Cardsharps, Hackers, and the Creation of Myth

February 28, 2019

This article appeared in Diego Segura Magazine, Issue 002 .

S.W. Erdnase is a name that I might never put a face to. As of yet, nobody has.

A century ago, in 1902, somebody by the name of S.W. Erdnase self-published a book called The Expert at the Card Table, now commonly referred to as EATCT. Shortly after being published, it was mentioned in some newspapers and sold by a few magic shops, but to no significant acclaim. Erdnase never did a book tour or a signing.

The content of the book disallowed him from doing such a thing. The book was originally titled Artifice, Ruse and Subterfuge at the Card Table, which is clearly not the name of a book about innocent card tricks. In 1902, publishing a work of this sort and attaching it to his name would have been dangerous, as many judges could have jailed him for releasing “obscene material.” That’s why he published anonymously.

“Artifice is nothing if not practiced” seems to be the book’s credo. The introduction is almost humorously self-aware of its contents. Readers will learn how to hold out cards, control the deck, and perform a variety of sleights and maneuvers invented to give them an advantage by cheating at cards. Readers, if so inclined, would do themselves well to learn these tricks and put them into practice for their own gain.

It’s an unapologetic exposé on deception.

S.W. Erdnase is not the author’s real name. Some believe that’s it E.S. Andrews, which is S.W. Erdnase backwards, but many other theories exist. Nobody knows with any certainty who Erdnase really was.

Daniel Madison is one hell of a character. He’s a magician, but probably not the type you’d want at your kid’s birthday party. Tattoos run across his hands. There’s the all-caps “ROUNDERS” on the inside of his right middle finger, and “HUSTLER” on the inside of his left index finger. Farther up on his arm, you’ll find “YCKMMF,” which stands for “You can’t kill me mother fucker.”

If I get tattoos, they’ll be exclusively on my hands and forearms as a nod to Daniel Madison.

I first discovered Daniel Madison when I collected playing cards, a few years back. A company by the name of Ellusionist employed Daniel as one of their spokespeople, and he had decks with his logo designed and printed every few months. Different boxes, different patterns, different colors. And all of the cards were bloody simple, unapologetic in the little they wanted to say. Proper Daniel Madison.

Daniel’s grandfather was a working magician, but as a kid, Daniel wasn’t much interested in tricks. “I just knew it wasn’t real, he was presenting it like this was a real thing that happens...but it’s not really.” And then, when Daniel was thirteen, his grandfather died. Daniel’s parents had divorced when he was ten, which made his grandfather his primary influence, but when he died it left him with little guidance. Prompted by the loss, he started looking into magic and found himself sidetracked—not by cheesy tricks that he could perform at parties, but by a desire to utilize a magician’s skills to cheat at cards. As a teenager, his only priority was to make money, for himself, to take care of himself and his sister, and to give to his mother. “Gambling became an exciting way of doing it, rather than just stealing something and selling it.”

A lucky flip through the television channels at age fifteen led him to watch the last few minutes of a program with Steve Forte, a renowned card cheat, who was dealing cards from the bottom and middle of the deck in a demonstration. That gave Daniel all the inspiration he needed.

Daniel’s work to develop Steve Forte-like skills paid off, in some good ways and some bad. Daniel’s aim was cheating at cards, not magic tricks. Commanding the cards deceptively became second-nature, which bred confidence, enough to take his skills to real card games and try his hand at cheating.

I’ll venture to guess that he did it for more than money. The thrill of having complete control over the table and people playing around you is a challenge that few would be willing to take on and risk their lives for. (Daniel was cocky about his skills at the time—he likely never thought he’d get caught, or meet any consequences.)

For those who do crave that control, it must be the best feeling in the world. While you’re still standing.

“The art of dealing from the bottom, although not the most difficult to attain, is perhaps the most highly prized accomplishment in the repertory of the professional.” — S.W. Erdnase, EATCT (1902)

The “bottom deal” seems like a simple maneuver: instead of dealing a card from the top of the deck, you deal a card from the bottom without the rest of the table knowing. This could work to your advantage, for example, if you wanted to deal yourself two Aces in a game of Hold ‘Em. Here’s how you do it:

1. “Hold out” the cards you want to deal to yourself. Get the two Aces out of the deck and into your hands, lap, or somewhere else where you have control of them.

