A World of Games

Cards and gambling authority John Scarne claimed to have invented one of the greatest board games of all time. Was he bluffing?

Washington Post, July 15, 2001

The disorderly bins outside a secondhand bookshop are like a potter’s field. In among paperback classics with too many dog-ears or too much fluorescent marker or pages so brittle that they could be turned only once more, one finds a haphazard assortment of obsolete curiosities and unrealized ambitions: a how-to book on typewriter repair; an analysand’s chronicle of six years of treatment by a disciple of a disciple of Freud; the spiral-bound cookbook of a ladies’ auxiliary enamored of bacon, marshmallow and gelatin. Their uniform token price — ANY BOOK THIS BOX $1 — signifies their all- but-worthlessness.

The book bins name names, unlike the anonymous mass grave, which means that anyone can see whose big dreams have fallen short of immortality. They also offer one last hope that one of those dreams may yet be redeemed. It was in just such a bibliolater’s boneyard that I happened upon Scarne on Teeko. The title, written in large, sans-serif, red block letters, screamed out from a Cold War-gray cloth spine. The colors caught my eye, but the reason I picked up Scarne on Teeko was that the only word I recognized was “on.” I couldn’t be sure the title wasn’t in Estonian or Esperanto. Scarne on Teeko is in English, published by Crown in 1955. John Scarne was the author, and Teeko was a board game he devised in the late 1930s and spent 15 years refining. “I firmly believe that the creation of Teeko plus the writing of this book will stand out as the achievements of my life,” Scarne proclaims in the introduction. “To millions of game devotees, Teeko has already proven its merit, worthy to be rated with Checkers, Chess and Go (the Oriental game), as one of the greatest skill games of all time.”

Millions of devotees? Greatest of all time? I’d seen Hula Hoops and poodle skirts, the remnants of other deflated postwar fads, but I’d never even heard of Teeko. Yet if a publisher had put out this 256-page manual full of endgame strategies and diagramed problems and variant rules, Teeko had to be more than just one man’s delusion. Then again, if the game still had a following, the bookseller would have shelved Scarne on Teeko indoors alongside vintage copies of Goren’s Bridge Complete and Lasker’s Manual of Chess. Something didn’t add up; it crossed my mind that Scarne on Teeko might be a work of fiction. Whatever the book was, I was certainly taken with the narrator. From his first words, Scarne’s voice rises from the page like a carnival barker’s: determined, supremely confident, and ultimately irresistible. “In order to play Teeko well,” Scarne says, “a certain amount of study is demanded.” So I paid my dollar and took my chances.

It says in Scarne on Teeko that by 1955, Calcutta and Rio and Tel Aviv all had active Teeko associations, but the epicenter was the Fairview Teeko Club, in Fairview, N.J., just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. A steppingstone for Italians and other immigrants moving out into the middle class, Fairview was Scarne’s home town, and he tested the game at a table in the back of a local luncheonette. In the finals of the inaugural tournament of the Fairview Teeko Club, Scarne defeated club president Howard Wurst seven games to one. The results are printed in Scarne on Teeko, as is a photograph of Scarne, broad-shouldered, partly bald, and snarling like a B-movie tough guy, facing off against a young woman of Fairview identified as Miss Steffi Storm. Her burlesque moniker contradicts her prim appearance.

Directory assistance in New Jersey had no listing for a Scarne in Fairview or the surrounding area. Nor was there a Steffi Storm, a Howard Wurst or any of the half-dozen local players Scarne had mentioned by name. I did find an Edward Wurst, and when I called he turned out to be Howard’s brother. Howard, I was told, had been a protege of Scarne, who taught him some magic and card tricks, but both men were long dead. Edward Wurst and his wife remembered seeing a Rolls-Royce with a TEEKO license plate at the A&P a while back and thought it might belong to Steffi, who became Scarne’s wife.

I tracked down Steffi Scarne in Florida and wrote her a letter. “I get letters from people all the time,” Steffi explained by phone in a nasal alto. “They will say, ‘I remember playing Teeko and I enjoyed it so much and I have grandchildren and I would like to get the game for them. Where can I get it?’ ”

Steffi told me Teeko is no longer available but that John Scarne Games Inc. remains in business. I asked whether I might visit company headquarters, and we met in a residential unit in a low-rise condominium in Clearwater.

