Exploring Erdnase: The Bible of Card Magic

Join the Bag of Tricks Book Club and read The Expert at The Card Table with me during 2023.

A few years ago, I attempted the daunting task of working through every single item in The Expert at the Card Table. The intention was to document my progress on a blog. Unfortunately, this didn't happen. While I read the book several times, studying many of its secrets, I didn't manage to share my progress beyond the first few chapters.

Now that I have a new magic blog, I've decided to dust off my copy of Erdnase and resurrect this worthwhile project. However, I'm going to do it a little differently this time. I failed to continue blogging about the book because I had not established a regular publishing schedule. I also read the book alone—this was a big mistake. This time, I will encourage other magicians to read along with me and share their thoughts as well. I've decided to run a year-long, Erdnase-themed book club to facilitate this. Most book clubs read a different book every month, but we will take the whole year to read The Expert at the Table!

You might wonder why I'm earmarking a whole year to read a book that only has two hundred and five pages1; this will make it easier for younger, less experienced magicians to engage with the text. Unfortunately, for a person brought up on YouTube tutorials and instant downloads, The Expert at the Card Table is a formidable read due to its archaic language (words and phrases that are no longer commonly used).

As someone who struggled with dyslexia as a child, I understand the frustration some books can cause. For example, I tried many times to read The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien but failed miserably. (Technically, Tolkien's masterpiece is a compilation of six smaller books in one. I was reading my mother's copy, the first single-volume edition published in the UK.)  I finally finished it by reading a single chapter each night before bed; it took me more than a year to reach Mordor! This made the challenge of reading such a big book much less intimidating, although my mother thought I was mad; the last time she read the book, it took her less than three days to finish it!

This taught me a valuable lesson: that some books are more enjoyable if you read them slowly. I think The Expert at the Card Table falls into this category. For this reason, I'll publish a new post on the book every Sunday, encouraging you to read a small portion of it at a time. As there are approximately forty-two chapters in the book, we should be able to read the whole thing comfortably within the year (we can use the additional ten weeks to discuss the identity of the mysterious author).

The aim of the book club is not to learn or, heaven forbid, master all the material in The Expert at the Card Table! I simply want to help people read the book. Unfortunately, many magicians seem to discount Erdnase without attempting to read it; I think this is a crying shame, given the importance of the text in the development of modern-day card conjuring. Therefore, each post will contain an extract from the book and my thoughts on it. Serialising the book in this manner should, hopefully, encourage reluctant readers to join in, too.

The book club begins today—the 1st of January, 2023—and will run until the end of the calendar year. You can join the club at any point during the year (details on how to do this can be found on the join page). Obviously, the sooner you join, the better. However, I'll do my best to make it easy for latecomers to catch up. Remember, a new post will be published every Sunday at 11 am GMT. Use this as a mental nudge to pick up your copy and start reading. If you don't own a physical copy, I've created a digital version of Erdnase that you can access online (or download as a PDF).

About the Book

For the uninitiated, The Expert at the Card Table is an instructional book published over one hundred and twenty years ago, which describes numerous sleight-of-hand techniques with playing cards. These include several false shuffles, cuts, deals, and various types of palms and shifts. Many of the moves are accompanied by detailed illustrations.

The book also has a large section on conjuring with cards, or as Erdnase named it, "legerdemain", an old French word meaning "light of hand." Prominent magic scholars consider it the single most influential text on sleight-of-hand of the twentieth century. Many of the world's top magicians will also tell you that it is an essential read for anyone interested in card cheating, gambling, magic and sleight-of-hand. Or, as the original title page describes it, "Artifice, Ruse and Subterfuge at the Card Table."

Pages 34 and 35 of a first-edition copy. Photo Credit: Potter and Potter Auctions.

