Probably the most incriminating evidence of cheating anyone could be caught with is a mechanical holdout machine. Once such contraption is discovered strapped to one's arm, it wouldn't take much brain power to figure out what this thing must be for, in the context of a card game.

I have often seen many holdout machines being sold to collectors. In fact, at the present time, a holdout machine may be more appealing to an enthusiastic collector, than to a serious card cheat, especially due to the fact that most holdout machines sold today are likely to be antique ones. The risk factor presented by this gadget is much higher than what many professional cheats are willing to cope with, especially in fast company. One should also not forget that these machines are well known gadgets amongst serious gamblers. There are, in fact, many safer and better ways to accomplish the same end result, i.e. to take the money.

By definition, holdout machines are mechanical devices, used to secretly switch cards in and out of play, in the course of a card game. It is sort of like a "third arm", or a mechanical prosthesis, whose only purpose is to steal and load cards. Most holdout machines have been specifically designed for poker.

There are a variety of different types and variations of holdout machines. Some popular types are described below.



Arm-pressure holdout machines, also known as lever-action holdouts, are the most basic and oldest type of mechanical holdout machines. As the name itself suggests, this is a holdout machine, operated by arm pressure. There are two main types of arm-pressure sleeve holdouts.

arm-pressure sleeve holdout
Photo courtesy
Sharps and Flats
The machine on the illustration is one of the best known types of arm-pressure holdouts. It consists of a mechanism, which is made out of a base plate carrying a lever and a Jacob's ladder. The front side of the Jacob's ladder carries a clip, called the "thief," designed to "steal" and hold a playing card.

The base plate of the holdout is attached to the forearm, deep inside the sleeve, just below the elbow. The lever is positioned so that it may be pressed either against the table surface, or against the torso. This pressure causes the Jacob's ladder to expand and the thief is pushed out of the sleeve. When the pressure is released, an elastic band (or in some cases a spring) retracts the lever mechanism and the Jacob's ladder automatically pulls the thief back into the sleeve.

It should be noted that arm-pressure machines have advantages as well as drawbacks, compared to the more complex full-body machines. The obvious advantage is that the machine is simpler and self-contained, so it doesn't have to be attached to a system of pulleys. You just have to strap it onto your forearm like a wristwatch and you're in business. But there are several disadvantages. First of all, you need to wear rather loose sleeves to give enough room for the lever. The lever itself sticks out rather much, when the holdout is in retracted position. And finally, due to the rather steep leverage, you need to push the lever down quite forcefully to get the motion started. Then once the Jacob's ladder is in motion it can snap quite fast into fully extended position, making the whole handling quite nerve racking, especially when you are facing opponents that don't like to be treated as suckers.

This type of machine does not facilitate very smooth operation. To push the thief out from inside the sleeve, the operator must press the lever either against the table surface, or against his torso. Since the lever position is quite steep, the initial force needed to get the motion started must be quite strong, but once the Jacob's ladder is in motion the force should ideally be reduced to a minimum - quite drastically, in fact. This is easier said than done, and as a result, the operation of this type of machine is quite obvious. Despite the fact that the holdout itself is out of sight, the pressing action can be quite obvious and it can telegraph the move. Some later models of these machines had some minor improvements that helped facilitate a smoother operation, but the fact still remains that this type of arm-pressure mechanism is actually quite primitive and can not be perfected beyond a certain point.

Below you can see three versions of a lever-action arm-pressure holdout. The first image is a photograph of the actual machine that appears in the illustration, above, from the 1894 book Sharps and Flats. The next image shows an antique machine, possibly from the same era, and the last image is a photograph of a rendition from the 1930s. Both of these machines are relatively small as they are made to be fitted on the forearm, strapped deep inside the sleeve.

leaver-action arm-pressure holdout jacob's ladder holdout lazy tong holdout

In closing, it should be noted that there are several different types of holdout machines that use a Jacob's ladder. However, only the models that use a lever mechanism can be called arm-pressure holdouts. The other machines may look similar in appearance, only because of the presence of the Jacob's ladder, but if the motion is not caused by a lever-action mechanism they cannot be called arm-pressure machines.



Arm-pressure Holdout Arm-pressure Holdout
Photo courtesy Sharps and Flats
A lesser known type of an arm-pressure sleeve holdout is the one shown on the right. It consists of a claw attached to a lever. This mechanism is strapped around the forearm under the shirt's sleeve. The mechanism is operated in a similar manner as described above. When you push down on the lever the claw opens, when the lever is released an elastic band, strapped around the claw, pulls the claws back together. When this maneuver is performed over the deck, the deck may loose some weight. The technical term for this maneuver is, again, "topping the deck".

This holdout machine is used in much the same way as the cuff holdout. The right arm passes over the deck and steals a slug. Later, at the appropriate time the slug is deposited back on top of the deck.

The practicality of this holdout machine is really questionable. The player is supposed to be leaning over the deck, right before he is supposed to hand the deck over for a cut. Then, once the other player completes the cut, he needs to lean over the deck one more time, to deposit the slug, right when he is supposed to start dealing. The timing is just too awkward to pass unnoticed for an extended period of time, and the whole maneuver is much simpler to do without a mechanical machine. No wonder this machine is not as widely known as the other holdouts.



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