Who is Steve Brooks?

Steve Brooks can best be described as a man who wears many hats, and has a wide range of interests. He makes his living from various sources, including the running of The Magic Cafe, which is arguably the most well-known and highly populated forum for magicians on the internet. Besides that, he’s active as a magician performing private shows and restaurant magic, and doing graphic art design work for various projects including the designing of playing cards. He’s previously also been involved in creating and publishing his own magic effects, and producing, directing and marketing DVDs for the magic community. In addition to his own artist background, he has a passion for all the arts, including music (playing multiple instruments in various bands) film, and also for history, specifically the American Civil War and WWII.

He’s also a real thinker an philosopher, who has a lot to say on many subjects, with genuinely thoughtful reflections. With his breadth of knowledge and a wide range of interests, particularly given his background in art and magic, Steve is well placed to have some real insights on the aesthetics of playing cards. He’s even writing several books currently, including a couple on magic theory, as well as a huge historical project about the famous Escape Map deck from World War II.

As it turns out, Steve is a very serious and dedicated collector of playing cards. How serious, you ask? Well, right now he owns more than 26,000 decks! Anybody that has a collection so large it would take a truck to begin moving it has some serious credibility as a collector! Steve is also very active in the 52 Plus Joker Club, the prestigious American Playing Card Collectors Club.

Steve kindly agreed to being interviewed about magic and about playing cards, and I’m happy to report that he was not only generous with his time and with the amount of his words, but he’s shared some wonderful stories and reflections about both playing cards and magic. There’s a great deal we can learn from his passion and experience. So without further ado, here’s Steve Brooks!

Interview on Playing Cards

For those who don’t know anything about you, what can you tell us about yourself and your background?

Well, like my mom used to say, I’m a man of many hats. I have a lot of interests and I’ve learned how to do a lot of different things. My biggest fear was becoming a Jack of all trades, master of none. So I had to focus on just a few things.

Most people probably know I’m into magic, and I run The Magic Café forum.

I’ve been drawing and doing art all my life, e.g. painting and illustrating. I grew up drawing, and I worked in a print shop for like four or five years. So I ran Lionel types, learned how to set type and ran Windmill Heidelbergs, and Kluges and Offset presses. And so I learned all about printing, which went along with my graphic art. I still do art.

As I got further in magic, I got into different playing cards. Playing cards fascinated me for just a number of reasons, not just magic purposes, but also because of the art. I was fascinated with the different types of designs and how they were printed. So I got into that, figured out how they printed cards and all the technologies that go with that.

And I’ve always loved music. So I got in the band when I was in school and I played the trumpet for around four years even though I hated the trumpet. Eventually, I got a guitar and taught myself how to play. And then I started playing keyboards and drums. When I got older, I played in numerous bands, country bands, rock and roll bands, jazz bands. I’ve done that most of my life. Because of problems with my hands on the advice of my doctor I had to quit drumming. That said, I still play guitar from time to time, just to amuse myself.

I enjoy writing and creating. I’m a history buff, and the American Civil War fascinates me, and World War II as well. I collect hourglasses – I’ve got tons of them. I’m also a science fiction buff, so I’m a geek.

When did you start collecting playing cards, and what got you started?

I’ve haphazardly collected them off and on since I was a kid, because of the art. The artwork that was on them seemed pretty cool, and I tried to get different variations. Back in those days I didn’t know anything really about playing cards like I do now.

I got more serious about it in the last 15 years or so, because of my interest in the American Civil War, where I started seeking out certain decks that were printed in that era, e.g. Faro decks.

How large is your own collection of decks?

Usually when you get into collecting something, it starts off as a hobby, and then sometimes you can go crazy with this stuff. I’ve often joked I need to get a cheaper habit than playing cards, something like heroin or something. Plus you have to have a place to put all your cards.

I go to Costco and I buy these bins, black with big yellow lids on them. I’ve got stacks of these jammed full of decks of cards. What’s crazy is when you fill one of those up with decks and bricks, and go ahead and try to lift one of those up. “Oh, I need to move these over here.” Decks of cards are paper, and what is paper? – wood. So they’re really heavy, and you need a couple of guys.

My card collecting is crazy, it’s out of hand. I could not easily move my decks. This would take trucks. I’ve probably got close to 26,000 decks, last I kind of ran through them. I believe the world record is 25,000 decks – but that is individual decks. My collection thus far isn’t individual decks, because in some cases I’ve got a brick, or two or three of the same deck. Now for a lot of people, that’s a huge collection. But I know people that have got way more than that.

