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Revolutionary Card Technique by Edward Marlo

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 2003)


Revolutionary Card Technique

EDWARD MALKOWSKI, better known to magicians by the moniker Ed Marlo, died more than 11 years ago, but history has yet to take objective stock of his contribution to 20th century card magic. That he was among the most prolific publishers of card material of the era remains unarguable, with his written trail spanning more than 50 years of pamphlets, books, monographs, journal contributions, letters, six volumes of "magazines" each numbering generally in excess of 300 pages, and unknown quantities of unpublished writings still leaking into the 21st century. A lot of trees ended up with Ed Marlo's name on their remnants.

In the face of that forest of sleight-of-hand, 11 years is insufficient distance from which to stand back and view the results. The path to Marlo's reputation is a tangled bramble littered with controversies, thefts, feuds, and jealousies, tended to by recording revisionists and littered with acolytes and sycophants both enthralled and estranged.

One wonders if, once all that is left to tend the path is time, history will finally come to clear away the underbrush and reveal a manicured garden. By that time, however, many of us are more likely to be under the flower bed rather than up smelling the roses.

Marlo's manner of publication---indeed, his style of thinking---contributes to the difficulty in making a reasoned assessment. There has never been a single Marlo text that one could clearly turn to in order to grasp the true significance of his contribution. The closest thing to such a volume might have been The Cardician, published in 1953, which remains an excellent work, a revelatory sampling of the author's contribution and a snapshot of the issues of the day. The title, of course, reflected Marlo's knack for catchy labels (just as "Tilt," his re-titling of the "Depth Illusion" caught on despite it being Vernon's creation), and gave our jargon a word which will likely remain in our common parlance as long as any other Marlovian invention.

In trying to understand Marlo, comparison with Vernon is ever tempting---tempting, but invariably problematic. Vernon was Marlo's elder by a generation, a fact often overlooked later in considering the lives of the two men. Vernon was interested in all kinds of magic, and his influence was as broad as his perspective and as cosmopolitan as his personality. Vernon had been a successful professional performer in one significant period of his life, he had performed on prestigious stages, and was as fascinated by professional artists as he was by grifters and gamblers. Vernon sought out characters of all sort and reported on his experiences by anecdote and reverie; later in his life he was eager to share credit and keep the names of his countless friends alive. Although Vernon was the keeper of the underground flame in his early years, his view toward colleagues and crediting was expansive. Vernon was a vagabond and eclectic explorer of the world; his life was a chronology of 20th century conjuring.

As an artist and even technician Vernon was always seeking a kind of perfection, even while he believed deeply that such was an unattainable chimera; although thrilled by the chase, he was rarely inclined to pause along the way to record in print the latest developments.

Hence most of Vernon's body of literary work was recorded by others, and in substantial volumes of material, the subjects of which had already been tinkered with for years. Thus The Dai Vernon Book of Magic by Lewis Ganson is undoubtedly one of the most important books of sleight-of-hand close-up magic of the 20th century, followed closely by the volumes of The Vernon Chronicles by Stephen Minch.

Marlo was a very different kind of person, who pursued his equally consuming passion for magic in distinctly different fashion. Marlo spent most of his life in Chicago and never performed magic professionally. Vernon, no matter his location, was invariably at the epicenter of the underground; Marlo was fundamentally an outsider whose underground was local, and he chaired it at the head of the same Chicago "roundtable" throughout his life. Although Marlo did delve into other kinds of close-up magic (well reflected in Arcade Dreams by Jon Racherbaumer), his focus was deeply technical; as Bruce Cervon commented to me years ago, "Marlo was the guy in the white coat working in the laboratory." Marlo was a relentless recorder of his process. The compulsive experimenter was more interested in new ideas and credit for his inventions---no matter how incremental---than in people and places.

In 1954, Marlo released a slender, 24-page pamphlet entitled Miracle Card Changes, with the intriguing subtitle, "Revolutionary Card Technique, Chapter One." By that time he had produced more than 20 pamphlets and monographs through Magic, Inc. in Chicago, beginning with Pasteboard Presto in 1940. The Revolutionary Card Technique series continued over the next eight years, consisting eventually of a total of 11 "chapters," completed with the 1962 title, Estimation. Although these pamphlets have remained in print ever since that time, with multiple editions and re-printings, the "chapters" were never actually united into a single book. "Revolutionary Card Technique" remained a concept--- not a volume.

Now, 40 years after the completion of the original series, those homegrown little pamphlets, typed by Marlo's wife, Muriel, on a manual typewriter, and illustrated with Marlo's (among others') tiny sketches, have been newly illustrated, newly typeset, and bound together in a well-deserved and long overdue hardbound book. 

