Magic’s Most Mysterious Author
Almost 120 years ago, this seminal book on manipulating cards for gamblers and conjurers saw print for the first time. It went largely unnoticed for several decades. Then the craze about the book, it’s deep insights and revolutionary moves, its writer and his possible background started. But, despite a well-equipped army of dedicated students and researchers, the true identity of S.W. Erdnase, the proclaimed author of “The Expert at the Card Table”, remains one of magic’s best kept secrets.
If you are new to the ride, grab a copy of Erdnase (here‘s an electronic version, and it’s free), get Hurt McDermott’s seminal introductory text, Artifice, Ruse and Erdnase, and follow the longest thread in magic history over at the Genii Forum. You are in for an intellectual treat!
Facts vs. Factoids: What’s in an Anagram?
One of the arguments over Erdnase hovers around the assessment of how convincing or even self-evident hidden meanings in anagrams or text passages actually are. To me, they are factoids, in the sense that they do not really help us identify Erdnase now. They cannot stand their own ground because they only “work” in a given, predetermined context. Only in retrospect, once we have found him for certain, we will thus be able to see to what degree these possible hints were actually deliberately chosen by the author, I’m afraid.
On a general note, language is incredibly versatile – and so is any small group of letters. Thus, a lot of “meaning” can be generated from almost any decent word or name by shifting some letters around, adding or dropping others, etc. In general, this proves nothing but the versatility of words and the alphabet. To illustrate, here are some anagrams I have played with some time ago which you may find amusing (and which hopefully do not offend anybody seriously):
Criss Angel = Caring Less
David Copperfield = Prop Fiddle Advice
Phil Goldstein = Shielding Plot
Pit Hartling = A Light Print
Richard Kaufman = Human Card Fakir
Derek Lever = Revered Elk
Harry Lorayne = Harry-Only Era
David Regal = A Drag Devil
Siegfried & Roy = Fireside Orgy
Jon Racherbaumer = Am Rehab Conjurer / Macabre Hen Juror
S.W. Erdnase = A Nerd Sews / News Reads / Wands Seer / Sends Ware / Draw Sense
Some are fun, some may “draw sense” or even have a ring of truth in them in relation to the real person behind the name; yet I am sure that all of them are purely accidental (unless their parents convince me otherwise).
Erdnase: A Word Well Chosen
As for the word ERDNASE, its six different letters unfortunately rank among the ten most used ones in the English language (ETAOINSHRD) and even among the top eight in German (ENISRATD), allowing for many variations and speculations. Only the “W” is much less common and may thus be a more relevant clue if there actually is a connection between the pseudonym and the man behind it.
How German is “Erdnase”?
Being German, I can attest that Erdnase is a German word and I am sure every German would read or identify it as such. But I would also guess that >90% would neither have heard the word before nor have a clear idea about its meaning. Why? Because it is a widely unfamiliar and obnoxious word. Here’s some proof:
a) I consider myself well-read, but in decades of reading thousands of books and magazines I had never ever encountered the word before discovering our S. W. Erdnase (yup, that’s only n=1).
b) From the many German compound words beginning with Erd- (like Erdäpfel, Erdatmosphäre, Erdgas, Erdnuss, Erdreich, Erdrutsch, Erdumlaufbahn etc.), Erdnase seems to be among the rarest ones (together with its topographical opposite, Erdfall). The word is actually so rare it is not even listed in current editions of the German language bible, Der Duden, and also not in the Knaur.
c) Having run some search queries myself I think Erdnase is probably the noun or name with the fewest hits I have ever gotten in any online search. Yes, there are a few, but even among those I have found some that refer to the topographical “earth nose,” (see below) and some to a cute nickname for dogs and others for kids sticking their noses into the soil and getting dirty in their faces.
d) Much better known German synonyms for a dirt-digging rascal or “mudlark” would be Schmutzfink or Dreckspatz, for example (in literal translation: mud sparrows or dirt finches). They may have been around for hundreds of years; I certainly would have bought these terms as “common”, but not Erdnase.
e) In my view, none of these words would actually qualify as nicknames in the sense of labels permanently applied to a person (like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – don’t ask me why he just crossed my mind) and used to identify him or her precisely; their use is clearly context-based, not universal. I could probably imagine a mother calling out “Get out of the mud and come into the house now, you little dirty Erdnase!”, but not “Erdnase, come down for dinner, please!” Thus, it also seems rather unlikely to me that someone would remember a descriptive, contextual and non-personal label like Erdnase or Mudlark as their “personal childhood nickname” and put it to good use for hiding their identity decades later.