One stucco-walled room is devoted to her late husband. It is filled with books and plaques and laminated pictures. There is a still from a ’30s Robert Benchley film Scarne appeared in, a photograph of a Kiwanis Club meeting with dozens of members holding up Scarne board games, a picture of Scarne looking a bit like Humphrey Bogart as he testifies before Sen. John McClellan’s 1961 committee hearings on gambling and organized crime, and a Magician of the Year award from the Society of American Magicians. There is a thank-you note from Robert F. Kennedy, and there are snapshots of Scarne posing with Rocky Marciano and Conrad Hilton. There is the original ink drawing of the March 1, 1957, installment of “Pogo,” Walt Kelly’s syndicated daily comic strip. In the second frame, a cane-wielding mouse yells, “Woddya mean ‘Shhhh!’ It’s the biggest thing since Scarne invented Teeko.” Perhaps the most remarkable curiosity on the wall is the carefully composed portrait made in South Africa by a National Geographic photographer of four bare- breasted, dark-skinned women of the Bavenda tribe huddled around a Teeko set.

Taken together, the mementos form a shrine to Scarne’s long and varied career, but also a monument to a bygone America, the place of prizefighters and comic strips and neckties, remembered in lush black and white. It is the era Simon and Garfunkel invoke when they ask, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” DiMaggio is on the wall playing one of Scarne’s games.

John Scarne was born Orlando Carmelo Scarnecchia in Steubenville, Ohio, on March 4, 1903, and soon moved with his unemployed Italian- born parents to northern New Jersey. In The Odds Against Me, his 1966 memoir, he admits that his first dream was to become a boxer. He tells how he would spar with — and lose to — a boy named James J. Braddock. When the two played checkers, however, Scarne consistently beat the future heavyweight champion.

Scarne had a sharp mathematical mind, but he never finished high school. His education came from observing “broad tossers” (three- card monte men) at the local carnival grounds and from a novelty shop owner who milled imperfect dice and marked up decks of playing cards. Mechanical aids fascinated Scarne, but not as much as sleight of hand. From an early age he devoted countless hours to practicing prestidigitation. By the age of 13, he could toss the broad like a professional, much to the chagrin of his Catholic mother, who believed cards and dice were the devil’s tools.

Mrs. Scarnecchia’s concerns cannot be considered entirely religious. In the early 20th century, gambling in America was not the regulated, advertised combination of state lotteries, Indian reservations and family-friendly Nevada oases of today. Rather it was the shady province of racketeers and policemen paid off to ignore their parlors.

Gambling could be perilous, even in small-time situations, as the 15-year-old Scarne learned when he tried his luck at a neighborhood card table. A fellow called Lutzie was dealing “banker and broker,” a game decided by who cuts the high card. As Scarne tells it in his memoir, he ran through his entire weekly salary (he worked in an embroidery factory) before noticing that something was amiss. Lutzie would pick up the cards at the center of the deck to cut for Scarne, but for himself he would cut from the end. Scarne asked Lutzie if he could shuffle, and as he handled the deck he could feel it was uneven; some cards had convex edges, others concave. In gambler’s argot, these cards are known as belly-strippers.

“You’re all a bunch of crooks and this deck is just as crooked!” hollered Scarne, who then demonstrated to the other players how Lutzie could cut a high card at will. Lutzie reached for the belly- strippers, then pulled a switchblade. Another man grabbed a bottle. Scarne, trembling with fear, fled just before the cops arrived.

“If you like to play with cards so much, practice to do tricks with them,” Mrs. Scarnecchia told her son when she heard what happened. So he developed skills in the slightly more respectable realm of magic. A playing card would mysteriously appear in someone’s wallet, a dollar bill would emerge from the inside of a lemon.

At 19, Scarne gave a half-hour magic show at the Park Central Hotel in New York. For the finale, he performed what would become his signature feat: cutting all four aces from an unmarked, unstacked deck of cards. At the hotel that evening was Arnold Rothstein, the gangster infamous for fixing the 1919 World Series. Night after night Rothstein paid $200 for a private show so his cronies could observe Scarne cutting the aces. No wiser at the end of a week, Rothstein had an associate offer to bankroll Scarne on a card-playing junket to Hot Springs, Ark. With Scarne’s gifts, it would be possible to earn $100,000 in a week without resorting to belly-strippers. Rothstein’s boys offered Scarne a 25 percent cut, but he turned them down.

