Today’s topics are: How to read Erdnase, or any good book.
These are The Magic Memories 107, gone online Sunday, January 15th, 2023, at 0:07h sharp.
All The Magic Memories from 2021, 2022, including the Magic Advent Calendar from 2020 can be found HERE.
As you’re reading this (if you do so on JAN 15th), I’m still at the Session, which is why this edition of The Magic Memories (107) was supposed to pause.
However, I just had a brief email exchange with Andi Gladwin, who is working on a larger Marlo project, and who asked me about an essay I had written as part of my Genii column “The Genii Session” about Marlo.
Curiously, I never wrote extensively about Marlo, although he’s mentioned all over the place in my works, for obvious reasons.
What Andi meant was an article I had written on Erdnase, the book, and how to read it. He sent me back to it, I reread it, and thought that some of you might want to (re)read it, as it has some general thoughts you might find interesting. And also because Erdnase was the topic of a few of my past The Magic Memories, where I expressed some critical thoughts. The article below is from 2011, 12 years ago (!), and offers yet a different angle.
It’s a bit long, though…
How to Read Erdnase (or Any Good Magic Book)
The Genii Session (2011-11)
By Roberto Giobbi
Today’s column is directed particularly at those new to magic and is an attempt at explaining how a magical text can be read so that you will not only extract the relevant information from it, but also gain insights of a higher order so that after having studied the text you will be wiser than before. This is a claim that only the best books can assert, in general and in magic. Please trust me: The Expert at the Card Table is one such book.
An Invitation to Read
There is no doubt that The Expert at the Card Table (“Erdnase”) contains plenty of information on card technique and card tricks, as well as on the theory of their execution and performance.
However, Erdnase has more to offer than mere information. For it is one thing to be informed, but quite another thing to understand and be enlightened by knowing what the author means and why he says it. Having more information after you read than before is, at best, a quantitative change, but to understand what the author means, why he wrote what he wrote, and to relate it to your reality raises your skill level. There is an important difference that has always been there when reading a book, but which gains an extra dimension in an age were we are inundated by facts to the detriment of understanding. Today’s media are designed to give us the illusion of understanding, which is a cleverly packaged set of instructions based on flashy visuals aiming at pleasing us at the moment we are consuming it. The fact that it is enjoyed when read and/or viewed is often mistaken for comprehension, whereas in reality it is mere entertainment disguised as education and gives the impression that thinking is unnecessary.
Insight, Not Just Information
To educate the reader takes more than offering novelty and amusing prose. First, the author should be smarter and more skillful than his readers, at least in the field he writes about—it is hard (but not impossible) to learn from a lesser figure. This requires self-confidence and humility on the part of both the author and reader. We all know of books by great authorities who come across as arrogant and thus impede the flow of communication. Although Erdnase is certainly not characterized by an overabundance of humility and modesty, what he writes and how he writes immediately captures the attention of any intelligent reader who will accept a little eccentricity from the author. If Dai Vernon, one of the greatest sleight-of-hand experts, bowed deeply before Erdnase, it should be easy for lesser mortals such as you and me to emulate him.
Second, if the reader studies the book for the sake of increased understanding, rather than just for information or entertainment, the insight will follow almost automatically. In contrast to modern books Erdnase is very tightly written and requires attentive reading—this, more than the slightly archaic language, is the real challenge. Read slowly and not more than four or five pages at one sitting. It might sound like I’m contradicting what I wrote above, but if you read for enjoyment rather than profit, you will gain more insight.
