Big Friday sale

Phantom Of The Card Table by Eddie McGuire

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 1996)


Eddie McGuire was a magician, gambler, raconteur and relentless self-promoter, among whose claims to fame included being Max Malini's manager for a time. (Malini insisted that McGuire had merely arranged a one-week booking on one occasion at a hotel, and collected tickets at the door. During that time McGuire wrote a long letter about his efforts to discern Malini's methods to his friend T. Nelson Downs, which years later would contribute significantly to portions of Dai Vernon's Malini book, written by Lewis Ganson.) McGuire was constantly in search of hustlers and their methods, and eventually came to claim that the greatest he had ever seen was one Walter Scott. After bragging to his friends in the New York card cognoscenti about Scott's prowess, in 1930 McGuire convinced Scott to come to New York and prove his skill to a select coterie, including the likes of "card stars" Nate Leipzig and Sam Horowitz, and famed New York dealer Max Holden. Holden later declared in The Sphinx that "Without a doubt, Walter Scott is the cleverest man with a pack of cards in the world, say I, backed up by Tommy Downs, Sam Horowitz, Leipzig, Cardini, McGuire and all the others who have witnessed his skill." As if that weren't enough, he went on to add that "Dai (Vernon) to me is the greatest in cards, but I now have to pass the crown to Scott." So... who the hell was this guy, and why were all these chaps saying all these astounding things about him?

According to Eddie McGuire, Scott was a professional hustler of the first order, known in underground circles as "the Phantom." Scott probably had a sizeable arsenal of skills, but apparently the pinnacle of his abilities were represented by his mastery of the strike second deal, and his ability to deal "pegs" or "blisters," i.e., the punch deal (referred to in Maskelyne's Sharps and Flats [page 294 ]). In the past decade, due in part to its use by a couple of expert magi, both young and old, there has been to a resurgence of interest in the punch deal. By impressing a bump (hence the term "blister") in a card via the use of any number of versions of a device known as a punch, (generally) high cards are marked so that they may be recognized by touch alone in the course of the deal, and held back or dealt as necessary via the second deal. More elaborate coding systems can be used to mark more specific identification of card values if desired. This is a difficult technique to master, but at an expert level it can be used to achieve astounding effects. I remember a magician friend phoning me years ago after encountering a then unknown card handler, recently arrived in the States. My friend has rarely been fooled by much of anything in the years I have known him, due not only to a solid grounding in methodology but to an uncanny ability to dope out almost anything presented to him in many branches of magic, but this time he was severely nonplussed. I asked him to describe something. "He was using my deck, I shuffled, and he dealt hands and dealt himself the four Aces. I didn't see anything." "Congratulations," I said, "you've just witnessed the punch deal."

Enough background for sake of discussion. After the infamous New York session between the Phantom and the New York card stars, McGuire obtained Scott's permission to assemble some notes on Scott's technique to give to Sam Horowitz. Horowitz had taken part in the session, seen the work, had some things tipped to him, and now wanted as much supporting detail as possible. McGuire dashed off a manuscript concentrating on Scott's hit second deal, the punch deal, the punch itself, glimpsing the top card (the necessary alternative for using the second deal when the cards are unmarked in any way) the bottom deal, along with a formula for preparing "slick:" cards, i.e., cards coated so that their slippery surface enables the operator to locate them via a cut (a concept also referred to in Sharps and Flats [page 294 ].)

Referring to Scott's approach as the Master Method, McGuire describe the basic "key" or grip that Scott used for the various deals. Despite the fact that McGuire could barely contain himself in raving about Scott's skill, there are some habits described in the text that some false dealers prefer to eschew today, such as beveling the deck, rocking the deck hand back and forth in the course of the deals, using a straddle grip and leaving a dead (unmoving) left thumb for the bottom deal. Then again, there are practitioners who may embrace or reject any combination of these techniques, which brings us to the point: Despite McGuire's insistence on canonizing Scott—whose skill by many accounts, including much later ones, was indisputably superb—there is no single best way to approach false deal work.

Speculation about the uncanny Scott and his hagiographer notwithstanding, this is a legendary book in cardiste circles, widely regarded by false dealers as an indispensable read. It is decidedly entertaining, sometimes despite McGuire's rantings, at other times by deem of them. It is also full of thought-provoking details for the aspiring false dealer. Some of the pointers on the use of the glimpse are invaluable. The book has its limitations; again, McGuire was only writing support notes (and promotional material of a sort!), and so there are details frustratingly absent, and there are no illustrations. Also, McGuire, for all his expansive claims, was yet another magician who was perhaps a bit less knowledgeable about his subject than he would have liked to think. At one point he declares, "It is much easier to become an expert bottom-dealer than a second-dealer. A good bottom-dealer can be made almost overnight, but it takes years to make an expert second-dealer." I would loved to ask Mr. McGuire why I have seen so many more good second deals than I have bottom deals in my life.

This manuscript was initially given to Horowitz, Downs, Cardini, Leipzig, and then later with permission to Vernon, and continued to be circulated underground for many years until Gambler's Book Club published it in 1969. In 1976 the booklet was reissued with an assortment of additional material, the first new entry being a brief updating by McGuire in which, after taking the opportunity to declare himself "an authority on ... 'card sharping,'" he attacks Hugard and Braue's Expert Card Technique for allegedly copying his work on Scott while simultaneously failing to do justice to it in their description of the strike second; their description nevertheless remains an invaluable resource. McGuire proceeds to attack, the then recently released (and still excellent) book, Effective Card Magic by the late East Coast master, Bill Simon. Again, despite McGuire's railings, Simon's approach to the strike second deal remains one of the best sources of instruction on the subject in the literature. There are supportive comments about Scott from Max Holden, U. F. Grant and William Frazee. There are rational responses to McGuire's attacks from Bill Simon, who also provides a thoughtful examination of the age-old comparison (and sometime resentments) between magicians and hustlers. And there is cogent commentary from another gambler/magician of standing, W. F. Rufus Steele, who disputes the claim that "there is only one perfect way," and also makes the definitive comparison between the cheater and the magician: "Although we may admire skill, I can't for the life of me figure why you should make a hero out of a character who deals a perfect second. There is no half-way mark for a cheater: he is a common thief from his feet up." Somehow it's not surprising that the one unquestionably accurate statement in the book was not in fact written by McGuire.

5 - 1/4" X 8-3/8" saddle stitched; 64 pages; not illustrated; 1976; Publisher: Gambler's Book Club