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P.J. Kepplinger, a.k.a. the Lucky Dutchman


In 1888, P.J. Kepplinger, a gambler from San Francisco who had been nicknamed the "Lucky Dutchman", revolutionized the mechanical holdout, i.e. a mechanical apparatus that is used for secretly switching cards in and out of play, usually for cheating at poker. Kepplinger combined the best features of several existing holdouts and added some innovations of his own. The result was what John Nevil Maskelyne referred to in his book Sharps & Flats as, "the very finest holdout the world has ever seen", which was to become known as the Kepplinger holdout, or the San Francisco holdout.

The Detection of Kepplinger
The Detection of Kepplinger
photo courtesy Sharps & Flats

The core of Kepplinger's holdout machine was a metal slide that retracted into a pair of steel jaws. This assembly was concealed inside of a double shirt sleeve. When the device was in use, the steel jaws opened up and the slide extended out of the seam of a double cuff. At the end of the slide a clip gripped the cards and withdrew them out of play. The machine would pull the cards back into the cuff, between the layers of the double sleeve, and the jaws would snap shut, closing-off the seam of the double cuff and concealing the apparatus from view.

His other innovation was the method of triggering the device. A cable ran beneath the clothing, through a series of tubes and pulleys, to terminate at the knee. Kepplinger fabricated a special clip that, when pressed, created a small opening in the seam of the pants, through which he threaded the thread onto a small hook attached to a strap around the opposite knee. By separating his knees, the player would cause the holdout to extend, and by pressing his knees together, the holdout would retract.

Kepplinger holdout machine: poker cheating
Kepplinger holdout machine
photo courtesy Sharps & Flats

Brilliant in design, the device worked flawlessly. Unlike earlier machines, Kepplinger's creation operated imperceptibly and invisibly. Kepplinger's improved design eliminated the usual body language that would telegraph the use of a mechanical holdout. And, should his opponents ever happen to catch a glimpse up his sleeve, they would see nothing.

Kepplinger could have milked suckers forever, but his greed and ego got in the way. Instead of keeping a low profile and "milking that cow" forever, he kept winning pot after pot, game after game, day after day. Wise guys knew this couldn't just be attributed to luck.

So, one day, a group of three savvy gamblers developed a plan. At a prearranged signal they seized Kepplinger, pinned him down to a chair, and conducted a methodical search. After they discovered his device they gave him a simple choice: to build a holdout for each one of them, or to face the consequences of having cheated them. Faced with this ultimatum, he agreed to build three machines.

For almost a year Kepplinger and his three colleagues cleaned up every game in town. It all came to an abrupt end when one of them was busted in a run-of-the-mill police raid. In panic he begged the cops to let him "freshen up" before being brought to the station. Naturally, the cops became suspicious and searched him. The secret was out and no amount of bribery could contain it. The press publicized the discovery and within a few years Kepplinger's secret was blown into the open, and the Kepplinger holdout became the common property of card sharps everywhere. By the 1890s crooked gambling supply companies all over the US were selling Kepplinger holdouts, as a standard "gambling accessory".

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