FOUR POINTS: Erdnase’s most valuable lessons for magicians

June 25th, 2013 | Joe Hadsall | Filed Under Four Points

The mysterious S.W. Erdnase remains one of the most influential authors of sleight of hand to this day. His classic, solitary work, 1902’s “Expert at the Card Table,” is considered a bible to magicians. The study of it led Dai Vernon to dive into the world of the card cheats in pursuit of a more natural form of magic. It inspires to this day: The dark green of the first edition’s cover is used in the Madison Dealers deck.

Even though the book’s main purpose is to discuss methods for cheating at the card table, Erdnase had much to teach magicians, prestidigitators and anyone else performing artifice for the benefit of an audience. These are four of the most important lessons he had for magicians:

The pass belongs to magicians, not mechanics

In one of Ellusionist’s first videos, Brad Christian taught a routine about cheating at the card table in Vegas (seen in Ninja 1). Without spoiling anything, the routine basically “exposes” the pass — called a “shift” in the book — and talks about how gamblers rely on it to win.

In reality, however, Erdnase wrote that mechanics don’t use a lot of shifts at the table. It’s the “conjurer” who uses shifts 90 percent of the time, because presentations can be tailored to allow plenty of misdirection. But in a game, with all players looking at the deck during the few seconds that a shift can be employed, the conditions are much more difficult. What Erdnase wrote in 1902 still holds up today, 111 years later:

The shift has yet to be invented that can be executed by a movement appearing as coincident card table routine; or that can be executed with the hands held stationary and not show that some manoeuvre has taken place, however cleverly it may be performed.

To drive his point home, he instructs aspiring cheaters in only three shifts that work at the table. The more difficult shifts for which he is well known, such as the diagonal palm shift or S.W.E. shift appear in a section for ledgermain.

And it’s important to note that Erdnase still thought that shifts were limited, or at the very least, overused. Though Erdnase thought shifts were worthy of ink and paper, he knew they had their limitations. He writes about the shift as if it is a burden, a sleight that he wished to find a replacement for. He recommended, against a philosophy of magic teachers of the day, that beginning students could learn many impressive routines using jogs and breaks as their first mastered sleights, not the shift, and then palming.

Natural actions are critical

“Expert at the Card Table” has a split personality. Part of it is written squarely for card mechanics, and the other is written exclusively for conjurers and card lovers. But one theme remains constant throughout the book: Natural action is the most desirable.

Returning to Erdnase’s thoughts about shifts: At one point in introducing ledgermain, he suggests that a shuffle and palm would be just as effective and natural-appearing as a shift, yet the shuffle and palm are easier to learn than the shift. The point is that the ends justify the means, but the means don’t have to be difficult. And that brings us back to the book’s central theme:

In this phase of card-handling, as with card-table artifice, we are of the opinion that the less the company knows about the dexterity of the performer, the better it answers his purpose. A much greater interest is taken in the tricks, and the denouement of each causes infinitely more amazement, when the entire procedure has been conducted in an ordinary manner, and quite free of ostensible cleverness at prestidigitation. If the performer cannot resist the temptation to parade his digital ability, it will mar the effect of his endeavors much less by adjuring the exhibition of such sleights as palming and producing, single-hand shifts, changes, etc., until the wind up of the entertainment. But the sleights should be employed only as a means to an end.

Arguably, magicians have wrestled with this notion, and slowly pushed back against it. From the showy spreads of Paul LePaul to the flurry of cuts in Chris Kenner’s Sybil, magicians have found ways to show a little bit of their “digital ability” without destroying their magical means. But even the most flourishy of magicians know that natural action is important in every detail. Erdnase writes about minutia, yet every one of those seemingly miniscule details is important.

Cards are king

David Blaine has written about how cards are special, magical things. But Erdnase was one of the first to go on the record about how addicting the practice of artifice can be. Though card playing is not as popular a pastime as it was 111 years ago, the allure of a deck is still strong to many, and someone well-versed in sleight of hand is ready to seize magical moments like no other.

But the special advantage in this respect is that the really clever card-handler can dispense with the endless devices and preparations that encumber the performer in other branches. He is ever prepared for the most unexpected demands upon his ability to amuse or mystify, and he can sustain his reputation with nothing but the family deck and his nimble fingers, making his exhibition all the more startling because of its known impromptu nature and simple accessories.

In fact, we could argue that this thought strengthened the pursuit of other forms of close-up magic. However, while coins, rings, bills and rubber bands are much more commonly found in people’s possessions, no branch of magic “so fully repays the amateur for his labor and study.”

It’s in this section that Erdnase writes one of our favorite quotes about practicing magic:

Acquiring the art is in itself a most fascinating pastime, and the student will need no further incentive the moment the least progress is made.

Skill is nothing without performance

Creating magic is about much more than knowing sleights and executing them flawlessly. The ability to perform a perfect pass doesn’t mean you should perform it, in other words. Erdnase wrote that being able to execute complicated sleights offers no entitlement any gig, from a packed auditorium to a solitary spectator.

Going back to the Vegas card cheat routine in Ninja 1: Part of the reason that routine is so strong is because of the story behind it. Brad, in devising that routine, practiced something Erdnase recommends strongly:

The amateur conjurer who is not naturally blessed with a “gift of the gab” should rehearse his “patter” or monologue as carefully as his action. The simplest trick should be appropriately clothed with chicanery or plausible sophistry which apparently explains the procedure, but in reality describes about the contrary of what takes place.

In fact, we have a theory about how much value Erdnase gave to the performance of magic. When writing out magic routines in the final part of “Expert at the Card Table,” he scripts his effects with some of the most awkward, florid babble we’ve ever read in a magic book. We’ve read effects that require a certain script, we’ve studied routines that rely on certain things being said. None of those compare to the awful turns of phrase Erdnase writes about in The Exclusive Coterie, The Acrobatic Jacks and (printed below) The Traveling Cards:

“Ladies and Gentlemen: I am constantly importuned by some of the most curious and least discerning of my auditors to explain the manner by which the results in certain tricks are achieved. While I consider it unprofessional to make these disclosures, I accede somewhat to the prevalent demand, and to-night I am going to take you especially into my confidence and expose one of the most important secrets in the whole realm of conjuring. Although many professors of the art vehemently deny the imputation, it is nevertheless a fact that the coat sleeve of the magician is to him much the same as a Saratoga trunk to a summer girl. Where does he get his bouquets of roses, baskets of eggs, dishes of swimming fishes? ‘Up his sleeve.’ How do his rabbits, bird cages and cannon balls disappear? ‘Up his sleeve.’ The saying is as true as it is ancient, and I shall prove my assertions by demonstrating the process; and though you may doubt my veracity, you certainly cannot question your own eyes.”

Who is going to say all that? Our theory is that Erdnase purposely overwrote those scripts — even in 1902 — so that the performer would immediately devise their own.

FOUR POINTS is a regular feature that celebrates magicians’ favorite number by highlighting four critical bits of importance, awesomeness or otherwise. Send your suggestions to

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