Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Our broadcast signal KUQU (93.9) serving the St. George area is operating in low power mode.
More info.

Magician Derek DelGaudio Traces His Journey From Card Cheat To Illusionist

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Our guest today, Derek DelGaudio, has a career that's, well, a little hard to describe. He's a writer, performer, artist, and though he doesn't exactly think of himself as a magician, he's skilled in the arts of illusion and has three times won magician of the year awards from the Academy of Magical Arts.

He has a new memoir in which he describes a time in his life when he had another identity - a card cheat. He was the well-paid dealer in a private poker game where his job was to use his card handling skills to take most of the player's money. He describes techniques he used and what it felt like to deceive people at a table where the stakes could be deadly if a player caught on to his game.

Derek DelGaudio is perhaps best known for a live show he performed for 2 1/2 years in Los Angeles and New York, directed by Frank Oz, called "In & Of Itself." It's now a movie, also directed by Frank Oz, which is available on Hulu. His new memoir is "AMORALMAN: A True Story And Other Lies." He joins me from his home in New York City.

Derek DelGaudio, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start by talking a little bit about, you know, being a card shark - a card mechanic, I think you call them. You were dealing at this private poker game, and you had a job. I mean, it wasn't on the level. And you had to make sure the right guy won. This wasn't a simple matter of getting one lucky card to the guy you wanted to win, right?

DEREK DELGAUDIO: Yeah. I mean, you need to be able to use the actions at the table to achieve the effects you want to achieve. So, you know, through shuffles and deals, you need to be able to manipulate the cards and put them in perhaps orders that you want or not deal a card to someone that you don't want them to get. And so, yeah, you just need to have a large toolbox full of these things and, you know, sort of play like jazz, where depending on what moment in the game you're at, you use the right tool for the right job.

DAVIES: Right. And I think it's like you're - you're not just getting a good hand to the guy you want to win; you got to get an almost-good hand to the guy that you want to get in and lose, right?

DELGAUDIO: Certainly. I mean, it doesn't do any good if you give your partner a great hand and no one else has a hand at the table for them to bet. They need something to feel like they have skin in the game. So you need to make sure that if - you know, if your guy has something good, it needs to be just slightly better than whatever else someone else has.

DAVIES: You want to just share - I don't know how you can do this without being too technical - but some of the moves that you would use to get cards where you wanted them?

DELGAUDIO: I don't know that there's any way to describe it without getting too technical, other than through shuffling, you're able to place cards in specific positions that you want, or you have a prearranged deck and you maintain the order of that deck through a series of simulated shuffles and cuts.

DAVIES: Right. There's a moment you describe where you have what they call a cold deck, right? That's a deck that was prearranged in a certain order. And somehow in the middle of the game, while you're at the center of all this attention, you somehow get the old deck out and the new deck in, right?

DELGAUDIO: Yeah, you exchange one deck for another. And then the new deck that's on the table is prearranged so that your partner wins and the other people at the table lose.

DAVIES: You once had a cold deck in your sock, and you had to get it from your sock into your hands (laughter).

DELGAUDIO: Yeah, they didn't allow me to have pockets at the table because none of the dealers who dealt in this house had pockets. They all had to sew their pockets shut so they wouldn't steal chips. And because I was dressed like other dealers, I didn't have any pockets, and so I found myself, in a moment of panic, having to figure out a place to put this extra deck, and my sock was the only place I could think of.

DAVIES: You would sometimes deal from the second card in the deck. That's called seconds, right? Wow. That's just amazing. And nobody can tell. It looks like you're grabbing the top card, but you're always getting exactly the second card, not the third, not the fourth.

DELGAUDIO: Yeah, it's creating that - it's just, you know, an illusion. You create the illusion that the top card is coming off, but really, you're reaching down underneath and grabbing the second card. And that's, you know, something I spent thousands of hours in my bedroom practicing.

DAVIES: I mean, having the skill with your hands obviously is critical. But you've also got to do this and seem relaxed, right? You're just doing what any other dealer does at a table, right?

DELGAUDIO: Yeah, that's the hard part - is hiding the technique, making it so that the effort is invisible and so that it all seems natural. And there can never be a moment of hesitation or thinking or at least an appearance of hesitation or thinking.

DAVIES: If you look like you're being furtive, then that sends the wrong signal. Would you ever try to distract players so they wouldn't see you make a critical move? I mean, I don't know. I don't know what the distraction might be.