2. When it’s your turn to deal the cards, position your Aces face down in your left hand (or whichever side you deal from).* Place the deck on top of the two cards in your hand, without anyone noticing the two cards underneath. The two aces should end up at the bottom of the deck, face down.

3. Deal the cards regularly to the other players, but when you deal to yourself, deal from the bottom instead of the top.

4. Win your money and go home without pissing anyone off.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. The bottom deal is the crux of all of that card manipulation. Holding out might just require bold timing, but bottom dealing is life or death.

For one, the sound you make taking a card from the top of a deck is much different than taking a card from the bottom. Some try to hide the difference by exaggerating both sounds in an attempt to match them. Others are known to be cruder: I remember hearing an interview with an reformed card cheat who said he “always had a cold”. He was always sniffling to cover up a sound of some sort.

Plus, the way that most people hold a deck of cards makes it difficult to bottom deal easily. Most people grip the deck with their pinky on the bottom edge and three fingers on the right side. Those dextrous numbers are barriers to your getting a card out from the bottom. Without a different grip, it’s painfully obvious that your fingers are moving out of the way to reach that bottom card.

Erdnase’s method consists in moving the index and middle finger to the top of the deck, with the ring finger and pinky curled around the right side of the pack (given you are holding the cards in your left hand). To deal from the bottom, use your thumb to pretend to push the top card out and to the right, as if you’re going to deal it to the table. Simultaneously, use your ring finger underneath the deck to push out the bottom card. (See next illustration.) The top card conceals the bottom as both exit, and the opposite hand feigns grabbing the top card while actually gripping the one at the bottom, then dealing it out to the table.

All of this happens in an instant, the hope being that nobody will be the wiser.

Daniel Madison is eighteen years old, playing cards with a group of men in a card room. He’d attended their game twice before to stake it out, now returning for a third time to cheat the game. Confident in his skills and driven by youthful audacity, he tries a risky sleight.

But one of the men at the table witnesses the attempt. Three men from the game jump him. For the next six months, Daniel is in a wheelchair.

Later, a cousin of Daniel’s notices Daniel practicing with a deck of cards. “I didn’t know you knew magic,” the cousin remarks. Daniel never thought of his skill with a deck of cards in terms of magic, but this gave him an idea to repurpose these sleights elsewhere.

”June 14th, 1930.

There was a card cheat called Walter Irving Scott who managed to fool some of the world’s most amazing magicians by demonstrating an ability to deal winning poker hands from a shuffled deck of cards, and he did this blindfolded. A lot of speculation followed these stories as to whether the deck that he used was borrowed or his own. Any magician can deal aces or a winning poker hand from his own deck. Tonight, I am going to attempt to deal a winning poker hand from a deck of cards that I’ve never handled before, and in honor of Walter Irving Scott, I’m going to attempt to do it wearing a blindfold.”

That was Daniel Madison’s opening monologue for his 2011 appearance on Penn and Teller’s television show Fool Us, where magicians from around the world attempt to fool two of the world’s best.

Daniel’s setup is minimal: he has a blindfold and a deck of cards, and he’s positioned at a card table. Penn and Teller inspect the blindfold before Daniel puts it on. Penn throws a few fake punches towards Daniel’s face, stopping inches before his blindfold to the delight of the crowd.

Penn and Teller shuffle and inspect the cards. Then they place them in Daniel’s right hand, face down.

Daniel proceeds to deal the cards, stopping at random points to place a card apart from the others. When he’s nearly dealt the entire deck, four cards lay face down on the table, and there is a big pile of other cards next to him. He gets down to the last two cards and stops to contemplate, then sets one of them down as the fifth card.

Penn flips over the cards one by one—for maximum effect—and reveals a royal flush of diamonds. Ten, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace, all dealt from a shuffled deck of cards.

I don’t think that Daniel Madison had any desire to fool Penn and Teller, but I do think that he knew he would impress the hell out of them. (Spoiler alert: I am about to explain the trick, or at least give a plausible explanation of how Daniel Madison would do this.) Just like I explained earlier, Daniel Madison held out the royal flush, either before he gave them the cards, or he had an extra five cards with him. The five cards sat in his left hand. When Penn and Teller placed the deck in his right hand, he had to shift the deck to his left hand, which gave him a moment’s window to insert the royal flush at the bottom.

