Secrets Of The Palmettos by Jeff Busby
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 1999)
In the March 1997 issue of Genii, I reviewed a pamphlet that has assumed legendary proportions among cardicians: The Phantom of the Card Table, Eddie McGuire's paean to the master card handler and alleged hustler, Walter Scott. The heart of that manuscript contains Mr. McGuire's account of a 1930 session between Scott and seven prominent magicians and card handlers in New York City: Dick Cardini, Nate Leipzig, Sam Horowitz, AI Baker, Tommy Downs, the dealer Max Holden, and McGuire.
The accounts of events that night have fascinated and troubled card workers for decades, and for various reasons. Dai Vernon, the one notable who was not in attendance, was not only interested in Scott by deem of his reputation, but for years thereafter was perhaps miffed that, as a result of the session, Max Holden would, in an article in the Sphinx, publicly declare that Vernon "... to me is the greatest in cards but now I have to pass the crown to Scott and the others all agree with me." Other card handlers have often wondered how accurate the accounts had been, and how to explain some of the effects that witnesses claimed Scott had accomplished. Scott was clearly an expert with the Second and Punch Deal, and McGuire explains some of his techniques in the manuscript that, following the session, he prepared for Horowitz, and that years later became the Phantom booklet. But was there more to the story?
Jeff Busby claims there is a great deal more to the story, and devotes the first two chapters of this book to exploring it. According to Mr. Busby, "Out of the eight present the night of June 14, 1930, five knew exactly what was to happen. It was an orchestrated con. (The five) joined together in the plot to devastate their New York targets: Horowitz and Cardini. And they knew the ever-impressionable Holden would use the power of his column in The Sphinx to spread the legend of the Phantom, if they could fool him." In fact, Mr. Busby claims that Al Baker—"Kindly old Al, innocent-looking Al"—rang in a couple of coolers that night: one switched, the other openly offered up for use in seeming innocence. But there was nothing innocent about those decks. They were not only prepared with Scott's punch work, they were also marked—but the markings weren't on the back, they were edge-marked at the ends.
This entertaining two-chapter detective story serves as Mr. Busby's fascinating introduction to the subject of edge marking and what the author has dubbed "bevel edge work." The next two chapters examine the history of edge marking as it relates to crooked gambling and then as to conjuring, respectively. These chapters provide excellent overviews of the relevant literature. As to the Walter Scott mystery, Mr. Busby presents a reasonably compelling case, given that he provides no facsimiles of his cited sources and we must accept some of both his claims and his speculation on faith. His evidence for the Scott scenario and methodology is substantially comprised of a brief item Dai Vernon wrote decades later in his column in Genii; the claim that Mr. Busby has handled Scot's cards and examined the work firsthand; accounts of correspondence and discussions with Charlie Miller and Faucett Ross, among others; and especially the claim of having read Dai Vernon's copy of a playlet that Faucets Ross wrote (now in the Persi Diaconis collection, according to the author), based loosely on the Scott session, in which an imaginary battle is depicted between two titans of cardmanship, inspired by Scott and Vernon. Although such an event never occurred and was purely a work of fiction by Ross, nevertheless, according to Mr. Busby, Ross recounted much of the facts of the actual Scott session in the course of the drama, including the details of Al Baker's having secretly brought Scott's cards into play.
Were this a more authoritative piece of academic work, readers would certainly expect to see actual copies of relevant pages of the play, the cited correspondence, photographs of Scott's cards, and the like. In the absence of such concrete evidence one is left to accept Mr. Busby's account at his word, surely a risky and unreliable prospect at best. One must therefore maintain a raised eyebrow of skepticism toward some of these claims; recall that Mr. Busby, through his role in The Man Who Was Erdnase by Barton Whaley, insists with absolute certainty that S.W. Erdnase was indeed the pseudonym of the murderous gambler E.S. Andrews, a claim that remains unproven and is met with great skepticism if not outright rejection in many legitimate circles. (Vernon himself never accepted the premise.) That said, the claims in this book are not nearly as extraordinary, and the account presented is not only entertaining but admittedly rather convincing.
Which brings us all the way to the start of chapter five, p.40, at which point the author arrives at his true purpose. Being a magic dealer, first and foremost, Mr. Busby's job is to sell us stuff—whether we need it or not—and he applies himself to this task assiduously. The man knows how to write a magic ad and, in this case, he gets to write one of the longest such advertisements in history—one that goes on at length for many pages of this book.
What is he selling? He is selling decks of playing cards, specifically a deck of Canadian manufacture known as the Texan '45 Palmetto, manufactured by the International Playing Card Co., or IPC. This is a well-made card with an air cushion finish and an attractive all-over back design. It also bears a distinguishing characteristic, which the author claims to have discovered on his own in the 1960s. Due to the nature of the back design, the cards often come from the factory bearing an extremely effective set of bevel edge marks. The effect is dramatic: There is nothing to see while the deck sits squarely in mechanic's grip, until you slightly bevel the deck—and then the marks pop out at you unmistakably. The first time you experience this, it's a stunning sensation.
Mr. Busby is selling these cards for more than four dollars per deck, depending on quantity. He makes a number of bizarre and over-the-top claims in the course of his sales pitch, including the statements that "Many of today's top card men use" the Texans, and also that it is a "widely-held misconception ... (that) using any card other than the standard Bicycles invites suspicion." This is pure salesmanship and utter nonsense to boot.
I confess to knowing at least three top card man, and I've never seen nor heard of a single one regularly using this deck. As to laymen asking about cards, they will sometimes even ask about Tally-Ho's, much less something as utterly exotic-looking as the Texans. Indeed, during the heyday of the Tahoe cards in the 1980s, I was often asked about them by audiences, and in self-defense I obtained a pre-printed roll of labels from a major drugstore chain and stuck them on my card boxes, so that when I was asked I could offhandedly point out that I had bought the cards at the local drug store. Certainly one can get around using unfamiliar cards, but that's a far cry from saying that it makes no difference to lay audiences or that they will never notice.
