“That’s the first question everybody wants to ask.”
Richard Turner. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.
In a day and age when it’s nearly impossible to be a true original, it’s safe to say you’ve never met anyone like Richard Turner.
The 63-year-old is widely considered to be the world’s greatest card magician, is a fifth-degree black belt in karate, and is so respected by his fellow magicians that you’ll often find them asking for his autograph.
But the one thing that’s impossible to ignore, despite Turner’s best efforts to avoid it, is the fact that he’s also been legally blind since he was 9 years old.
The outspoken and charismatic performer has recently begun to open up about the challenges and triumphs of navigating his world. Just don’t expect him to reveal his biggest secret: how someone who can’t see can somehow differentiate the 52 cards he’s constantly shuffling for upward of 18 hours a day.
“That’s the first question everybody wants to ask,” Turner says with a sly grin.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Most of what I do, you really have to be crazy, obsessed.[/quote]
Turner has been reaching new audiences outside the world of magic thanks to “Dealt,” a mesmerizing new documentary about his life and career. A constant theme throughout the film is how Turner lives his life driven by an unyielding sense of purpose in just about everything he does.
“Most of what I do, you really have to be crazy, obsessed,” Turner freely admits. In fact, the entire time we sat together for our interview, he was shuffling and manipulating a deck of cards with one hand under the coffee table. Afterwards, he sounds almost apologetic, assuring me that he was fully present for our conversation. It’s a disclaimer he’s probably had to make all too often in his life. In “Dealt,” his wife, Kim, explains with a straight face that his card obsession goes so far that she once heard his signature shuffle literally while they were having sex.
Richard Turner performs at the Magic Castle. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.
The Magic Castle is a legendary enclave in Los Angeles that serves as a secretive stomping ground for the world’s magicians. You have to be a professional magician — or be personally invited by one — just to step inside. It was here that Turner learned some of his greatest sleight of hand tricks from Dai Vernon, an iconic magician who once famously fooled Houdini himself. Some of those tricks now rest solely with Turner, including how he can “read” a full deck of cards despite being blind.
“I’ve tried to pass on my secrets,” Turner says. “But even if I showed someone how I can read a deck of cards without sight, they wouldn’t be able to do it. It’s like juggling while having sex in a hammock,” he says, breaking into laughter.
Every day, the rooms of the Magic Castle host intimate performances by magicians performing their best tricks for their colleagues. In the opening scenes of “Dealt,” we see Turner wowing audience members who shuffle a deck of cards that he then deals out in perfect order, from aces to kings. Afterward, audience members are asked by the film’s director, Luke Korem, if they noticed anything unusual about Turner. A few audience members catch on, asking sheepishly if he was blind.
“As I got to know him and be around his family, I realized there was a much more powerful story,” Korem says. “The human story is what’s so wonderful.”
Turner wasn’t always so open about his condition, and he resists putting it front and center today. For most of his career, he’s performed in front of thousands of amazed spectators without ever revealing that he’s blind. Only a careful observer could notice, as Turner moves his head and gestures throughout his performances in a way that nearly perfectly mimics the body language of a sighted person.
“I don’t call myself blind because I can see things other people can’t see,” Turner said during an appearance on Penn and Teller’s “Fool Us” TV show. At the end of his demonstration on the show, co-host Penn Jillette was adamant: “We got nothing to say. He fooled us.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]They use my fingers to help them make better cards.[/quote]
Blindness didn’t overtake him all at once. He technically began losing his sight when he was just 9 years old, beginning with a black dot near the center of his field of vision that slowly expanded over the years. However, Turner refused to give into his worsening condition.
He’s become such an institution that The United States Playing Card Company uses him to test the quality of their playing cards.
“They use my fingers to help them make better cards,” he says confidently. “I can detect moisture levels in cards that their own computers weren’t detecting. If you have 5.2% moisture, that’s too much. 4.5% is better. You shouldn’t have to use Viagra to make your cards stiff.”
However, even here, Turner’s own obsessions loom over the proceedings.
“About 30 years ago, Richard called them and said they were messing up their cards,” Korem says, laughing. “He told them they were cutting them the wrong way and using the wrong stock. They say his fingers can feel within one one-thousandth of an inch.”
Rather than accepting large sums of cash for his consulting, he asked to be given a lifelong retainer. In exchange for his services, The United States Playing Card Company supplies Turner with all the cards he wants.
And that’s no small order. Turner notes that casino dealers typically give a deck of cards a 30-minute lifespan before they begin to lose their optimal form and function. That means on any given day where he’s practiced for 18 hours, Turner could work through three dozen decks of cards. At one point in “Dealt,” Turner opens a closet he says is full of more than 5,000 decks.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]You’re legally blind. How could you possibly fight?” “I don’t know — find out.[/quote]
Along with his card exploits, Turner is also a dedicated martial artist, having been awarded a black belt after 13 years of training.
He cites his instructor, John Murphy, as one of his own inspirations, someone who let Turner continue to live more or less as a fully sighted student.
The documentary features archival footage of a reporter asking him how he fights without sight. “You’re legally blind. How could you possibly fight?”
An annoyed-sounding Turner quickly snaps, “I don’t know — find out.” But the archival footage also shows Turner taking a beating as he goes through a brutal final test before being given his black belt, squaring off against 10 other fighters in live combat.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I’m in a beautiful blue spectrum.[/quote]
Even though he can’t see, Turner chooses to not walk with a cane and has refused to learn braille. He has an extremely rare condition, Charles Bonnet syndrome (CBS), first officially documented in the book “The Mind’s Eye,” that gives him a truly unique way of “seeing” the world.
“I can still see colors, patterns, and shapes,” Turner says. “I’m the most extreme case on the planet who can take these colors, patterns, and shapes and make them functional.”
In “Dealt,” Turner says he was completely blind for a full year before he realized it. That’s because his syndrome created the hallucination of a hand waving in front of his face when someone actually did wave a hand in front of him. It was only after a year that Turner realized he wasn’t literally seeing the person’s hand — only a sensory memory of it.
Turner tells me that when he was shuffling his deck of cards under the table during our interview, CBS allowed him to “see” the cards through the table, but only if he physically lowered his head toward the cards, much in the same way a person with higher vision would.
“I’m seeing the cards, yet there’s a solid surface between [them and me],” he says. “I live in a world of colors. Right now, I’m in a beautiful blue spectrum. I basically see my subconscious in external space.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I look at everything as an adventure.[/quote]
With the help of his wife, sister, and son, Turner has slowly learned to embrace his condition. Part of that change involves passing on some of his skills to others, particularly young people.
“Richard’s putting a seed into each of these kids,” Korem says. “It’s not motivational — it’s inspirational.”
And like everything else he does, Turner is treating this part of his life with the same enthusiasm bordering on obsession.
“I was first asked to teach a class about 15 years ago,” Turner adds. “At first, I saw it as a great thing to do with my son. I’ve always been an adult performer, but now I get joy — real enjoyment — watching the reactions from the kids.”
“Richard always says to me, ‘Enjoy the moment. Enjoy the journey. I’m not thinking about tomorrow; I’m thinking about what we’re doing right now,’” Korem says.
Richard Turner performs at the Magic Castle. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.