John Scarne:  A Profile


John Scarne was born the son of Italian immigrants to the United States, in 1903.   He was born into a background today we would call “under-privileged,” yet he never knew it.   He changed his name from Orlando Carmelo Scarnnechia to John Scarne and made his own way.


As a child, Scare became fascinated with cards.  He would sit for hours behind a coal-bin in the basement, seeing if he could  “cut” an exact number of cards from a deck.  Through the gifts of youth and an incredible amount of practice, he learned to do it. 


Scarne’s education was limited by the need for money to support his family.   So at a young age he went out into the world.  He performed card tricks and eventually became a world-class expert.


Scarne met Harry Houdini and became a personal friend.  He branched out into magic tricks of various kinds, but his enthusiasm wavered when he saw the danger (and the very real risks) magicians took in the 1920s.  He backed off magic tricks after taking a huge splinter into his foot while jumping off a bridge -- tied up and in chains, of course!


John Scarne in his favorite pose . . .


Scarne was approached by gangsters who saw his card abilities as an easy way to riches.  He unknowingly took his final exam by performing for Arnold (“The Brain”) Rothstein, the gangster who fixed the 1919 World Series.   Once Scarne understood his new “friends” were organized crime, he severed his relationship with them.  He knew he could make money -- potentially very big money -- by cheating at cards.  He also knew the lifestyle of the underworld.   He was an honest man and continued with only legal, legitimate means of making his living.

Scarne was a bit too old to enlist in the Second World War, so he instead took it upon himself to educate the troops about gambling.  He showed them how sharks fixed the craps dice and crimped the cards.  Scarne did this altruistically, at his own expense and without pay, as his way to “support the troops” during the war effort.


As it turned out, this volunteer effort led Scarne into his writing career.  He wrote a booklet called “Scarne on Dice” to help servicemen understand how to unmask dice cheats.  This eventually developed into his first published book after the war.  Scarne on Dice is still in print today, and sixty years later it is still considered the authoritative work on dice games.


After the war Scarne started his own games company.  This reflected one of his true loves, inventing new games.  He mutated checkers into Teeko, a strategy game he felt would compete with checkers and chess.   While Teeko was a great game,  it never became popular.  Ditto with the many card and dice games Scarne invented.


Along the way, Scarne wrote over a dozen books on cards, dice, gambling, magic tricks, and games.  He considered this but a sideline and viewed his invented games as his real contribution.  Ironically, today his games and games company are all long gone, but his books live on.  Scarne on Cards and his Encyclopedia of Card Games and New Complete Guide to Gambling are all classics that sell well even today.   The games inventor instead became the authority on rules and play.


Before passing away in 1985, John Scarne wrote not one, but two autobiographies.  These books yield more information on his fascinating life – The Amazing World of John Scarne (Crown, 1956), and The Odds Against Me (Simon and Schuster, 1966).


John Scarne was a complex man.   His autobiographies reek of ego, yet one must admire a man who rose to the top of his self-created profession without benefit of education.  Perhaps he earned the right to that ego!  Scarne invented his own profession in an era when most looked to companies for employment.  He demonstrated a quiet, strong moral sense in rejecting the easy money of gangsters and in his contribution to the war effort.  


Today Scarne lives on through his books as one of the great authorities on games, gambling, and magic.  In you have any interest in these topics, you’ll surely know the name of  John Scarne.