Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Up Your Sleeve

In 1888, P. J. Kepplinger, a San Francisco gambler, revolutionized the mechanical holdout. Laboring in secret, Kepplinger, an inventive genius, combined the best features of several mechanical holdouts and added some innovations of his own. The result represented a high-water mark in card-cheating technology.

The core of Kepplinger’s device was a metal slide attached to a rod, which retracted into a pair of steel jaws. Kepplinger concealed this assembly in a double shirtsleeve. When the player activated the device, the steel jaws opened and the slide extended, gripped the cards, and withdrew them between the layers of the double sleeve. The jaws snapped shut, concealing the apparatus from view. The process could be reversed to return the cards into the hand.

Kepplinger’s method of triggering the device was his greatest innovation. A cable ran through a series of tubes and pulleys to terminate at the shoulder. A length of flexible tubing beneath the player’s clothing guided the cable from there to a seam at his knees. Thus, by separating his knees, the player extended the holdout, and by pressing his knees together, he retracted it.

Brilliant in design, the device worked flawlessly. The sharp examined his hand, subtly crimping the corners of the cards he wished to hold out. Spreading his knees, he caused the slide to emerge, grip the cards, and extract them into the double shirtsleeve. Later he reversed the process, returning the holdouts to his palm. Unlike earlier machines, Kepplinger’s creation operated imperceptibly and invisibly. His opponents could peer up his sleeve and discover nothing.

Had he been judicious in the use of his invention, Kepplinger could have bilked suckers forever. But something got the better of him. Perhaps he was greedy. Perhaps he put too much stock in the brilliance of his own invention. Or maybe he was just a gambler. In any event, he pushed his luck.

He used his holdout in San Francisco’s “hard” games, poker games frequented by professional gamblers schooled in the ways of cheating. And he didn’t just use it for the occasional big score; he won almost every game. His opponents knew this couldn’t be attributed to fortune.

They developed a plan. At a prearranged signal they seized Kepplinger, held him down, and conducted a methodical search—and discovered his device. They gave him a simple choice: Build a holdout for each of them or face the consequences of having cheated them. His life at risk, he agreed.

Within a decade Kepplinger’s secret got out. The Kepplinger holdout became the common property of sharps everywhere. By the 1890s gambling supply companies were selling Kepplinger or “San Francisco” holdouts for $100 apiece—a very steep sum, but a small price to pay for genius.

For a modern version of the magician’s holdout, take a look at the “Black Widow”.

The Kepplinger Holdout pictured above was made by Will & Finck of San Francisco, California, circa 1890. From the Doug Edwards Collection.