Third, ask questions, underline or highlight important passages as you are reading, make notes in the margins and your notebook. A good author puts his finger on problematic issues that require solutions, and Erdnase does this continuously. He will give his answers, but not always, and not all of them. To get the full and deep meaning, you’ll have to find your own answers—insight is the result of analysis and intuition working together in different proportions, depending on who you are, what you read, and for what purpose. In the 1920s Dai Vernon went to New York and fooled the best magicians very badly. When he told them that he got most of his knowledge and skill from Erdnase, those magicians answered that Erdnase was like spherical trigonometry to them, to paraphrase Prof. Diaconis in his wonderful foreword to Revelations (Magical Publication, 1984). But that’s precisely the point. Not only should the author be superior to you, the reader, but the text must make demands on you in the sense that it must seem beyond your capacity. If it doesn’t, it won’t teach you much, but if you manage to overcome the difficulties by understanding what the author means—and in the case of Erdnaseacquire the skill to execute and perform the sleights and tricks taught—you will have learned more about yourself and about life. Reading a great book like Erdnase will make you think more clearly about magic, because its author (or authors?) thought and wrote more clearly than most others before or since.
As we will see in the subsequent analysis, asking questions will identify the brilliant as well as the weak within the description. Remember what Confucius said, “If you see a worthy man imitate him, if you see an unworthy man look at yourself.” In this sense the identification of the good will allow us to install it in our tool box, but the bad should make us look for the same weakness that might be hidden in our current repertoire. In both cases we ascend to the next level of understanding and skill, growing simultaneously as human beings and artists. To learn how to do this is half the fun and I hope to inspire you, so please follow along. I will try to show you how to actively read a magic text by asking questions and attempt to give my personal interpretations—you might find that your opinion differs from mine and that’s fine, of course, the point being to try to read between the lines and understand the text, milking the author’s knowledge and wisdom, rather than just consuming it.
Starting Inside Erdnase
The subject of our study shall be “The Exclusive Coterie,” which you’ll find on p.172 of Erdnase and which I have briefly commented on in my September column.
Below I will reproduce the original text, indented for clarity, and give my interpretation and comments between the lines. I suggest you follow along with cards in hand. This will make it easier to visualize my explanations. Please don’t worry if you don’t do any of the sleights mentioned, as our main focus is on text interpretation strategies and techniques rather than on physically learning how to do this specific trick.
The Exclusive Coterie.—In Effect. The four Queens are selected and laid face down in a row on the table. Three indifferent cards are placed on each Queen. Now the Company selects one of the four packets, and it is found to consist of the four Queens only.
The effect is the standard Ace Assembly, but the use of Queens instead of Aces, and the story framing the performance, give it an extra dimension as we’ll see.
Generally speaking, I find it important to describe the effect as it is seen and experienced by an audience at the beginning of a trick explanation. It is like showing a photo of the prepared item in a cook book before giving the recipe. Now you know how your food should look and you can anticipate the experience that your guests will have when they see and then eat it. The effect is the overall vision that at all times governs the detailed study of the method and should never be lost. At all times know what the effect is that you want to create and avoid getting lost in the details of the mechanics of the trick. Dai Vernon used to say that the difference between a professional and an amateur is that the former knows what an effect is, but any enlightened amateur can posses this knowledge, too.
It’s Useless Because it’s Old-fashioned
Patter and Execution.—“Ladies and gentlemen, I shall endeavor to Illustrate, with the aid of this ordinary deck of cards, how futile are the efforts of plebeians to break into that select circle of society known as the Beau-monde, and especially how such entree is prevented by the polite but frigid exclusiveness of its gentler members.
“We shall assume that it is the occasion of a public reception, our table the hall, our deck the common herd, and we may fittingly select the four Queens as representing the feminine portion of the Smart Set.” (Lay four Queens face down on table,)
I admit that when I first read this some 35 years ago, I turned the page. Looking back I think my assumption—“Nobody talks like that anymore, so this trick is totally outdated”—was mistaken. Of course, that bad thinking is the result of creating a causal link between two lines of reasoning where there is none, because the fact that nobody talks like that doesn’t mean the trick couldn’t be a very good one. All that might be necessary is to simply change the text, or replace it with music, two viable solutions. As most will know, Ricky Jay has even proven that you can take exactly the same text and still do the trick successfully—although he changed the method, which is also a good strategy with which to approach “old tricks.” (You can find it on YouTube by searching for “Ricky Jay: 4 Queens 3 Ways.”)
