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  1. Abstract Conventional superconductivity emerges from pairing of charge carriers—electrons or holes—mediated by phonons 1 . In many unconventional superconductors, the pairing mechanism is conjectured to be mediated by magnetic correlations 2 , as captured by models of mobile charges in doped antiferromagnets 3 . However, a precise understanding of the underlying mechanism in real materials is still lacking and has been driving experimental and theoretical research for the past 40 years. Early theoretical studies predicted magnetic-mediated pairing of dopants in ladder systems 4–8 , in which idealized theoretical toy models explained how pairing can emerge despite repulsive interactions 9 . Here we experimentally observe this long-standing theoretical prediction, reporting hole pairing due to magnetic correlations in a quantum gas of ultracold atoms. By engineering doped antiferromagnetic ladders with mixed-dimensional couplings 10 , we suppress Pauli blocking of holes at short length scales. This results in a marked increase in binding energy and decrease in pair size, enabling us to observe pairs of holes predominantly occupying the same rung of the ladder. We find a hole–hole binding energy of the order of the superexchange energy and, upon increased doping, we observe spatial structures in the pair distribution, indicating repulsion between bound hole pairs. By engineering a configuration in which binding is strongly enhanced, we delineate a strategy to increase the critical temperature for superconductivity. 
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