Sharps And Flats by John Nevil Maskelyne
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 1997)
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.