Do you have any particular favorite decks in your collection?

That’s like asking me what my favorite band is. That’s a tough one because I have a lot of favorites and for different reasons, for different things. And if I moved some of my stacks, I’d realize “I forgot about this one, and I really like that one.” But I like decks that are different, and I’ve got so many different ones that have caught my eye.

Some of my favorites are decks that are unique in weird sort of ways. Someone put out a deck designed so that the cards look like wood, and it’s a pretty cool looking deck. But I have a deck of 52 cards (in a leather pouch that snaps closed) where the cards are actually made out of wood – real wood, like cherry wood. It’s one of my favorite decks because it’s just so awesome. I have several decks made out of metal – one of them is copper, some are made out of brass, and one’s made out of stainless steel. If I could get into Ricky Jay’s Cards as Weapons I’d probably hurt you with one of these. Those are unique…and spendy.

The Ornate decks that Randy Butterfield put out are really standout. The Federal 52 decks By Jackson Robinson. There’s a really cool looking deck with pinup girls, from the old pinup posters back in the 40s during World War II, where people would paint these girls on the side of their fighter planes. I love transformation decks, because it takes a lot of work to make a transformation and there’s not that many of them around.

At one time I had a collection of 3000 different tarot decks. Some of them were handmade and hand painted. I got rid of all of them just because I was focusing more on actual playing card playing cards. But the tarot decks was because of the artwork. The attention to detail is just amazing on some of them. They’re like paintings.

What about gilded decks?

I love gilded decks, especially the older gilded decks because they weren’t done with computer technology. I remember being inside U.S. Playing Card years ago, and these girls are sitting there with a deck of cards in a vice, and using a paintbrush they were placing gold on them. They handle like crap because they’re gilded, and they tend to stick, and they don’t fan very well. Modern gilded decks made with computers handle beautifully but the gilding wears off really fast – that’s the trade off.

It’s like food, and when you were a kid your grandma would be cooking a stew all day long, and you smelled it, and by the time it was done, it was so good. Versus “I’m going to throw everything in there and microwave it, and it’s done in 10 minutes”. It’s good, but it’s not as good as grandma’s all day stew.

So the old gilded decks. Maybe they didn’t have as many colors, and they didn’t have green and blue and all this crazy stuff, but the gilding held up. Because I’ve got decks from the 1920s that are gilded up, and the gilding looks brand new. The decks now that are gilded purple and green and blue, fan beautifully and they look good – as long as you don’t handle them. They just don’t last if you actually handle the cards.

What’s the most valuable deck in your own collection?

My valuable ones are my older decks. I’ve got Faro decks here that have never been opened. I’ve got Jerry Nuggets.

How should we judge the value of a deck of playing cards?

I’ve had people send me notes on Facebook and elsewhere, and they’ll say, “Hey Steve, how much do you think this deck’s worth? My grandpa had it.” I always tell them: whatever the market will bear. A $20 million Picasso is only worth 20 million if somebody’s willing to pay you 20 million for it. Will an original unopened, pristine deck of Jerry Nuggets be worth 500 bucks in 30 years? I don’t know. It might be worth $5,000, it might not be worth anything.

If people show a demand for it and an interest for it, yes, it has value. But otherwise, it may just have value to you because you liked the design. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But when we had these fires a year ago up here where I live, the fire was practically in my backyard. So when that fire was out of control, somebody called me and asked, “What are you going to do with your cards?” And I go, “They’re going to burn.” You know why? Because the only thing I care about is making sure my wife and my dogs are okay. Things, for the most part, can be replaced – although I do have sheets and decks that could never be replaced. But, I’m worried about my family, I’m not worried about some stupid decks of cards.

What can you tell us about your collection of uncut sheets?

I’ve got a huge collection, but the biggest part of my collection is the uncut sheets. So I’m not trying to have the largest deck collection in the world, but it’s my uncut sheets that I really focus on.

I got interested in the uncut sheets, when I knew that they printed the decks out on these sheets. Somebody had given me a sheet of Bicycle Rider Backs for a birthday present or something. And I was like: “Wow, that’s really cool!” The next step was: “If I frame this and hang it on the wall, I can only see one side of it. So I should probably find another sheet so I could hang them both on the wall, so you can see what each side looks like.”

That’s okay if you only hang up two or three sheets. But when you start getting into sheets, pretty soon you need a museum or a castle, and maybe even then you can’t hang them all up. Right now, I’ve got over 1200 different uncut sheets. That’s not counting duplicates, because I’ve got a few extras of sheets that I’ll hold onto, and if somebody has a sheet I want that I don’t have, I’ll offer to trade.

