This week my children have been on Spring Break, a time of staying up late, sleeping in, and generally making their mother panic about how to fill the many hours of a rapidly approaching summer break. At this point in their academic careers, it’s also a time for them to set aside school projects in favor of more leisurely passions.
For my first born son, a bright 11-year-old, that means magic. I’m not actually sure when this latest obsession began to take root, but for months he’s been studying library books full of sleight of hand techniques and grand illusions. My basement is filled with discarded attempts at fashioning a cardboard vanishing cabinet. He has even worked hard to design schemes that can convince an audience of his psychic abilities.
This last one is pretty easy to unravel as he always recruits his little brother to be his less-than-subtle audience plant. Still, I’m reasonably confident that if he sticks with it, he will eventually figure out how to pull off some convincing illusions.
In fact, he’s already managed a few fairly impressive card tricks that I have a hard time figuring out. It’s these he’s worked on the most, mastering some classics and tweaking a few to make them his own. Now I’m thinking the book he might really need to read is what has become known as the “Card Sharp Bible,” The Expert at the Card Table: The Classic Treatise on Card Manipulation by S. W. Erdnase.
Originally published by James McKinney and Co in Chicago in 1902, this little book has been in continuous print for over one hundred years and is widely considered the most influential book on card manipulation ever written.
Erdnase’s work includes sixteen techniques of blind shuffles and card cutting, with illustrations. Bottom dealing, deck stacking, and second dealing are all thoroughly explained. There are discussions of card palming, sleight of hand illusions, and plain old card tricks.
But the most impressive trick tackled by Erdnase is the author’s own disappearing act, because, even after more than a hundred years, and numerous exhaustive searches, no one is quite sure of the author’s true identity. We know only that S. W. Erdnase is a pseudonym (understandable given the potentially illegal applications of the subject matter in his book) and that the author sold his rights to the book a year after it was originally published.
There’s been A LOT of speculation about who he might have been. From an interview conducted forty years later with the original illustrator, we have a vague description of a short , well-spoken, and pleasant man, who may have mentioned a familial connection to political cartoonist Louis Dalrymple.
It’s not a lot to go on, but clever investigators quickly latched onto the fact that S. W. Erdnase is the backwards spelling of E. S. Andrews. This has led to a number of potential candidates and dead ends, including a notorious Chicago conman by that name and a Herbert Andrews whose business was located a few blocks from the book’s publisher and whose wife was Emma Shaw Andrews.
Other clever investigators have put forward the suggestion of successful mining engineer W. E. Sanders, whose name anagrams nicely into S. W. Erdnase. Still others have proposed Peruvian magician L’Homme Masque whose prowess in the magic community at the time might at least recommend him as a contributor, or Harry S. Thompson, a salesman who was both a short, well-spoken man and a friend to Harry Houdini.
The debate rages on, but it seems unlikely that the true Expert at the Card Table will ever reappear. The real question, it seems, is how he managed to so completely vanish in the first place. Personally, I’m betting it had something to do with a vanishing cabinet, made of cardboard, in his mother’s basement.