Even if you don’t want to use the patter (I find “text” a better term), note how the use of Queens rather than Aces in the context of the story gives everything a dramatic unity that is lacking in most Ace Assemblies.
The first question this introductory paragraph raises is: what are the pros and cons of a story trick, which this is. It will depend a great deal on the person and the personality of the performer … from the “act,” if there is one, to the target audience, and the situation in which it is performed. Although the trick is not such a long one—I estimate it can be done in less than three minutes depending on the performance style and pacing—it does need a free surface, the larger the better, since the effect is the travel of cards, and is therefore suited for more formal shows than table to table or walk-around magic. The ability to know when to do a particular trick, but above all when not to do it, is just one of the characteristics of the professional.
Too many story tricks in an act can be corny, and only the experienced performer will do more than one. However, it is clear that a story can make a very attractive change of pace by giving dramatic unity to the actions, explicitly creating one or more conflicts which then are magically resolved. All in all, a story trick can be a great emotional hook.
Furthermore, using Queens and calling them the “feminine portion of the smart set,” and the indifferent cards “the common herd” or “presumptuous plebeians,” is a personification of the cards, raising them from two dimensional pieces of cardboard into a third dimension of personalities. Attaching human qualities to cards is a great way to get attention and to appeal to the emotions of the audience, but it should not be overused. The fine line between what really is, and what is supposed to be in a fictional sense, should be carefully drawn. This needs intelligence, sensitivity, and experience, as always.
Is the Easy Way Always the Best Way?
“Will some one now kindly see that there are no more Queens in the deck.” (Hand deck for inspection.) “There are no more Queens in the deck? Thanks!” (Take deck back.) “But are we all quite sure that the cards on the table are the four Queens? Please examine them.” (Hand them to one of the Company, and now secretly palm three cards in right hand.) “They are the four Queens? Kindly place them on the deck.” (Extend deck in left hand and when Queens are placed on top secretly place palmed cards on top of them.)
Most modern conjurors would dismiss this phase and simply replace it by exchanging three of the four Queens while displaying them with the Braue Addition (Card College Volume 1, p.204). I’m not saying this wouldn’t be a practical solution for modern-day requirements, but look at the packed ingenuity concealed in the “old-fashioned” way described in Erdnase.
This phase is straightforward and masterly constructed. It shows great intelligence on the part of its creator and an awareness of how the mind of the spectator must be led in order to be amazed at the end. It is a brilliant example of modern constructivist thinking. Let’s look at it in detail, with special focus on the psychological construction, as well as the management and handling of the palm.
Knowing that the final effect is the gathering of all the Queens in one packet, the performer must discard the possibility of duplicates being used to begin with. If the audience has even the slightest suspicion that there are more than four Queens in use—and this is a possible solution—the whole effect is killed, so it is very smart to address the issue.
Handing out the deck, and a moment later the Queens, also negates the one basic solution practically every audience has to this very day as to how a card trick is done; the magician is using special cards. He or she who ignores this solution in the performance before a lay audience is either inexperienced or naïve or just wants to show-off instead of astonish artistically. It is imperative in my opinion that at some point in every performance you must find a way to let people handle the cards and make sure they are normal. This is part of the psychological construction of the trick that takes into consideration how wonderment is later produced.
This very same action of handing out the deck, however, is also clever management for the palm. When the deck is taken back, it might briefly be spread between the hands, lifting the faces toward the audience, and pointing out that although there are no Queens in the deck, the Queens themselves could somehow “hide a secret assistant under their gowns.” This automatically draws attention to the tabled Queens. As this happens, close the spread and obtain a break beneath the top three cards with the left little finger. While the audience examines the Queens, two cards each by two spectators is nice, you have all the time and misdirection in the world to Top Palm the top three cards in the right hand as you casually square the deck. Due to the first-rate cover, this trick becomes a wonderful exercise to gain confidence with the palm. To protect the palm, the right hand holds the deck in End [Biddle] Grip as the Queens are being looked at.
