Exploring Erdnase (Part 4)

In this post I’ll be taking a look at the “Professional Secrets” chapter of The Expert at the Card Table. This section contains lots of interesting information on hold-outs, prepared cards (including the use of a Cold Deck), and working with a confederate. The author also describes the two most popular methods of shuffling and, most importantly, introduces several key concepts that enable secret actions to go unnoticed at the card table.

If you don’t have a copy of the book, you can download it in PDF format from The Reginald Scot Library (a free digital library hosted on this website).

Purified Prodigals

In this chapter of the book, Erdnase once again demonstrates a disdain for reformed card cheats. Although he doesn’t say so directly, I get the impression that he believed that these self-styled experts were fond of exaggerating their technical prowess. In fact, Erdnase is very sarcastic regarding “ex-professionals”, as the following quote exemplifies:

“If terrific denunciation of erstwhile associates, and a diatribe on the awful consequences of gambling are a criterion of ability, these purified prodigals must have been very dangerous companions at the card table.”

The Cold School of Experience

The author goes on to state that everything he knows about card table artifice was learnt at the “cold school of experience”. From this statement we can see that Erdnase was being refreshingly honest about his initial inexperience at the card table. He paints a self portrait of an overly confident gambler, a “self-satisfied unlicked cub” who soon paid the price at the “customary sucker rates” (an “unlicked cub” is a loutish, rude youngster). It also seems clear that Erdnase had enough money to regularly partake in gambling, as he mentions having a “fairly fat bankroll” when he first started.

He also leaves clues about his personality when he mentions that it wasn’t the financial loss that hurt him most, rather the bruises that these losses left on his ego (or his “insufferable conceit” as the author puts it). Comments such as this make be believe that Erdnase, like the professional gamblers he describes in the book’s introduction, was also in love with “the hazard” and would “rather play than eat”.

Bucking the Tiger

Erdnase also mentions that he “bucked the tiger voluntarily”, which means that he alone made the decision to start gambling and can blame no one else for his subsequent financial losses. The phrase also suggest that he was a Faro player, as this game was often referred to as “Bucking the Tiger” (Faro was the most popular form of gambling at the time of the book’s publication). This strange phrase is thought to be connected to the fact that early playing cards used to play the game featured a drawing of a Bengal Tiger on them. Similar phrases were also popular with Faro players, such as “twisting the tiger’s tail” and places that sported a number of gambling halls were often called “tiger town” or “tiger alley”.

If you’re not familiar with the game, I recommend you read this great article on Faro. It sounds like a lot of fun, I can see why it was so popular and why Erdnase considered it “the most fascinating of layout games”.

Hatred for Holdouts

To say that Erdnase disliked the use of holdouts would be putting it mildly. Here’s what he had to say about them:

“The expert professional disdains their assistance. They are cumbersome, unnecessary, and a constant menace to his reputation.”

However, he does briefly describe the workings of a few common card cheating contraptions, including what sounds like a Kepplinger style holdout. I assume he lifted this information from John Nevil Maskelyne’s book Sharps & Flats (1894) as the text is very similar.

Be Prepared

Erdnase doesn’t have that much to say about prepared cards, other than that they exist in various forms. He briefly mentions marked cards, which he calls “readers”, and describes the general method used to produce a marked deck. He also mentions how a cheat can mark cards during a game by creasing, nail nicking, and edge marking (with ink pads).

The author had a good working knowledge of “Strippers” and, in this chapter, he describes how to make them using specialist machines. He also mentions the practice of roughing cards to make them easier to control during the shuffle, and goes on to discuss how strippers and rough cards are perfect for cheating at the game of Faro. This is because players of the game don’t touch the cards, only the dealer gets to handle them. Erdnase was clearly very familiar with this game, and goes on to tell us that a dishonest dealer using a gimmicked box (card shoe) could give the house an edge “that would impoverish a prince”.

The section on prepared cards finishes with some basic information on the “Cold Deck” (a pre-arranged pack that is secretly brought into play). Interestingly, he states that little skill is required to make the exchange because it is usually done quite openly with the aid of other players, who are colluding with the card cheat. This seems counterintuitive to me, but maybe this bold approach offers more cover for the switch?

Unbeatable Combination

The author of The Expert at the Card Table makes it very clear that when two or more cheats work together, the advantage gained it great, especially if one shuffles while the other cuts. He also mentions that secret codes can be used instead of sleight-of-hand. Using such a code, a player can covertly communicate what hand he holds to his partner. Erdnase offers this final warning:

“No single player can defeat a combination, even when the cards are not manipulated.”

