Published in 1902, The Expert at the Card Table has provided the most influential information about use of sleight-of-hand with cards. Yet, as influential as the book, itself, has been to the practice of magic, the author’s name and background are somewhat shrouded in mystery. In short, no one really knows who S.W. Erdnase is, despite more than a century of searching, conjecture and divergent paths.
Even with all of the resources offered through the internet today. Erdnase’s real identity – and origins – remain shrouded in mystery. It hasn’t stopped people from trying to find him, however. A movie that is currently in production, entitled “Looking for Erdnase,” points out that “Erdnase” could have been any number of people. These include Milton Franklin Andrews (a criminal cheater at cards and suspected serial killer); Charles Edward Andrews (a crook, who was also convicted of fraud) and Edwin Sumner Andrews (a con artist who cheated at card games during train rides). If Erdnase was any of these individuals, then the use of a different author name makes some sense.
While the origins of Erdnase remain foggy to this day, the reason for a use of a pseudonym was not. For one thing, the Comstock laws of 1873 prohibited trade and circulation of “obscene” literature, as well as “articles of immoral use by mail”. Card tricks were considered a form of gambling with gambling, of course, considered highly immoral (and illegal). This not only prevented any potential late-19th century publication of this book; it prohibited any distribution of it once it actually came out.
Another reason for the publication date was because magic and card tricks, during the late 19th century and very early 20th century, were considered hidden practices. However, after the magic magazine, “The Sphinx” came out, the art of magic took off. Magicians began forming official groups, which brought magic from the dark to the light.
Interestingly enough, while the book continues to influence card sharps and magicians, it hasn’t really been embraced by those who cheat at cards (Johnson, 2001). Poker and sleight-of-hand expert Ron Conley pointed out that very few card thieves he’s run across ever read Erdnase (Johnson, 2001). But Conley, himself, pointed out that many of those who didn’t read it, should have done so (Johnson, 2001).
So, despite the mystery of the man who authored this book, its information is still in very high demand, and is in use more than a century after the book was published. It’s interesting to note that this is the case, despite the fact that no one has any idea who the real Erdnase is.