Exploring Erdnase: Show Me the Money!

In this post, we'll be taking a look at the famous preface from the book and discuss whether the author's primary motive was money.

In my first post about The Expert at the Card Table, I looked at the famous title page and the curious triple copyright notice. The next item in the book is the famous preface.

The book's preface, as it appeared in its original typeface. Photo Credit: Abe Books.

The preface is, perhaps, the most famous portion of The Expert at the Card Table. Here's the full text:

In offering this book to the public the writer uses no sophistry as an excuse for its existence. The hypocritical cant of reformed (?) gamblers, or whining, mealymouthed pretensions of piety, are not foisted as a justification for imparting the knowledge it contains. It should prove interesting to all lovers of card games, and as a basis of card entertainment, it is practically inexhaustible. It may caution the unwary who are innocent of guile, and it may inspire the crafty by enlightenment on artifice. It may demonstrate to the tyro that he cannot beat a man at his own game, and it may enable the skilled in deception to take a post-graduate course in the highest and most artistic branches of his vocation. But it will not make the innocent vicious, or transform the pastime player into a professional; or make the fool wise, or curtail the annual crop of suckers; but whatever the result may be, if it sells it will accomplish the primary motive of the author, as he needs the money.

This has got to be one of the best prefaces I've ever read. Short but very well written. It also demonstrates a certain amount of disdain for "reformed" gamblers. This suggests that the author probably wasn't a professional gambler or was an unabashed professional cheat. However, when the artist who drew the illustrations for the book met the author, he explained that he was a reformed gambler who had decided to go straight. I can't think why S.W. Erdnase would lie about this, so it seems safe to assume that he suffered, at some point in his past, from what scientists and health care professionals call ludomania or problem gambling (repetitive gambling behaviour despite adverse consequences).

This preface was the basis for the earliest known advert for the book in The Sphinx, a popular magical periodical at the time. It quoted the preface but omitted the famous final line about the author needing the money. This ad was placed by Vernelos, the Chicago magic store that published The Sphinx

One of the things that makes the book difficult to read is the author's use of archaic (old-fashioned) language. Below is a list of definitions which will help you decode the meaning of the preface.

  • Sophistry - A plausible but misleading or fallacious argument.
  • Mealymouthed - Unwilling to state facts or opinions simply and directly. Not plain and straightforward.
  • Pretensions - A claim to something.
  • Piety - A virtue which may include devotion, spirituality or a strong belief in a religion that is shown in the way someone lives. Also means a position held hypocritically.
  • Guile - A disposition to deceive or cheat.
  • Artifice - Clever or artful skill. Dishonest or insincere behaviour.
  • Tyro - A beginner in learning, a novice. The word comes from the Latin tiro, which means "young soldier," "new recruit," or, more generally, "novice."
  • Post-graduate - A student who has already received one degree and is studying at a university for another, more advanced degree. One thing that all postgraduate degrees have in common is that they allow you to continue your studies in a specialised subject. However, they usually require a person to have earned an undergraduate degree to be considered for entry.
  • Vocation - A type of work that you feel you are suited to doing. 
  • Suckers - Naive or gullible people who believe everything they are told and, therefore, are easy to deceive.

Did the author need the money?

One of the many mysteries about the book is why the author decided to self-publish it at a considerable cost. The final sentence of the preface suggests that his motivation was purely financial:
"But it will not make the innocent vicious, or transform the pastime player into a professional; or make the fool wise, or curtail the annual crop of suckers; but whatever the result may be, if it sells it will accomplish the primary motive of the author, as he needs the money."

The preface makes it clear that the driving force behind the book's publication was money, providing you believe that Erdnase was being serious. It is difficult to decide whether he was being sincere and honest or witty and sarcastic when he wrote the preface. My gut feeling is that the author did need the money, which is why he decided to self-publish the book in the first place.

Unfortunately for Erdnase, the publication was not a financial success. We know this because, in February 1903, he sold the remaining stock for a wholesale price that allowed dealers to sell the book at 50% off its original cover price. This failure was due, in part, to the poor manner in which the book was advertised in magic periodicals of the time. For example, it took William J. Hilliar, editor of The Sphinx, a whole seven months to mention the book in his magazine, and even then, he only made a passing reference to it!

Who Wrote the Preface?

The preface is written in the third person, e.g., "the writer", "the primary motive of the author", and "he needs the money". Does this mean that the preface wasn't written by S.W. Erdnase? If this is true, why doesn't the book indicate the identity of the author of the preface, as is common practice in the publishing industry? I think that Erdnase did write the preface, but wanted to follow standard convention, so he wrote it in a way that suggested someone else had written it. Maybe he thought it sounded more professional when written in the third person.

Was the Book Written for Gamblers or Magicians?

The preface also suggests that the book's intended audience was gamblers, not magicians, e.g., "To all lovers of card games it should prove interesting" and "transform the pastime player into a professional". Although the line "as a basis of card entertainment it is practically inexhaustible" could be a subtle reference to card conjuring. The introduction also reinforces the idea that the book was written for people interested in cheating at cards and barely mentions card tricks and conjuring.

This makes a clear case that the book's primary target audience was gamblers, not magicians. However, most of the first edition copies of the book were sold through magic shops and have been found in the libraries of magicians, not gamblers.

The author may not have written the book for gamblers or magicians. After all, he does start the preface by saying, "In offering this book to the public" (my emphasis), which, if taken at face value, would suggest that the book was written for a more general audience. The difficulty with this view is that the book contains many technical details that seem more suited to gamblers or magicians rather than the general public. But then, if Erdnase was desperate to make a quick buck, perhaps he didn't care who owned his book.