed Martin’s Hollywood version of the crooked gambler and Phil once told me that Martin had “one shot” that would definitely get the money!

Sadly, I never got the skinny on what the move was or how and where (or if) Martin had ever played it.

One thing was for sure: After a career performing thousands of live shows and countless television appearances, Martin Nash’s playing days – real or imagined – were long in the past but his performing life continued until his death in 2009.

Shortly after Martin passed, magician Bob Farmer learned – while researching another project – that Martin had helped the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to catch card cheats who had been working the lumber camps in British Columbia.

Doctor Theatre

In his later years, Martin suffered multiple ailments including arthritis but whenever he stepped into the spotlight, he seemed rejuvenated and transformed and could perform expert moves effortlessly for a live audience despite being in pain.

At a convention in Sacramento, I snuck into the back of a showroom where I knew Martin would be closing the show and was surprised to find the Charming Cheat at the back of the theatre, watching the other acts.

He was clearly nervous about performing as he rubbed “Golden Touch” lotion into his hands to combat chronic dry skin and as I watched him prepare, I grew concerned that he wasn’t in any shape to execute expert sleight of hand under hot theatre lights for a room full of cynical magicians.

I needn’t have feared.

When introduced, Martin transformed before my eyes as he walked from the back of the room to the stage, smiling brighter than the light that followed him, eyes glistening and mind as sharp as a switchblade.

The show was fantastic and as always, ended with a prolonged standing ovation as Martin soaked every ounce of love from his audience.

Martin’s Challenge

Martin Nash - Card Cheat
Image: YouTube

There’s an enormous amount we can learn from old-school card men like Martin Nash, and the smart guys know when to stop and listen.

I was lucky to be very friendly with Martin and he would often share secrets learned over a lifetime of study.

As he joined me on that rainy night at the Castle, I was delighted to have him all to myself, but our privacy was short lived when a couple of young members – wisely spotting an opportunity to spend time with Martin Nash – joined us.

As we chatted, I continued to shuffle the deck in the hope Martin would take it and show us something but instead, he asked me to shuffle and deal a hand of five card stud to every player.

Unfortunately for Martin, I knew what was coming as I had seen him pull this trick before.

It was a few years earlier at some hotel, at some convention late at night when Martin asked someone to deal a round of stud before asking them to name the unseen hole cards.

When his victim admitted he had no idea what those cards were, Martin slammed his fist on the table and shouted, “Then what are you doing in the game?” before breaking the tense moment with that famous smile of his.

I knew I was Martin’s next victim but unfortunately for him, he couldn’t have chosen a worse time.

I did as I was asked, pitching a face down card followed by a face up card to each of the people around the table.

Martin asked me to name the cards and I immediately did so, calling all five hole cards, catching the old master completely by surprise!

He looked me dead in the eye and knew I had the jump on him – and he loved it.

He spent the next two hours sharing ideas generously but when the others were gone, he had to know how I knew those cards.

As it turned out, the move I had been practicing before he sat down was a way to peek cards as they’re being dealt; Martin literally couldn’t have chosen a worse time to “get me” with his favorite challenge and I’m glad he took it well.

This wasn’t the only time I managed to fool Martin Nash but the second time I wasn’t even in the room.

All Change

While making the film Shade where I was second unit director and expert consultant, I had developed a way to change a 5 Card Poker hand visibly while the cards were face up.

You can see the effect if you watch the opening titles of the movie, which I directed.

The method I invented allowed the performer to immediately hand the cards out for examination – a new development – and I shared it with a few friends at the Magic Castle.

Word of this effect reached Martin Nash who bumped into card expert Jason England sitting at “The Vernon Table” contemplating a terrible 5 Card Poker hand.

Martin joined him and after a few pleasantries, asked Jason if he’d seen my new effect.

Jason instantly transformed the five cards in his hand to a Royal Flush before passing the cards to Martin.

I had taught Jason the sleight earlier that week and he was practicing just as Martin arrived and asked about it!

Martin Nash was more than just a great card technician, a performer, or an expert in his field. Martin was a true gentleman cut from classic cloth.

Whether or not he was ever a cheat is moot, but he was charming to the end.

Lead image: Shutterstock