The economics of playing cards

I’ve written a couple times about how changes in the design of currency impose costs on magicians by making it harder to use gaffs and putting existing gaffs out of date. There’s a similar dynamic at work with playing cards. Without getting into specifics, it’s no secret that trick cards exist. If a magician wants to incorporate gaffed cards into his act he’s going to want to buy them with a consistent design. For example, I decided many years ago to purchase red-backed gaffs whenever possible. If I want to be able to use them during a performance it’s best to have them all be one color; switching from a red deck to a blue deck and back again would arouse suspicion.

Similarly, all magicians benefit from defaulting to a common back design. If there were multiple, equally popular designs, different gaffs would be sold with different backs, making them incompatible with each other. We’re better off sticking with one design as the default. It’s a classic network externality: the more magicians who use a single design, the higher the value of that design to all of them. It’s even better if the design is also popular with laymen. That way the cards appear innocent and ungaffed decks can be purchased easily and cheaply.

Up until recently that was exactly how the magic card market worked. Due to some changes in the industry things are shifting a little. It will be interesting to watch how it plays out.

Trips and Squeezers


Trips and Squeezers

After more than 10 years in magic I’ve accumulated a lot of playing cards. And I mean a lot. They’re under my bed, stacked on my dining table, scattered on book shelves, in my wallet, and of course there’s always one working deck in a steel case in my pocket. Whenever I need something offbeat I can usually find it. Last week though I had a need for cards that I couldn’t find in my collection. I needed four cards with visually different backs, similar face designs, good finish, poker sized, and with white borders. I was surprised that I couldn’t put it together, at least not without breaking up some sets of cards.

Bulldog SqueezersThis got me looking online for cards that would fit the bill. One deck that came to mind is the one in the image at left. I owned a couple of these cards but had no idea what they were called or where to buy more of them. The design is enigmatic: A menacing Moon in the sky, two dogs named Squeezer and Trip struggling against their chains to attack each other, and at bottom the phrase “There is a tie that binds us to our Homes”. What did it all mean?

I found the answer in an informative column from magician Mike Rogers. It turns out that the design commemorates what might now be an illegal anti-competitive agreement between merged card manufacturers:

The pack is a replica of a deck made in 1877 when two major card companies worked out a neat, but currently illegal, sales agreement. The deck was designed to commemorate the merger of the New York Consolidated Card Company and the A. Dougherty Company, to be known as Consolidated Dougherty. Card magicians will know this name from the Tally-Ho decks popularized by the New York magicians of the 40s, specifically Dai Vernon. With the merger came the nice agreement to split up sales territory with each staying on his own home ground. The design pictures two ferocious bulldogs straining toward each other at the chains that bind them to their dog houses. One dog’s collar says “Squeezer” and the other says “Trips” for the companies’ respective brands.

New York Consolidated made a brand called Squeezers with numbers in the corners like we use today. If you have ever cupped cards in your hand and sort of squeezed them into a fan to see the corner values you’ll quickly understand the name Squeezers. Poker players will almost always squeeze the hand into a fan so only the smallest part of the corners come into view. A. Dougherty had his own system. He reproduced the original card in the corners and called the brand Triplicate or Trips. Triplicates could be read three ways. Twice in the two corners and once by counting the center pips. Thus the name Triplicates, or what has become known as Trips. Hence, the names on the dogs’ collars. The dogs are chained to their houses to point up the agreement to remain on home turf for sales territories. Thus, “There is a tie that binds us to our homes.”

So now you know. The decks, known as “Bulldog Squeezers,” are reportedly still popular in Cajun parts of Louisiana, so if you live there you might be able to find them at retail. Otherwise you can do as I did and buy them online — assuming you have a use for strange cards with a story behind them, that is.