Throughout his life Scarne walked a fine line in his contacts with the underworld. Scarne lived in what might now be dubbed “Sopranos” country, and he wasn’t shy about claiming to know figures like Willie Moretti and Frank Costello. Yet Scarne didn’t want to shorten his life expectancy by playing cards with mobsters — even the mighty Rothstein met his end as the result of a high-stakes poker game — and he bailed out of more than one business venture after his partners brought in unsavory characters.

As careful as Scarne was about staying clean, his interest in gambling meant hanging out with criminals and keeping abreast of new schemes employed by card mechanics, or cheats. Scarne won their trust.

What’s more, Scarne lived for impressing the people who best appreciated his handiwork with cards and dice. In addition to the racket boys, this audience included the fraternity of magicians who congregated at Hornmann’s magic shop in New York. Magicians used different techniques than card mechanics, and Scarne’s brand of legerdemain made an impression. At Hornmann’s he befriended the already legendary Harry Houdini. Scarne learned a trick or two at Hornmann’s, perhaps none so useful as Houdini’s advice: “No one will ever be a better press agent for John Scarne than John Scarne himself.” In vaudeville, Scarne billed himself as The World’s Greatest Card Manipulator and The Magician Who Fools Magicians.

Scarne was already pushing 40 when the United States entered World War II, and he initiated his own campaign on the home front. The way Scarne saw it, the war brought together millions of strangers in isolated places with few leisure activities other than gambling. Scarne estimated cardsharps and dice cheats were earning $75 million a month off enlisted men. On military bases and in the pages of Yank, the Army Weekly, Scarne undertook a crusade to educate the young and naive. When he couldn’t warn soldiers off gambling altogether, Scarne tried to level the playing field by teaching them how to identify rigged equipment and distributing a crib sheet with the correct odds in craps, which Yank printed under the headline “Paste This in Your Hat.”

Scarne’s hands and occasionally his face appeared in Time, Newsweek, Life, Saturday Evening Post and the New York Times Magazine. He demonstrated cheating methods to the FBI, and at a 1944 banquet at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington entertained the commanders of the U.S. Army Air Forces and Britain’s Royal Air Force.

Building on his wartime efforts, Scarne set out to supplant Edmond Hoyle, the 18th-century Englishman associated with gaming manuals as closely as Noah Webster is with dictionaries. He was helped along by the birth of television and the rise of Las Vegas. Scarne did his anti-cheating act on the variety shows popular in the early years of TV. In Vegas, he met Bugsy Siegel, already familiar with Scarne from illicit gambling parlors, at Siegel’s pioneering Flamingo Hotel. Scarne taught Siegel the fly-and-sugar game, in which players wager on which of two sugar cubes a fly will land upon. The game is rigged; one face of each cube is treated with DDT, and the cubes are rotated so only one pesticided face is exposed. With the help of a fly, Siegel won $10,000 off Willie Moretti.

Scarne became a consultant to the Hilton hotel chain to ensure its casinos in the Caribbean were run honestly. For a while he ran his own magic-themed nightclub. Every few years he produced a new book. Scarne on Dice, Scarne’s Guide to Modern Poker and Scarne’s New Complete Guide to Gambling remain in print decades after the original editions appeared. Scarne appeared with Merv Griffin and Jack Paar, and served as a technical adviser on “The Sting.” When the con man played by Paul Newman contrives to deal himself a winning poker hand, the dexterous hands you see in close-up actually belong to Scarne.

“All of my adventures and exploits . . . will, of course, be forgotten soon enough,” Scarne writes at the conclusion of The Odds Against Me. “Gamblers and magicians come and go, but these truly great all-skill parlor board games are what I feel is my contribution to history.” When he died in 1985, newspapers eulogized him as an international gambling expert, though there was no mention of his favorite game.

Why did Scarne, The World’s Greatest Card Manipulator and The Magician Who Fools Magicians, think his ticket to immortality would be something as basic as Teeko? From a contemporary perspective, board games seem quaint when compared with today’s solitary technological diversions, but even in Scarne’s day Teeko was hardly cutting-edge. A Teeko set comprises eight medallion-shaped pieces, four red and four black, and a board with 25 circles arranged in a 5- by-5 matrix.

