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Heinlein the card player 
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Heinlein Biographer

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Post Re: Heinlein the card player
He needed permission from his parents, of course. Card playing and dancing are regarded by low protestant sects as the veriest evils. Being caught in possession of a deck of cards would cause a major hoo-raw in a household where the father was deacon of his church (as Rex Ivar was). But Robert was given permission to study stage magic after the Thurston the Great incident.


Thu Dec 04, 2008 11:31 am
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Post Re: Heinlein the card player
Bill Patterson wrote:
But Robert was given permission to study stage magic after the Thurston the Great incident.
You mention above that he was given permission to have and practice with playing cards.

I'm an amateur magician, past president of our local IBM ring, and fairly competent within conjuring circles with the pasteboards. I don't perform regularly, but my friends who work for the public mention bad reactions to card magic from some folks, for religious reasons (Huntsville AL is near the buckle of the Bible belt -- Sand Mountain, 50 miles east, still has practicing snake-handlers). The same prejudices aren't as strong with respect to Stage magic, or sleight of hand without playing cards.

My original question was based on curiosity -- to what extent did RAH have hands-on experience with cards, particularly sleight of hand (either cheating or magic moves)? I've since re-read the passage in Gulf, and think now that what he was writing about (stacking a full deck) was beyond his abilities (and he underestimates the ease with which it could be done), but was based on a more-than-casual knowledge of the subject.

1. Yes, he would have been exposed to card playing in the Navy. But there is a world of difference between barracks-room and below-decks poker, and the skills necessary to assemble 104 cards into a readable message. The ability to stack a full deck would not come from playing poker with the boys -- stacking a full deck doesn't come up while playing cards. At most, one would need to set up a single winning hand (typically dealt to a partner, rather than yourself), or build a slug of cards in memorized order (as would be useful for blackjack) -- you'd need to stack between 4 and 12 cards, at most. If a full deck is needed (and it isn't), the cheat would ring in a cooler (as was done in The Sting, where magician/sleight of hand expert John Scarne was a "hand double" for Robert Shaw).

2. As it is today, "stacking the deck" was a metaphor by WWII for various things (this sense of "stack" is in the OED as far back as 1825). As a metaphor, the phrase had progressed beyond its literal meaning. A wordsmith such as Heinlein would have been familiar with its literal meaning, and the idea that playing cards could be stacked. I don't think, though, that he was aware of (or if he was, he carefully ignored) the vast differences in difficulty in stacking a winning hand in poker (as he may have learned from playing cards or personal exposure to playing card magic) to stacking a deck. The amount of effort alluded to in Gulf is consistent with running up a winning hand for a partner in a poker game by a skilled practioner, not with generating a coded message.

3. It's hard to put a single deck of cards into an organized order, much less two decks into an arbitrary order while carrying on a conversation and trying not to be obvious about it. Like I said, I can handle cards pretty well, and it's difficult for me to put a shuffled single deck into new-deck order in much less than two minutes. We'll give Kettle Belly and Gilead a pass on the mental effort necessary to plan, encode, and figure out the desired order and the time it would take them to do so (after all, they are "supermen"), but it still takes a while to put 104 cards into any sort of order because of the physical motions involved.

[Note: detailed instructions on how to set up a small slug of cards, or a pat hand in a four- or five-hand game had been in print since at least 1902, The Expert at the Card Table by S. W. Erdnase (still in print, by the way, including a just-released annotated edition). The methods included overhand shuffling. Riffle stacking didn't show up in any conjuring or gambling literature that I'm aware of until much later, the 1960's and beyond, and even then it was only for a few cards, such as setting up a pat hand. Even today, there is essentially no literature on generating full-deck arbitrary stacks surreptitiously. There are methods to generate a couple of particular stacks, while giving the appearance of shuffling a new deck, but those stacks either have a great deal of the new-deck-order structure within them (see "The Si Stebbins Secret" in Darwin Ortiz at the Card Table by Darwin Ortiz, Kaufman & Greenburg, 1987); or were designed to appear random but be built from new-deck-order (see the works of Spanish magician Juan Tamariz and his recent English book Mnemonica, or Michael Skinner's stack, in which a new deck is given 4 perfect shuffles (out-faroes, to be precise; this stack has the advantage that 4 more such shuffles put it back into new-deck order). Much more common in the literature are examples and methods of deck switches, however, because doing so is the better way to control a full deck.]