You can now proceed as explained in Erdnase, holding out the balance of the deck for the two spectators to replace their Queens face down on top. As the left hand moves forward to allow this, the right hand can innocently drop to the edge of the table, an excellent cover for holding out the palmed cards for the two or three seconds necessary. Dai Vernon would ask, “Which hand moves first?” Answer: The left hand moves about half a second before the right hand so the eyes of the spectators are drawn to the left hand.
Next you have to think about how to replace the palmed cards because the author doesn’t explain it. Here is one possible way to manage it, but try to find your own: Before anything else, you need a reason for the right hand to take the deck. Transfer the deck into the right hand End Grip in a secondary, in-transit action, in order to free the left hand, which in a primary action points to the table, saying:
“Now, as our table is supposed to be the scene of this grand function …”
The palmed cards have not been replaced, yet. This is done as the deck is smoothly placed back into left-hand dealing position, again in a secondary in-transit action, the primary action being the right hand pointing to the four spots the “Queens” are going to be dealt to in just an instant, saying:
“… we shall station those four particularly exclusive ladies at different points in the room” lay out the first three top cards face down), “giving her majesty the Queen of —” (hesitate and carelessly turn Queen face up apparently to see the suit, and allow the company to see it also, then name the suit), “the post of honor near the entrance.” (Lay first Queen on the table and make a shift, holding location of other three Queens.)
Note how the concepts of miscalling and accidental flashing are used in perfect timing to create the false reality that the four Queens are placed on the table.
Design as Solution
Another question arises: The author doesn’t tell us the configuration in which the four cards should be laid out. The now standard T-formation, invented by Dai Vernon, is a possibility. Since we are supposed to be in a ballroom, a square configuration makes as much sense. Personally, I’d opt for a diamond shape configuration with the real Queen opposite and farthest away from the performer, i.e., “near the entrance.” It not only looks more interesting than a square, but like the T-formation above it will also allow us to overcome the question of forcing the packet—if we choose to do so a little later.
But before we proceed, let me raise still another question. Can the layout be achieved in any other, even more logical, innocent, and natural manner? How about the following “modern expert’s” solution?
Palm the three indifferent cards as the spectators look at the Queens as per Erdnase. Holding the deck in right hand End Grip, stretch out your empty left hand and take the Queens back face down, holding them in dealing position, as the right hand sets the balance of the deck down in front of you in the eleven o’clock position. With the same two in-transit actions described above, transfer the Queen packet first to a right hand End Grip, then back to left-hand dealing position, in the process imperceptibly adding the palmed cards on top as you make the gestures explained. Without interruption turn the packet face up and display the four Queens, two in each hand, using Ascanio’s Open Display (Card College Volume 3, p.599)—the lowermost Queen in your left hand is a quadruple card and hides the three indifferent cards. Gather the Queens and in so doing obtain a left little finger break under the three top face-up Queens. Smoothly turn the packet face down, like the page of a book from left to right. The break will automatically close and the three broken Queens will end up in a stepped position on the bottom of the packet now held by the right hand in End Grip. This is the Tenkai move, and the three Queens on the bottom of the packet are now in perfect position to be unloaded on top of the balance of the deck resting on the table by means of Dai Vernon’s Transfer Move (Card College Volume 3, p.516). Before doing the Transfer Move, turn to a spectator on your left and ask him, “Which one is your favorite Queen?” If he says Hearts, you can use this as the last Queen is the Heart; if he names a different suit, reply in Tamariz-fashion, “Fine, mine is Hearts.” In any case this naturally brings the packet above the deck for the upcoming Transfer Move. Since the deck has been tabled at eleven o’clock, this provides perfect extra cover for the unload. Do so by taking the top four cards at their left side with your left hand, as the right hand simultaneously descends with its clipped cards straight down on the deck, seizing it and moving it to the right, making room for the first “Queen” to be dealt right in front of you in just a second. Deal the next two indifferent cards and then the Queen of Hearts, exactly as per Erdnase (don’t forget the miscalls and the flash).
