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.