A great game doesn’t have to be elaborate. But it has to create a complete and engrossing universe that allows its players to escape reality — or attain the satisfaction they seek in their real lives – – by following an alternative set of rules. Monopoly, which became a sensation during the Great Depression, offered the facade of riches. Chess offered the weak and unassertive an opportunity to flex and dominate.

However large the player’s satisfaction may be, it must be dwarfed by that of the inventor who makes the rules. As much as Scarne was proud of his masterful skills of deception, The Odds Against Me portrays him as a hero who used his extraordinary abilities only for good. Gambling was his bread and butter, but he claimed to hold it in disdain. However, a game that gives everyone an honest chance, that has no room for underhandedness and no potential for violence, must have seemed to Scarne like a utopian retreat.

In Teeko, the board begins empty, and black and red alternately place pieces on unoccupied circles. Once all eight pieces are in play, the two players take turns moving one of their pieces to any adjacent unoccupied circle. The first to arrange his four tokens either in a square or a straight line (diagonals count) shouts “Teeko!” and wins.

The key to Teeko is thinking several moves ahead, getting opponents to expose their vulnerabilities while steering clear of their stratagems. “There are only 44 winning positions in Teeko whereas there are thousands of standard traps,” Scarne writes. Among the gambits he unmasks in Scarne on Teeko are the Horizontal Trap, the Vertical Two-Way Trap, the Sneaky Square Trap, the Unsuspecting Trap and the Cramped L Trap. The Scarne Trap is L-shaped, but not cramped. The Wurst Trap is named for Howard Wurst, the Storm Trap for Steffi.

At times Scarne makes Teeko sound like an approach to life. “You can’t play a good game of Teeko if your mind is wandering down the street to where the redhead lives, or if you’re wondering about Friday night’s card game or your boss’s ulcers,” Scarne on Teeko says. “Staying alert and thinking clearly may often depend on your condition both physically and emotionally.”

Having invented Teeko and possessing the virtues it rewards (intelligence, sobriety, hard work), Scarne created a realm he controlled and in which he was indisputably the best. Never one for modesty, Scarne described himself as “the outstanding player until such time as national experts are developed and competition is raised to a higher level.”

Teeko was not Scarne’s first foray into the world of board games. A 1929 photograph shows him moving numbered tokens on a hand-drawn oilcloth board. In the early 1930s, Scarne manufactured 5,000 cardboard sets of this game, which he named after himself. He hired a friend to demonstrate Scarne at Macy’s. Sales were disappointing; in The Odds Against Me he claims to have sold 300. The inventor, who still lived with his mother, didn’t want her to know Scarne had been a failure. So he asked a friend to send a telegram “from” Sears, Roebuck requesting a large rush order. Once his mother saw the telegram, Scarne took the remaining sets out of her cellar, doused all but a few with gasoline at the Fairview dump, and watched them go up in flames.

Next came a board game called Knockout, a joint venture with James J. Braddock, but Braddock’s reputation — he was then the heavyweight titleholder — couldn’t save their boxing game from the pyre. Over the years, Scarne started no fewer than five more bonfires for games that couldn’t be sold or became obsolete in the wake of further refinement.

In 1945, Scarne unveiled an experiment that synthesized elements of several classic games. “So I took the T from Tic-tac-toe, the E from Chess, the K from Checkers and the O from Bingo,” he wrote. Scarne quickly withdrew Teko because he thought the rules could be improved and the name should “be phonetically sound in any language.”

As Scarne was revising Teko (and adding another “e”) he first met Steffi Storm (nee Norma Kearney) at a nightclub. “He came over and sat down at the table and he did some tricks for us, card tricks,” Steffi recalls. “He had the fastest hands in the world. He was talking about he had just invented the game Teeko. It was in sample form, it wasn’t produced then. He had a friend who was in a paper box company and he made several prototypes using John’s design.”

Steffi became Scarne’s secretary. “He was very exacting,” she says. “Everything had to be absolutely perfect in his work. He was not easy to get along with in his work, because he wanted everything to be exactly right.”

When Scarne brought out Teeko in 1952, he took Houdini’s advice on self-

promotion to heart. Scarne dubbed himself The World’s Foremost Game Authority. He hired a sales staff. He parlayed his televised card-mechanic routines into sales pitches for his new game.