The book was first published in Chicago in 1902 by an unknown author using the pseudonym S.W. Erdnase; this is why many magicians simply refer to the book as "Erdnase." Some go even further and proclaim it to be "The Bible" of card manipulation. Since its first appearance, The Expert at the Card Table has never been out of print, an astonishing record for any publication. In addition, the book has been translated into several different languages and inspired two complete annotated editions, one by the influential Canadian magician Dai Vernon and another by top card man Darwin Ortiz.

Twenty-seven different copies of The Expert of the Card Table, including several foreign-language editions. Photo Credit: Potter and Potter Auctions.

Erdnase is still quoted and cited in many modern books on card conjuring. The book has also inspired some memorable magical performances. For example, Ricky Jay performed a trick in his one-man show using patter from the book, and Guy Hollingworth wrote an entire evening show about the anonymous card sharp.

Despite the best efforts of several notable magicians and magic historians, the author's true identity is still unknown. Without new evidence, we may never know who wrote The Expert at the Card Table. Maybe this is a good thing; the mystery surrounding the author's identity has significantly added to the mystique and enduring appeal of the book.

My Primary Motive

I've decided to study Erdnase in this step-by-step manner because, although I've read the book several times, I've never studied the concepts and techniques it describes in much detail. In other words, I've never given the book the attention it deserves. By blogging about each item in order of appearance, I'll be forced to scrutinise each page, paragraph and sentence. I hope this approach will enhance my learning experience and be helpful to other magicians trying to decode the book. Maybe we'll also stumble on some valuable insights about the man who was Erdnase, although this is not my primary motive for blogging about the book.

However, if you would like to learn more about the hunt for Erdnase, then Markus Amalthea Magnuson's Looking for Erdnase website provides an excellent summary of what has been discovered so far. The most up-to-date research can be found on the famous ERDNASE thread on the Genii forum.

Why Bother Reading Erdnase?

It is well known that Dai Vernon was a lifelong advocate of The Expert at the Card Table and is mainly responsible for the book's continued popularity. However, many of Vernon's contemporaries also rated the book highly. For example, Charlie Miller and Larry Jennings considered it the most important book on card manipulation ever written, and Michael Skinner wore the cover off two separate copies! 

Furthermore, Dr Jacob Daley, one of my favourite magicians, wrote the following inscription in his personal copy of Erdnase:

"If all books on cards were to be destroyed and I was given an opportunity to salvage only onethis would be it."2

He considered the book the greatest treatise on the science and art of manipulating cards ever written and believed that it would never be equalled. In the same book, Charlie Miller also wrote:

"This is probably the very best book on card handling ever printed or written. If one can do everything in this book he can become a "great" of all times. I'm never without this book. It is also beautifully written."

This particular copy of The Expert at the Card Table book would later be owned by Larry Jennings, who considered it to be one of his prize possessions. When listed at auction in 2012, this book sold for $9,600!

Dr Jacob Daley's personal copy of The Expert. The book is inscribed by five of the greatest magicians of the twentieth century. Photo Credit: Potter and Potter Auctions.

Now, it is safe to say that these guys knew a thing or two about card magic. So, I think it would be incredibly foolish of any magician to ignore the teachings of Erdnase just because the language in the book is a little difficult to understand. But, if you want to go against the combined wisdom of five of the most influential magicians of the twentieth century, then be my guest—you might as well stop reading now!

Judging a Book By Its Cover

The book's first edition is covered in a pale green cloth and stamped in gilt. On the front is the book's title, accompanied by two small illustrations of acorns. Two acorns also appear on the book's spine, between the title, the word "Illustrated", and the author's last name. I'm not sure why Erdnase decorated his book with acorns. Maybe because they're widely recognised as a symbol of good luck or have ancient connections to witchcraft and magic in old English folklore. 

Marty Demarest, a well-respected Erdnase specialist, found a similar double acorn motif on a pamphlet produced by the same company responsible for printing The Expert at the Card Table3. This suggests that decorative acorns were a common embellishment and have no additional significance.

The first edition of The Expert at the Card Table by S.W. Erdnase. Photo Credit: Potter and Potter Auctions.

