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New Era Card Tricks by August Roterberg

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 2004)


New Era Card Tricks by August Roterberg, is one of the most important books of card magic in the history of conjuring literature. But there's a very good chance that you have never had the chance to read it. Now you can.

The book is important for many reasons, one of my favorite being that it seems almost a certainty that S.W. Erdnase read it, and that it influenced him in his writing of The Expert at the Card Table. Preceding Erdnase by barely six years, New Era includes "The Revolution," the now standard air turnover revelation; a method for determining a thought-of card by means of springing the cards, credit-ed to William E. Robinson (who would later achieve fame as Chung Ling Soo) and uncredited by Erdnase; and per-haps most notably, the "Excelsior Change," credited by Roterberg to Adrian Plate (who in 1910 co-wrote Magician's Tricks, How They Are Done with Henry Hatton) and uncredited by Erdnase, who dubbed it the "Palm Change," leading it to being more popularly known as the "Erdnase Palm Change." Moreover, the renowned detail and precision of Erdnase's descriptions was also preceded by Roterberg, whose writing style is a significant departure from other standard texts of the era.

As Richard Hatch points out in his scholarly 3,800-word introduction to the lybrary.com ebook edition, New Era, along with Roterberg's other published works, were significant in that they were published specifically for magicians, unlike works by Hoffmann, for example, which were created for the public. Mr. Hatch observes that, "When one considers that most serious magic books today are issued by specialty publishers to be distributed primarily through magic dealers, one recognizes in Roterberg the source of this publishing model in the English speaking marketplace." One can readily imagine Erdnase reading New Era Card Tricks and being inspired to add his own voice to the mix.

August Roterberg was an innovative magic dealer, builder, publisher, and creator. Emigrating from his native Germany in 1883, at about age 16, he issued his first catalog of magic in 1892, initiating his career as a dealer and builder of apparatus. He apparently maintained strong contacts with conjuring colleagues in Europe, introducing and marketing effects from overseas. New Era Card Tricks presents a substantial number of mechanical card effects and gaffs, many of which were the creation of F.W. Conradi (whom Roterberg thanks in his preference), drawn from Conradi's 1896 book, Der Moderne Kartenskunsffer, published in 1896. Many of these devices remain in use today, albeit often in evolved form, including the popular "Moving Pip Card" (and Richard Kaufman postulates that Theodore DeLand, Jr. likely studied New Era closely for inspiration concerning his many marketed gaffed card items). Roterberg himself is credited with a multiplying thimbles routine concluding with the production of eight thimbles, and his book, The Modern Wizard, addresses many different kinds of magic other than that done with playing cards, including his innovative work with billiard balls.

Other noteworthy innovations in New Era Card Tricks include a detailed description of what has become known as the Herrmann Pass, although we now know it to be a creation of Hofzinser's; what is most remarkable is that Roterberg, in a brief and long overlooked mention, actually introduces the notion of the turnover as cover for this type of shift. The Turnover Pass is born! While on the subject of Hofzinser, it bears mention in considering the roster of invention on display in New Era that Kartenkuenste would not appear until 1910!

New Era also revives the notion of the Double-Lift, which had not been seen in print since its first known English description in William Neve's Merry Companion in 1716. Accompanying Roterberg's reference is the first description of the now standard Push-In Change. Roterberg describes a number of changes and color changes, and is in fact apparently due credit for introducing the term "color change" to the jargon of conjuring. New Era introduces effects including the "Card Through Handkerchief;" a precursor to Annemann's "Pseudo-Psychometry;" and the idea of stab-bing a selected card on the table, which would eventually evolve into Max Malini's signature routine. New Era also introduces the now venerable concept of using pseudo-duplicates. As if this wasn't enough, during my recent re-reading of the book I found my attention drawn to the item entitled "Facilis Descensus Avemo," a version of the Rising Cards, in which the spectator shuffles a pack of cards which is then placed in a tumbler upon a small table, and from which any card called for will then rise. I cannot help but wonder if this, an invention of Conradi's, served as early pavement in the road to the Hooker Rising Cards.

What's more, this impressive catalog of ground-breaking principles and ideas is by no means a complete list! And New Era Card Tricks remains a remarkable book for still more reasons, including the lovely design and production. I own a second printing, done in blue cloth with silver foil print and matching end-papers; the debut edition was in maroon cloth and gilt details. The illustrations, by the author, are simply beautiful, each depicted against a black back-ground. One of my favorites is the illustration accompanying the "Excelsior Change," which utilizes the graphic concept of transparency to depict the multiple layers, and dotted lines to indicate multiple positions, of hands and cards. This is a striking depiction! Readers who are familiar with the chapter on "Explaining Magic" which I co-wrote with information design maven, Edward Tufte, in his book, Visual Explanations, may wish to compare this drawing with the textbook diagram of open-heart surgery which includes the identical combination of elements. The drawings are a match for Roterberg's vibrant writing style, which at times, as in his description of the Charlier Pass, engages him in a lively dialogue of sorts with the reader. There is also thoughtful and sound advice offered, as when he cautions the reader against riffling the cards immediately after secretly replacing palmed cards atop the deck, and in his insightful warnings against excessive displays of skill. His work on the thought-of-card plot is perfectly relevant today, as is his recommended strategy of handing out a deck for shuffling, glimpsing the bottom card upon retrieval of the pack, executing a Classic Shift to reposition the card above a break and then forcing it via the Classic Force—a timeless approach.

In addition to New Era, Lybrary.com has also published ebook editions of Roterberg's other texts, including The Modern Wizard, Card Tricks: How To Do Them (a later abridged version of New Era published by Drake), and Latter Day Card Tricks. And you can also obtain a complete Roterberg collection from lybrary.com, which includes a facsimile of Roterberg's catalog No.15, his last. I have also learned that Magico is about to publish a hard-bound facsimile of New Era Card Tricks, with a contemporary introduction by Stephen Minch and bibliographic notes by Byron Walker. So whatever form you choose, you now have the chance to readily obtain this fascinating landmark text, and I encourage you to avail yourself of the opportunity. As it happens, my original hardbound copy belonged to S. Leo Horowitz, and I'm sure he studied it carefully and enjoyed it thoroughly. Now it's your turn.

New Era Card Tricks• August Roterberg• ebook•284 pages; 204 illustrations; 1897. Publisher: lybrary.com