Ricky Jay

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Ricky Jay
Ricky Jay by David Shankbone.jpg
At the premiere of Redbelt, April 2008
Born 1948 (age 66–67)
Brooklyn, New York
Other names Richard Jay Potash
Occupation Magician, actor, author
Known for Sleight of hand, card tricks, history of magic
Spouse(s) Chrisann Verges

Richard Jay Potash (born 1948), known professionally as Ricky Jay, is an American stage magician, actor, and writer. In a profile for the New Yorker, Mark Singer called Jay "perhaps the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive".[1] Jay is best known for performing sleight of hand, card tricks, card throwing, memory feats, and stage patter. He has also written extensively on magic and its history. He has acted in the films The Spanish Prisoner, Heist, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia and in the HBO series Deadwood.

Early life[edit]

Jay prefers not to discuss the details of his childhood. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, on an unspecified date, probably in 1948, to a middle-class Jewish family, and grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey.[2][3] He has never spoken publicly about his parents, with the exception of a single anecdote: "My father oiled his hair with Brylcreem and brushed his teeth with Colgate," he recalled. “He kept his toothpaste in the medicine cabinet and the Brylcreem in a closet about a foot away. Once, when I was ten, I switched the tubes. All you need to know about my father is that after he brushed his teeth with Brylcreem he put the toothpaste in his hair.”[1] His grandfather, Max Katz, was a certified public accountant and amateur magician who introduced Jay to magic.[4][5][6]


Jay first performed in public at the age of four, in 1953, when he appeared on the television program "Time For Pets". He is most likely the youngest magician to perform a full magic act on TV, the first magician to ever play comedy clubs, and probably the first magician to open for a rock and roll band. At New York's The Electric Circus in the 1960s, he performed on a bill between Ike and Tina Turner and Timothy Leary, who lectured about LSD.[1]

He quickly developed a "cult" following among magic aficionados, and a reputation for sleight-of-hand feats that baffle even his colleagues. In his 1993 New Yorker profile of Jay, Mark Singer related the following story from playwright David Mamet and theatre director Gregory Mosher:

Some years ago, late one night in the bar of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago, [Jay] was performing magic with a deck of cards. Also present was a friend of Mamet and Mosher’s named Christ Nogulich, the director of food and beverage at the hotel. After twenty minutes of disbelief-suspending manipulations, Jay spread the deck face up on the bar counter and asked Nogulich to concentrate on a specific card but not to reveal it. Jay then assembled the deck face down, shuffled, cut it into two piles, and asked Nogulich to point to one of the piles and name his card. “Three of clubs,” Nogulich said, and he was then instructed to turn over the top card. He turned over the three of clubs. Mosher, in what could be interpreted as a passive-aggressive act, quietly announced, “Ricky, you know, I also concentrated on a card.” After an interval of silence, Jay said, “That’s interesting, Gregory, but I only do this for one person at a time.” Mosher persisted: “Well, Ricky, I really was thinking of a card.” Jay paused, frowned, stared at Mosher, and said, “This is a distinct change of procedure.” A longer pause. “All right—what was the card?” “Two of spades.” Jay nodded, and gestured toward the other pile, and Mosher turned over its top card. The deuce of spades. A small riot ensued.[1]

Three of Jay's one-man shows, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, Ricky Jay: On the Stem, and Ricky Jay: A Rogue's Gallery, were directed by Mamet, who has also cast him in a number of his films. Jay played Gupta, a henchman to villain Elliot Carver, in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, and also appeared in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights and Magnolia, as well as Christopher Nolan's The Prestige.

A collector and historian of note, he was a student and friend of Dai Vernon, whom he called "the greatest living contributor to the magical art." He is an avid collector of rare books and manuscripts, art, and other artifacts connected to the history of magic, gambling, unusual entertainments, and frauds and confidence games. He opposes any public revelations of the techniques of magic.[1]

Jay joined the cast of the HBO western drama Deadwood as a recurrent character and writer for the first season in 2004, playing card sharp Eddie Sawyer. He wrote the episode "Jewel's Boot Is Made for Walking".[7] He left the series at the end of the first season.

