Boing Boing

The search for the world's greatest card cheat

I first encountered the name S.W. Erdnase at random. A former colleague turned out, under questioning, to be a fairly serious amateur prestidigitator; he told me about a book called the Expert at the Card Table, from which he had learned almost everything he knew about legerdemain. He told me, as well, that no-one really knew who the author was.

This itself was reason enough for interest -- documentary absence carries with it in our infosaturated age the air of an earlier epoch. My interest developed into a novel, my second, called The War Against the Assholes, and still lives. Though it stands no nearer to satisfaction. Erdnase’s identity still remains a matter of educated speculation. We know this much: S.W. Erdnase is the name under which a, if not the, seminal 20th century English-language treatise on card manipulation appeared, amply illustrated, in 1902 from a publishing house in Chicago, a city described almost contemporaneously by Max Weber as resembling a human being with the skin removed. The Expert at the Card Table -- now freely available to anyone with an internet connection, but carried by true aficionados in a small green edition known as an Erdnase bible -- is a brilliant and meticulous tour of the craft, written in vigorous, sonorous, and sly prose (of a type imitated nowadays by novelists resurrecting gaslamps, clockwork, brothels, cholera, waistcoats, green baize). It is as much an ethics -- the term is inapt -- of deception as it is an instructional treatise on sleights of hand; Erdnase tells his readers not merely how to bottom deal or retain top stock in a blind shuffle, he explains the sociopersonal minutiae experts have to master as well, chief among them being the constant concealment of their expertise. “To be suspected of skill,” Erdnase writes, “is a death blow to the professional.”

Sam Munson's The War Against the Assholes is available from Amazon. Copyright 2015 by Sam Munson. Published by Saga Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

It is not surprising that the book has become in the ensuing hundred and thirteen years a vademecum for magicians amateur and professional alike (some are quite literally able to cite it from memory, chapter and verse). For attached to its internal excellence is a mystery. And his (an assumption) audience, his true constituency, comprises primarily magicians, people who by their very nature cannot help probing and driving to the technical and philosophical hearts of amazements and obscurities. The suspects Erdnase’s pursuers have unearthed are numerous. Mostly men of small and questionable reputation, a few successful professional magicians, and at least one killer: Milton Andrews, a con artist who died in a sordid suicide in California. The Milton Andrews theory, devised by legendary recreational mathematician, Lewis Carroll expert, and enemy of pseudoscience Martin Gardner (who, it has always seemed to me, must stand as a tutelary spirit to this publication) is now regarded as wide of the mark. But the genus Andrews has provided a number of candidates (it can be found, reversed, in the first seven letters of the pseudonym, as I am sure many of you reading have already observed). James Andrews, a New Yorker making his living as a fortune-teller. Hebert Andrews, who operated a business near the publishing house that printed The Expert at the Card Table. E.S. Andrews, who was either a penny-ante Midwestern con artist, a riverboat captain, a publisher himself, a British engineer and recreational math geek (like Gardner), or a railroad man traveling the great and now defunct Chicago and Northwestern.

But the candidacy includes more than just generically named Anglos. One of the more outre theories -- proposed without a great deal of evidence by wild-haired, top-hatted Spanish cardician Juan Tamariz -- holds that Erdnase is a pseudonym of the so-called Homme Masqué, a Peruvian magician born as José Antenor de Gago y Zavala. How marvelous it would be to discover such a manifold identity behind Erdnase. But as attractive as this theory is to anyone looking for aesthetic excitement, it falls apart on close examination. The book is U.S. to its core, brazen, nakedly ambitious, naive in its cynicism. The prose could only have been produced by a native speaker and one fully immersed, moreover, in a vibrant and furtive activity connected at once with art and with crime, one who expresses his love and devotion in violently different registers: the technical and the spiritual, the high-flown and the gutter-cultural. (Tamariz unveiled his theory at a magicians’ conference in Peru, so there is, as well, the possibility that it was meant as a savvy beau geste.)

Genii Magazine, perhaps the magic world’s leading publication, lent a significant amount of space in the fall of 2011 to the Erdnase theory developed and advanced by David Alexander, a West Coast magician and private detective. Alexander had come to the conclusion that Erdnase was not a petty criminal or a passionate eccentric but a well-established and well-educated mining engineer named Wilbur Edgerton Sanders. His evidence, though circumstantial, was compelling enough both for Genii and the Wall Street Journal and BBC. There is a powerful literary satisfaction to be derived from Alexander’s theory -- Erdnase living a double life, as solid burgher and cardsharp, playing a nimble and nihilistic game with identity. For a master theoretician of deception, such a life would be almost a requirement (and a tale worthy of inclusion on Borges’s A Universal History of Infamy).

Alexander died during a maintenance check-in on a rental property he owned. He was found in a pool of water from a burst attic pipe, victim of an apparent heart attack. A violent instantiation of the entropy Erdnase struggled against: all card manipulators are, ipso facto, warriors against disorder. Given the continuing and impenetrable perfection of his greatest sleight, Erdnase -- whoever he was -- seems to be at least for the moment victorious.

The Expert at The Card Table - Erdnase (HD) from Michael Stern on Vimeo.