To Pass or Not to Pass
“Now, as would naturally be the case, we shall besiege these high strung patrician ladies with attentions from the lower orders, which the rest of the deck represents, by first surrounding her majesty on the right with three cards from the top” (lay three cards on first table card), “and to show no partiality we shall cut the deck haphazard, and plague our second liege lady with three of the first presumptuous plebeians we may find there” (cut off small packet and place three cards on second table card) “and though the proximity or even notice of any of these common persons are equally abhorrent to our grand dames we shall treat them all alike by again cutting and surrounding her majesty at the entrance with three more rank Outsiders” (this time cut to location of shift, and place the three Queens on table Queen), “and permit three more from the bottom who have been least crowding and therefore more deserving to proffer their homage to the other fair one.” (Lay three bottom cards on the other table card.)
In Erdnase’s time, a card trick without a Pass wasn’t serious magic, was it? But in my opinion—for once—we could do away with the Shift by simply cutting about a quarter of the deck from bottom to top and keep a little finger break. You can then proceed exactly as described, placing three indifferent cards from the top of the deck on any of the indifferent cards on the table which are masquerading as a Queen. Repeat twice more, each time cutting about a quarter from bottom to top and then dealing three cards on a supposed Queen. For the last triplet, cut to the break and deal the three Queens on top of the only Queen on the table. Mission accomplished, nothing lost, Shift avoided.
“Now, ladies and gentlemen, as you have seen, I have brutally taken advantage of these unprotected and tenderly nurtured creatures by placing them in circumstances that must be extremely galling to their aristocratic sensibilities. Will they endure such conditions? Having some knowledge of the marvelous subtlety, finesse and resources of the sex, I feel confident they can, with tact and discretion, easily elude their persecutors, and form a more congenial coterie among themselves. Will some one please select two of these packets?” (Whichever packets are selected place those two that do not contain the Queens at the back of the table side by side.) “Thanks. Now kindly tell me which of the two remaining packets I shall take?” (In any case pick up the two packets, placing the Queens at the front of the table and the second packet back beside the others. The question is purposely ambiguous.)
The question raised here is an important one: should we use Magician’s Choice, sometimes called an equivoque force, or should we just determine the target packet ourselves and go ahead with the assembly effect?
It would certainly be possible to establish the last Queen, which has been flashed and named an instant ago, as the Leader Queen, to borrow a post-Erdnase term. To give it further logic this could be the Queen of Hearts, “The Queen of Love, and therefore the most powerful of all.” Taking the symbolism of any other suit, any other Queen can be justified accordingly. Or you could say it is the Queen with her female entourage, automatically elevating the Queen of Hearts to the leader function. By proper arrangement of the Queens at the beginning, it is simple and easy to get the desired Queen to this position.
You now make one Queen after another disappear from their packets and then show that they have gathered in the packet of the Queen of Hearts (in our example). If every vanish is handled a little differently, this version can be made to look and feel very good. Such a procedure will avoid the forcing process, which is not as easy as it might seem and needs experience and expert audience management to pull off successfully. Also, it avoids breaking the rhythm the selection process entails.
Clearly, the solution in Erdnase is inspired by the old school of magic and it is a very good one, since the Queens will apparently travel to any one of the packets the spectator has decided—this is very strong. Not only does it add an element of interaction, which maintains interest, it also introduces a variable determined by the spectator rather than by the performer—there is no question that this adds to the intensity of the astonishment. These are important and distinguishing features, especially in close-up magic.
Which do you think is better? An interesting problem to ponder—only one of many.
“Now we must see whether I was over-confident in predicting that the Queens would seek each other’s society. If they are all found in one packet, I was right. In which packet would they be most likely to congregate? As the front packet was your selection, and as it is given the most prominent position, I think the fatal vanity of the sex would tempt them to be there. We shall see.” (Turn up four Queens, then face the other three packets, showing no Queens among them.)