Shuffling Style

Next, Erdnase discusses the two most common types of shuffling: the Overhand Shuffle, which he calls the old-fashioned or hand shuffle, and the Riffle Shuffle. He quite clearly had a preference for the former shuffle because, according to the mysterious manipulator, it offers far more natural ways to cheat. The position of the cards in the hand make stocking, culling, and palming easier than if you were using a riffling action. Erdnase does, however, concede that most men who play for money use the Riffle Shuffle.

First Learn to Fake It

According to Erdnase, the first thing you want to master if you want to be a top rate card cheat is “blind” shuffling and cutting. I think this advice also applies to magic, as most semi-automatic tricks are greatly improved by including a false shuffle and/or cut or two, particularly if the method relies on a stack. Erdnase understood this, as the following quote illustrates:

“Nothing so completely satisfies the average card player as a belief that the deck has been thoroughly shuffled and genuinely cut.”

Blind Leading the Blind

Erdnase realised that even experienced card players could be fooled by “blind” shuffling, even though such players are often deluded to this fact. He also states that even card cheats cannot tell the difference between false and real actions.

He also tells us that the sense of sight has no bearing on the action of “blind” shuffling and cutting. In fact, he goes on to point out that an “expert might perform the work just as well if he were blindfolded”. This highlights the importance of touch when performing false shuffles and cuts; maybe next time you practice your favourite sleight you should do so blindfolded? I already do this on occasion, and it does help me focus on the fine details of a move or sequence. However, it also makes you look just a little bit crazy!

Graceful Handling

The author of The Expert at the Card Table also urges the neophyte to “learn to handle a deck gracefully before attempting a flight to the higher branches of card manipulation.” This is excellent advice that too few beginners follow; master the basics before trying to learn more complex sleight-of-hand.

Consistency is King

Erdnase describes the concept of uniformity of action as an “inviolable rule”. In other words, this is a rule that should never be broken. When cheating at cards, he stresses the importance of using the same style of shuffling throughout. You shouldn’t chop and change between Overhand and Riffle Shuffles because this would be suspicious. The author also highlights the need to make a “blind” action look exactly the same as the equivalent real action – a very important concept indeed.

The Importance of Attitude

Erdnase talks about deportment. This isn’t what happens to you if you’re an illegal immigrant, it is the way that a person behaves, stands, and moves (especially in formal situations). Apparently gentlemen made the best card cheats at the turn of the 20th Century (I’m guessing this is probably still the case). Erdnase also mentions the need for “boldness and nerve” and that ability in card handling alone is not enough to 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.”

I think this thinking applies to card magic as much as it does to card cheating. It is one thing to practice a trick at home in front of a mirror, but a completely different matter to perform that same trick in front of a live audience.

Stealth Mode

The author of The Expert at the Card Table encourages his readers to conceal their skill at the card table and to avoid the urge to show off. Once fellow players know what you’re capable of, they’ll likely never play cards with you again.

“Excessive vanity proves the undoing of many experts. The temptation to show off is great. He has become a past master in his profession.”

This also applies to card magic. Once your audience has a good understanding of your sleight-of-hand ability, the miracles you perform will be less surprising and impressive. This is why excessive use of flourishes can actually diminish the feeling of wonder your magic elicits in an audience.

The Dependency of Deceptions

According to Erdnase, the Bottom Deal is the technique that will give you the greatest advantage when cheating at cards. However, he goes on to stress that this move is pretty much useless without some knowledge of blind shuffling and cutting; these skills enable you to control and then retain useful cards before making the false deal.

“Hence it will be seen that proficiency in one artifice does not finish the education of the professional card player, and almost every ruse in the game is more or less dependent upon another one.”

This dependant nature of artifice means that it is important to have a well-rounded knowledge of sleight-of-hand techniques.

A Death Blow to the Professional

Erdnase makes is clear that the mere whiff of skill is enough to scare off the competition, especially when money is at stake, and states that the suspicion of skill “is a death blow to the professional” - I just love this dramatic use of language.

Don’t Just Practice, Study the Art

To become a proficient card cheat you not only need to practice, but study the art as Erdnase calls it. He suggests you sit at a card table, as you would when playing in a normal game, and make use a mirror, so that you can become your “own critic”. He also states that for the purpose of entertainment, or self amusement, the easiest and simplest of sleights will do to begin with.

Size is not Important

The author goes on to state that moderately moist hands make sleight of hand easier and highlights the importance, or lack thereof, of hand size:

“The beginner invariably imagines his hands are too small or too large, but the size has little to do with the possibilities of skill.”

What Type of Cards are Best?

Erdnase mentions that the cards you use should be new, thin, flexible and of the best possible quality. Once they’ve been in constant use for 2 to 3 hours they should also be replaced.

The Importance of Details

Erdnase finishes off this chapter by stressing the importance of details:

“The finished card expert considers nothing too trivial that in any way contributes to his success, whether in avoiding or allaying suspicion, or in the particular manner of carrying out each detail; or in leading up to, or executing, each artifice.”