DELGAUDIO: No, I certainly wouldn't because that would draw attention to myself. You know, if I were causing a distraction and trying to achieve a move at the same time, it would kind of defeat the purpose because I'm trying to get them to not look at me. So I would exploit distractions that occurred, though. So if something happened at the table, someone were to order a drink or two players were to get into an argument or things like that, it is an opportune moment to exploit the game.

DAVIES: This was interesting to read in the book - some players would literally stare at your hands, right?

DELGAUDIO: Sure. That's - it's natural for people who've been playing cards for hours to not have anywhere else to look, other than the person who's in front of them about to deal their next hand. And it became something that you just had to cope with and learn that they're not necessarily staring at your hands because they think you're cheating; they're staring at your hands because they're waiting for their next card. They're bored, or they're a gambler and they just want to see what's going to happen next. So - though I'm sure there are people who stare because they want to make sure that the dealer's on the up and up. But more often than not, they're just staring because they don't have anything else to look at.

DAVIES: Yeah, and that's the next fix, right? (Laughter).

DELGAUDIO: Absolutely, yeah.

DAVIES: Let's talk about your life, as you describe it in this book. You grew up without a father. What do you know of the circumstances of your birth?

DELGAUDIO: Very little. I know my mother was 17 years old, and she raised me basically by herself until I was about 6 years old, when she finally met someone. But I know - I only know what she told me, and it's not much.

DAVIES: So you never met your dad at all?

DELGAUDIO: When I was older, I had the opportunity, but it didn't work out.

DAVIES: There's a big moment that you describe in the book when you were 6 years old. You want to share that with us?

DELGAUDIO: Yeah. When I was 6, I walked in on my mother kissing a woman and learned that she was gay. And that was a pivotal moment because that was also the night that I learned that I would never have a father - you know, growing up, expecting my mother to find a nice man. And she actually dated a few guys that I remember, and so I thought for a moment there that I was going to get a father. But then I learned that it just wasn't in the cards, so to speak.

DAVIES: I mean, seeing your mom kissing a woman was maybe, well - I don't know - disorienting, whatever. Do you recall the conversations that she had with you about this and what it meant?

DELGAUDIO: Yeah, vividly. She had taught me the word gay before that moment. I - preparing me for, I guess, the conversation she knew we would inevitably have. I was the last to know, basically, because she - once she realized that she was gay - I mean, she was only, I guess, 22 or -3 at the time. So she was very young. When she realized she was gay, she immediately told all the people around her. But I was kind of the last to know. She didn't really know how to tell me.

But she prepared me for the conversation, taught me what the word was, normalized it. And when I ostensibly caught her, she had the honest conversation with me that she was gay and that didn't change anything. But and she - you know, didn't mean she loved me any less and still loved me more than anything. And yeah, I was heartbroken - not because she was gay. I didn't see anything wrong with being gay, but because it was the night I learned I would never have a father.

DAVIES: I have to say, your mom sounds like a pretty remarkable person.

DELGAUDIO: She is.

DAVIES: Yeah, very positive energy. She got herself through school. She had a really tough family life, it sounds like, when she was growing up and then trained to become a firefighter, right?

DELGAUDIO: Yeah, she did. I don't know, really, how she did it, being a single parent. But she grew up kind of with a hard family life. Her mother and father didn't get along. There was a lot of anger and hostility and violence in the household. And she kind of grew up with her - you know, her and her sisters took care of each other. And yeah, and then she had me, and her life got kind of turned upside down. And she somehow managed to go on to become an EMT and then a firefighter, which was her dream. And she made that happen.

DAVIES: You lived in Colorado in a pretty conservative community. How did having a gay mom affect your life there?

DELGAUDIO: I mean, it was daily. I remember feeling the - I didn't feel otherness that I was - that I - that my family or my household was different until I really sort of kind of became part of the community that I was in and started making friends with the neighbors and things like that. And then I could tell that we were different because it was explicitly not OK to be gay in the neighborhoods that I was around. And so that became a secret for me. And I kept that from the world, basically, because it felt like life or death when I could see the hostility in my neighborhood. And people were literally saying, like, we don't want you here. Learning to keep that to myself felt necessary.

DAVIES: And did carrying that secret meant that you just didn't want to get close to friends? Did it make you a loner?