Marlo's literary Diaspora is now united in a single home.

And what an edifice it is---a towering tribute to Marlo's place in history, and a comfortable haven to anyone seeking the warm glow of inspiration. Whether you are a cardician who, like me, already has all the well-thumbed originals on your shelf, or if you are a younger enthusiast with ambitions of sophisticated card artistry ahead of you, this is a no-exception, must-have book. The period reflected in its contents was Marlo in his mid-life prime; not only was he productive and passionate, but the tainting of his work by his acquisitiveness and credit-mongering had not yet taken hold of his personality.

(Although even some of the work in these pages faces challenges of originality by critics---notably Jim Steranko and some of the estimation material allegedly drawn from Steranko's unpublished second book---the bulk of these pages appear unsullied by Marlo's more pronounced later tendencies, which seem to expand in the 1970s, what with Shank Shuffles and other fables.) The chapters---and at long last they really are chapters---following that on Changes proceed through Action Palm (palms that occur during handling activities other than merely squaring the pack); Fingertip Control (handling the deck at the fingertips for spectator peeking selections, rather than in the more typically deep grips); the Side Steal; the Tabled Palm; the Faro Shuffle; Faro Notes; Seconds, Centers & Bottoms (in three parts); the Multiple Shift; Card Switches; and Estimation (in two parts).

Within that simple chapter listing will be found hundreds and hundreds---and hundreds! ---of entries. Some of these items have deeply penetrated modern card work, few more so than the Deliberate Side-Steal. A favored handling of this writer along with many other practitioners, in this the card is controlled to the top without being delayed by an interim visit to full palm position. It is worth noting, however, that the sleight is described in basic but unmistakable form in Downs' (ghosted by Hilliard) Art of Magic on p. 129. Some are elegant ideas, which created much discussion at previous times and will no doubt rise again in current consciousness, such as the Misdirection Palm (first described in The Cardician), in which the top card of the deck is palmed under the very nose of the spectator under cover of an outjogged card being squared within the pack. (Imagine Double-Lifting to show the selection, then turning down the double card, dealing off and inserting the indifferent top card, and palming the selection as the X card is squared.) And there is much esoterica buried in these pages that is waiting to be dug up and used with devastating effectiveness to deceive magicians and laymen alike. The more exotic the idea, and the more skeptical the reader, it bears keeping in mind that witnesses claim to have seen Marlo, at one time or another, do virtually everything he ever published, and beautifully at that. Some of the evidence for that exists on film and tape, and there is no doubt that, for his sheer devotion to practice and ability to execute, he was one of the greatest technicians who ever lived.

Marlo investigated everything that came his way, creating countless solutions and endless variations on themes. Some derided his propensity for recording his every effort, seemingly without judgment as to whether it warranted preservation for the ages. For Marlo, every new variant was worth exploring, considering, reconsidering, and varying further again. Every nuance was fodder for another development. Where Vernon sought to discard all the chaff and leave only the purest wheat for the meal, Marlo heaped everything on the table for the feast. For him it was all about options and the next discovery. Making deliberate and tasteful choices is the important job of the artist, and Vernon wanted to leave all the miscues behind until he had polished a gem; thus he gave us all but definitive versions of classical effects from the "Linking Rings" to the "Cups and Balls." Marlo was a technical experimenter who kept plugging away with a passion for any idea that was worth recording just because it was a bit different than one that had come before---and leave it to others to determine the worth.

But both men knew what it was to think deep and hard about such problems, and perhaps one of the greatest benefits of retracing Marlo's explorations is that it provides a roadmap for how to think deeply for yourself. But the chapters of "RCT" are not merely about exotica, or about learning how to think. The book is an adventure in cardicianship, and a thrilling trip it is.

What's new in this collection? Precious little, and that is much to its publisher's credit. The editor, Elliot Cutler, informs us that he has done light editing for clarity. The differences do not reveal themselves obviously, and we must assume this work has been done with a gentle touch and ultimately to our benefit. More importantly, the path of heavy-handed rewrite and revisionism was avoided, and that is of great value to readers, to history, and to Marlo. There is a minimal index that lists the titles of all the entries, but with no additional effort made to identify, for example, mentions of names. There are three introductory additions: a 1957 piece by Marlo's longtime publisher, the late Frances Ireland Marshall; an insightful preface by Marlo acolyte Bill Malone; and an appreciative introduction by Ross Bertram protégé, David Ben. These last two are interesting if somewhat unexpected choices. Malone is a top-flight entertainer and one of magic's few true funnymen, who some might be surprised to learn can do remarkable quantities of the "real work" of the Marlovian oeuvre---hours and hours of it, in fact, if given the opportunity. And Ben is currently involved in researching what stands to be the definitive biographical work on Dai Vernon, yet he is quick to point out the value and strength of Marlo's contribution in these important pages. One wishes that the editor had applied some editorial skills---his own or those of someone more capable---to these new introductory pages, including his own page of acknowledgements, which manages to misspell "Erdnase."

