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There's magic in Las Vegas rank-and-file talent

Legions of entertainers land in Vegas, and Englishman Mat Black is one desert transplant making a living at his craft.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 2008

Mat Black says he knows his illusions with cards and dollar bills are a success when he sees people's faces get that look of wonder that a 5-year-old gets when looking at something for the first time.

Richard Brian/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Las Vegas

Hands are a strange thing to dwell on, but Mat Black's demand notice. He has long, slender fingers with short, well-kept nails. Like a violinist, he spends several hours at a time training them to move: a flick of the wrist here, a tap there. He needs the muscles to remember what to do when he is distracted by the story he's telling, or by his nerves. One wrong move and he looks like the worst kind of idiot: the guy who interrupted your meal to show you a magic trick only to botch it, dropping coins from all the wrong places or forgetting where the queen of hearts went.

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This hasn't happened to Mr. Black, yet. In a world of adolescent dabblers, he's a budding pro, a man who provides for his wife and baby by seeming to make pens disappear, or cards change, or, most eerily, to read your mind.

Black is an up-and-coming magician who moved from the beaches of Brighton, England, to a city convinced it's seen everything.

The bar for standing out here is pretty high, but Black sails over it. He is 6-foot, 5-inches tall and looks, according to the catalog of compliments he has received, like everyone: Ashton Kutcher, Johnny Depp, and, on some days, Brad Pitt. When he works, he wears an outfit that seems more personal style than stage costume: black pants and sport coat and black Converse sneakers with white laces. If there's a singular trademark here, it's the black fedora, "which instantly makes me cooler" than the average magician, Black jokes.

But his greatest asset on first pass seems to be his British accent, which earns him a little more patience than strangers might otherwise give when a tall man clad in black approaches their table with a deck of cards and says, "I'd like to do a few tricks for you."

All of this, though, is the act. In fact, Mat Black is a stage name for the magician-character who entertains moving table to table most evenings at La Salsa Cantina, a Mexican restaurant on the Strip. But like Stephen Colbert, Black doesn't break character. The name, the clothes, the persona – these are the sum of the guy he wants the public to know.

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Black is a close-up magician – think of him finding your card under your hat, not pulling a giant tiger out of his. This isn't exactly rare in Vegas; there's a steady supply of young street magicians working on their craft, hoping to knock Lance Burton off the Monte Carlo kiosk and rake in millions a year themselves. Coming to Vegas to do magic and hit it big is either the most logical bet or the most naive: Everyone who comes here thinks about leaving a little richer, but very few do. If the quick wealth this city offers is truly an illusion, though, maybe magicians have the best odds.

The mystifying feats that master magicians like Penn and Teller or Johnny Thompson offer in showrooms up and down the Strip are a fundamental part of the city's promise that regular rules don't apply here.

But Black wants to take the craft down a notch. In a town where magicians use big production staffs and huge stage illusions, Black's magic is refreshingly pragmatic. He can turn dollar bills into 20s. He can teach you how to cheat at poker and stack the deck with aces – though you'll still lose, because Black can make any hand a royal flush, and that's not a secret he's willing to share. His tricks have context, stories, and lots of jokes.

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Black says he has been a performer all his life, milking moments of comedy and drama since he was a child. He discovered magic when his parents gave him a few tricks – "ropes, plastic props, horrible things that weren't too complicated." He performed for his family, but says, "They were like, 'You ain't foolin' me kid, but I'll clap anyway.'"