The Expert At The DVD Player

I visit Las Vegas at least twice a year, for the Consumer Electronics Show and the National Association Of Broadcasters conference. Although I look forward to these trips out of personal interest, these are work trips, to keep up on developments in the world of high tech.

So these trips are not the fun and games one might expect from a visit to Sin City. There are 3.2 million square feet of floor space at the Las Vegas Convention Center, and the big shows like CES and NAB use up quite a lot of it. It takes 2-3 days to walk the floor, which is tiring even if you have appropriate footwear.

Not to say that the 100,000+ attendees of these shows don’t try to take advantage of all that America’s Playground has to offer. But, being a total square, I don’t do the usual Vegas thing after the show closes. My main Vegas tradition after show hours is going to Houdini’s Magic Shop.

Houdini’s is an interesting enterprise. They own the name of the world’s most famous magician, as well as the company Houdini himself founded to make movies. The owner, Geno Munari, is serious magician and magic historian. But Houdini’s operates several shops on the Las Vegas Strip, an unusually public location for a serious magic shop.

There are two types of (physical) magic shops. Highly public shops tend to predominantly feature pranks and gag items (think: a can of “Fancy Salted Mixed Nuts” that surprises its hungry victim with a coiled snake) over more serious magic items. Shops that cater to magicians tend to be more off the beaten path and downplay the S.S. Adams type products.

Houdini’s straddles the line between the two. This is Las Vegas, which must be considered the Capital Of Magic, home to the biggest names in the business. But Vegas is also visited by tens of millions of persons annually, most of whom are not exactly initiates in the magic circle. Being in a highly public location, and subject to more than their share of drunken idiots wandering in looking to learn some secrets, Houdini’s has plenty of the gag and prank items – in fact, the majority of each store is filled with these, as a distraction for the casual visitor. But if you look, the real stuff is there.

There is an amusing little tango that takes place each time a customer walks into Houdini’s, where the employees figure out which side of the store to sell from. Some of them are, naturally, better at this dance than others. I apparently am particularly unskilled at it, as they usually pitching me something that can be found in any magic kit aimed at nine-year-old kids.

I inadvertently found a way to effectively cut that rug last week, when I saw an item in the case that I have been waiting for some time: a 10 DVD (plus one CD) box set based on the infamous book, The Expert At The Card Table, by E.S. Erdnase. Asking about this signals a certain knowledge, due to the reverence in which magicians hold the Erdnase book, and the price ($130).

In 1902, S.W. Erdnase wrote and published a book titled Artifice Ruse And Subterfuge At The Card Table: A Treatise On The Science And Art Of Manipulating Cards. The cover contradicts the title page by simply stating “The Expert At The Card Table”. A slim volume, primarily focused on techniques used in cheating at cards, it was the first comprehensive book on card manipulation, and the first to include detailed illustrations. There is also a short section on card tricks at the end. Today, this book is considered one of the seminal books on card magic.

The book has developed an aura of infamy largely because no one knows who wrote it. S.W. Erdnase is clearly a pen name, but there are no records of the author’s real identity, and Erdnase never published another book. There has been a great deal of research, yielding some interesting theories, but no definitive proof. It’s a case that continues to stir the imagination because of the quality of the work, the mystery of the author, and the melodrama surrounding the suspects.

For decades, the prime suspect has been a colorful gambler, confessed murderer and card cheat, Milton Franklin Andrews. He died in 1905 following a police standoff in San Francisco, apparently a suicide. His premature death probably ensures we will probably never know if he was Erdnase. The other candidates may not be quite as colorful as M.F. Andrews, but they are just as fascinating.

The Houdini Magic DVD set is not a replacement for the original book but, but a compelling companion to it. It is refreshing for a magic DVD to so encourage its viewer to start with the original work. A moving visual reference, particularly with veteran magician Allan Ackerman, is very helpful, as the 101 illustrations in the book are not always entirely clear, and the text itself can be at times confusing, even though it is generally well-written and concise.

In addition to demonstrating each slight, the 11 disc set also includes hours of interviews with Erdnase experts, Martin Gardner, Bart Whaley, and Richard Hatch. The information included is fantastic, though the production quality of these materials is less than exciting. For some reason, this tends to be the case for magic DVDs in general. Someone with a solid film production background could make quite a name for themselves in the magic DVD world.

Disc 11 is a CD-ROM which includes a number of PDF files of source documents upon which much of the Erdnase research is based, including the most famous edition of The Expert At The Card Table (which fell into public domain many years ago when the author failed to renew the copyright), and dozens of newspaper articles from the early 1900’s.

I love Erdnase because it has all the hallmarks of great art: it is a martial skill, with a strong real-time performance component, that appeals to the senses and tells a story, with a strong sense of drama. And (the “great” part) it is challenging to the performer and audience alike.

I use the term “martial” here not in the sense of fighting or self-defense, but rather a physical activity requiring skill and practice. In his book Zen In The Art Of Archery, Eugen Herrigel chronicles his trip to Japan to learn Zen Buddhism. His teacher insists the only way to learn Zen is to learn a martial art; he chooses archery, and his wife chooses Bonsai. Jackie Chan would never make a movie about Bonsai, but it does require a certain physical discipline. (Though Chow Yun Fat did make a movie about a gambler.)

I find the physical performance aspect of both magic and music to be difficult. This is why most of my music tends to be Programmatic, where a set of rules are defined for how the music is created, and then is executed to that plan. While composers like John Cage, Terry Riley, and Morton Feldman wrote music where the rules were to be followed during real-time performances by musicians, this type of composition lends itself well to non-real-time music, which is pieced together in editing or generated by a program or machine.

Magic does not lend itself to non-real-time performances particularly well. So I don’t feel as comfortable with it as I do with my own particular variety of music. But it doesn’t affect my enthusiasm for magic in general or Erdnase in particular.


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  2. Posted 12 February 2010 at 12:05 am | Permalink

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  1. By I Hate Rules | Lizzie Stark on 17 January 2009 at 3:18 pm

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