No one knows who S.W. Erdnase really was.
He is known well to us magicians as the author of the seminal book on sleight of hand with cards, “Expert at the Card Table.” His work on sleight of hand has been studied by virtually every master of card magic, including Dai Vernon and Ed Marlo. But that’s all we know — well, and that he needed money enough to publish his works.
Some of you caught the Erdnase quote before it was identified in the Purple Artifice trailer, featuring Shade and his incredible handling. Erdnase’s methods, and his philosophies about card handling, are a foundation of today’s close-up magic. Many of the techniques, strategies and philosophies that we put into practice when we perform, he wrote about in 1902. Though his writing style is dated (as is his patter), his methods are timeless. His attitude of learning the art of sleight of hand matches spot on with our own.
“Expert at the Card Table” is inspirational. Erdnase is behind the creation of the Artifice deck. So while you wait for the Purple Artifice, read some of our favorite quotes from the man behind it. And tell us YOUR favorite quotes.
“As a matter of fact the principal difference between the professional gambler and the occasional gambler, is that the former is actuated by his love of the game and the latter by cupidity.”
This speaks to us about magicians in general. The temptation would be to compare an occasional gambler to a hobbyist magician, but to us, that’s offensive. Instead, we think the more accurate comparison is a magician unwilling to practice. They are the ones who exhibit “cupidity” by wanting the David Blaine-style reactions without putting the work into it.
“Of course it is generally known that much deception is practiced at cards, but it is one thing to have that knowledge and quite another to obtain a perfect understanding of the methods employed, and the exact manner in which they are executed.”
People know about sleights. They probably have heard of trick cards, or double lifts, or palming. The goal for the magician is to present an effect so people forget all about those moves. Where a gambler at a table doesn’t have the luxury of talking, magicians are BLESSED with that opportunity in abundance.
“The inviolable rule of the professional is uniformity of action. Any departure from his customary manner of holding, shuffling, cutting or dealing the cards may be noticed, and is consequently avoided.”
This speaks to us in designing routines, and reminds us of the power of repetitive movements. Consider an ACR: If a push-off double lift is used, turn over a single card in the same way. That gets eyeballs used to the sight of a flipped-over card, and the repetition relaxes their guard so you can get away with a double lift.
“Ability in card handling does not necessarily insure success. Proficiency in target practice is not the sole qualification of the trap shooter. Many experts with the gun who can nonchalantly ring up the bull’s eye in a shooting gallery could not hit the side of a barn in a duel. The greater the emergency, or the greater the stakes, the greater the nerve required.”
This reminds us that there is a difference between performing in front of a mirror or a camera and performing for live, breathing people. There is NOTHING like the thrill of performing live, and you should do it as much as you think is necessary.
“The beginner invariably imagines his hands are too small or too large, but the size has little to do with the possibilities of skill.”
We hear a lot of complaints from people who think their hands are too small, or too sweaty, and they can’t use poker-sized cards. The only people who can legitimately make that complaint are 7-year-olds. We don’t care if you’re that guy from the small-hands Burger King commercial. You can palm. You can double lift. You can shift. All it takes is practice, learning where the sweet spots in your hands are and learning the points where misdirection is required.
“Nevertheless upon occasion it must be employed, and the resourceful professional failing to improve the method changes the moment; and by this expedient overcomes the principal obstacle in the way of accomplishing the action unobserved.”
This is one of our favorite Erdnase quotes, ever since Aaron Fisher brought it to our attention in “The Paper Engine.” It speaks to the power of misdirection, and how the magician should be in control of every moment.
“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.”
Here, Erdnase is finally talking about sleight of hand in a magical context. Even in 1902 he understood the power of a close-up set done with everyday objects — namely, the deck of cards any family might have. This is why we develop things such as Shift with forks and keys. It’s why we work with things everyone is familiar with, and market those kind of effects. We’ve found that they simply get the best reactions.
“However, the enthusiast will not rest until every sleight in the calendar has been perfectly mastered, so that he may be enabled to nonplus and squelch that particularly obnoxious but ever present individual, who with his smattering of the commoner sleights always knows “exactly how it is done.” 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.”
While this quote shows the importance of a full arsenal and the value of learning how to “wing it,” that last sentence really speaks to us. Magic is divided up into two distinct, separate joys. Certainly, we love getting great reactions from people who were moved by a powerful routine. But there is another joy in mastering a move; seeing our hands go from fumbling clumsiness to fluid mastery. Nothing packs a punch like experiencing the growth of mastery.
“The finished card-table expert will experience little or no difficulty in accomplishing the various sleights that lie at the bottom of the conjurer’s tricks … But the mere ability to execute the sleights by no means fits him for the stage or even a drawing-room entertainment.”
One of the most important quotes on this page. Practicing moves is not enough. EVERY ACTION must be practiced, from making eye contact with spectators to learning how to develop a character. Sure, you can be a movemonkey, if that’s your highest magic aspiration. But what good is all that practice if you don’t get to share your skill with the world, or better yet, disguise that skill as magic?