Sharps and Flats: The Secrets of Cheating
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foreword to the online edition


I. introductory

II. common sharpers and their tricks

III. marked cards and the manner of their employment

IV. reflectors

V. holdouts

VI. manipulation

VII. collusion and conspiracy

VIII. the game of faro

IX. prepared cards

X. dice

XI. high ball poker

XII. roulette and allied games

XIII. sporting houses

XIV. sharps and flats










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Mechanical holdout machines are undoubtedly at the top of the list of desirable items, for any collectors of antique gambling paraphernalia. After all, these mechanical machines are fascinating and nice to look at. There is also a certain stigma attached to every mechanical holdout. Some of them even look threatening and it is quite hard to imagine how some past card sharp had the nerve to wear one of those machines to a poker game.

There is very little evidence that any of these machines were ever used in actual card games. Furthermore, most of the mechanical holdouts look good at first sight, but once one straps it on, it becomes clear that the machine is not quite capable of doing what is expected of it; which is, to make switching cards easy. To switch the cards flawlessly, using a holdout machine, requires just as much practice (if not more) than to switch cards using manipulative techniques alone.

The truth is that most holdout machines ever produced were either experimental gaffs or simply junk that was sold by crooked gambling distributors. It is very difficult to come across a holdout machine that "fits like a glove" and really makes the job of switching cards in and out of play easier than doing the work without any accessories at all. Such machines do exist -- they are just very rare. Such machines will usually have the type of patina that can only be put on an object through years of actual wear and tear. It is sometimes hard to distinguish this kind of patina from the usual look of old object that have just accumulated a few dings by being tossed from left to right at the back of a drawer.

Maskelyne describes various holdout machines, but there are still some other variations that are not mentioned in his book. For further information on holdout machines please visit the Holdout Devices chapter on CARDSHARK Online.

THE term 'Holdout' is the name given to a mechanical contrivance, constructed with the object of enabling the card-sharper to 'hold-out,' or conceal one or more cards, until such time as he finds that they will be useful to him by turning the balance of fortune in his favor at some critical point of the game. They are obviously unavailable in those games where the whole pack is distributed among the players, as the cards abstracted must in that case necessarily be missed.

It will be seen, then, that although the name may appear clumsy and puerile, it is notwithstanding well chosen and expressive. The gambler 'holds out' inducements to the cheat; the market, provided by cheating, 'holds out' inducements to the manufacturer; the manufacturer 'holds out' inducements to purchase his machines; and the machines themselves 'hold out' inducements which very few sharpers can resist. It is like the nursery-rhyme of the dog that was eventually 'purwailed on' to get over the stile.

As far as we have yet traveled upon our explorations into the regions of fraud and chicanery, yclept 'sharping,' our path has been, comparatively speaking, a rosy one. The way has been by no means intricate, and the difficulties we have had to encounter have been but few. At this point, however, the course runs through a region which is, to some extent, beset with thorn and bramble, in the guise of mechanical contrivances having a more or less complex character. The non-technical reader, however, has no cause for being appalled at the nature of the ground which he is invited to traverse; the author undertakes to render his traveling easy, and to put him through, as it were, by 'Pullman-Express.' One should always endeavor to popularize science whenever the opportunity serves. The mechanically minded reader, at any rate, will revel in the examples of human ingenuity and corruptibility which are here presented for the first time to his admiring gaze.

As in all other instances of means well-adapted to a given end, these utensils of the holdout persuasion have taken their origin from extremely simple and antiquated devices. Perhaps we are not correct in saying 'extremely antiquated,' since 'Cavendish' is of opinion that cards have not been invented more than five hundred years. Those, however, who attribute their invention to the Chinese, Šons before the dawn of western civilization, will be inclined to the belief that the 'Heathen Chinee' of succeeding ages must have coerced the smiles of fortune, with the friendly aid of a holdout, centuries before the discovery of the land of that instrument's second or third nativity.

As to this debatable point, however, there is very little hope that we shall ever be better informed than at present. It belongs to the dead things of the dead past; it is shrouded in the mist of antiquity and buried beneath the withered leaves of countless generations; among which might be found the decayed refuse of many a family tree, whose fall could be directly traced to the invention of the deadly implements known as playing cards. Do not let the reader imagine for a moment that I am inveighing against the use of cards, when employed as an innocent means of recreation. That is not my intention by any means. Such a thing would savor of narrow-mindedness and bigotry, and should be discouraged in every possible way. The means of rendering our existence here below as mutually agreeable as circumstances will permit are by no means so plentiful that we can afford to dispense with so enjoyable a pastime as a game of cards. It is not the fault of the pieces of pasteboard, that some people have been ruined by their means; it is the fault of the players themselves. Had cards never been invented, the result would have been very similar. Those who are addicted to gambling, in the absence of cards, would have spun coins, drawn straws, or engaged in some other equally intellectual recreation. When a man has arrived at the state of mind which induces him to make 'ducks and drakes' of his property, and a fool of himself, there is no power on earth that can prevent him from so doing.