The rest is easy for Daniel. He deals like normal but irregularly deals a card from the bottom, acting as if he knows the order of the cards or is inexplicably finding them from the middle.

While the trick sounds simple, it’s incredibly difficult. If you’ve tried to bottom deal, you know how hard it is to perform under pressure, and you can thus appreciate the trick as a grand performance.

Penn was more than impressed with the trick. He told DM:

“A dear friend of mine, Jerry Camaro, did the move that you did when you were dealing out the cards, and he used to go around teaching it to people and his move was so perfect that he would teach it to magicians and they could never learn it, and the reason they could never learn it was [that he spent] 14 years in prison for murder and practiced every day. I have never seen anyone who did not do hard time in prison do that move you did to pull those out that well. I’ve seen people equal that move, but I’ve never seen it better.”

The end of Chris Stanislas’s life doesn’t seem like much of a surprise in retrospect. Before his death, he’d released a short magic book with Daniel Madison titled T.U.T. He was a skilled card-man himself, having studied the works of the best, including EATCT and Daniel Madison. But from the final messages he shared with the world, it was clear that he wasn’t in a healthy headspace.

His YouTube channel featured dark, black-and-white videos. The somber visuals match the defeated internal dialogue of a man who seemed to have lost hope. On September 1, 2015, just days before his death, he sent out this cryptic tweet:

“They’ll hear 10–56 ring through every open channel. I was before, still am. But closer.”

10–56 is the police code for suicide.

On September 12, he made his intentions clearer:

“Leaving. I’m through.”

Ten days later, Chris Stanislas committed suicide at the age of 22.

When T.U.T. came out, I was quite excited. Daniel Madison—who is now no longer a card cheat, but a creator, posting tutorials, monologues, and the occasional artistic short on YouTube—is excellent at marketing. (His website advertises a wealth of specialty playing cards that he continues to produce. They sport many different incarnations of the “Madison” logo, one being a diamond-shape that creates an endless pattern of M’s. I’ve owned a few of these. One heavily used pack sits on my bookshelf; I use the cards as bookmarks.)

I purchased T.U.T. a day before it was released. Daniel Madison knows how to design, but he’s no web developer, so the organization of his website was easy to navigate. TUT.html was already up a day before, so I bought it.

I emailed Chris Stanislas and asked if I was the first person to purchase it, as I expected I was, though it turns out I came in a meager second. I had included a couple of questions about card magic and sleights in my email as well, and he replied graciously.

I was thirteen or fourteen years old, and looking back, I realize that Chris was by no means a celebrity. But it sure felt like he was to me. He was working with Daniel Madison, had a book out, and when he replied to my emails, I would’ve never guessed that he was just a 20-something-year-old kid pursuing his passion. To be frank, I didn’t know he was only 22 until I looked it up to write this.

Littered with questions about magic and how to discover new moves and maneuvers, my email was too long. But Chris responded with one equally in-depth. I remember him describing some ways that he practiced his card sleights, and I’m very appreciative for that to this day.

Chris was talented. He understood the beauty of artifice as art. Deception, the demonstration thereof, the admiration that it demands.

Since 1902 The Expert at the Card Table has not only earned itself a short and sweet acronym, it’s achieved cult status among anyone who knows about cards. Book recommendations for starting out in magic or card sleights? The Bible, they might say on a forum, referring to Erdnase’s 1902 landmark work.

The reason that the book remains popular to this day, I think, isn’t just because it’s well-written. This is a book about cheating at cards, after all. I guess we’ve all got our deceptive streak.

There are some who will study EATCT to get better at magic tricks. (The final section, titled Legerdemain, describes trickery suitable for demonstrations rather than a card game.) Those interested will find intriguing sleights throughout and take home at least two or three new skills after the first read.

I saw the first Now You See Me (2013) movie when I was twelve. After, I figured it’d be cool to learn how to manipulate cards. I searched “how to do card tricks” on the internet and discovered that many people make quite the hobby out of learning, practicing, and performing magic tricks.