The illustrations have been recreated by Michael Palazon, and while they do not add much in the way of detail or artistic finesse---outlines are thick and knuckles scarce---they are all significantly enlarged from the originals, and that in itself is an improvement. A few errors do seem to have crept in here---perhaps unavoidable given the quantity---with face-up cards in the text becoming face-down cards in the illustration, and the occasional simply incorrect drawing---but there are very few of these mistakes in total. And Marlo's tendency to refer back to earlier illustrations and send the reader hunting has been thoughtfully eased by the repetition of most such drawings where appropriate.

If the challenge is indeed to try, now, this early, to place Marlo's contribution in perspective against the backdrop of 20th century conjuring, Revolutionary Card Technique may finally make it possible to attempt that judgment in terms of books, instead of personalities. When one looks back at the literature of 20th century card magic, what are its greatest landmarks? One cannot avoid books that contain timeless card-related contents, from Hilliard's Greater Magic to the original Stars of Magic. But in the list of books that are devoted entirely to cards, countless experts and aficionados would assuredly name Hugard and Braue's Expert Card Technique

Certainly "ECT" had a profound impact on one or more generations of cardicians; Hugard and Braue did to the first half of 20th century card magic what Hoffman had done for much of 19th century general conjuring, namely to write down what had been circulating but had gone thus far unrecorded. Expert Card Technique remains invaluable for this and other reasons, not the least of which is its wonderful chapters on theory and presentation, which are so often overlooked today (as similarly invaluable material is forgotten in The Tarbell Course in Magic). But as time marches inexorably onward, how much of the specific technical content of Expert Card Technique remains on the cutting edge? The surprising if heretical answer may be starting to reveal itself: less and less.

Make no mistake; I hope that Expert Card Technique will continue to be read by generations to come. Roberto Giobbi's excellent insights concerning ECT, found in his recent columns in Genii, remain testament to its power and value---again with particular regard to effects and theory. But it must be admitted that at least some of our lingering affection for ECT is born of nostalgia, while many of its specific techniques begin to gather dust in its pages. The book remains powerful, but some of the moves are showing their age. ECT summarized the century's midpoint; RCT struck out toward the second half.

Perhaps this is the destiny of almost any technical treatise---Erdnase notwithstanding! Vernon's iconic routines will likely have much farther reaching impact than the specific moves described in the pages of the Inner Secrets trilogy--- even though ECT was almost as much Vernon's book, albeit unintentionally, than Hugard and Braue's. Vernon alluded to this in the pages of He Fooled Houdini: Dai Vernon, a Magical Life, where it is reported that he had remarked, "... it could almost have been written completely by myself." Expert Card Technique is many things, and as a manual of presentation, performance, and theory (much of which showed Hugard's stamp), along with the inclusion of neo-classic routines like Vernon's "All-Backs" (just to name a personal favorite), it's influence remains lasting, and elements of its value, timeless. (The closest Marlo gets to offering presentational advice is his unusual, albeit perceptive, comments in the dealing chapter on how to maintain a psychological advantage in a card session.) As a point-in-time capture of the techniques and tricks that experts were sessioning on at mid-century, Expert Card Technique makes fascinating and insightful history---but when it comes to technique, at least some of it remains frozen in time, never to be defrosted.

Yet an up-and-coming gunslinger of the card table will slay the competition in the streets this very high noon if he but arms himself from the pages of Revolutionary Card Technique. I have often commented that it is mind-boggling to consider how truly unprecedented much of Erdnase's original technology was upon its initial release in 1902. Similarly, Marlo's work in this new/old collection is true to its title: the contents are indeed revolutionary. They have a tingling cutting-edge feel to them even now---40 to 50 years after their first publication---and I suspect they will retain that sharpened edge for a much longer time to come. Marlo's Revolutionary Card Technique is not only a manual of late 20th century card technique, but it is now also the best single-volume image we have of Marlo's career and contribution. There is a good chance it may remain unchallenged in that standing forever, and it is a legacy that all must acknowledge, and none can ignore.

Ed Marlo, newly edited by Elliot Cutler * 7' x 10' hardbound; 538 pages * illustrated with more than 1,000 line drawings * 2003 (1954 - 1962) * Magic, Inc., 5082 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL 60625 888-550-1022 * $50 + 7.50 postage & handling

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