As far as Carnie slang and life, David Maurer wrote " Carnival Cant: A Glossary of Circus and Carnival Slang " in American Speech 1n 1931. Along with other articles on the slang of underworld types (confidence men, monte mobs, three-shell players, narcotics addicts, moonshiners, prisoners, prostitutes, the incarcerated) in an ongoing series, he assembled this research into several books from the 1940's to the 1960's, which RAH may well have read. One of these, to bring the discussion round full circle, was The Big Con, on which the movie The Sting was based.

Aside from Gulf and Farnham's Freehold, I can remember some work with cards in "Lost Legacy". That they come up several times is one reason I suppose RAH may have actuall had some skill. Are there any other references in his works that I'm missing?


Fri Dec 05, 2008 3:26 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein the card player
Yes, when my grandmother caught me and my cousin playing 'Go Fish', she informed us in no uncertain terms that cards were the tools of the Devil. :twisted:


Fri Dec 05, 2008 3:33 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein the card player
Anyone who's ever tried to learn card magic would agree.


Fri Dec 05, 2008 3:42 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein the card player
DavidWrightSr wrote:
Yes, when my grandmother caught me and my cousin playing 'Go Fish', she informed us in no uncertain terms that cards were the tools of the Devil. :twisted:


Hi, David. To take this thread off-topic for a moment, which I seem to do a lot, I loved your "How I First Encountered Heinlein" mini-essay on the THS site.

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Fri Dec 05, 2008 4:38 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein the card player
James Gifford wrote:
His parents, when he was a child. The post is awkwardly worded. He didn't need permission from anyone in the 1970s. (Or so I assume...)


Maybe Ginnny :D :D :D

Sorry, couldn't resist. :cry: :D :D


Wed Mar 18, 2009 9:47 am
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Post Re: Heinlein the card player
Stacking cards, dealing seconds, etc was unfortunately a fairly common skill in poker games when most games were player-dealt and most players couldn't catch a cold, let alone a mechanic. I was involved in catching people several times, having read hints by John Scarne on the subject. The scene with Kettle Belly did not trigger disbelief.

Heinlein's understanding of bridge, as shown in Farnham's Freehold, was moderate. He appeared to know enough to admire expert bridge players and not enough not to admire expert bridge players.


Wed Mar 18, 2009 11:46 am
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Post Re: Heinlein the card player
Many visitors to this site probably already know Alexei Panshin's (1968) description of the game in the opening chapter of Farnham's Freehold: "[...] the bridge game is adjourned to Farnham's well-equipped sub-basement bomb shelter where Barbara plays out and wins the most incredible fictional bridge hand of all time: seven no-trump, doubled, redoubled and vulnerable, a side bet riding."

I can't vouch for Panshin's accuracy in calling this "the most incredible" etc., but if true, what sense of "incredible" would apply? That is, did Heinlein base his description of the game on thorough knowledge of bridge, or on skimpy knowledge? ["Moderate" knowledge would seem unlikely to have produced a game that is so (allegedly) noteworthy.]


Wed Mar 18, 2009 12:21 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein the card player
Will in New Haven wrote:
He appeared to know enough to admire expert bridge players and not enough not to admire expert bridge players.

Um... huh?

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Wed Mar 18, 2009 2:39 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein the card player
Very interesting background info on cards! I believe Heinlein did mention cards in several other contexts. I suspect he valued card-playing in narrative because it shows mental skill and physical dexterity in a small and homely setting.

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Fri Mar 20, 2009 3:49 pm
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