Curiosities

Faro: the Wild West’s king of card games

Faro was the most popular gambling games of the Wild West. According to gamblingsites.com Faro was more popular than all the other games combined in 1882; and Gather Together Games mentions an 1882 police gazette report stating that Faro was the most bet upon game in the United States with the most money bet and lost than all the other games combined.

Pretty impressive.

Why was it so popular? It was an “even” game and easy to learn. If everyone played fairly the odds winning were almost even. Much better odds than other card games. Of course both the dealers (“bankers”) and the players (“punters”) cheated, so there’s that. Faro could be played with a wide range of players, from two on up, so it tended to get crowded and noisy. Players stood around the table placing bets and in addition to the dealer, there was a “casekeeper” and a “lookout” who kept on eye on placing bets.

Faro was played on a table covered with green baize with a cutout for the dealer. There’s a suit of cards glued to the table. There are two rows of six cards starting with King of Spades, moving down in suit. The 7 of spades sits on its own at the end of the two rows, wrapping around to the next row of six ending with the Ace of Spades. Aces were the suit glued to the table but suits were irrelevant. Matching the type of card was (e.g., King to a King or two to a two). There’s a space for the High Card on the opposite end of the table.

One type of Faro table with a counter to keep track of “used” cards

This is a game played with a 52 card deck, chips or cheques for general betting, and pennies for betting against the “loser.” Bets are placed on the cards glued to the table.

The dealer has a dealing box with a spring, allowing the card to slide out the front. The first card pulled is a soda card that doesn’t count for anything–this is a one-time pull to start off the game which ends when all the cards are used. The spring box and the soda card are described differently on a couple of the sites I read but the concept doesn’t really change. The dealer shows the soda card to the players, setting it aside. After this card is shown and set aside bets are placed on the cards glued to the table. Players place the chip(s) on the card they think will show up in the “winner” pile. Faro is unique in that all the used cards are “visible” to players. A case keeper uses an abacus-like counting system to show/count the cards used. A player bets on which card will be pulled for the “winner” card, so this is a guessing game and suits don’t play a role. Because the used cards are “shown” via the card case anyone who bets on a “dead” card can have their chips taken away by the first person to notice, dealer or another player. A “dead” card is one where all of that type has been used and there are no more in the deck to turn over.

After the soda card, the first official card pulled is called the “loser” or “dealers” card. This is placed next to the deck face up. If you bet on a card matching the loser card you lose your bet unless you had intentionally placed a penny on top of your chip(s). Placing a penny on your bet means you’re betting for the “loser” card, which in that case you can win if your card matches the card in the first flip, the loser card. The loser card is followed by the second official called pulled which is placed next to the loser card, face up. This one is called the “winners” or “punters” card. All bets (without the penny) on this second card win the amount bet.

The game ends with the last three cards in the deck which is termed “calling the turn.” Bets are placed on the order of the cards: loser, winner, and “hock” card which isn’t used. This pays 4 to 1, unless the last two cards are matching which pays 2 to 1. The matching cards in any play are paid half of the original bet.

There are other nuances to this game, but this is the general gist of it. The game tends to speed up when there are fewer cards and the bets become higher. There is some card “counting” involved (with the case keeper’s beads) but it’s really a game of chance and paying attention to “dead” cards. Besides, you don’t want to me to get all “math-y” with you. 😉

The origins of this game go back to 19th-century France which is a variation of a British pub game but also has it’s roots in a game called Basset which goes back to 18th-century France. Both games were outlawed by King Louis XIV. Originally, it was called Pharaoh and when it came to America in the 19th century it became Faro. It started to fall out of favor after soldiers returned from WWI. Many learned to play other games which became popular and the ease with which a dealer could cheat didn’t help its demise.

The card box used for Faro had a Bengal tiger on it so playing Faro was often referred to as “bucking the tiger” or “twisting the tiger’s tail.” Nearly every frontier town had a Faro table and back alleys, streets, and urban areas that had a lot of gaming parlors were referred to as “tiger town” or “tiger alley” because everyone was playing the game. The Clark County Museum notes that Faro died out in casinos during the 1970’s because it wasn’t profitable to run the tables. Desert USA notes that Poker was a “rarity on the frontiers until the 1870’s.”

Faro was King. Until it wasn’t.

Give me a shoutout! 🤠

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