If you think the above is a stronger point for the topographical “earth noses” miners may be dealing with, behold. Again, there are very few hits in an online search. I have also checked with several mining dictionaries online (not from 1900 or older, though), and none of them carried this word nor any other special word with “Erd-“. And even though the word Nase (nose) has several meanings in other contexts, the Duden lexicon does not offer one referring to hills or piles of earth. Besides, wouldn’t miners be more concerned with digging holes (= Erdfall) than with piling up the soil?
A Side Aspect
Speaking of topography, however, it seems possible to me that “S.W. Erdnase” in fact describes a location where the author could have been found at a certain point: somewhere south-western of a prominent “Erdnase” (= hill).
Just a thought.
Seek and Ye Shall Find…
Turning toward the famous “Embracing the whole calendar…” triangular section of the title page, any “proof” of authorship taken out of that context becomes even more shaky in my view. The reason: Those nine lines with 41 words and 211 letters include every letter of the alphabet at least once, except for “q” and “z” (so we can at least rule out finding Hofzinser or Tamariz there). Considering this, it is not the least surprising to identify traces of almost any candidate that you’d ever hope (or want) to find there.
Proof: I made up a random list of ten names from the world of magic. My only guidance was whether I thought it would be funny to prove that they were in fact Erdnase. I found all ten of them in the triangular section, including Harry Houdini, Harry Lorayne, Karl Fulves, Jon Racherbaumer and David Copperfield. Both Ed Marlo and Charlier were actually hiding in line one. Seek and ye shall find…
Hiding in Plain Sight?
In best Edgar Allan Poe fashion, one could also argue that the real author of TEATCT is hiding in plain sight on the frontispiece. The only real and meaningful name we find there is the one of M.D. Smith, apparently “only” the book’s illustrator. But has his personal background already been checked thoroughly? Besides undoubtedly being an artist, could he have been the card master himself, the “expert card handler” mentioned a few lines up? Was he definitely too young to qualify?
The final line “by M.D. Smith” could certainly be applied to the entire text above, not only to the “drawings from life.” And making up a fancy story about a mysterious man wanting to demonstrate card tricks to him in a cheap cold hotel room could have offered the best misdirection ever, directing away from himself into the great unknown of tall or not so tall men…
Just another thought.
Mulling over the famous figure 101 that comes with the trick “The Three Aces” within TEATCT, here is a thought I have enjoyed nurturing for quite some time: What if there was a secret connection between the opening of the book (the original title on the frontispiece, to be precise) and this more or less closing feature of the book, the final drawing?
Unlike the other figures, this one does not only explain the ruse; in fact, it does deceive you, the reader. The display of the aces looks totally regular. Only when you know that there is a subterfuge involved, you will understand that the Ace of Diamonds is not what it claims to be, but something-or someone-else (the Ace of Hearts).
Now the same may be said about the triple of ARTIFICE, RUSE and SUBTERFUGE (= ARS (lat.) = art). I have always wondered why Erdnase used three nouns with roughly the same connotation here: You are being deceived expertly and artfully at the card table. Precision? (Erdnase obviously loved describing things in detail by doubling or tripling words.) PR blurb to make his book sound utterly important? Or simply a clever means of hiding something in the middle, in plain sight? That something might be “RUSE and.”
What is more, in American handwriting, figure I0I can be read forward as well as backwards. A hint at an anagram or at shifting words around?
Remember, “RUSE and” = “and RUSE” = “Andruse” = “Andrews” (!)
Finally, the book’s frontpage promises “over one hundred drawings.” The total of 101 figures delivers this promise, but only by the smallest margin. You may not call this cheating, but probably another artful subterfuge…
Pure conjecture, I admit. This could be more convincing if, say, figure 101 were really displayed on the very last page of the book, maybe on page 202, and if the book’s title went more like ART, ARTIFICE and ACES at the Card Table to resemble the three Aces in figure 101 even more closely.
Just a thought.
Ten Good Reasons Why This Man Was Erdnase
(…and one or two why probably not.)
Following the lines of, uhmm, “special thinking” and wild inductive reasoning often displayed in the Erdnase thread over at the Genii Forum, minutes and hours of my own dedicated research and uninformed opining have unearthed that the author of The Expert had, in fact, always been around, hiding in plain sight before us and even among us, as he was no outsider to our community. On the contrary, he was and is one of our most respected practitioners and innovators!
