For most of his life, people have wondered what Steve Forte was doing with his hands. A precocious card dealer who arrived on the Las Vegas Strip in his early twenties, he became known as a professional gambler, an occasional target of law enforcement and as the greatest sleight-of-hand artist in the business.
Now, at the age of 65, Forte is giving it all up. He has published Gambling Sleight of Hand, a two-volume book that in 1,100 pages lays bare the secrets of the swipe, spin shift or shuffle-over, with photographs to show what observers would usually miss.
He was unsure what the market would be for a tome, “heavy like an encyclopedia”, filled with the secret tricks of card sharps and hustlers. “Initially I thought at least my friends would buy it,” he said. But the first modest printing run of 1,000 copies sold out in a week. He received orders from Britain, customers “paying $80 or $90 for shipping. That’s a lot of money for a magician to spend on a book about card moves.”
A tome, “heavy like an encyclopedia”, filled with the secret tricks of card sharps and hustlers.
Forte hails from Boston and grew up following his father into underground gambling dens. An older gentleman at one of these meetings, in a restaurant cellar, showed him a way to shuffle a pack while keeping the ace at the top. Forte practiced it obsessively and steadily broadened his repertoire. “When I was in my twenties and thirties, it was not unusual for me to practice for ten, sixteen hours a day,” he said.
By 21 “he was dealing in one of the [Las Vegas] Strip casinos, which was phenomenal for someone as young as him,” said Bill Zender, 66, a casino consultant who taught Forte how to deal the roulette card game. “It’s not an easy game to deal. Day two he was dealing as good as me, day three he was dealing better.”
Forte then became a casino manager while also playing professionally under an alias. In 1982 he was arrested and accused of fraud. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and showed prosecutors the trick he was using, which was not illegal, but he was eventually barred from working in Nevada casinos.
Instead he became a consultant, advising casinos. “I consider myself the top consultant in the country, if not the world, but Steve is so far above me it’s pathetic,” said Zender.
By 21 “he was dealing in one of the [Las Vegas] Strip casinos, which was phenomenal for someone as young as him.”
“I have had some run-ins with law enforcement,” Forte acknowledged recently. But he has now retired. His hands are not what they were, he said. Going back through his old moves, “I say, ‘Jeez, how was I able to do that?’” he said.
He thinks the books will be of particular interest to magicians. “Magicians have a long history of chasing down hustlers, to ask how they do something. They always assume it’s more complicated,” he said.
Often, he is approached by prominent magicians, he said. “I would see someone do something. I would say: ‘Let me show you the way a hustler would do that. Not only is it more deceptive, it’s easier to do.”
Gambling Sleight of Hand, by Steve Forte, is out now
Will Pavia is the New York correspondent for The Times of London