That’s a lot of uncut sheets. I don’t have them hanging up. I went down to Home Depot and I bought these big square pieces of quarter inch plywood, and I’ve got the uncut sheets in these stacks. It’s ridiculous, and it’s almost insidious really.

For some of the sheets, I’m the only person with that sheet. I’ve got sheets from a creator who says, “I don’t even have one. You’ve got the only one.” So I know I have sheets in my possession that literally no one’s seen – they might have the deck, but I’ve got the only sheet.

How rewarding has it been to be part of the 52 Plus Joker collecting club?

I’m involved in the 52 Plus Joker, the greatest card club in the world. We have a convention every year, and we get together, and those people are family to me. We’ve got some of the best card creators in the world come there every year. And we have a dealer’s room, and people trade decks, and there’s uncut sheets, and there’s things that you didn’t know existed.

When I first went into the club, it was older people mostly, and if a deck was newer than 1929, they weren’t interested. “Oh, that’s too new.” Now we’ve got so many new people into the club. We’ve got members that are into the old decks, and also members collecting all the new decks. And the ones who were mostly into the older decks have come to appreciate the newer decks, and the ones who were mostly in the newer decks have come to appreciate the older decks. Much of this is due to the efforts of my good friend Lee Asher who is our current club president.

You’re going to see decks of cards there you never saw in your life, and you didn’t even know they existed. And it is awesome.

What has your experience with their annual convention been like?

For myself, just personally, it is the most important convention I ever go to. I would rather miss a magic convention. They canceled MAGIC Live this year. That’s sucks, but it doesn’t break my heart. I would be more broken hearted if they canceled the 52 Plus Joker Convention.

We’ve got thousands of people in our club, but only a couple of hundred people show up. And they come from all over the place, some even from Europe. We see our friends there, and the conversation starts off where we left it last time. These are the sweetest, nicest people you will ever meet.

It’s got a different vibe than a magic convention. At a magic convention, you show up, you hang out with your magic buddies, you go to the dealer’s room, and you sit around doing tricks for each other. You want to come up with a trick to fool all your buddies, or you want to be the first one who did this or that. Everybody’s drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and telling lies. And you stay up all night. And that’s a magic convention.

Whereas at the card convention, nobody sits around talking about others, and says things like “That guy stole his trick” or “Did you see what he put on Facebook?” Instead they’re all sitting around, saying “Hi, how are you doing? Did you ever find that deck you were looking for?” Or they’ll come up and say, “Hey, I think I found that deck you told me about last year. Let me show you.” They are all trying to help each other. If there’s some nasty people there, I’ve never met them. And everybody goes to the lectures and we hang out.

It’s a different vibe altogether, it’s almost like a vacation. I go to three or four magic conventions every year, but when I go to the card convention, I actually relax more. It’s just a night and day difference, it really is. That’s not to say I don’t like my magic conventions. I do. But it is not the same thing.

Does everyone have the same goal in collecting?

There’s different types of collectors. There’s people that collect decks because they just love playing cards. And they don’t care if they’re used, or new, or old, or puppy dog cards, or cat cards. Then there’s the people who collect cards, and they collect mostly the new decks. “I’ve got to get every new deck that comes out.” (Well, good luck!)

And then there’s the ones who I don’t really consider actual card collectors, they’re speculators. What they do is they buy decks that they think might be worth money later. So they’ll go out and buy a couple of bricks, and they wait, hoping that they have the next Jerry Nugget. People who buy decks just wanting to make money with it, that’s a whole different mindset and its certainly not mine.

What other kinds of specialized types of collecting are there?

Some people don’t collect decks, but they only collect singles. So they’ll have these notebooks, these three ring binders you would have in school, with plastic sheets inside. One guy might have four or five binders sitting on his table, and you’ll open one of them, and it’s nothing but Ace of Spades. This Ace of Spades, and that Ace of Spades. He might have gotten the Ace of Spades out of six different colored decks. They’re the same deck, but they’re different colored backs, and he’s got all the Ace of Spades. Other people collect nothing but Jokers. Others the Suicide Kings. It’s amazing, the different possibilities. Singles are a big deal for a lot of folks.

There are people that do nothing but collect tax stamps that were attached to decks of cards for many years. That’s what they collect, and they got quite the collection, with more different tax stamps than you can imagine. Some only collect German playing cards, some only French playing cards, you get the idea.

