Exploring Erdnase: Secrets of the Professional Card Cheat

In this post, you'll learn about the philosophy and psychology of cheating at cards according to S.W. Erdnase.

In this post, I’ll be taking a look at the first few pages of the “Card Table Artifice” section of The Expert at the Card Table. In this section of the book, the author shares his thoughts on the philosophy and psychology of cheating at cards. In addition, he outlines several fundamental principles of card table artifice that are still relevant today, especially when playing in underground, “backroom”, or private games.

I’ve included some relevant historical information about gambling in America to help you better understand this section of the book and the likely motivations of its author. I’ve also included several photographs of the card-cheating devices that Erdnase mentions in the text. The items pictured are all turn-of-the-century devices manufactured around the time the book was published.

This section of the book contains lots of interesting information on holdouts, 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. Many of the ideas shared in this section equally apply to the card conjurer as they do to the card cheat.

Remember, if you don’t have a copy of the book, you can access and download it in PDF format from the Reginald Scot Library (a free digital library of public-domain books hosted on my blog).

Purified Prodigals

In this chapter of the book, Erdnase once again demonstrates a deep disdain for reformed card cheats, or what he calls “purified prodigals” (a “prodigal” is an old word for a person who is wasteful with their money or possessions). 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.”

To fully understand this excerpt, a little historical context is needed. The California Gold Rush, which began in 1848, caused a considerable increase in the amount and type of gambling that took place in the Golden State1. So much so that San Fransisco replaced New Orleans as the gambling capital of the United States. As settlers travelled beyond California, so did gambling.

In Chicago, where The Expert at the Card Table was printed and published, gambling was a significant issue and considered by many to be a mortal sin2. The city’s wealthy urban elite gambled in posh private clubs and at horse racing tracks. The working classes, many also immigrants, also discovered a world of freedom and excitement in gambling (in comparison to their closely supervised factory jobs). Men bet heavily on dice, card games, and cockfights.

By the 1850s, there were hundreds of saloons offering gambling opportunities. One of the reasons for the continued popularity of gambling was its close ties with organised crime, which provided upward mobility to ambitious people in poverty-stricken, non-white communities. High-profile vice lords and racketeers became filthy rich off these low-income neighbourhoods. They often moved into local politics to legitimise their “business activities” and protect their wealth. For example, Chicago criminal linchpin Michael C. McDonald—known as “The Gambler King of Clark Street”—had numerous politicians on his payroll to help him protect his criminal empire and keep the gambling reformers at bay.

Even so, a strong anti-gambling movement emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. Just as Prohibition would later outlaw alcohol, pressure from religious groups effectively made most forms of gambling illegal in the early nineteen-hundreds. However, the legislature aimed to target professional gamblers rather than the gaming industry. Initially, state laws were weak and difficult to enforce, but over time, they were gradually strengthened. First, it was illegal to run the games. Then, in 1891, simply playing a game became a criminal activity.

Despite these widespread changes to the law, gambling houses, betting parlours and “Italian lotteries” flourished. It is against this backdrop of illicit gambling that Erdnase published his book. This change in attitude to gambling caused a slew of reformed gamblers to write books and tour the country performing gambling exposés. This change of heart usually had more to do with financial reward than religious conviction. In his writings, Erdnase accuses these self-styled ex-professionals of overstating their skills and achievements in an attempt to make their stories more sensational and thus sell more books.

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 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 an impolite, loutish or 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 but rather the bruises that these losses left on his ego (or his “insufferable conceit”, as the author puts it). Comments such as this make me 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 suggests 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)3. This strange phrase is thought to be connected to the fact that early playing cards used to play the game of Faro 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 unfamiliar with the game, I recommend reading this great Faro article. 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. A “holdout” is the name given to any mechanical contraption designed to allow a card player to “hold out” or conceal one or more cards until they prove helpful and provide an advantage to the player4.

A brass contraption with an extendable arm holding a playing card.

An example of a “Jacob’s Ladder” holdout manufactured by Will & Finck in San Francisco. Photo Credit: Potter & Potter Auctions.