DELGAUDIO: I would say it probably did, yeah, because - I mean, it definitely did. I didn't - if you don't know who you can trust in terms of - if you're not able to reveal a form of love to someone or that a form of love exists to someone and have it bite you in the ass, how can how can you reveal anything? Like, love should be the one thing that is - that you're at least safe to talk about. And I - you know, I talked about my family and the love that's in it. And it was destructive. And so I learned to basically keep my mouth shut and only trust those who I knew could be trusted.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a break here. We are speaking with Derek Delgaudio. His new memoir is "AMORALMAN: A True Story And Other Lies." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMY RIGBY SONG, "PLAYING PITTSBURGH")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer, artist and performer Derek Delgaudio. His new memoir is called "AMORALMAN: A True Story And Other Lies." You can see the movie based on his stage show "In & Of Itself," directed by Frank Oz on Hulu.

You had this difficulty in your life where people around you didn't accept the fact that your mom was gay. And partly because of that, I guess you never really connected with school and friends. But you did find another passion that would be life-changing. How did this happen?

DELGAUDIO: Yeah, my mom played a practical joke on me. It was a little - ostensibly, a little - a cap gun, like the way that a cap gunfire's a cap. It's that without the gun. So it's just a little spring contraption, like a mousetrap that you put under a soda can. And so when you pick up the can off the counter, it makes a huge bang. And so she played this joke on me and I reached for a Coke on the counter, and it exploded. And it was very amusing. And I was 12 years old, and I just thought it was great.

And I asked my mother where she got it, and she said it was at a joke store that they had near her work. And her work was 80 miles away in Colorado Springs. We lived in Littleton at the time. So getting there was difficult because she worked at the firehouse. And her schedule was odd and 24 hours on and then 24 hours off and then on and off. And so getting me out there to the joke shop was challenging. So it took a while.

But eventually, I had a dentist appointment, and I could only see the dentist in the city she worked in. So we took a road trip 80 miles to the dentist. And the one thing that I was excited about was going to this joke shop. And I went into the joke shop. And it was just a miraculous place with, you know, feather boas and giant glasses and the arrow through head that I saw Steve Martin wear on TV and rubber chickens and things like that. And I looked around and filled a little basket full of, you know, itching powder and little things you put in people's cigars to make them explode. It's kind of like, you know, Bugs Bunny's dream, this place.

And then the guy behind the counter asked me if I would take a look at something for him. And he showed me an old - beat-up, old pocketknife. And he transformed it into a beautiful pocketknife and then made the pocketknife vanish. And I - it was baffling, and I didn't understand what was happening. And it was about the time I realized it wasn't a joke shop. It was a magic shop. And I wanted to learn what I had just witnessed. And the part that I was interested in was sleight of hand. There were lots of gadgets and gizmos you could buy and things, you know, for birthday party magicians to do at kid's shows and things like that. But it was really the sleight of hand that I was drawn to.

And he sold me a book. And so I didn't end up getting any of the jokes. I had to spend all the money I had saved up mowing lawns on this book. And so I bought a book on sleight of hand. And I took it home with me, and I learned everything in it. And that was apparently very unusual for a kid that age - to be so enamored with and devoted to learning from a dense textbook like this. And - but I was just drawn to it. And I really - there's something about it that inspired me and fueled me.

DAVIES: The owner of this shop, Walter (ph), became a real force in your life, right? I mean, you spent a lot of time there and did more books and videotapes and practice at school and all the time. Did you ever want to perform to impress your friends, you know?

DELGAUDIO: No, that was kind of a peculiar thing, is I really was reluctant to perform. I didn't enjoy it. I didn't want to do it. I didn't seek it out, which most of the people who get interested in magic and illusions and sleight of hand, that's why they do it. They do - it's a means to an end. They want to end up in front of people doing these things for people. For me, sleight of hand was the end. That was - sleight of hand and illusions and understanding them and practicing them was enough for me. I didn't need to take that next step to perform. And in fact, I avoided it.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting. You describe a couple of occasions where you got good with your hands of hiding the ball and making the coin disappear and the balls under the cups and all. And both in a little demonstration to your mom and to a customer at the store - because you started working at the store and Walter said, hey, let's impress - let's engage these people - you kind of had the moves down. You made the stuff disappear. But both people noticed there wasn't something - there was something that was sort of undermining the effectiveness of the illusion. What was it?

DELGAUDIO: I didn't know how to carry the burden of a secret. I was allowing secrecy to affect my performance. I assume that's what you're talking about.

DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah, this is fascinating because it's - that's a theme that runs through your childhood. And yeah.