- like few others had the expertise to perform all the sleights described in the book with “unflinching audacity”
- was interested and well-versed both in gambling and magic
- was a true artist but also a logical, almost scientific thinker
- could write well and did so elsewhere
- preached to be natural and to handle the deck lightly
- loved a good secret and fooling the boys (and he did keep many secrets over decades)
- was almost always in need of money
- became, in fact, the biggest promoter of his own book
- had a special reason for using the anagram “Erdnase”: At one point in time, in New York City, a Dr. S. Weenas (sic!) was his optometrician
- hid and displayed his name very prominently on the famous title page of TEATCT, centered within the inverted pyramid text: DetAIl eVERy kNOwN:
Finally, Erdnase has been found. TEATCT was written “by DAI VERNON, the Expert Card Handler”. There can be no doubt that he’s our man!
Yes, yes, I know what you’re saying… Officially, Dai Vernon was only born in 1894, and the book appeared in 1902. What a boy wonder! Or maybe he just cheated about his real age. Was he probably about 15 years older than he claimed? Considering his early proficiency with cards, this could be true! Or maybe it was a father and son ploy, elaborately planned and executed over decades (just like some U.S. White House takeovers). And yes, he didn’t choose to be called Dai Vernon until much later on, but, hey, maybe the guy was just planning ahead! All part of the ploy.
Vernon’s the man. Case closed. Thread closed. Now let’s move on to other secrets, please:
- Who was the mysterious Frenchman (?) “Mr Charlier”?
- Who invented the legendary Horse Drop?
- And who is “R.P.”, the German/Austrian (?) author of the early card book, Ein Spiel Karten (A Deck of Cards) from 1853?
M. D. Smith: A Key Figure in Finding Erdnase?
In discussing Erdnase candidates, sometimes someone objects that this or that guy simply cannot be the man because he doesn’t match in terms of age, looks or body height with the book’s illustrator Marshall D. Smith‘s recollections of meeting the author some 40+ years earlier.
This simplistic view seems rather daring to me, as there are at least six points to consider:
1. In general, people are lousy observers and make horrible witnesses (even though they usually believe otherwise). You can ask any police officer, criminologist or judge about this. Also think of fascinating phenomena such as inattentional blindness and change blindness, which both reveal and debunk our allegedly “super observation powers.”
2. More than one hundred years of research into memory, mind and brain have also detected major flaws and tricky secret mechanisms running in our head. There is recent research that suggests that we are constantly and inadvertently creating false memories over time, and we fully believe them. For a memory bit is not a fixed, tangible asset that is safely stored away on a shelf somewhere in the back of our head and can easily pulled forth once we remember it; on the contrary, it is probably more like a tangled web of loose bits and ends scattered somewhere on our neuronal memory hard disk drive, and as we try to retrieve a file and pass it on (e.g., tell it to someone else), there is a good chance that we are actually rewriting and reediting our own “memory” in that very moment. But we swear that “it happened exactly that way, because we remember it so vividly!” (For a fascinating read on these and other brain-related topics, you may want to check out The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.)
3. Try to remember any single, insignificant event in your life 40+ years ago in detail, and describe the look, height, manner, speech etc. of any person you have met only once or twice back then… Good luck! Except for some major events (like „…and then that shabby magician at the country fair smacked me several times with a big yellow stuffed rabbit!“) you are very likely to fail or misremember. And even if you think you do remember in detail, you may have fallen victim to the mechanism described above in #2.
4. Smith was not under rigorous professional interrogation, but likely prodded and influenced by an enthusiastic and biased Martin Gardner, who may inadvertently have forced many „facts“ on Smith, seeking affirmation.
5. Besides, it’s not that Smith had displayed super memory powers, right? He seemed to remember some details clearly, but he failed miserably, for example, to remember other vital details as to the man’s name (how he introduced himself), even how often he met him and how many drawings he had actually made, and from which bank the check he received was issued. Duh!
6. The fact that M.D. Smith’s name as the book’s illustrator was given away on the frontispiece is somewhat peculiar. If Erdnase desperately wanted to remain anonymous, he must have known that Smith was a risk to that goal. So why mention his name at all? In this case, it also seems unlikely to me that any anagram or wordplay shifting “S.W. Erdnase” around would directly reveal the author’s true name.