Once the author gets past the fundamentals of his pitch—it never really fades entirely away after this point, but its more overt claims do recede somewhat into the background—he instructs the reader in the fundamental principles and techniques of using the cards in the course of two chapters, and then in the remaining six chapters he expands on these ideas with a large catalog of tricks and applications, from controlling and locating selected cards to estimation, gambling demonstrations, tabled shuffle work, and a detailed exploration of the card stab effect.
Now I must draw the reader's attention to an oddity of these cards: depending on how centered the factory trimming is will determine not only the degree of readability of the work, but more importantly, whether the work exists at all! While the two decks I purchased were entirely marked, as it were, from the factory, Mr. Busby is compelled to point out that "The slight variances when the cards are cut from sheets makes the Texans either a complete deck of ONE-WAY EDGE READERS, a partial deck, or a deck that can be turned into either a partial or complete deck of gaffed cards with minimal work."
Now the fact is that for most applications you don't require more than a few of these cards to bear the work, because they will be used primarily as key cards (at least in the bulk of Mr. Busby's work; certainly one can also use an entire deck for one-way deck applications). But nevertheless, faced with the fact that some people will end up with perfectly trimmed cards that bear no work at all, Mr. Busby finds himself in the odd position of having to explain to the reader how to prepare such a key card from scratch—i.e., how to put the work in. This he does, and in excellent fashion, explaining how to quickly and effectively make a useful edge-marked card.
Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Even the author somewhat sheepishly acknowledges that you don't need these alien-looking cards to accomplish virtually everything he describes in the book! And while this fact greatly damages his marketing case concerning the Texans, it also makes a stronger case for the value of the book, because now you can apply this principle to any cards of your choice, provided they have an all-over back design (although Mr. Busby does make a mild claim, which may or may not be true, that the Texans will be easier to read than, say, the common Bee back when appropriately prepared). Therefore, the balance of the book becomes, in essence, an in-depth discussion of key card principles, and while most of these ideas exist in print, much of it is scattered through-out the literature and difficult to find.
Of course, perhaps the best recommendation is to be found among Mr. Busby's earliest suggestions, namely to go back and read Hugard's Encyclopedia of Card Tricks, along with Hilliard's Greater Magic. You'll find a wealth of pertinent information in those two excellent sources. Nevertheless, there are many useful and exotic ideas to be found in these pages, including interesting previously unpublished work from Charlie Miller and Jack McMillen, and if you lack some of the obscure sources from which the author draws—not necessarily antiquated ones but exotica like the Marlo Magazine, which many readers will not have on the shelf—you will learn much in these pages.
To do so, of course, you will have to have an appetite for Mr. Busby's trademark writing style, which is best described as haranguing. When he isn't accosting you with his sales pitch, he's whining about who's done him wrong in the published record, jumping from claim to counter-claim to extraordinary claim while he takes pot shots at the usual band of suspects, including Karl Fulves, Jon Racherbaumer, and especially Ed Marlo, about whom the author bounces back and forth between lauding and lambasting. Now, make no mistake, I am fascinated by such issues and believe them to warrant serious and extended discussion, and invariably at least some of Mr. Busby's charges seem to overlap with reality—even if on occasion this seems as much a factor of chance than anything else. But the constant—yes, harangue—frequently contributes to a lessening of confidence in the author's credibility.
When Mr. Busby began to put out book reviews in his catalog mailings in the 1970s, they served to teach me a great deal about the published record. Fortunately, the manner in which I utilized this guidance was as a stimulus in building my library. I would purchase the books Mr. Busby referred to and compare the actual record to his claims—and much to my at least initial surprise I discovered that the two were often at odds. I learned a lot in this manner, but certainly not by accepting Mr. Busby's accounts at face value. The present book is no exception to this tradition. For example, the author claims that in the book Card Finesse (which Mr. Busby famously excoriated, and in some portions legitimately, in his then review journal Epoptica), author Jon Racherbaumer described and credited to Ed Marlo a method for controlling In and Out Tabled Faro Shuffles that Mr. Busby had shown to Steve Draun (a Marlo colleague) in 1971, and which he (Busby) subsequently showed to Marlo himself in 1981. Mr. Busby claims that he "brought these points up—and very mildly—in my detailed review" in the aforementioned Epoptica.
If you read this statement in Secrets of the Palmettos at face value, it seems a potentially legitimate claim, especially since the author says that he put this complaint into the published record immediately upon release of Card Finesse. But if one actually goes back to check the record that Mr. Busby cites, one discovers that he explicitly states—in a review that is intensely vehement in its criticism—that "I briefly discussed my method and ideas on the shuffle with Ed Marlo ... prior to the publication of Card Finesse. It turned out that we had both, independently I might add, come up with the same method of controlling INS and OUTS on the table.... Full credit to Ed Marlo for this."
At this point, this reader is impelled to comment: What the hell?! "Full credit" has now transformed (in the current volume) into "No mention that someone ELSE had invented it years before!" What kind of mind is capable of uttering BOTH of these sentences with absolute conviction? Well ... the mind that produced this entertaining, informative, wacky, and unreliable little book. I confess I enjoyed reading it—just don't mistake its entire content for fact. Oh, and stay tuned; on the final page, Mr. Busby states that "almost as much has been left out as I've published," thus staking an infinite if unspecified claim that you can bet the author will return to in the future, when his latest rewriting of history hits the presses, gets run through the comb-binding machine, and soars out of Idaho seeking a target.