DELGAUDIO: Yeah, it's - secrecy - secrets are, as I say in the book, they're like a drug. And they enter your system, and they intoxicate you, and they get you to modify your behavior whether you know it or not. And so it's learning to control the effects of secrecy that really were key for me in terms of making - creating a convincing illusion. Because if you - you know, it's one thing to pretend to put a coin in your hand and make it seem like it vanishes. But there's so much involved with even that simple act of pretending to put a coin from one hand into the other so that you can show that it's a - appears to have disappeared.

Really, the guilt, in a sense, that goes with that, with deceiving someone else, you can feel it in your body. And it takes over in a sense, and it manifests in ways that you might not expect. It might affect your - it certainly affects your movements. It affects your speech pattern. It can affect your breathing, can affect your heart rate. It can affect every part of your body.

DAVIES: So how would it undermine your tricks, I mean?

DELGAUDIO: Well, for me, like, I was scolded by mentors and things for maybe moving too quickly or - the phrase was, don't run if they're not chasing you. And there's this tendency of when you're hiding something from someone, when you're concealing something from them, parts of you, whether it's physically or emotionally or intellectually, parts of you start to retreat - and - because you're afraid of getting caught by them. And so it's learning to not run and to just stand there as comfortably as possible, even though you are concealing something from them. Learning that is key in creating a convincing illusion of naturalness.

DAVIES: Right. So if you're utterly cynical, you feel no guilt for your secrets, your hands will move with this nice, fluid ease like nothing else is happening. And it's convincing.

DELGAUDIO: Well, yeah. I mean - and that's true. I mean, you see it in politics today. You see the people who are comfortable with the lies that they tell versus the people who are, you know, not quite as comfortable. And they maybe - maybe you can tell that they're carrying this weight with them as opposed to letting it roll right off their back. I mean, it's true for everything.

DAVIES: Well, a lot of that going around these days. Do you observe...

DELGAUDIO: Yeah (laughter).

DAVIES: ...That (laughter)? Who do you see that's giving us a tell?

DELGAUDIO: I mean, it's the reason - yeah, it's part of the reason I wrote the book was because I'm - all of these things I grew up with are so prevalent in our everyday lives now. We see people knowingly deceive us. And we - there's both the implicit deceptions where we're not able to prove it, but we know that we're being deceived. But then there's also the explicit ones, where people are just flat-out lying to our faces, and we recognize it. And that's, I think, part of the reason I felt like this was worth telling the story now.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Derek DelGaudio. His new memoir is "AMORALMAN: A True Story And Other Lies." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELMER BERNSTEIN'S "THE CITY")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer, artist, performer and magician Derek Delgaudio. You can see the movie based on his stage show "In & Of Itself," directed by Frank Oz, on Hulu. His memoir about growing up, learning magic and, for a time, earning a living as a card shark is "AMORALMAN: A True Story And Other Lies."

So you, as a teenager, got to spending a lot of time in this magic shop owned by this man Walter. And you learned from his books and his tapes, and you learned from professional magicians that he knew. And eventually, you wanted to meet somebody who wasn't a magician but somebody who made a living hustling with cards. How are these people and their world different from that of performing magicians?

DELGAUDIO: The stakes for card sharks or card mechanics are very different than the stakes for a magician in that they're working in the real world, not a theatrical world. You know, if a magician messes up, they just don't get applause. But if a card cheat messes up, who knows what can happen? Could just be that he's sent on his way. It could be much worse. And their intentions are different. You know, magicians broadcast their secrecy. Even when they're concealing something from you, they want you to know that they're concealing something from you. That's part of where they get recognition for their talents - is that they know more than you about a thing. And they want you to know that because that's what this is about. It's about a demonstration of power in a sense.

And cheats are the opposite. They need to conceal everything, including - especially the secret. And they can't broadcast their secrecy at all. They must contain all of it. And it must appear as if nothing is happening and - other than what should be happening. So you can see it in the hands of a magician. A magician, you know, adds an extra flourish, or there's an elegance to maybe the way he handles a deck of cards and a fluidity, where a card cheat might be sloppy and might be - seem immature with the way that they whole cards or rough. You know, like they might grab it like they'd grab an ax. There's nothing dainty or elegant about it. And so they just have different approaches.