According to Scarne, the marketing strategy paid off. A November 1953 column in Newsweek has Scarne saying he had sold 100,000 Teeko sets to date. In a September 1955 Mechanix Illustrated article on “How to Market and Invent a Game,” Scarne said Teeko “has hit the half-million mark.” A decade later in The Odds Against Me, he claimed he sold “upward of one hundred thousand Teeko games” between 1952 and 1955.

Whatever the actual Teeko sales figures were, Scarne never turned a profit. “I should have made money, but I trusted too many people who turned out to be thinking of themselves and not of John Scarne,” he wrote in his memoir. He redoubled his marketing efforts in 1955, with the publication of Scarne on Teeko and with a tournament at the 21 Club in New York. The tournament was a promotional event; Scarne challenged 10 people — Braddock; actors Judy Holliday and Walter Slezak; national champions of chess and bridge — to play Teeko against him simultaneously. Scarne offered a $1,000 prize to anyone who could win two out of three games.

He invited a Life photographer and gave the magazine an exclusive: “The five-page article that will appear in Life Magazine following the tournament should sell one million Teeko games,” he told friends.

The evening at 21 was a success in that Scarne won all 10 matches, but otherwise it was a losing effort. He had ordered up canapes shaped like Teeko pieces, and let his guests run up a $5,000 tab. However, no story ever appeared, in Life or anywhere else.

It was a season of disappointments. A month earlier, in February 1955, Scarne’s mother died. Scarne, then in his early fifties, was still a bachelor, and he sought solace in his creation. “I plunged into my work harder than ever,” he wrote, “and that helped me forget. Every evening for the next three weeks I could be found engaged at the Fairview Teeko Club playing Teeko against ten to thirty players in simultaneous play.” He also heeded his mother’s suggestion and married Steffi.

At home, Steffi says, Scarne was less exacting than in his professional life. “He wouldn’t care what you wore to the house or how you decorate it. ‘You want a car, go buy it, don’t bother me,’ he’d say. He couldn’t care less. But don’t make a mistake if you’re typing up copy for him, because then he would have a fit.”

The year they married, Steffi gave birth to a child. “John was a very forceful person,” Steffi says. “He made up his mind, boy or girl, it was going to be called Teeko.” They dubbed him John Teeko Scarne “because you have to have a saint’s name for baptismal reasons. But we always called him Teeko.”

When people asked the boy where his name came from, he would say, “Teeko — after the game.” When they asked his father, Scarne would say, “If my dad had invented the game of checkers, I would be proud to be named Checkers.”

It’s unclear whether Scarne actually sold the hundred thousand or half million Teeko sets he claimed. Were he still alive, he might lash out at me for questioning his numbers. The autodidactic inventor got into heated quarrels and even legal disputes when his figures were challenged, particularly when the challenges came from someone with an academic pedigree. Scarne feuded with Allan N. Wilson and Edward O. Thorp, professors who said his blackjack advice was based on incorrectly calculated odds. And in the 1970s, Scarne’s statement that Americans wagered $500 billion each year was countered by governmental and university studies that produced estimates less than a tenth of Scarne’s.

After the 21 tournament, Scarne withdrew Teeko again to make some refinements, rereleasing it in the early 1960s. The Fairview Teeko Club had fallen dormant by then. Its successor, Parent Assembly 1 of the Teeko-Scarney Game Club, held its inaugural meeting in 1963 at Merletto’s Restaurant in Fairview, but the club did not last.

Scarne, whose various projects divided his attention and kept him on the road much of the time, tired of running his own warehouse. “He was more of a creator than a person who liked to do day-to-day business,” says Steffi. “He’d be very excited when he was working on it. And then he was off onto something else.”

Scarne found a firm in Pennsylvania to store and distribute John Scarne Games, but this too turned out to be a bad bet. Steffi remembers that the company had a devastating fire; a spokesman for Stackpole Books of Mechanicsburg, Pa., which also published some of Scarne’s books, says a flood destroyed much of its stock. In either case, the disaster meant the end of Teeko.