But to return. The earliest account we have of anything in the holdout line is the cuff-box described by Houdin. I for one, however, am inclined to think that there is a slight tinge of the apocryphal in the record as given by him. My reason for this opinion is twofold. In the first place the description is singularly lacking, in detail, considering Houdin's mechanical genius; and secondly, the difficulty of constructing and using such an apparatus would be for all practical purposes insuperable. I should say that Houdin had never seen the machine; and that he trusted too implicitly to hearsay, without exercising his judgment. Of course there is nothing but internal evidence to support this view; still, I cannot help believing that part at least of the great Frenchman's account must be taken 'cum grano.' In any event, however, we are bound to admit that something in the nature of a holdout was known to some persons in the early part of the present century.

Houdin entitles the device above referred to -- 'La boite à la manche;' and his description is to the following effect.

A box sufficiently large to contain a pack of cards was concealed somewhere in the fore part of the sharp's coat-sleeve. In picking up the pack, preparatory to dealing, the forearm was lightly pressed upon the table. The box was so constructed that this pressure had the effect of throwing out the prepared or pre-arranged pack previously put into it, and at the same time a pair of pincers seized the pack in use, and withdrew it to the interior of the box, in exchange for the one just ejected. In his autobiography, Houdin recounts an incident in which this box played a prominent part. A sharp had utilized it with great success for some time, but at last the day came when his unlucky star was in the ascendant. The pincers failed to perform their function properly, and instead of removing the genuine pack entirely, they left one card upon the table. From the description given of the apparatus, one may imagine that such a contingency would be very likely to arise. The dupe of course discovered the extra card, accused the sharp of cheating and not without reason, it must be admitted challenged him to a duel, and shot him. Serve him right, you say? Well, we will not contest the point.

The substitution of one pack for another appears to be the earliest conception of anything approximate to the process of holding-out cards until they are required. All sorts of pockets, in every conceivable position, appear to have been utilized by the sharps of long ago, for the purpose of concealing the packs which they sought to introduce into the game. This necessarily could only be done at a period when plain-backed cards were generally used. The sharp of to-day would want a goodly number of pockets, if it were necessary for him to be able to replace any pattern among the cards which he might be called upon to use.

The scam that Maskelyne just described is commonly known as a "cooler" scam. The word "cooler" comes from the term "cold deck."

Holding out, however, in the true sense of the term, became a power in the hands of the sharp only with the introduction, and the reception into popular favor, of games such as Poker, in which the cards are not all dealt out, and the possession of even one good card, in addition to a hand which, apart from fraud, proves to be decent, is fraught with such tremendous advantages to the sharp who has contrived to secrete it.

The earliest example of a card being systematically held out until it could be introduced into the game with advantage to the player, is probably that of the sharp who, during play, was always more or less afflicted with weariness, and consequently with a perpetual desire to stretch himself and yawn. It was noticed after a while that he always had a good hand after yawning; a singular fact, and unaccountable. Doubtless the occultists of that day sought to establish some plausible connection between the act of stretching and the caprices of chance. If so, there is very little question that, according to their usual custom, they discovered some super-normal, and (to themselves) satisfactory hypothesis, to account for the influence of lassitude upon the fortunes of the individual. In accordance with the usual course of events in such instances, however, the occult theory would be unable to retain its hold for long. The super-normal always resolves itself into the normal, when brought under the influence of practical common-sense. In this particular case the explanation was of the simplest. Having secreted a card in the palm of his hand, the sharp, under cover of the act of stretching, would just stick it under the collar of his coat as he sat with his back to the wall. When the card was required for use, a second yawn with the accompanying stretch would bring it again into his hand. This, then, was the first real holdout the back of a man's coat collar.1

*1 -- Even the modern sharp sometimes uses a method quite as simple. He will put the cards he wishes to hold out under his knee-joint, and when he requires to use them, he will hitch his chair closer to the table, taking the cards into his hand as he does so. This device is called in France the 'coup de cuisse.'

Another common method of holding out, without employing any customized gambling equipment, requires the sharp to tuck the held-out card under his hat, at the back of his head. This method of holding out is commonly known as "playing the hat."

In any event, holding out is as old as the hills. We know this for a fact thanks to Caravaggio and other painters whose brushstrokes have captured gambling scenes that go back as far as the 16th century. Some of these works are listed in the Cheating Gamblers and Art page. A more extensive list, however, can be found on the Art History of Cheating page, on CARDSHARK Online.

Since that time the ingenuity of the cheating community has been unremittingly applied to the solution of the problem of making a machine which would enable them to hold out cards without risk of detection. That their efforts have been crowned with complete success we have the best of reasons for believing, inasmuch as holdouts which can be used without a single visible movement being made, and without the least fear of creating suspicion, are articles of commerce at the present moment. You have only to write to one of the dealers, inclosing so many dollars, and you can be set up for life. No doubt you can obtain the names and addresses of these gentlemen without difficulty; but since the object of this book is not to supply them with gratuitous advertisement, their local habitation will not be given herein, although their wares are prominently mentioned.

In order that the reader may fully appreciate the beauty and value of the latest and most improved devices, we will run lightly over the gamut of the various instruments which have been introduced from time to time. This course is the best to pursue, since even among the earlier appliances there are some which, if well-worked, are still to be relied upon in certain companies, and indeed are relied upon by many a sharp who considers himself 'no slouch.'

There is every reason to believe that the first contrivance which proved to be of any practical use was one designated by the high-sounding and euphonious title of 'The Bug.' Your sharp has always an innate sense of the fitness of things, and an unerring instinct which prompts him to reject all things but those which are beautiful and true. Ample evidence of this is not wanting, even in such simple matters as the names he gives to the tools employed in his handicraft.

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