When I first learned of mechanical holdout machines I was quite skeptical that anyone, in the right state of mind, would have ever even considered walking up to a poker game equipped with such a gaff. The mere idea of getting caught with such a machine strapped to your body should make anyone wonder if these machines were ever used in live card games. To be perfectly honest, I at first assumed these holdouts were mainly sold as novelty items, to collectors and curiosity seekers. I thought that if anyone ever bought one with the intention to use it in a card game they would not be likely to actually do so, once they owned the gaff. But eventually I had the opportunity to handle a few antique holdout machines. Upon close examination I had concluded that these machines were once more than novelties. The few old holdouts I had the opportunity to examine showed the kind of signs of wear and tear that would have only resulted from repeated use of the machine.

For a skeptic such as myself it is not easy to accept the idea of someone using a mechanical holdout in an actual card game, played for serious money. But, before jumping to conclusions and dismissing the possibility, it is important to put the notion in historical context.

The intricate mechanical holdout machines we know today were first developed in the second half of the 19th century, and continued to be perfected throughout the first half of the 20th century. That was the era of great mechanical inventions, such as typewriters, motion picture equipment, and numerous other intricately-built mechanically-operated machines that made our lives easier to manage. Surrounded by a constant influx of such mechanical innovations, a 19th century cardsharp would easily consider the idea of keeping up with the times and using the new trend in technology to make his life (i.e. work) easier. Once we come to realize this, it is not ludicrous to keep an open mind about the idea of 19th century gamblers using mechanical holdouts for cheating at cards, for serious money. Now that we look at it in a historical context, the idea becomes as acceptable as the idea of 20th century casino cheats trying to use miniature video cameras and RF transmitters to cheat in casinos, also for serious money. And that is not fantasy or speculation; that is a matter of documented historical record.

I have never met anyone who claimed to have actually used a mechanical holdout machine in a live card game. However, I eventually did meet a few people who told me they've heard stories of people who have actually used them in live poker games, and even one person who had been personally acquainted with a machine man. Of course, we always have to accept such stories with a certain level of skepticism, but one story that stuck to mind what the story of an old cardsharp named Wilber Kelsey. According to the legend, Kelsey was an expert machine player and he was using his holdout, in live poker games, way into his old age. According to my friend's story, Kelsey was actually caught with a holdout when he was in his 80's. He got beat up, eventually recovered and went right back into action, again, equipped with a holdout machine. And the best part is that this was not happening in the 1800's, but rather recently (before the current poker craze, though).


Holdout machines are not easy to use. They require as much practice as many standard sleight-of-hand moves.

First, the machine worker must get a hold of an extra card (or cards). Once this card is obtained, the machine player must constantly switch cards in and out of play, to better his hand, or obtain better cards for later use. This switching requires practice, so that it is done smoothly, without any fumbling. Even when done smoothly other players may eventually catch-on, if not done right, because of the repetitive moves.

Ironically, a machine player must master the switching moves even more flawlessly than the card mechanics that depend only on sleight of hand (without gaffs). The reason is simple: if the actions of a machine man raise any eyebrows, he has absolutely no opportunity to clean-up on short notice. The machine is strapped to his body, as if it were attached with an umbilical cord. The only easy way out may be to crack that cyanide capsule and take a deep breath. So, never leave home without one!

Most machine workers will probably avoid playing the machine on their own deals. Furthermore, it would be considered suicide to play the machine on every round. As a general rule, a good card cheat must allow other players to win some rounds, anyway, to keep them motivated and also to minimize suspicion. The ultimate goal of any cheating strategy is to end up ahead, by the end of the night, while maintaining a low profile.


Holdout machines are obviously useless for games in which the whole pack is distributed amongst the players, such as bridge. As with many other cheating strategies, holding out doesn't guarantee a sure win every time, but increases the odds in the long run. Those guys will simply pass any round that doesn't feel right, as they are aware of the fact, that the odds are in their favor anyway.

It has been stated many times that experienced holdout men will not use a mechanical holdout machine at all. They may use a bug or a short-sleeve holdout, or they may even not use a gaff at all. The favorite place to stash cards if no gaffs are in use is the under side of the knee joint.

Another commonly-accepted rule is not to hold-out too many cards. One card is plenty and two cards already make it dangerous. Having one extra card every time a round is dealt is the same as having been dealt one extra card every time and then having the opportunity to make the best possible hand out of them. What more of an edge could anyone need?

To better illustrate this one-card logic, I came up with a rule that I call The A-B-C-D Rule: one card puts you in group "A" which stands for "Adequate," two cards is group "B" which stands for "Brave," three cards is group "C" which stands for "Crazy, and four cards is group "D" which stands for "Dead." Keep that in mind if you ever contemplate holding out in a cash game.


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