CTA – Improvisation

“Learn as many sleights at as you possibly can and then improvise,” was Ross Bertram’s advice. It was also the third secret, one that had been part of his m.o. for most of his performing career. And for Ross, the first book that really taught him improvisation was Erdnase.

Although Erdnase was a system, it required improvisation, the practitioner having to make spontaneous transitions between sleights – chord changes if you will – to make money.

Wynton Marsalis makes the point in Kenneth Burns’ superb PBS documentary series, Jazz, that although musicians had improvised in earlier days – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven were all virtuoso keyboards who could riff on a theme – improvisation, the give and take between players, repeating and building on each other’s playing, was a primary accomplishment of jazz musicians, and the centre for that sound-breaking work was New Orleans.

Interestingly, jazz was not the only thing making noise there in the late 1890s. Gambling was also a major concern, and New Orleans was the place where cheats applied their trade – improvisation – with the same proficiency.

Card cheats had their own combos but instead of it being keyboard, bass and drums, it was more like card mechanic (the guy who could deal the cards), ally (the silent partner who would cut the cards for the mechanic) and the big player (another silent partner who would ‘win’ the money). It was the give and take between the three of them – playing the crowd, the cards and the money– where improvisation occurred.

Unlike jazz however, where a player could miss the odd note or exchange, with little consequence other than a blow to his reputation, advantage players had little, if any, margin for error. To paraphrase Erdnase, “To be suspected of skill was the deathblow to the professional.” If the card cheat was caught – if they missed a note, so to speak – they could end up, well, dead.

So in 1902, Erdnase came along and published a philosophical and technical guide for card cheats. Yes, there had been many books before, but none that described the work in such clinical detail, outlining not only the proper fingering for the instrument, but also how to master the changes. Even better, he suggested it was okay to play solo. You could make a living as a single; the other boys in the band were not required.

Not surprisingly, card cheats – like musicians –speak of someone’s ‘chops’. And to be adept, you need both the technical chops – locate, secure, stock cards, blind shuffle, blind cut, circumnavigate the cut, and deal from the bottom of the deck –  and equally important, you need soul – ‘grift sense’ – or, knowing when to ‘move’ in a game and how to provide ‘shade’ when you make the transition from ‘true’ to ‘blind’ to ‘true’. And, like true improvisation every game, every hand was different.

Erdnase, for those who had a more artistic sensibility, at least when it came to card cheating, opened their eyes to what was, in effect, possible.

– DAVID BEN

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