And I became obsessed with sleight of hand and I gravitated towards what would be considered the more difficult sleights because I think it was what got the attention of the people I admired. They liked seeing a young kid do things that they maybe had never seen anyone do. And so the harder the move, the more eager I was to learn. And the hardest moves that I had come across were the moves from the gambling world. And these are things like bottom deals and false shuffles and run-up shuffles and tabled faros and second deals and just the moves that are almost mythical in terms of magicians - sort of maybe can do them or have heard of them, but they've never really done them or seen them done the way they should be done. And so I wanted to learn those things.

DAVIES: The best of the best. Wow.

DELGAUDIO: Those moves are considered the most difficult. I don't know if that's actually true. I mean, there's difficult moves in all branches of sleight of hand. But what makes them exceedingly difficult is how they have to simulate real life in such a way that it must look exactly like what it represents. So if we're talking about false deals, which is, like, what I did at the card table, it can't look like you maybe took a card off the top. It has to look like you took a card off the top every single time.

And as opposed to - in magic, it's OK if oh, maybe he did something. The maybe he did something is often the point of magic. Oh, maybe he snuck the ball under the cup. I didn't see it, but I felt it. That feeling of maybe he did something is often encouraged in magic shows, where it's a game of cat and mouse. And can you catch me or not? That doesn't exist in the gambling world. There's no performativity (ph) of the hands. There's no performativity of the mannerism. It all has to live as a simulation of real.

DAVIES: So your friend at the magic shop, Walt, connects you with a guy named Ronny (ph). And he's going to - you meet him at a pool hall in Denver. You have to take a bus. You're - what are you? - 17, maybe, at the time or something.

DELGAUDIO: Seventeen, yeah.

DAVIES: And he wants to see you do something to prove that you're - you know, you got some game. And you do. And a friendship develops. You end up driving with him from Colorado to Knoxville. He didn't fly. So he's going to go there. You want to just tell us a little about him and what you learned hanging with him?

DELGAUDIO: Yeah, I mean, Ronny is several people to me. He's a card mechanic, a grifter of sorts and, you know, one of the last real card mechanics in the country, people who actually do these moves, the sleight of hand, the bottom deals and false shuffles and table hops and things like that. These are these are things that aren't usually done now or haven't been done in years because when most people think of card cheats, they're thinking of of someone from, you know, 50, a hundred years ago, you know, the cowboy who saddles up to the table and deals off the bottom of the deck. That hasn't existed for quite some time because why would you do that when you could, you know, develop some sort of advanced, you know, camera system with marked cards and electronics that allow you to just devastate a game with very little practice, relatively speaking?

So those types of card sharps or sleight-of-hand experts didn't really exist when I was coming around in the late '90s. And so I really had to search for those guys 'cause I really wanted to see it done live and in person. And so there weren't a few. And one of those guys was passing through town in Denver. And I had moved to Colorado Springs at this point. So I had to figure out how to get to Denver and meet this guy who - a friend of mine arranged a meeting between us. And I didn't think anything of it. This was my world. It was sleight of hand. And my mother had met several people who had mentored me. And it was a way to keep me out of trouble, ironically. Like, you know, meeting a card cheat seemed less problematic than, you know, hanging out with people my own age in a town riddled with meth. It seemed like the better bet.

DAVIES: There's a point where you're on this road trip, and you're at a barbecue joint. And you kind of joke to Ronny that maybe you might want to get into the business. And then he gives you a pretty stern message. What does he do?

DELGAUDIO: Yeah, I brought up the topic of me playing in a game like the games Ronnie had played in. And it was very clear from the beginning of our relationship that I was not going to use the things that I was doing or learning in card games. Ronny would never have probably taught me anything or given me the time of day if he thought I was doing it to enter the world that he was living in. He just, you know, met a young kid who was interested in what he did in a technical sense. And I really did admire his virtuosity. And so it was kind of an unwritten agreement between us that he would teach me things as long as I was only going to use it for good.

And then one day, I kind of crossed that line. And I asked him, well, what if I did do what you did? What if I did try to do - you know, try to play in a game? What do you think about that? And his answer was showing me the scars on his back that he had never shown me before. He was playing in a game and was taken out back afterwards or confronted after the game and stabbed a few times with a pocket knife and left for dead. And I didn't know that part of him because he'd been concealing that part of his life and who he was from me. And so it was kind of a wake-up call, really. And yeah, it was a world he had been concealing from me.

DAVIES: Yeah. You don't want this life, kid, in other words was the message. Yeah.