But my interest in magic quickly waned. I turned, instead, to learning how to play card games and  skills that I could practice with a deck of cards, like the bottom deal. (There are plenty of gimmicks, devices, and categories of magic that don’t involve cards, but I wasn’t very interested in spending my time learning how to make squishy red balls disappear.)

Gambling moves are meant to be hidden. A “false shuffle” is supposed to look like a regular shuffle, but by the end of the trick, the cards are still in order. A “false cut” is the same concept. If you saw Daniel Madison or Chris Stanislas practicing gambling moves with the cards face down, you might not be very impressed at all. They’re not magic tricks, they’re sleights.

Magic tricks are the opposite: a sad attempt at validation. It’s not about the moves, it’s about whether or not a bunch of goofballs who don’t understand are impressed.

For what?

For a card cheat, happiness comes when you’ve done something that nobody notices, while a magician lives only for the moment when everyone notices. One loves craft, the other adds validation. One might not be better than the other, but I know which one I like more.

How do you make an unapologetic masterpiece like EATCT when you’re so worried about whether or not it’s “obscene material”? Or, if you’re concerned about your standing in society, will you talk about the real source of these maneuvers, that is, the dark gambling halls where card cheats make their money?

I find more beauty in Erdnase’s hidden identity than I do in any of the sleights described in his book. Those moves will be and have been done by many other people, but warranting a hundred-year search by creating a book with a lasting impact on generations of people...that’s a masterpiece.

With the invention of the internet came two antipodal opportunities: to be anonymous in a sea of bits and bytes that cannot be traced back to you, or to be known far and wide by people across the world. Most of us choose the latter. Our communities on the internet coincide with real life, and we share so we feel like we’re a part of it all. That makes some people happy, to know they have a vast, half-invested audience. Share, share, share, and never forget who said it.

For fuck’s sake.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’m sure that question had been raised to me before, but third grade was the first time I remember answering it.

My teacher—Mrs. Pruitt, if I remember correctly—posed the question to our class, and we all wrote, with childish handwriting, on a card, what we wanted to be. I wanted to be on the iPhone Dev Team. Not the real engineering team that worked on the iPhone....the iPhone Dev Team.

When the iPhone first came out, it was only offered on one cellular provider in the United States. A young man named George Hotz (known as “geohot” on the internet) wanted to unlock it for use on whatever carrier he desired. At seventeen years old, he physically opened the iPhone and made some alterations to the electronics, hacking his way to full control of the device. Thus began the history of jailbreaking.*

(This kid is a badass. In 2010, he published a “jailbreak” for Sony’s Playstation 3, and Sony was pissed. They waged an intense legal battle against him, earning him the wrath of one of the world’s most important electronics companies.)

Blackra1n, a jailbreak tool that George Hotz released in 2009, allowed anyone to plug in their iPhone to their computer, press a few buttons, and gain full access to their device. It also installed an app on the home screen called Cydia. An underground App Store, Cydia offered other apps not available in the official App Store and “tweaks” to customize the appearance and behavior of the iPhone.

While I was in third grade, the iPhone Dev Team developed one of the more popular jailbreaks, called “redsn0w”. Every time a jailbreak was released, Apple responded swiftly with an update for the iPhone’s operating system that would patch the previous exploit—only to be exploited again by outside developers. This cat-and-mouse game between Apple and teams like the iPhone Dev Team continued.

Another such dev team was the Chr0nic Dev Team, which consisted of members like “Jaywalker,” “westbaer,” and “p0sixninja”. Though some of these developers were loose about their hidden identities, people knew them more by their screen names than by their real names. In the case of geohot, hiding his identity would have been terribly helpful when Sony came knocking at the door with a team of lawyers backed by an angry corporation.

This was my third grade dream: to be a hacker. I didn’t know shit about programming, how to exploit an iPhone, let alone how to type properly, but I knew that those all seemed like wonderful skills to have. The world of computers and what could (and sometimes shouldn’t) be done with them fascinated me like nothing else. However silly it may sound now, my dream was to sit on a laptop late at night and work on projects that nobody knew about. A lone wolf armed with nothing but a keyboard. A hacker.

Years later, I haven’t made much progress on my hacking dream. I used Linux for a couple years through middle school and high school, but that wasn’t a big feat. I no longer have much of an interest in programming or cyber security—other topics are much more intriguing to me.

