Ruse, Artifice, and Subterfuge at the Card Table by S. W. Erdnase
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2003)
If you're reading this column, and your first sight and touch of this new edition of what we generally know as The Expert at the Card Table doesn't fill you with joy, well you must be an illusionist.
Everyone else should fairly leap from their seats when they first set eyes on this limited facsimile edition of Erdnase's truly classic treatise, quite likely the most important book ever written on sleight-of-hand with playing cards (reasonable men may wish to discuss the comparative attributes of Hofziner and Expert Card Technique. All others need not apply.). This is a glorious exercise in publishing. Dubbed a "centennial" edition copyrighted in 2002, one hundred years after the original publication, but slightly delayed in availability due to printing errors and reprinting demands the publisher, who wishes to remain anonymous, has made every effort to produce a perfect replica of Erdnase's seminal treatise as it may have first appeared in 1902.
What does that mean exactly? Well, there is some speculation in the process. The original edition of "The Expert" was produced on acidic paper, and so those copies which remain tend to be in various states of disrepair. The original plates were probably not of high quality, and as more books were run, the detail of the typesetting and illustrations was probably inconsistent and deteriorated in copies produced later in the print run. While the paper in my own treasured first edition is showing significant discoloration from age, as it happens the drawings are crystal clear and the type is reasonably crisp. But other copies vary significantly.
Hence the publisher has taken it upon him or herself to make an educated guess at what Erdnase's book might have looked like the day it came off the press. He has shot a copy from a first edition, then clarified? restored?—the type and the artwork. Research has revealed the kind of cloth that might have been used in the original binding, and a close match has been used here, with gold stamping similar to the original. A major change has of course been made in the archival quality, acid-free paper that has been used, along with current binding technology. Thus, this is not so much a perfect facsimile as it is a new and improved Erdnase: everything the first edition was, and more.
To someone who has handled first editions, taking this book out of the envelope was akin to a startling visit from a dead relative returned from the grave. The publisher has gone so far as to remain anonymous, only altering the book from the original by adding a second copyright notice on the copyright page, which reads "Facsimile, Copyright, 2002, by Erdnase 2002" (unfortunately the word "facsimile" is marred by a slightly uneven placement). The sale price may be a tad costly for some the $52.00 price tag might appear a failed attempt to use cleverness to justify a high price. The $2.00 for which the original book sold in 1902, if corrected for inflation, comes to about $40.00 or a much more today, so historical accuracy might seem to break down in the cost department. However, the bookseller Michael Canick, who is also the exclusive distributor of the book (and who firmly declaims any responsibility for publishing it), offers that the original print run was slightly flawed, deemed unsatisfactory by the publisher, and then reprinted at his own expense, thereby incurring great cost.
As I cast my eyes over the shelf of Erdnase editions near at hand, I see many editions of note and interest, some of which are still available today. The Powner paperback edition of 1975 is the true bloodline descendant from the first edition, which passed from the author to Drake (1 have one) to Frost and then to Powner. The final stock of the these lovely little paperbacks was let out about a year ago, and can be found on various dealer shelves for prices ranging from $7.50 to $10.00 and more. Except for the title page, this is also essentially a facsimile edition, and is great for carrying around and marking up with a highlighter and notes buy a few while they're still available. I also own a hardbound 1944 Powner/Paul Fleming edition "with critical comments by Professor Hoffman." I also have a 1944 edition of Card Mastery by Michael (Micky) MacDougal which includes essentially a bound-in facsimile edition of Erdnase; I believe a paperback version of this was probably my first (then incomprehensible to me) version of The Expert at the Card Table. All editions of the MacDougal version are out of print.
The Magic Inc. spiral bound version is probably still available, and while not pretty it's handy for study since it opens flat. The Gambler's Book Club version is still available for $7.95; this oddity was made from the Powner/Fleming edition and includes the Hoffman commentary, but makes some odd choices in its use of illustration captions. The Dover version uses new typesetting and is not particularly good, but it does contain the excellent Martin Gardner historical introduction, which even if you disagree with his conclusion (that Erdnase was actually Milton Franklin Andrews, an assertion which Dai Vernon never believed and nor does this writer), is worthy of study.
Dai Vernon's own legendary and misunderstood annotated version of Erdnase, entitled Revelations, was finally released in 1984, and I am pleased to own number 101 of 300 copies of the special signed edition. The publisher, Mike Cavency, still maintains Darwin Ortiz' Annotated Erdnase in his current catalog, and 1 recommend it as a study tool.
Recently there has been a burst of interest and research into the real identity of Erdnase. Although I have my doubts that we will ever know the answer, most of the interesting writing on the subject has been done by Bart Whaley, David Alexander, and Richard Hatch. Mr. Whaley's now out of print The Man Who Was Erdnase was published in 1991, and although I don't agree with its claims (nor support the alleged photo of Erdnase), and although its description of an under-ground bottom deal strategy of Charlie Miller's is incorrect, it's still at least an interesting read. Messrs. Alexander and Hatch presented alternating lectures on their research and differing conclusions several years ago at the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History; subsequently Mr. Hatch presented much of his work in an article in MAGIC while Mr. Alexander presented his in this journal. Two years later Mr. Hatch revisited the subject in yet another energetic and entertaining (if slightly over the time allotment) presentation at the History Conference; I enjoyed the repeat so much I invited him to present it at my first Card Clinic seminar in New York City last year. Most recently both men, along with other peanut gallery speculators, have engaged in further interesting discussion and debate on the Internet Genii Forum. Although I remain unconvinced that either gentleman has captured his man, I do think that Mr. Hatch's suspects are, well, less suspicious.
All that said, I have chosen to make this a review of publications and editions, rather than of content. While I considered the latter, I don't think I can do justice to my own thoughts in this limited space and so that commentary must await another opportunity. Suffice to say that it is not merely the power of legend, or the legacy of the Professor, nor the mystery of authorship, that keeps Erdnase alive today. Rather it is the robustness and timeless nature of its content that keeps it seemingly eternally relevant. It is almost impossible to conceive of how revolutionary the Diagonal Palm Shift must have seemed in 1902 when, despite the proliferation of card technique in the ensuing century, no superior alternative has ever been developed. Ask any maestro of card magic about palming cards, and he is bound to direct you to the Erdnase System of Palming, and still fascinated by the prospect of finding a tiny improvement or finesse on those fundamentally stalwart foundations. At a lecture a couple of years ago, a young enthusiast approached me afterward and announced the number of times I had quoted Erdnase and I assure you it was more times than one could count on a single hand. I was reminded affectionately of Dai Vernon lecturing at the 1978 S.A.M. conference here in New York City at the Waldorf Astoria, calling out questions about Erdnase "What is the method for the Cards Up the Sleeve (i.e., the Travelling Cards)?"—and giving out spinner coins and photographs to those who came up with the right answers. As long as magicians will still be conjuring with playing cards, they will continue to quote Erdnase on "uniformity of action" and "changing the moment," among other wise tenets.
And so, I was delighted to unwrap this reincarnated edition of Erdnase and, even though I now have it, and even though I leave the house every day with a searchable copy of Erdnase complete with illustrations on my FDA (thanks to Lybrary.com), I think I might just go buy a second one just to have it. That would mean there are at most 748 copies left you better get yours very soon.