“It was a heartbreaker for John,” says Steffi. “But he was the type of person who said, ‘Well, it’s not in the cards, it’s God’s plan, maybe it’s not meant to be.’ And he just contented himself with the knowledge that he had created what he considered to be the best skill game of all time. Nobody knows who invented chess or checkers, but they evolved over generations; they didn’t start out the way they finished up. So he was happy to know he was the only person, that he could say that John Scarne invented Teeko from start to finish.”

Every so often, one of John Scarne’s games surfaces on eBay — Scar-Nee, Scarney, Skarney, Scarne’s Challenge and a Yahtzee-like dice game called Scarney 3000. The sellers don’t always know much about him, but they always mention he is the World’s Foremost Game Authority because that’s what it says on the box. After months of trawling, I landed a Teeko set for $24 from a woman in California. I received a full-size board in still-vibrant primary colors and a pencil-yellow box that holds the eight plastic game pieces. From the picture, it seemed like the box contained the board, but in fact it only holds the playing pieces and is no bigger than a paperback book. I was disappointed by its size, yet this seemed fitting somehow.

“It’s too bad John isn’t here to demonstrate the games himself, because naturally he knows how to do it best,” Steffi Scarne says as she prepares lunch in the kitchen of her Florida condominium. She is short, with smooth skin and green eyes, and dressed all in pink. “I’m no expert when it comes to games. He really could explain it very well. He knows all the percentages and the odds and the moves. But I’ll try to show you the best I can.”

Steffi’s domain is decorated with Catholic statuary and with pictures of their son, who died of cancer in 1981, four years before John Scarne. On the kitchen counter, Steffi has set up game boards for Teeko, Scarney and a game called Follow the Arrow. “They’re skill games,” she says between bites of tuna fish sandwich, “which means to be really good at anything you have to study it, count the moves so many ahead and all of that. I’m not in that category.” She giggles. “If I win, it’s by dumb luck.”

After lunch, Steffi brings the game boards over to the dining table. The Teeko set looks different from the one I have; the playing pieces have pips on them like dice, numbered one to four. It’s a point-scoring system, she says, one of the innovations that came after Scarne on Teeko. This version, she says, was the “final final” edition, from the early 1960s.

“The trouble with John is that he never knew how to stop inventing games,” she says. “He was always improving. He’d say, ‘You wouldn’t want me to have this game if it wasn’t perfect’ — he always put it off on me, you know — and before you know it the dump truck would be pulling up to the door and taking away thousands of games. Five, six thousand of them, because he’s going to change the rules or something. He used to say to me, ‘Why didn’t Henry Ford come out with the Lincoln Continental? He had to invent the Model T.’ ”

Steffi remembers her husband saying, “I know that I created the best games on the market, the best games there are, and they’re going to last for years and years and they rival chess and checkers and go. But I’ll never see it in my lifetime, and probably you won’t see it in yours. As soon as we’re out of the picture, the vultures would step in and see what they can grab.”

In fact, Steffi says, she has had conversations with at least one big company about bringing Teeko back. “They’re interested, but when you tell them you want credit for it they say, ‘Well, it’s the policy of the company that it has to be a Milton Bradley game or a Parker Brothers game. We don’t care who invented it; this is going to be our game.’ And I want to promote it because it was John’s creation. This is like his children. That’s the way he thought of it. They can call it whatever they want to call it, or repackage it any way they want to repackage it or come out with a series of games if they felt like it. But would it hurt in small letters on the box to say ‘Created by John Scarne’? Unless they want to do that, I just wasn’t interested.”

Steffi’s attention returns to the Teeko board between us. “You wanna try it?” she asks. She explains the new rules, then tells me to go first. I make my opening move, she makes hers, and we each fall into silent concentration. I had worked on some of the problems in Scarne on Teeko, but this is my first game against another person. Inquiries about the present status of the Teeko clubs of Calcutta and Rio and Tel Aviv have yet to produce any results; for all I know, they may never have been more than one of Scarne’s illusions. At the moment, our Teeko game may be the only one being played anywhere on Earth.

All eight pieces are on the board, and we start to move them around. After decades of playing with Scarne and typing his manuscripts, Steffi has more than dumb luck in her corner, but I realize this one turn too late. Unsuspecting, I have fallen into a trap. With my next move I block one winning position, but Steffi maneuvers into another. Her four red pieces form a straight line.

“Teeko!” she shouts, clearing the board so we can play again.

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