Now, I toil away at my laptop late at night, jabbing at my keyboard a mile a minute while nobody else knows what I’m working on. Every once in a while, something shows up on the internet as proof of my labor.

All the while, I maintain my contempt for “normal.” Maybe I have made some progress.

January 5, 2012

The first communication from Cicada 3301, posted on an online image board.

Opening this image with a text editor reveals the text:

TIBERIVS CLAVDIVS CAESAR says “lxxt>33m2mqkyv2gsq3q=w]O2ntk”

People much smarter than me recognized that the mention of Caesar next to an encrypted message is a reference to a Caesar cipher. It’s a common and simple way to encode a message: you shift each letter over by a certain amount of characters. For example, if you shift the letters in “diego” over by one letter in the alphabet, the resulting message is “ejfhp.”

Tiberius Claudius Caesar was the fourth emperor of Rome. Shifting all the characters in the text over by four characters yielded a URL to a webpage displaying a decoy picture of a duck.

The text on the picture, “Looks like you can’t guess how to get the message out,” was a clue to use a program called OutGuess to find the real message. OutGuess is a program that can be used to hide a message inside of a file, such as a JPEG image. Using OutGuess on the original image, thus, provided a real clue:

    Here is a book code.  To find the book, and more information, go to

    1:20, 2:3, 3:5, 4:20, 5:5, 6:53, 7:1, 8:8, 9:2, 10:4, 11:8, 12:4, 13:13, 14:4, 15:8, 16:4, 17:5, 18:14, 19:7, 20:31, 21:12, 22:36, 23:2, 24:3, 25:5, 26:65, 27:5, 28:1, 29:2, 30:18, 31:32, 32:10, 33:3, 34:25, 35:10, 36:7, 37:20, 38:10, 39:32, 40:4, 41:40, 42:11, 43:9, 44:13, 45:6, 46:3, 47:5, 48:43, 49:17, 50:13, 51:4, 52:2, 53:18, 54:4, 55:6, 56:4, 57:24, 58:64, 59:5, 60:37, 61:60, 62:12, 63:6, 64:8, 65:5, 66:18, 67:45, 68:10, 69:2, 70:17, 71:9, 72:20, 73:2, 74:34, 75:13, 76:21

    Good luck.


That URL led to a page with two images repeated over and over. One was titled “Welcome,” and the other was titled “Problems?”. Using Outguess, there were messages embedded in each of these images, too.

I wish I could go into complete detail about how the rest of the clues went, but it’s around this point that I start losing track of how all this works. I do know that those who solved the messages—and some did solve them—ended up calling a phone number, finding some more websites, and eventually a list of coordinates around the world:

    52.216802, 21.018334
    48.85057059876962, 2.406892329454422
    47.664196,  -122.313301
    47.637520, -122.346277
    47.622993, -122.312576
    37.5196666666667, 126.995
    33.966808, -117.650488
    29.909098706850486 -89.99312818050384
    25.684702, -80.441289
    21.584069, -158.104211
    - -33.90281, 151.18421
    36.0665472222222, -94.1726416666667
    37.577070, 126.813122

At each location there was a paper posting with a cicada symbol and a QR code. They were found in California, Australia, Arkansas, Haleiwa, Miami, New Orleans, Paris, Seattle, Seoul, and Warsaw.

It was now evident that these cryptic puzzles weren’t the creation of some lone ranger with time on his hands.

All this started with a bit of white text on a black background. To date, there are still problems from Cicada 3301 left unsolved, particularly a book called the Liber Primus. The text itself is fairly creepy, and 3301 seems to be very patient in waiting for someone to fully decode the book. Reproduced in the following pages are images of the book, along with some pages that have been solved.

To this day, nobody knows exactly what or who created these puzzles or where they lead. If somebody does know, they haven’t mentioned it to the rest of us.

Some think that Cicada is a grand conspiracy, a cult gaining converts through perfectly engineered cryptography. Others think it’s an NSA recruiting tactic, designed to single out the greatest talents in the world to work for the United States government. At first, it was easy to think that it might just be one very talented man or woman behind it all, but that theory proved unlikely when the pictures of Cicada clues in cities around the world surfaced.

