Last of the Faros

Last of the Faros

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Whatever happened to faro? Contrary to what we see in the movies, it was faro – a pretty sick game of pure luck, played against the house – and not poker that was the most prevalent and popular gambling game of the Wild West, and contributed to more pistols drawn in tilt.

Whatever happened to faro? Contrary to what we see in the movies, it was faro – a pretty sick game of pure luck, played against the house – and not poker that was the most prevalent and popular gambling game of the Wild West, and contributed to more pistols drawn in tilt. And since we at Bluff are suckers (there’s an operative word there, if ever we wrote one) for these ancient and forgotten gambling games and their place in American popular culture, we decided to rediscover faro, in all its crazy minus-ev glory.
First, a bit of background. Faro, pharaoh, pharaon or farobank actually originated in France in the late 17th Century, with the earliest reference to the game being played in the south-west of the country, in 1688. It was likely named after a popular playing card design of the time that had representations of Egyptian Pharaohs on the backs.

Faro appears to be a direct descendent of the game “basset” which was being played in Italy a century earlier. Both games were forbidden during the reign of Louis XIV, but became the most popular card games in England in the 18th Century, from where pharaoh spread to the US, becoming “faro” in the process. Also, sometimes called “Bucking the Tiger”, it was played in almost every gambling hall in the Old West from 1825 to 1915 and was hugely popular with the masses, due to simple-to-learn rules and, in terms of games played against the house, reasonably favourable odds.

So, how do we play? Well, first of all you need a felt table with each card from a single suit depicted across its surface – traditionally spades, but the significance is irrelevant. We found that a trestle table with all spade cards clumsily glued on top served our purpose. The dealer burns and shows the first card and deals two cards face up from a full pack. The card on the right is known as “the losing card”, and on the left, “the winning card”. Before this happens punters are required to place their bets on the cards depicted across the table.

Should the rank of the card chosen by a punter appear in the “winning pile” as the dealer deals through the pack, two at a time, then that punter will double his stake. Suits are irrelevant. Likewise, should it appear in the losing pile, the punter will lose his stake. There’s also the opportunity to bet on the high card – ie, whether the high card will appear in the winning pile. It’s pretty much a coinflip all the way through; kind of like Play Your Cards Right on crack (now there’s a TV show that needs to be commissioned). You can do “flat bets” (placed on one hand rank) or “splits bets” (a bet straddling two cards). There are also “faro coppers” which allow you to bet on the “losing” card, although how this affects gameplay or strategy, we don’t know. We’re almost certain it doesn’t. In fact, somewhat disappointingly we soon realise, once we’d set up our makeshift faro table, there is no strategy to this game whatsoever.

OK, there’s small amount. You need to keep an eye on how many cards of one rank have already been dealt. At the point at which there’s only one card left of a certain rank, then it’s optimal to bet on that rank, because at this point the house relinquishes its edge. But that’s pretty much it. You can see for yourself by playing online with play money chips at, which appears to be the only faro game anywhere on the web.
Nevertheless, despite its simplicity, the game flourished throughout America because of the generous odds, less than 1% to the house. The small house edge came through the fact that, should both the winning and losing cards be of equal domination, the bettor will lose half his stake, and the final bet.

Even though it had the least favourable odds for the punter, the final bet was the most popular bet of the game and occurred when there were three cards remaining in the deck. Known as “calling the turn”, the object is to predict the order of those three cards: the loser, followed by the winner, followed by the initial burn card. If you hit this bet, it paid four to one – unless two of the last cards were identical, in which case it paid two to one.
While poker was fairly rare in frontier towns until the 1870's faro was found in practically every saloon. Part of the attraction was the social aspect of the game – very much like in modern day craps it became a collective experience, with participants rooting each other on against the house.

Many of the Old West gamblers, such as Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp, may have been known for their poker prowess, but actually got rich from faro rather than poker, and of course they banked the game rather than played it, becoming itinerant faro dealers hauling the tables with them wherever they went.

Faro’s demise may have been down to notorious cheating that took place, and the rigging of the dealer box was rampant. So rife was the problem that Hoyle’s Rules of Games began to warn its readers that not a single honest faro bank could be found in the United States. As early as 1872, an Eastern chronicler observed that “no vice has blighted so many lives, has illustrated so many epics of anguish, or has cost the productive industry so many millions of money, as faro gambling.”

And yet, they still played. Infamous conman “Canada Bill” Jones was so taken with the game that, when a friend found him playing at a faro table he knew to be crooked, and warned him, Bill was alleged to have replied, “Yes, but it’s the only game in town.”

The “Suicide Table” of Virginia City's Delta Saloon in Nevada became notorious because three of the table’s owners suffered such heavy losses that they committed suicide. Today, the table is on show at the old Delta Saloon in Virginia City, a grim reminder of a now forgotten game.
In the first half of the 20th Century, faro was on the wane. It became a casino game when Nevada legalised gambling in 1931, but went completely out of fashion after the Second World War. The last faro bank was closed in 1975 in Ely, Nevada, although there was a short revival in Reno from 1980-85. And today, apart from our office, it’s nowhere. If you consider the story of the Suicide table, maybe that’s a good thing.


Montebank, or Spanish Monte, not to be confused with the swindler’s game, three-card Monte, is a game similar to faro but where players attempt to bet on suits rather than ranks. It shares a common ancestor with faro, in basset, but made its way to the Wild West via Spain and Mexico, brought back by soldiers in the Mexican-American war of 1848. It remains the Mexican national card game.

Chuck-a-luck, also known as birdcage, is a dice game derived from grand hazard. It’s played with three standard dice that are rolled in a device that resembles a wire-frame bird cage that pivots about its centre. Bets are placed based on possible combinations that can appear on the three dice. The house edge is massive, up to 7.9%, depending on house rules.

A pure hustlers’ game, played on the Mississippi River boats, the evil genius of Ace-Deuce-Jack was to convince the sucker that he has the better odds in the game. The dealer cuts the pack and deals out three cards, betting that one of these cards will be an ace, deuce or jack. It appears as though the dealer is offering the punter all the other cards in the deck, other than three, but the maths works out 56% in the dealer’s favour.

Tags: faro, poker