Jon Kaufthal
January 1994

The Best Forty Dollars I Ever Spent 

I can't stand losing. I'm the type of person who always needs to be "in the know," to be the one who knows what's really going on when everyone else is in the dark. It may be for this reason that my fascination with magic first began. I was captivated by prestidigitation because it allowed me to fool others, to do the impossible.

One day, about two years ago, my friend and I were on our way to Tannen's, a magic shop in Manhattan. On our way to the store, we encountered (as are easily found near Broadway in the thirties) a con man on the sidewalk playing the shell game for money. He had three bottle caps and a fuzzy red ball, and the object of the game was to follow the ball and guess which cap it was under. Since I, from my knowledge of sleight of hand, knew several of the common methods used to cheat at this game, I was enticed by the thought of being able to beat one of these street hustlers at his own game. My friend and I stopped to watch for a while, and I followed the ball as the man moved it, guessing the right position nearly every time. I was intoxicated by the thought of being able to turn $40 into $120 with no effort and had already begun to think about which illusion I would buy with the money that I was to win. I shelled out the $40 and watched as the caps were shuttled back and forth. When they stopped moving, I anxiously pointed to the one that I was sure the ball was under and prepared to collect my money (at the time, it never even occurred to me that there was probably a 6'6'' guy named "Killer" waiting for me around the corner). When the man turned the cap over, nothing was underneath it. I was left staring at the man's outstretched palm. Before I knew what had happened, he had my $40 in his hand and I was shouting assorted expletives at anyone willing to listen.

Looking back at the experience now, I'm actually glad it happened. I've become older and wiser since then (yes, I now know exactly how he fooled me), and the forty dollars was probably well worth the lessons that I learned from losing it. I realized just how naive I really was (and still am, to some extent) and that no matter how much you think you know, there is always someone else who has a trump card of his own to play. My fourteen-year-old ego told me that I could hustle a hustler, but instead I learned the hard way what an amateur I really was. I've learned to watch out for things that are too good to be true, and, for no extra charge, I was cured of gambling as well. While I believe taking risks is the only way ever to do anything truly great, I try to avoid taking unnecessary ones. When I see these games being played nowadays, I just sit back and stay out of the professional's way as he does what he does best; I know that the only way to win is to keep walking.

I still enjoy fooling my friends, and I see magic as an excellent form of expression. I like the way it allows me to defy the laws of nature and to entertain others. Magic enables me to do extraordinary things with ordinary objects -- instead of simply drinking milk, I can change it into silk; instead of putting a dollar into the candy machine, I can transform it into a hundred-dollar bill. I've even linked the hobby to my interest in computers: I belong to an electronic bulletin board system on which magicians leave messages for each other and exchange ideas and techniques. While magic can be a very time-consuming hobby, the hours of practice in front of a mirror are all redeemed by one astounded, "How'd you do that?" This question, the need to know how things work, plays a key role in my entire outlook on life. My drive to learn more, both in and out of school, is simply a manifestation of my desire to know exactly where that fuzzy red ball is at all times.

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