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Sharps And Flats by John Nevil Maskelyne

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

John Nevil Maskelyne was a fighter for truth, justice, and the American—uh, sorry, make that British—way from virtually the beginning of his career. As an early opponent of spiritualism, he built early fame on his duplication of the Davenport Brothers' spirit cabinet act. Maskelyne's achievements were plentiful and varied, including his work with David Devant at the Egyptian Hall, and of course, his co-authorship with Devant of Our Magic, one of the greatest conjuring texts of all time. He also wrote books on spiritualism—one early in the battle, one late—which still make for remarkably good reading. And he wrote this classic treatise on crooked gambling, the "sharps" and "flats" in the title referring to the cheaters and their uninformed victims.

In my recent review of The Abracadabra Kid [page 291 ], I quoted the author, Sid Fleischman, in his comments about the value of reading Victorian literature in his youth in the form of classic conjuring texts like Hoffman and Erdnase. I was reminded of those remarks as I reread Maskelyne, whose wit and skillful wordsmithing can still make one laugh aloud a century later: "Doubtless, one would have to search the geological formations at great depth in order to discover the remains of that man who first conceived the idea of correcting fickle fortune at the expense of his fellows. If science ever achieves this discovery, we shall certainly have reasonable grounds for believing that we have found a very near relative of Adam." I admit it, I love this stuff!

Perhaps we can therefore forgive Mr. Maskelyne his excesses, as he misses no opportunity to slap the former colonies. Concerning cheating and the like: "The headquarters of this abominable system of wholesale robbery are to be sought for in the land which has bestowed upon civilization so many blessings of a similar character. From the spirit medium to the wooden nutmeg, they all hail from that most 'go-ahead,' and yet most easily hoodwinked country, America." Okay, well, it's true that he had us to blame for spiritualism, so maybe he had cause to be grouchy about it.

Beyond the delight of this voice from the past, there is plenty to learn here about grifting from these bygone days, and while much is now antiquated, as in conjuring, much is still relevant today. Like many magicians who write about gambling and hustling, Maskelyne didn't always get it right. His description of Three-Card Monte includes an illustration which is completely useless if one actually wished to learn the necessary sleight; we would have to wait until 1902 for Erdnase's definitive description. A drawing of the second deal is similarly worthless, typical of pre-Erdnasian clarity. There is plenty of material on marking cards, including daub, and also including a basic explanation of the idea of pricking cards with a fine needle to be read by touch during the deal and controlling such cards via the second deal, the origins of what would later become known as the "punch" deal, for which Walter Scott would eventually become famous (see below). There is a chapter on shiners (reflectors), in which the author wryly observes that "One cannot be too careful, when even the most innocent actions are apt to be misconstrued. The world is so uncharitable, that a little thing like the discovery of a bit of looking-glass might lead to a lot of unpleasantness. Who knows?"

There is an elaborate segment on hold-outs, including an illustrative plate depicting an anecdote in which the famous Kepplinger hold-out was first uncovered by some of the inventor's fellow sharpers and, apparently in this case, victims. Later in the book there is a reproduction of a then-current catalog of crooked gambling devices from an American mail-order house, which includes a Kepplinger hold-out for a price of $75.00 (the complete outfit could run as much as a hundred). Today, if you could actually locate the remaining individual or two that still makes a quality Kepplinger, you would likely have to pay between twelve and fourteen hundred dollars for it. Those were the days!

"There is only one course to pursue of which it can be said that it is absolutely safe. It is an extremely objectionable one, no doubt; but we are speaking, just now, of absolute safety. There is nothing for it but to suspect your best friend, if he is a gambler."—John Nevil Maskelyne, Sharps and Flats

There is work on "milk-build" run-ups with an overhand shuffle, and even a very early description of a riffle shuffle run-up (a subject which Erdnase studiously avoided; I am one of those who believe he was "betraying no confidences" in this deliberate choice, rather than revealing a substantial gap in his expertise). The technique Maskelyne describes works from the bottom of the stock up, rather than top down, and presents some challenges as a result. Among the many ways of specially modifying cards, the chapter on prepared cards mentions coating cards so that they can be located thanks to the resulting slippery finish, what would later be called "slick" cards. There is a chapter on the now extinct game of Faro, including a discussion of gimmicked Faro boxes (widely treasured today by collectors), along with chapters on dice, collusion, roulette and allied games, and gambling houses of the era. In the concluding chapter, Maskelyne's moralizing does reach a feverish and tiresome pitch, I'm afraid, with his insistence and defense-via-sophistry that all "gambling is essentially dishonest," and with his railing about the alleged "immorality" of gambling. Gambling may in most cases remain an unfailingly stupid endeavor, pursued by a populace afflicted with an over- arching inability to comprehend basic mathematics, but charges of immorality leave me stone cold. One of the nicest things about this most "go-ahead" of countries is that its citizens have the right to freely exercise their stupidity.

5 - 1/4" X 8" perfect bound; 335 pages; 1894; Publisher. Gamblers Book Club