Whatever it is, it’s beautiful. I’ll leave it at that.

Preface & Introduction, EATCT

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. To all lovers of card games it should prove interesting, 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.

The passion for play is probably as old, and will be as enduring, as the race of man. Some of us are too timid to risk a dollar, but the percentage of people in this feverish nation who would not enjoy winning one is very small. The passion culminates in the professional. He would rather play than eat. Winning is not his sole delight. Some one has remarked that there is but one pleasure in life greater than winning, that is, in making the hazard.

To be successful at play is as difficult as to succeed in any other pursuit. The laws of chance are as immutable as the laws of nature. Were all gamblers to depend on luck they would break about even in the end. The professional card player may enjoy the average luck, but it is difficult to find one who thinks he does, and it is indeed wonderful how mere chance will at times defeat the strongest combination of wit and skill. It is almost an axiom that a novice will win his first stake. A colored attendant of a “club-room” overhearing a discussion about running up two hands at poker, ventured the following interpolation: “Don’t trouble ‘bout no two hen’s, Boss. Get yo’ own hen’. De suckah, he’ll get a han’ all right, suah!” And many old players believe the same thing. However, the vagaries of luck, or chance, have impressed the professional card player with a certain knowledge that his more respected brother of the stock exchange possesses, viz.--manipulation is more profitable than speculation; so to make both ends meet, and incidentally a good living, he also performs his part with the shears when the lambs come to market.

Hazard at play carries sensations that once enjoyed are rarely forgotten. The winnings are known as “pretty money,” and it is generally spent as freely as water. The average professional who is successful at his own game will, with the sublimest unconcern, stake his money on that of another’s, though fully aware the odds are against him. He knows little of the real value of money, and as a rule is generous, careless and improvident. He loves the hazard rather than the stakes. As a matter of fact the principal difference between the professional gambler and the occasional gambler, is that the former is actuated by his love of the game and the latter by cupidity. A professional rarely “squeals” when he gets the worst of it; the man who has other means of livelihood is the hardest loser.

Advantages that are bound to ultimately give a percentage in favor of the professional are absolutely essential to his existence, and the means employed at the card table to obtain that result are thoroughly elucidated in this work. We have not been impelled to our task by the qualms of a guilty conscience, nor through the hope of reforming the world. Man cannot change his temperament, and few care to control it. While the passion for hazard exists it will find gratification. We have neither grievance against the fraternity nor sympathy for so-called “victims.” A varied experience has impressed us with the belief that all men who play for any considerable stakes are looking for the best of it. We give the facts and conditions of our subject as we find them, though we sorrowfully admit that our own early knowledge was acquired at the usual excessive cost to the uninitiated.

“The status of kartyozhnik is not easy to obtain and progress depends greatly on a teacher. Many beginners quit after a month, becoming fuflizhnik (‘rubbishers’ who cannot pay up), or ‘skip out’ (lowering their status by joining the ranks of the ‘cocks’ and goats’), or are ‘done away’ (made into passive sodomites.).”*

Kartyozhnik means card-sharp. To bestow this label upon yourself was no easy task in a Soviet prison.

For one, you had to be chosen by existing kartyozhniki, and they were extremely selective. Your history, both in and out of prison, had to be clean. You needed to not be a reckless gambler, nor have too much of a liking for risks. You needed to be highly intelligent, cool under pressure. If you had ever failed to pay a debt or were caught up in any bad business in the prisons, you couldn’t be a kartyozhnik.

To be a card-sharp in prison is a status symbol. It means you have protection. Power. According to the criminal underground that existed in Soviet prisons, cheating at cards and taking advantage of “geese” who didn’t know better was the cleanest living you could hope to make.

Gambling was strictly prohibited in all Soviet prisons. Even with the corruption enabled by certain authorities outside prison bars, it’s clear when reading stories from inside that the card games were meticulously hidden. For one, decks of cards were not a dime a dozen. Each deck was made by hand by a kartyozhnik using books as paper for the cards, a chewed-up bread solution to glue paper together to create a card stock, and blood to create a barely distinguishable red color for the suits. All of this under the watchful eye of guards: when cards were drying, they had to be placed under books so that nobody saw them. Only at night could a kartyozhnik lay them on a bed to allow them to dry until morning when they’d be hidden again.