Here we are faced with another key moment in the psychological and dramatic construction of the routine, which is the design of the climax. Almost everyone who performs a lot will concentrate their wits and efforts on this phase. As Ascanio used to remark, the climax is very important, but it is only as good as the structure of the rest, especially the initial phases. The audience must be convinced that there is a Queen underneath each packet and that the cards above them are indifferent, otherwise no presentation in the world, regardless of how brilliant, will make the effect shine. And if there is no effect, there is no magic—there might be exquisite entertainment, but there is no magic. Therefore, the structure of the climax cannot be dealt with independently from the beginning, both being part of the whole, and the whole being more than the sum of its parts.
Contrary to Erdnase, I would opt to reveal the vanish of the Queens from each packet first and only afterwardshow that they have gathered in one packet. The vanish of each Queen is the build-up and their assembly is the climax. If you do it the other way round, by first showing the Queens in one packet and then “prove” that they have “of course” vanished from each packet, the curve of interest will drop and the climax will be weakened. I believe it makes sense if you think about it, and many years of professional experience have shown me that this is the way to do it.
And Now, Ehhhm …
At this point let me briefly draw attention to the word “now,” which is used seven times in the patter, four of those times occur at the beginning of an address. These are what I would call “makeshift-solution words,” often used like “eehm,” “ahh,” “okay,” “well,” “let’s see,” and a big etcetera. They are used to make time to think and cover short pauses where the performer doesn’t know what to say or do. It is not so bad in the Erdnase text, but it is clearly a problem one has to be aware of in the study, practice, and rehearsal of a trick.
A solution for getting rid of them is to record yourself with audio or video. Once you have identified the problem, you will be able to correct it in a short time. Another way is to script your text. Scripting is a big issue—too big to be treated here in depth—and there are many opposing opinions about it from very competent people in the business, much like the question of “acting” in magic. Personally, I suggest you script two or three of your tricks and see how you feel about it. You will notice that in the process you’ll install a set of skills that might make scripting redundant in the future. This, however, only applies to close-up magic. For trade shows, theatrical shows, and similar performance situations, scripting will still be the way most feel comfortable with. A very veryfamous and influential magician, whose name I will withhold, recently said to me when discussing this topic, “Everybody should read a book about scripting—and then do exactly the contrary!”
It will have been seen by the foregoing that the presentation of a card trick may contain much more bosh than action, and indeed the performance of the one just described might be advantageously prolonged by a great deal more nonsense. In all card entertainments the more palaver the more the interest is excited, and the address and patter of the performer will count as much if not more than his skill in manipulation.
This last paragraph is perplexing to say the least. The terms “bosh,” “nonsense,” and “palaver” used to describe the text and presentation seem to reflect a very inartistic understanding of what a piece of magic is. This sounds like it was written by an inexperienced amateur magician. On the other hand, the last sentence is in contrast to what was previously said, as it clearly states the importance of communication (“interest excited,” “address”) and presentation (“patter”). Maybe we are really dealing with two authors as has sometimes been suggested, or our understanding is tricked by arcane language? Although the author mentions the concepts of communication, presentation, and skill, and brings them into relation with each other, he fails to mention what is even more important, in my opinion, namely the performer’s person, his personality and the effect. But this, as they say, is another story.
In the preceding analysis I have tried to identify many of the questions that are either explicitly or implicitly raised by the Erdnase text, most of them implicit. Although Erdnase was technically the most detailed book of its time, it is still a far cry from today’s writings about the substructures of magic. This essay has been an attempt to show how one could proceed when reading a magic text, and I hope you found it not only informative, but above all insightful. As I had to be quite explicit on some issues, as always, I remind you that this is only my opinion.
Report about The Session, London
Next week I’ll be back with a little report about my adventures at The Session…
Wish you all a very successful week!