The hobby is so versatile. If you get into it, eventually you’re going to spend money, whether you like it or not. And once you go down the rabbit hole, there’s just no way of getting out. It’s crazy. And then you start making friends and you start learning things. It’s the greatest hobby ever.

What kind of dedication can being a collector involve?

I triy to get decks that have relationships. I’m trying to get sets of certain types of decks from certain companies in certain eras, and then complete those sets. And that’s what I work on.

For a while it was all the Apollo decks, and then the older the deck is, the tougher it is to find it intact. Because maybe it’s missing a Joker, or maybe it’s missing the Ace of Spades, or maybe it doesn’t have the original box the cards came in. So you wait, and you wait, till maybe five years down the road you find the deck. Now you’ve got all the cards, but you don’t have the box. But then you find a deck that’s missing half the deck, but the box is there, and it’s almost brand new, so now you’ve got the box. That’s how adamant you have to be if you’re a real collector.

What can you tell us about the book you’re writing about the famous Escape Map deck?

As for my own projects, I’m working on decks myself that I want to do, some for other people, some for myself. I’m writing some books on magic. I’m doing some graphic novels on the side. And I’m working on my World War II book, about the history of the escape map deck.

As far as projects go, the map deck book is the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life. Because it is history and it is things that have happened with real people. And it’s the truth versus what’s on the internet, like what’s on the USPCC website. Because people have got it all wrong and I’m correcting that.

But it’s taken me most of my life to do that. And I’ve had to travel around the world and spend lots of money to gather all the things necessary. One of my inspirations is Howard Carter, the archaeologist who was looking for the boy king. All his peers laughed at him, “You’re an idiot,” they said, “There is no boy king, and you have no evidence that’s worth anything.” But he spent most of his life on it. And guess what? He found a British Lord who had lots of money and said, “I believe you, how much money do you need to continue your digs?” He started funding him, and guess what? Not only does he find the boy king, but it is the only tomb in the history of archaeology that had all its treasures intact, and that’s a fact. I find that very inspirational.

That has always been the thing that kept me going on the map deck research. Because whenever I would come to a wall, and say “I can’t find any more evidence” or “I can’t find this or that”, then suddenly a year would go by and I’d get a clue. For example, I would read through dozens of old German magazines that were put out after the war, where they’re talking to German prison guards, and when translating these interviews from German I would come across something a guard would say in passing, and it would be a clue to what I’m looking for.

I found the things that I’ve been needing to find in the places that nobody’s looking. In the first Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, where he’s looking for the ark, there’s a scene where the Germans are digging in the desert, and Indiana Jones realizes that the staff they’re using is too short or it’s too tall, and they’re digging in the wrong place.

That’s what all the historians who write books on escape and evasion do. They only mention the map cards in passing, because they don’t know the story. People that did have an interest in it, have been looking in the wrong places.

Who are some of your favorite playing card designers?

We have so many talented people in the 52 Plus Joker Club. All the guys are good at what they do, whether it’s Lance Miller, Jackson Robinson, Paul Carpenter, Alex Chin, or Randy Butterfield. My two favorites would have to be Randy Butterfield and Alex Chin.

Alex Chin is insanely crazy. I love him crazy, as an artist myself. He doesn’t just design a deck of cards or a pair of decks. He’ll show something every year to the club, and he’ll say, “We’re working on these, and there’s seven decks. And they all go together, and if you put them side by side they do this, but if you turn them to the left a little bit, and poke through this hole…” He’s insane, but I love that kid. He’s just an awesome sweet guy.

I consider Randy Butterfield one of my closest buddies. He is like a chameleon, a master of disguises. He can do one set of decks, with a particular style, and then do another set of deck that looks like a whole different person designed them. Most designers kind of have a style, and when you see it, you immediately know who it is.

They’re all nice guys, and they’re all good at what they do, like Paul Carpenter, and Lance Miller (who I consider like my nephew). All these people are family to me. But Alex Chin and Randy Butterfield, they’re off the wall.

How have custom playing cards changed in the modern crowdfunding era?

Those guys I just mentioned have raised the bar. When playing cards really started taking off a few years ago, kids would go on Shutterstock and find some stupid generic design. And they’d go to US Playing Card, put those backs on them with standard faces, and they would run Kickstarters. But once Jackson Robinson hit town with his Federal 52 deck, that was a game changer for everybody. There were kids throwing up generic designs, and Jackson basically said, “Okay, look at this then.”