On the other hand, Erdnase might have been so proud of his work that he wanted his (magic) peers to find out and just put some minor obstacles in their way, like in a merry treasure hunt. In this case, publishing M.D. Smith’s name could have been used as one possible key to finding the author. Using “Erdnase” as a simple anagram of the author’s real name (be it Andrews, Sanders, Anders, …) might have been another key then.
Smith was the only real person mentioned on the frontispiece of TEATCT. This means that there is also a chance that he was “in on it”, a friend or partner of Erdnase, so he may have given false clues in order to protect his anonymity, even all those years later. Who knows, he might might might even have been Erdnase himself, a notion that has not been looked into deeply and seriously yet, as far as I know. S.W.E. = Smith Was Erdnase???
In conclusion, I really would advise not too rely too strongly on Smith‘s “clear and undoubtful recollections” and to not exclude other options or a promising candidate just because “his height or age doesn’t match with Smith‘s description at all.”
To be fair, there are two points to consider: First, unless proven otherwise, it is reasonable to assume that Smith tried his best in remembering and describing his mysterious customer. But then again, a free-lance artist may have met hundreds, if not thousands of clients over the years, maybe with quite a few of them having very “special” assignments. And was drawing hands a totally odd job at the time? Maybe, maybe not. Who knows.
And secondly, yes, maybe a fine artist would pay special attention to the hands of this strange client. But maybe he was so busy getting the finger positions, cards, and angles right that he wouldn’t remember a thing about the man’s real hands…
When it comes to estimating a person’s age and height, this seems very thin ice to me, as there’s a huge subjective factor involved in it. Also, from today’s perspective, a lot of people on photos one hundred or more years ago seem to look so much older then they actually were at the time.
As I’ve learned from Joe Posnanski’s interesting book, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini (see my short review here), even the world’s most famous and most publicized artist of his time, who undoubtedly was a short man, had quite a huge range of heights attributed to him.
My biggest point though is the indisputable limits of our senses and our brain when it comes to attention, perception, and memory. Please feel free to take my little online test for you here. If, after 10,000 hours or more of shuffling and toying with playing cards right under our noses, we are unable to tell which Jack looks which way or which Kings do not sport a mustache, what kind of peripheral information are we supposed to remember and report reliably then decades after an insignificant incident?
No wonder that we marvel at the few enviable people with eidetic memories, as this incredible trait is so many light-years away from our own experience in daily life!
That’s why I wouldn’t bet more than a dollar or two on the reliability of Smith’s recollections about Erdnase. Yes, I would consider them for what they are, but I certainly wouldn’t use them as “conclusive evidence” against or in favor of one Erdnase candidate over another.
(End of rant.)
Selected Reading and Watching
Ben, David: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Erdnase, in: Magicol, No. 180 (August 2011), pp. 24 ff.
England, Jason: Erdnase — Past, Present and Future, 2008
England, Jason: Variations on a Theme, in: Magicol, No. 180 (August 2011), pp. 58 ff.
Forte, Steve: The Erdnase Factor, in: Forte, Steve: ‘Gambling Sleight of Hand: Forte Years of Research‘, 2020, pp. 612 ff
Hatch, Richard: Reading Erdnase Backwards, in: Magicol, No. 180 (August 2011), pp. 8 ff.
Karr, Todd: The Erdnase Scroll, The Miracle Factory 2008
Karr, Todd: The Expert (angekündigt für 2020, siehe Links)
McDermott, Hurt: Erdnase in Chicago, in: Magicol, No. 180 (August 2011), pp. 44 ff.
McDermott, Hurt: Artifice, Ruse & Erdnase, Lybrary.com, 2012
Sawyer, Thomas A.: S.W. Erdnase: Another View, 1997 (2nd ed.)
Wasshuber, Chris: The Hunt For Erdnase: and the Path to Edward Gallaway, Lybrary.com, 2016
Whaley, Bart with Martin Gardner & Jeff Busby: The Man Who Was Erdnase, Oakland 1991
Allan Ackerman: The Expert at the Card Table (DVDs)
Steve Forte: Gambling Sleight of Hand: Forte Years of Research, 2020
Wesley James: The Man Who Knows Erdnase, 2007 (DVDs and book)
Daniel Madison: Erdnase x Madison, 2017 (DVD and PDF)
Darwin Ortiz: The Annotated Erdnase, Pasadena 1991
Jon Racherbaumer: Marlo on Erdnase, 2007
Dai Vernon: Revelations, Pasadena 1984
Dai Vernon: Revelation, Pasadena 2008
To be continued as further exciting research surfaces!