The holdout pictured above is an early example of a “sleeve machine”. This one is a “Jacob’s Ladder” holdout in the Will & Finck style. The mechanical contraption delivers a card into a gambler’s hand when his elbow is bent and retracts when the arm is straightened. Here’s what Erdnase had to say about the use of such devices:

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

However, he briefly describes the workings of a few common card cheating contraptions, including a Kepplinger-style holdout (also known as a San Francisco Holdout).

A metal holdout with a playing card fixed to its end.
A metal device with strings and pullies in a large u-shape designed to be hidden in the sleeves of a gambler.

A Kepplinger-style holdout activated by a hidden string in the opposite sleeve. Photo Credit: Potter & Potter Auctions.

A brass holdout with a "Jacob's Ladder" mechanism.
The other side of the same brass holdout, showing the leather straps more clearly..

Another example of an early nineteenth-century mechanical holdout in the Will & Finck style. Photo Credit: Potter & Potter Auctions.

Kepplinger was a professional gambler, inventor and card cheat. In 1888, he was caught in San Francisco using the “most ingenious holdout ever devised” when playing with people who were all professional card sharps like himself:

“Then, suddenly and without a moment's warning, Kepplinger was seized, gagged, and held hard and fast… Then the investigation commenced. The great master-cheat was searched, and upon him was discovered the most ingenious holdout ever devised.”
An illustration of a seated man being restrained by three other men. Cards fall from a mechanical device hidden in the seated man's sleeve.

The Detection of Kepplinger from Sharps and Flats by John Nevil Maskelyne. Image Credit: Project Gutenberg.

I assume Erdnase lifted the information about holdouts from John Nevil Maskelyne’s book Sharps and Flats (1894) because the text in The Expert at the Card Table on this topic is suspiciously similar. The information on holdouts reads like a summary of Chapter V of Sharps and Flats.

A red hardbacked book with the word "SHARPS" witten on playing cards and the word "FLATS" written on the sides of five dice.

A first-edition copy of Sharps and Flats by John Nevil Maskelyne. Photo Credit: Potter & Potter Auctions.

This hatred for holdouts demonstrates Erdnase’s reverence for the skilful manipulation of playing cards. The fear of discovery or mechanical malfunction seems to be behind the author’s attitude towards holdouts. The following quote from Sharps and Flats suggests that the card cheats who used these mechanical devices didn’t always use them judiciously and with the necessary restraint (which is in opposition to Erdnase’s general philosophy of card table artifice):

“Had Kepplinger been content to use less frequently the enormous advantage he possessed, and to have exercised more discretion in winning, appearing to lose sometimes, his device might have been still undiscovered.”

Perhaps Erdnase thought that the temptation was too great and that the intelligent thing to do was to avoid the use of holdouts entirely. However, this does appear to be a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Simpler holdouts, such as “bugs”, were also available when Erdnase was alive. Their intelligent use, in combination with sleight of hand, provided a great advantage to many of the dishonest gamblers that Erdnase held in such low esteem.

Be Prepared

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

The author had an excellent working knowledge of “Strippers” (no, not that kind of stripper!). In this chapter, he briefly describes how to make them using specialist machines.

A square-shaped brass card trimmer with a large handle.
A side view of the same card trimmer showing the handle mechanism in more detail.

A heavy brass and steel card trimmer manufactured by Will & Finck in San Francisco circa 1880. Photo Credit: Potter & Potter Auctions.

He also mentions the practice of roughing cards to make them easier to control during the shuffle and discusses how strippers and rough cards are perfect for cheating in the game of Faro (at this time in American history, all banking games, like Faro, were illegal). 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 box5 (card shoe) could give the house an edge “that would impoverish a prince”.

A silver box with one open side, exposing the inner workings of the mechanism.

A gaffed Faro box from the 1900s, once owned by Dai Vernon. Photo Credit: Potter and Potter Auctions.

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 collude with the card cheat. This seems counterintuitive, 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 is great, especially if one person 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.”