Now the people who were supporting Kickstarter projects have to say, “Look, I’ve only got so much money. If I really like a project, I want the complete set of decks. And maybe there’s four different decks, and one was gilded. And I want at least one or two of each of those, and I want the uncut sheet. Oh, it’s got a coin. I want the coin. Well, I’m going to be spending 200 or 300 bucks. But I can’t spend 200-300 bucks on a dozen Kickstarters this month.”

So now the market has changed because now people are making decisions. “I want to support all these guys because I like all these cards. But financially speaking, I can only support so many. Which ones do I support?” It’s good for the card community, now it’s a competition. Because not only does it raise the bar, it encourages innovation. This is what’s great about capitalism. In capitalism, people don’t make a new product out of the kindness of their heart, but they do it because they think they can make money. So every year, every company’s got to have a better phone, or a better tablet, or a better computer, or a better game system. And so it makes people have to innovate and make better technologies.

So in the card world, if you want your Kickstarter to fund, and if you want a following, and if you want to get people that support you as an artist, then you better show that you’re an artist. You better do something that’s more than just “I’m going to use standard faces.” For example, these so-called minimalist decks annoy me. Say somebody puts a deck out, it’s a white back with a tiny black dot in the center. You can say “minimalist” to me all day long, but I call bullshit, and I say you’re lazy.

Are there any other types of playing cards you personally prefer?

Art and food and movies and books are subjective. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. As for different styles of decks, I’m more into classic scroll work and that sort of thing. I like the Victorian style.

It’s not that I don’t like some of the modern decks. Companies like Theory 11 put out some very impressive cards. For instance, foil can look nice, but just because you put lots of silver and gold on the box doesn’t mean it’s a great deck for me. Sometimes it can be overdone and it becomes too gaudy, and I don’t like it.

I’ve noticed that with a lot of decks most of the effort goes on the box. And often when you get the deck out of the box it is pretty blasé. Maybe it’s got a custom Ace of Spades and a Joker, but for the most part it’s just standard faces and an okay back. It’s just the box that’s awesome. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or good thing, I just think it’s a different thing. Like I said, cards are subjective. If you think the box is awesome, collect it for the box, it’s not wrong to do that.

How do you view decks which are printed with a missing card or a misspelling?

I’m the kind of guy that for the most part doesn’t open my decks up ever. Somebody could put thousand dollar bills in certain decks, I’d never know it.

One of the things the 52 Plus Joker club does every year is put out a club deck. There’s usually a version only the club members can grab right away. One year there was a screw up somewhere. I think we had two of the same card (e.g. two Six of Clubs, and a Seven of Clubs was missing, something to that effect). What they did is reprinted some cards and said, “Here’s the missing card.” But some people were mad.

I’ve seen this happen with other projects, and a lot of people get upset. I say, “Why are you mad? That is a screw up, which makes that deck actually more valuable.” It’d be like having the upside down airplane postage stamp. Or if they printed a $20 bill and forgot to put the president’s face in the center – that would make that bill very valuable.

There’s all kinds of decks I try to grab that have problems, like a missing card, or misspellings. And I can understand how a card might get missed. If you’re sitting there designing the deck and you’re staring at all these Hearts or all these Clubs, I could see that you missed something somehow at the end before you print them. It happens. Sometimes the mistakes that happen have nothing to do with the artist but the company printing the decks.

How do you decide what new decks to add to your collection?

I decide on a case by case basis. I’ve already realized a long time ago that I cannot get every deck there is. It’s just not possible. So what I try to do is grab decks that stand out for me for some reason, and there’s something really unique about them.

So not something that is just “another Bicycle branded deck”. There’s a zillion decks that have the Bicycle logo on them, and some are very pretty, some are very striking, others are blasé. If I miss some Bicycle decks, I’m not going to worry about it. As far as I’m concerned US Playing card has significantly diminished the Bicycle brand by letting so many people use it. True or not, that’s just my personal opinion.

There’s other decks that come out which wow me. For instance, last year at the 52 Plus Joker Club convention, I saw two wooden boxes that were sealed with wax. Just the box alone caught my eye – it looked like something out of the 16th century. They immediately stood out for me: “What is this?” It turned out they were two decks from Russia, and I grabbed both of them. When I got home I learned from the internet that the people that made these decks made another version that was just in a standard box, so I’m glad I grabbed these.

I do prefer more classic designs because somebody spent more time with it, I think. But that’s not to say I haven’t seen some modern designs that were a lot simpler, and that I liked them.

Credit: Interview on Playing Cards with Collector & Magician Steve Brooks (The Magic Cafe)