The Importance of a Good Title

When I said I would work through every item in Erdnase, I meant everything. So, I'm going to start by looking at that famous title page. According to this page, the book's full title is "The Expert at the Card Table: Artifice, Ruse and Subterfuge at the Card Table: A Treatise on the Science and Art of Manipulating Cards". How could any dedicated student of card magic resist a book with a name like this? I'm sure this title and the mystery of the author's identity have contributed significantly to the book's continued popularity. However, as wonderful as this title may be, I think I'll stick with "Erdnase", "The Expert", or "TEATCT" for the sake of brevity.

The famous title page with distinctive inverse pyramid layout. Photo Credit: Potter and Potter Auctions.

What does this page tell us about the author? Well, I think it demonstrates that Erdnase was a very shrewd man, as it appeals in equal measure to both gamblers and conjurers (the two primary target audiences of the book). I also think that the layout, specifically the inverted pyramid structure of the synopsis, suggests that Erdnase had an artistic eye and was well-read; this layout is used in many magic books that predate The Expert at the Card Table.

One of the many excellent illustrations in the book, drawn by M.D. Smith. Photo Credit: Potter and Potter Auctions.

This page has helped us discover many of the few accepted facts about the mysterious S.W. Erdnase. For example, we know that an artist, M.D. Smith, illustrated the book. He must have met the author because the drawings were made "from life" (subsequent investigations by magician and mathematical wizard Martin Gardner confirmed this was the case). We can also assume that the author's real name is most likely E.S. Andrews (S.W. Erdnase spelt backwards).

Another curiosity is the misspelling of the word "slights" on the first line of the inverse pyramid. Yet, the author spells it correctly several times later in the text. It seems odd that a mistake like this was made on such a prominent page of the book. Maybe, like me, Erdnase also struggled with dyslexia; this would certainly explain some of the inconsistent spelling and grammatical errors found in the book.

The book's original price was two dollars, which was expensive for the time it was published (in today's money, that is the equivalent of almost seventy dollars, adjusting for inflation). It's a shame that first editions no longer sell for two bucks. The copy in the above photograph sold for five-thousand dollars at auction. More recently, copies have consistently sold for eight-thousand dollars or more!

The triple copyright notice on the verso page. Photo Credit: WorthPoint.

On the reverse of the title page is the verso page (Latin for reverse, back, or the other side of something). This page contains an unusual copyright notice, which was apparently filed in the US, Canada and London. The first line, "COPYRIGHT, 1902, BY S. W. ERDNASE", is the US copyright statement. The second line, "ENTERED AT STATIONERS' HALL, LONDON", is the British copyright notice. (From 1577 until 1924, the Register of the Stationers' Company of London was Britain's primary means of recording copyright.) The final four-line statement is the Canadian copyright notice. Strangely, no evidence of the British or Canadian copyright notices appears to exist; either they were filed incorrectly, never filed at all, or the records were lost.

Regardless of the details, these robust copyright notices tell us that the author, or someone helping him, had excellent knowledge of copyright law. But why did Erdnase go to such lengths to protect his work? Was he paranoid that other people would try and take credit for his original card moves? Regardless of these notices, in 1930, the copyright was due to be renewed, but no one filed the required paperwork and to book fell into the public domain. Had Erdnase died or simply lost interest in the book?

Well, that's the first two pages done! Next Sunday, we'll look at the famous preface.


The photos used in this post have been sourced from online auction listings and are used under the doctrine of fair use. Credit should be given to Potter & Potter Auctions. If you're looking for a copy of The Expert at the Card Table, this site is an excellent place to start (along with eBay, of course).


  1. Two-hundred and five is the page count of a first-edition copy of the book. Later reprints sometimes have more or fewer pages than this.

  2. The information about Dr Jacob Daley's personal copy of The Expert at the Card Table was taken from the Larry Jennings Auction Catalogue published by Potter & Potter Auctions.

  3. The pamphlet decorated with acorns was found in the McKinney bankruptcy files. It advertises a series of books called 6000 Years of History by Edgar Sanderson.