DELGAUDIO: Yeah, yeah.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Derek DelGaudio. His new memoir is "AMORALMAN: A True Story And Other Lies." You can see the film based on his stage show, "In & Of Itself," on Hulu. We'll be back to talk more after a short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "SPY MEETING")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. And we're speaking with writer, artist and performer Derek DelGaudio. You can see the movie based on his stage show, which was performed in Los Angeles and New York, "In & Of Itself," directed by Frank Oz on Hulu. He has a new memoir about growing up, learning magic and for a period of time, earning a living as a card shark. It's called "AMORALMAN: A True Story And Other Lies."

So you sought other employment. You take us to a point where you're 25 years old, and you're living with Vanessa, who's now your wife - right? - Vanessa Lauren. And she's employed. You're kind of underemployed, trying to find jobs and not quite sure what to do. And then you get a call from Ronnie, the old card player from way back. And he has - well, he has a need and a proposition. What does he tell you?

DELGAUDIO: Yeah, Ronnie had gotten in trouble with the law for violating probation that he had been on for getting in trouble with the law earlier. And he needed some help. He had been dealing in a private poker game in Beverly Hills. And he asked if I would sub for him - I would go in as his substitution - until he got out of the jail. And he didn't want to call me. He didn't want to even ask me, but I was kind of the only person who geographically and perhaps physically could do what was required at this game.

DAVIES: Yeah, and had the skills - I mean, he knew you had the skills. You know, you're reluctant. You say, I'm not so sure. He says, well, go talk to them. So while Ronnie's doing time for his probation - parole violation - you end up going there and - to this mansion, and there's this poker game. And you end up agreeing to do it. You want to just describe the place, the setup, the players?

DELGAUDIO: Yeah. It's a fancy house in the hills. You know, it's where those tour buses in Hollywood drive around, and they point to celebrities' houses for the tourists to take pictures of. It was a house like that behind a big wall. And inside, it was, you know, decorated not for living, but for setting a tone, which is of money and of a lifestyle, basically. It was like a Pinterest house. They had fake artwork on the walls and big leather couches for people to sit in. And it was built for comfort so that people would come and feel cozy and stay.

I mean, the games were going on. There was a chef in the kitchen who would make whatever players wanted to eat. And there were beautiful women who would serve the drinks. And they even had a masseuse from time to time to come rub the shoulders of people after sitting at the table for so long. So it was just a nice house with nice environment inside.

DAVIES: Right. And the players would come. They would learn by word-of-mouth. What was the minimum, you know, steak that a player had to put up to get in the game?

DELGAUDIO: Ten thousand dollars to buy in...

DAVIES: Oh, OK.

DELGAUDIO: ...But it was no limit, so they could lose as much as they'd like.

DAVIES: Right. Right. So there's this whole operation. And Leo is the guy that runs it - and his son Max. And they're going to get all the money. And the fascinating thing is all these players, they're chefs and waiters and legitimate dealers who have no idea what the real business plan is. And even a legitimate - a guy who thinks he's the boss, they're all kind of part of a game that they don't really understand, right? Your job is to get in there as dealer on occasion and steer everything the right way.

DELGAUDIO: Correct. I was hired as what's known as a bust-out dealer. I mean, technically, a bust-out dealer's a term used for blackjack, but it's the same thing in this context where there was a poker game and there were other professional poker dealers who were hired to deal this game. And I was hired also. And I had to dress like them, wear the same, you know, black pants, white shirt, same uniform. But when I was there, I steered the game and controlled the narrative of it to help the people who hired me win.

DAVIES: So you go in, and the first night, you think you're just going to do some regular dealing for a while. But Leo, your boss, he wants you to get in there and start fixing this right away. What was it like?

DELGAUDIO: Well, yeah. That's the thing is these things happen in steps, you know? I only said yes to agree to meet with the people that employed Ronnie because he asked me to, and he's a friend. And I knew it was easier to say no to his employer than it was to him. So I said yes to Ronnie so I could say no to his boss.

But then his boss told me that I didn't have to necessarily cheat on the first game, all I had to do was just come deal. So for me, the idea of just dealing in a poker game for a night didn't seem like that tough of a job and something I could write off as an experience. So I thought the first night was just me practicing and learning to become basically a professional dealer. And by the end of that night, he thought I was doing so well, he encouraged me to cheat. And so I found myself in a position of having to make a, you know, a moral decision on a night where I thought I was just going to have to be a dealer in a poker game.