Circumstances—and perhaps a chasing of advantages—dictated design decisions of the cards. For one, they were considerably smaller than a standard deck of cards, which helped them stay concealed from guards looking out for illegal activity. However, that advantage also went to the card sharps: a small deck of cards was easier to manipulate when right in front of your victim. (Interesting also is that their standard deck only had 36 as opposed to the 52 in the decks you and I are familiar with. Erdnase mentions that it’s much easier to bottom deal as the deck gets smaller—I’d like to think the kartyozhniki used this also to their advantage.)

Kartyozhniki preferred blackjack, since cards are constantly moving in the game. Thus, this provides many opportunities to gain an advantage and take control of the game. In all sorts of card games, the kartyozhniki had tricks up their sleeves, and they preyed on anyone who didn’t know they would get cheated. Even if they were caught in a suspicious act, there wasn’t much help around for the victim. Since the kartyozhniki made so much money from prisoners who had resources to gamble with, they donated much of it to the authorities on the inside of the prison (not the authorities outside), which gave them all the protection they needed to deny allegations and continue their “clean” work.

Knowledge and skills were passed on from generation to generation of kartyozhniki in the prisons. When one of their sentences was close to an end, they would recruit another young prisoner and put them through all sorts of tests, all to verify whether they had what it took to be a true card sharp. They passed on the knowledge of sleights, how to make the cards, and “tells” about the other player: “If they make this or that motion with their hand, it means they have this or that hand.”

I’d like to be a kartyozhnik when I grow up.

The Story of Gyges

From Plato’s Republic, translated by Benjamin Jowett.

That those who practice justice do so involuntarily and because they have not the power to be unjust will best appear if we imagine something of this kind: having given both to the just and the unjust power to do what they will, let us watch and see whither desire will lead them; then we shall discover in the very act the just and unjust man to be proceeding along the same road, following their interest, which all natures deem to be their good, and are only diverted into the path of justice by the force of law. The liberty which we are supposing may be most completely given to them in the form of such a power as is said to have been possessed by Gyges, the ancestor of Croesus the Lydian. According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result—when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared. Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice. Enough of this.

Now, an attempt to bring all of these words back home.

At first I thought this article was all about anonymity.

S.W. Erdnase is known for the fact that we don’t know who he is. Cicada 3301 thrives off of anonymity to create interest in their puzzles. For what end, I’m not sure. The hacker culture that captivated me as a kid is characterized by all sorts of efforts to protect your identity, whether they’re special web browsers or hiding behind a screen name. I find that an engineer by day could be a well-known iPhone hacker by night is wonderful.

But it’s about more than hidden identities.

Then I thought this was all about deception. It’s not the results of deception that I love. Card-sharps and hackers might be able to earn a healthy buck with their skills, but the deception itself is what’s beautiful. Since I’m not one for compulsive lying, the dextrous craft of card sleights offers a way to know something that others don’t. Cicada’s puzzles are heavy on cryptography and steganography, and they take extensive efforts to obscure the path—maybe not blatant deception, but they sure aren’t forward about anything. Anonymity in itself is a way of hiding what’s true.

But it’s about more than deception.

I’ve found out, nearly three weeks into writing this article, what it’s about.

Today is February 19, 2019. I woke up a few minutes ago to the news that Karl Lagerfeld died after 85 years on Earth. He was the prolific designer behind Chanel from 1983 until his death, and a character of force throughout his life. Few celebrity deaths strike me as important. Karl Lagerfeld is one of them.

Although very well-known for his remarkable business savvy and design sense, “his greatest calling was as the orchestrator of his own myth.”*

Despite my limited knowledge about Lagerfeld’s life in particular, the myth is what I understand to be important. All of these stories are just that.

If or when someone solves all of the Cicada puzzles, there won’t be much to wonder about. The same applies to the true identity of Erdnase. Daniel Madison’s tattoos, his image, the logos, the card designs—all make me wonder about the mind behind them. The kartyozhnik and his deceptions are only known through recollection by a very select few. Anonymity, as mentioned by Plato, is power for the one behind the veil, but impossible mystery for everyone in front.

For all the unimportant truth around us, in small doses we will find myth. Those are the stories I love.