Magic tricks that combine sleight of hand and two-person codes are also much more difficult to deconstruct, especially when no one is aware that you’re using a secret accomplice.

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. According to the mysterious manipulator, he preferred the former shuffle because it offers far more natural ways to cheat.

A man's hands shuffling a pack of playing cards.

Erdnase preferred the Overhand Shuffle. Photo Credit: Cottonbro Studio via Pexels.

Another reason for this preference might be related to the most common locations where gambling took place. By this point in history, the glory days of the steamboat gambling houses had ended, and many private games now took place on or around the railway. Due to the limited room in rail carriages, the overhand shuffle was, most likely, the shuffle of choice for most gamblers and, subsequently, card cheats, especially those itinerant grifters who found their marks on trains. (Magician and magic historian David Ben proposes the theory that Erdnase might have been a railroad worker in his article Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Erdnase6.)

Erdnase notes that the position of the cards during an Overhand Shuffle makes 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. This advice also applies to magic. Most self-working or semi-automatic tricks are greatly improved by including a false shuffle and 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.”

Again, this advice applies to the magician; a thorough and practical understanding of false shuffles and cuts will improve your card magic immeasurably.

Blind Leading the Blind

Erdnase realised that even experienced card players could be fooled by “blind” shuffling, even though this fact often deludes such players. He also states that even card cheats cannot distinguish 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 to your friends and family!

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 how a person behaves, stands, and moves (especially in formal situations). Apparently, gentlemen made the best card cheats at the turn of the twentieth 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 ensure 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 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 understands 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 dependent nature of artifice means having a well-rounded knowledge of sleight-of-hand technique is essential.

A Death Blow to the Professional

Erdnase makes it 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 also study the art, as Erdnase calls it. He suggests you sit at a card table, as you would when playing a normal game, and use a mirror to become your “own critic”. He also states that for the purpose of entertainment or self-amusement, the easiest and most straightforward of sleights will do, to begin with.

Size is Unimportant

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 Cards are Best?

Erdnase mentions that your cards should be new, thin, flexible and of the best possible quality. Once they’ve been in constant use for two to three 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.”

In Summary

This section of the book provides a wealth of helpful advice for the card cheat or magician. Every time I read it, I pick up on something new that helps me improve my magic in some small way.


  1. Roger Dunstan, “History of Gambling in the United States”, California State Library, 1997, https://web.archive.org/web/20090122112137/http://www.library.ca.gov/CRB/97/03/Chapt2.html.

  2. Matthew A. McIntosh, “A History of Gambling in the United States”, Brewminate, September 27, 2020, https://brewminate.com/a-history-of-gambling-in-the-united-states/.

  3. Kathy Weiser-Alexander, “Faro, or ‘Bucking the Tiger’”, https://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-faro/.

  4. John Nevil Maskelyne, Sharps and Flats, 1st ed., (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1894): 73, https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/41169/pg41169-images.html.

  5. The gambling device pictured is a gaffed Faro box once owned by Canadian magician Dai Vernon, who considered it one of his most prized possessions. It was manufactured in Chicago by A. Ball & Bro. in the early nineteen hundreds and is made of German silver. The card shoe is gaffed to facilitate double-dealing (dealing two cards as one) using a secret “side-squeeze” mechanism (I incorrectly thought that the box was designed to aid second dealing, but magician and gambling expert Jason England corrected my assumption. While some gaffed Faro boxes do have this secret feature, this particular one doesn’t. Thanks, Jason). Vernon acquired this dealing box from a pawnbroker in Miami, who got it from a former Faro dealer called Jim Whitley. At the time of purchase, Vernon was travelling across America in pursuit of the methods of crooked gamblers (specifically one that might reveal the secret to the elusive centre deal). You can read more about this historical item of gambling memorabilia in Dai Vernon: A Biography by David Ben (pages 180-2).

  6. David Ben, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Erdnase”, Magicol No. 180 (2011): 38, https://magicana.com/sites/default/files/uploaded-files/Magicol-180_Erdnase-by-David-Ben_LR.pdf.