DAVIES: And what was that experience like?

DELGAUDIO: Out of body, perhaps. It was tough because it was all physical, physical and mental in the sense of - I train a large portion of my life to physically do these things, and I had wondered if I had what it takes. Could you - could I do these things? Because you - you know, you mythologize them. You - these people who go in games and sit down and do these things. And you wonder, like, wow, if - I watched "The Sting" like it was a documentary, you know, and think, like, oh, could I sit at a table and do these things, like, if push came to shove? And so, you know, you wonder if you're capable of these things. And now I found myself literally, you know, sitting at the table, trying to - you know, at the moment of, are you capable of doing these things? And I, you know, found myself at a ledge, and I took the leap.

DAVIES: How did Vanessa, your girlfriend, feel about it?

DELGAUDIO: She was conflicted because on the one hand, she knew I was doing this, really, to help a friend, or at least that's what - that's the narrative that I told myself at the beginning. But, you know, she wanted to support me in finding out who I was and what I'm to do here. But also, there was concerns, you know, of coming home safely. And it was temporary. The only reason there was any sort of I think - approval's not even the right word - but tolerance of it is because it was a temporary thing. It was just - do this a little to help a friend. But then as it went on, it became more of a concern of is this - so is this what you do now?

DAVIES: Let's go around the table and look at some of these characters. I mean, there's Leo, the guy who's the boss running all this. And then there's his son, Max, who - and you got to let him win some because Leo can't win every hand. That would look fishy. Then a lot of them are guys that they refer to as donks (ph). Who are the donks?

DELGAUDIO: The donks are the suckers. Donks are the people - donks, which is short for donkey, which is, of course, jackass. The donks are the suckers who came to that house. And so that was everyone that they were trying to take money from.

DAVIES: Who thought they were at a regular game and weren't. And then there were guys that you refer to as honest johns. This is interesting. Maybe one per game, right?

DELGAUDIO: Yeah, the honest john was really fascinating. The honest john was someone that the boss hired to sit and win so that I could deal to them so that they could be the big winner because, obviously, the same person won - like, if Max or Leo won every night, like you said, that would look suspicious. So they always - not always. But they would rotate in what they'd call an honest john, which is the guy determined to be the big winner that night. But they didn't know that they were part of a crooked game. These were poker players, some of them very prominent poker players, who just thought that they were sitting in to play a poker game. It's not uncommon for a good poker player to be backed by someone. And, you know, say you get to play - here's - you know, here's $10,000, $50,000. Go play in this poker game. You get to keep 20% of whatever you win.

DAVIES: This came to an end quite suddenly. Your friend Ronnie had gotten out of jail, was going to come back, but they wanted you to both stay as dealers. And you decided in a flash to get out. Why?

DELGAUDIO: I had a moment of clarity. I had never - it was never a life that I had thought that I would end up in, realistically. It was always, like, a fanciful thought of - I had romanticized that idea of that life in my head, as movies would allow us to do. But I had a moment of real life when a man who I had met at the table before, a player who had just lost all his money, and he reached into his pocket and pulled out his last $5 bill and gave it to me as a tip, which is very common for people to tip me. But usually, they tip me with poker chips. And it was something about that moment where I saw the humanity of what was happening or the lack of humanity of what was happening inside of that house.

That was sort of - was a moment of awakening in that there are real people at the other end of these acts, and they're being deceived in such an explicit way that's even beyond deception. These people aren't - they were living fictions as though they were truths. And it was a big realization that I was a part of this deception in a way that was much bigger than I had really thought about it. It was such a striking moment that I decided to just never go back.

DAVIES: I have to ask you - do you still practice with cards?

DELGAUDIO: I don't. I don't. I haven't touched cards since I stopped doing the show.

DAVIES: All right, do you want to maintain that skill?

DELGAUDIO: I don't know. I mean, if it helps me tell the story or do something I want to do in the future, I'm sure I'll pick it up again. But until then, I've spent more time with cards than I have with other people.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

DELGAUDIO: So I think it's OK that I take a break.

DAVIES: Fair enough. Well, Derek DelGaudio, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DELGAUDIO: Thank you very much.

DAVIES: Derek DelGaudio's new memoir is "AMORALMAN: A True Story And Other Lies." You can see the film based on his stage show, "In & Of Itself," on Hulu.

Coming up, John Powers reviews the latest book from Mick Herron, who John says is the best spy novelist writing today. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.