- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

Darwin Ortiz shuffles, cuts and deals.

From the deck of Bicycle playing cards given to him unopened, he effortlessly lays out four queens. The next place gets four kings.

For him, the fast hands conjure four aces.

Mr. Ortiz is in the middle of an exhibition for a group of wounded veterans, during which for half an hour or so, he will deal pat poker hands and invisibly deal from almost everywhere in the deck except the top.

The crowd is rapt. Although he is presenting this exhibition as an explanation of card cheating, it’s an exhibition of his skill as a card “mechanic,” or manipulator.

This show, at the Army and Navy Club in Washington is entertainment, like any top-drawer magic show.

Mr. Ortiz isn’t just another magician, though, which is clear when he demonstrates the “Greek deal,” dealing the second card from the bottom. This move is particularly useful in crooked blackjack dealing when a card has been “burned,” or openly reversed and placed on the bottom of the deck to prevent bottom dealing.

He is just as familiar with the “claimers” and “turnmen” of the roulette cheating scam known as “past posting” as he is with whether Bee or Bicycle cards are better for second dealing.

“Darwin Ortiz is one of the top card magicians in the world, and he’s dedicated to studying the art of card magic. He’s also one of the foremost gambling experts, at least as far as knowing gambling sleights and techniques that people will use to cheat,” said Barry Taylor, owner of Barry’s Magic Shop in Wheaton.

He’s also a “consummate entertainer,” Mr. Taylor noted.

Mr. Ortiz’s other exhibitions include a six-hour seminar for casinos,featuring sleight of hand and such subjects as marked cards, covert blackjack computers and hidden video cameras for spotting a dealer’s hole card.

It looks easy, but Mr. Ortiz draws on a lifetime of training and an arduous practice schedule.

It started, he said, growing up in the South Bronx section of New York City in the 1950s.

He was playing on a roof with a toy balsa wood glider when he saw another youngster on another roof with a pack of playing cards. The deck was “like a magnet.” He had to have it, and he ended up trading the glider for the cards.

“Because I wanted to learn everything I could about this deck of cards I had, I started learning about gambling, and that was the beginning,” he recalled.

“I had what you would consider the good fortune or bad fortune, but may turn out to be the good fortune, of being in this area that had wide-open gambling and card playing going on constantly — including some people who were cheating.”

Over the years, he played cards in the neighborhood, moving later to the underground games and casinos in places such as Little Italy and Greenwich Village. Along the way, he got to know card hustlers and learn their techniques and, in college, discovered card magic.

When asked whether he ever worked as a card hustler, he smiled and said, “I have to check and see if the statute of limitations has expired.”

He has since become one of the most well-known card men in magic and a consultant to casinos in the United States and abroad.

Mr. Ortiz said he has a regular practice schedule of four to five hours a day, five days a week. Every Monday he prints out a sheet of techniques, each of which he practices for 20 or 30 minutes to maintain his skills.

Learning the moves is much harder, he said, adding that each of the sleights for the Army and Navy Club show took him at least a year to master.

Learning to shuffle the deck so that, in a six-handed poker hand he would deal himself four aces — shuffling the aces into the sixth, 12th, 18th and 24th position in the deck — shows what he’s talking about.

“That’s one of the hardest things that anyone can do in with a deck of cards,” he said. “That took me about seven years to get that perfected.”

None of that is apparent during his show, though. He simply looks like a relaxed guy in a sport jacket effortlessly performing miracles with a borrowed deck of cards.

Not a bad payoff for a child’s balsa glider.

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