Until recently, Jay was listed in the Guinness Book of Records for throwing a playing card 190 ft at 90 miles per hour (140 km/h) (the current record is 216 feet (66 m) by Rick Smith, Jr.). He can throw a playing card into a watermelon rind (which he refers to as the "thick, pachydermatous outer melon layer" of "the most prodigious of household fruits") from ten paces. In addition, he is able to throw a card into the air like a boomerang and cut it cleanly in half with a pair of "giant scissors" upon its return. In his shows, he often attacks plastic animals with thrown cards in "self defense."


As an expert on magic, gambling, con games and unusual entertainment, Jay has long been a go-to consultant on Hollywood projects, beginning with his work on Francis Ford Coppola's production of Caleb Deschanel's The Escape Artist.[8] Other early work included teaching Robert Redford how to manipulate coins for The Natural, and working with Douglas Trumbull on his groundbreaking Showscan project, New Magic (1983).

In the early 1990s, Jay and Michael Weber created a firm, Deceptive Practices, providing "Arcane Knowledge on a Need-to-Know Basis" to film, television and stage productions. By offering both vast historical expertise and creative invention, they have been able to provide surprisingly practical solutions to real production challenges. Among many accomplishments, they designed the wheelchair that "magically" hid Gary Sinise's legs in Forrest Gump, as well as the glass that "drinks itself" used by the gorilla in Congo. For the Broadway production of "Angels in America, part 2: Perestroika", they designed an illusion "in which a man climbs to the top of a ladder of light and vanishes in midair."[9]

Other projects they have worked on include: The Prestige,[10] The Illusionist, Sneakers, Leap of Faith, Wolf, The Parent Trap, I Love Trouble, The Great Buck Howard, Heartbreakers, and Oceans Thirteen.

Additionally, he has worked with libraries and museums on their collections, including the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, CA.

Lectures and exhibitions[edit]

Jay has authored numerous articles and delivered many lecture/demonstrations on such subjects as conjuring literature, con games, sense perception, and unusual entertainments. Among his presentations:

  • "Sleight and Shadow", at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • "Belknap Visitor in the Humanities" lecture on the relationship between magicians and mediums, at Princeton University
  • "Doing Likewise: Imitation, Emulation, and Mimesis", at the New York Institute of Humanities, hosted by Jonathan Miller.
  • "Hocus Pocus in Perfection: Four Hundred Years of Conjuring and Conjuring Literature," the Harold Smith Memorial Lecture at Brown University.
  • "Splendors of Decaying Celluloid", with Errol Morris, Rosamond Purcell and Bill Morrison at the New York Institute for the Humanities.
  • "The Origins of the Confidence Game", at the conference of Police Against Confidence Crime.
  • "Chirosophi: Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Conjuring Literature," at the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
  • "Fast and Loose: The Techniques and Literature of Cheating", at the William Andrew Clark Memorial Library, UCLA.
  • "The Mystery of Fasting Impostors," and "The Avant Garde Art of Armless Calligraphers", at Amherst College.
  • "Sense, Perception, & Nonsense" at the University of Rhode Island Festival of the Arts.
  • "Illusion as Truth", at the International Design Conference in Aspen (keynote address).
  • "Prose & Cons: The Early Literature of Cheating", at the New York Public Library (Pforzheimer Lecture Series) and the Chicago Humanities Festival.
  • "Magic & Science", at the TED Conference in Monterey, California.

Jay has also lectured at Harvard University, USC, the Grolier Club, the Hammer Museum, Getty Center, and Town Hall Theatre in New York City. In 1999 he guest-curated an exhibit at the Harvard Theater Collection entitled "The Imagery of Illusion: Nineteenth Century Magic and Deception."[11]

Exhibitions of material from his collections have been mounted at The Hammer Museum,[12] The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts,[13] UC Davis,[14] Christine Burgin Gallery,[15] the Museum of Jurassic Technology,[16] and UCLA's Clark Library.[17] He has loaned material to the Getty Center (for their exhibit "Devices of Wonder"[18]), the Skirball Museum, the Huntington Library, and the Whitney Museum of Art.


Jay is the subject of the feature documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.





