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Senate House Library

A Magical Mystery: The Expert at the Card Table


Written by
Tansy Barton

In our current exhibition, Staging Magic - The Story Behind The Illusion, one of our themes is ‘Masters of Magic and Their Influence.’ Here you can see items relating to some of the great conjurors: John Henry Anderson and Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, who popularised magic as a theatrical art in the 19th century, female magicians Adelaide Herrmann and Mercedes Talma, and the masters of the American stage such as Howard Thurston and Harry Houdini.

This section also features some of the books that have become essential reading for magicians and amongst these is one of the enduring authorship mysteries of magic: 'Artifice, ruse, and subterfuge at the card table : a treatise on the science and art of manipulating cards ; embracing the whole calendar of slights that are employed by the gambler and conjurer, describing with detail and illustration every known expedient, manoeuvre and strategem of the expert card handler', or as it is more commonly known: 'The Expert at the Card Table'.

The book was first published in 1902 under the pseudonym S.W. Erdnase and the identity of the author has remained a mystery and subject of great speculation. Many theories have been advanced on the subject but there are only a few concrete details known of the author. These include that S.W. Erdnase reversed is E. S. Andrews and that the books illustrator, Marshall D. Smith, met the author in a hotel room and described him as well spoken, gentlemanly and of short stature. In the book’s preface, Erdnase states of the book ‘if it sells well it will accomplish the primary motive of the author, as he needs the money.’ This, combined with the expert knowledge displayed in the book’s content, has pointed to several professional gamblers and card sharpers being behind the pseudonym.

It is a work that quickly became essential, if advanced, study for card specialists and continues to be held in high regard by magicians. Much of the content, unlike many contemporary magic books, was original and innovative and the book provided a system for card magic that ‘may enable the skilled in deception to take a postgraduate course in the highest and most artistic branches of his vocation.’ Its importance in the history of modern magic made it one of the first choices for the exhibition and is one of the highlights.

The first edition (on display) was self-published by the author and printed by McKinney and Co. of Chicago, it is bound in modest green cloth and was priced at $2.00, today it is rare and sought after.  It was reprinted in 1903 by another Chicago printing house, F.J. Drake & Co. in hardback and a paperback edition with a distinctive King of Hearts illustrated cover. As well as the first edition, the Library holds two Drake editions, which were sold at a much cheaper price: one 1905 copy still has a spine label price of 25c. The book has remained in print since its first publication and has been translated into several languages and issued in many different and special editions, many of these were documented in an online exhibition, Everything Erdnase by Jason England for Magicana.

The legendary status of the book and its author has also inspired many cultural responses including a play by conjuror Guy Hollingworth, a string quartet piece titled A Man in a Room Gambling and a spoken word piece both by Gavin Bryers and a feature film, Looking for Erdnase, is in production. The first edition of the book that started it all features in Staging Magic, and I hope it is a joy for practicing magicians to see and that it encourages those new to the work to investigate further.


Tansy Barton

Research Librarian & Curator of Staging Magic - The Story Behind The Illusion