  • "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" (1982); produced by Joseph Papp for The New York Shakespeare Festival.
  • "Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants" (1994)
  • "Ricky Jay: On The Stem" (2002)
  • "Ricky Jay: A Rogue’s Gallery" (2009)

He also performed on the 2005 BBC Radio adaptation of David Mamet's "Faustus."[20]


Jay is the author of a number of books:

  • Cards as Weapons. Image Graphiques (1977). ISBN 0882010174.
  • Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women. Villard (1986). ISBN 0394537505.
  • Many Mysteries Unraveled: Conjuring Literature in America 1786–1874. Antiquarian Society (1990). ASIN B00FFJ0402.
  • The Magic Magic Book. Whitney Museum Library Associates (1994). ASIN B004ONUJP0.
  • Jay's Journal of Anomalies. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2001). ISBN 0374178674.
  • Dice: Deception, Fate, and Rotten Luck. Quantuck Lane Press (2002). ISBN 0971454817.
  • Extraordinary Exhibitions: Broadsides from the Collection of Ricky Jay. Quantuck Lane Press (2005). ISBN 1593720122.
  • Ricky Jay Plays Poker (Audio CD). Sony Legacy (2007). ASIN B000HT2MB4.
  • Magic: 1400s–1950s (with Mike Caveney, Jim Steinmeyer) Taschen (2009). ISBN 383652807X.
  • Celebrations of Curious Characters. McSweeney (2010). ISBN 1936365030.


Ricky Jay has contributed to several projects in the music world. Most notably the 2007 Sony release "Ricky Jay Plays Poker," a box set containing a CD of poker-related songs (by Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, Townes Van Zandt, Patsy Cline, Lorne Greene, Howard Da Silva, O.V. Wright, and several others), a DVD featuring Ricky Jay discussing and performing notable feats of card table deception, and a box of Ricky Jay playing cards.

He performed "The Fiddler" with Richard Greene on Hal Willner's sea shanty-compilation Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys (2006), as well as "The Chantey of Noah and his Ark (Old School Song)" on its follow-up Son of Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys (2013).

He appeared in the music video for Bob Dylan's "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,",[21] from the album "Love and Theft". During the production of the video, a screwdriver reportedly fell from the rafters and lodged in Jay's hand.[22]

He also appeared in the video for the Jerry Garcia/David Grisman single "The Thrill Is Gone," which is available on the DVD of the "Grateful Dawg" documentary.


  1. ^ a b c d e Singer, Mark (April 5, 1993). "Secrets of the Magus". New Yorker 69 (7): 54. 
  2. ^ Magician With A Lot Up His Sleeve | Article from The Washington Post | HighBeam Research
  3. ^ http://blogs.forward.com/the-arty-semite/175481/the-greatest-living-magician/
  4. ^ The World Wide Website of Ricky Jay
  5. ^ http://rickyjay.com/hammer_exhibit.pdf
  6. ^ Bresnick, Adam (February 22, 1999). "Forbes.com – Magazine Article". Forbes. 
  7. ^ Steve Shill (director), Ricky Jay (writer) (June 6, 2004). "Jewel's Boot Is Made for Walking". Deadwood. Season 1. Episode 11. HBO. 
  8. ^ Werner, Laurie (June 2, 1994). "It's Just Magic. Really.". Los Angeles Times. 
  9. ^ Werner, Laurie (June 2, 1994). "It's Just Magic. Really.". Los Angeles Times. 
  10. ^ Jay, Ricky; Weber, Michael (October 30, 2006). "Conjuring up the magical in movies". Los Angeles Times. 
  11. ^ Harvard University Gazette
  12. ^ "Hokum That Stands the Test of Time," Review by Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times, November 15, 2007
  13. ^ "Oddballs, magicians, freaks haunt Ricky Jay's handbill history," by Peter Hartlaub, San Francisco Chronicle, January 24, 2005.
  14. ^ http://www.news.ucdavis.edu/in_the_news/full_text/view_clip.lasso?id=56607
  15. ^ http://www.christineburgin.com/projects/pp_jay.html
  16. ^ http://www.mjt.org/exhibits/rickyjay/rjay.html
  17. ^ http://unitproj.library.ucla.edu/special/misc/rickyjay.htm
  18. ^ http://www.getty.edu/news/press/qnb02w.html
  19. ^ "Pigeon Fever: Ponzi Schemes Still Thriving". CBS News. February 11, 2010. 
  20. ^ http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/dramaon3/pip/s2fve/
  21. ^ http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-7340739464434464496
  22. ^ Interview in The Believer Magazine, May 2012.

External links[edit]