Faro: the frontier favorite

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You used this Mark Twain quote in one of your columns: “A dollar picked up in the road is more satisfaction to us than the $99 which we had to work for, and the money won at Faro or in the stock market snuggles into our hearts in the same way.” I have two questions for you. What is Faro and how is it played? Stella G. Lewiston, ID

When one thinks of gambling in the old west, possibly Deadwood City, Wild Bill Hickcok and Aces and Eights come to mind. But in reality, when Mark Twain was roughing it, Faro was the most celebrated and popular game on the new frontier. Many a plantation, many a slave, many a man’s gold fortune and occasionally a life were won or lost on a faro table. So popular was the game, faro could be found in just about every saloon in every Western one-horse town.

Faro, sometimes spelled pharo, pharaoh or pharaon, was a card game invented by the French, who adapted it from the Venetian game of basetta. French gamblers called the game Pharaoh because one of the honored cards bore the face of an Egyptian Pharaoh. Thanks to an exiled Scotsman named John Law, it was introduced in this country by way of New Orleans, moved up the river on the Mississippi steamboats, then spread across the Wild West.

Besides being simple to play, there were two reasons why the game became so popular. First, it held a slight house advantage, under 2%, and the game was played at such a fast pace-two hands per minute-that it was the ideal game for impatient gamblers wanting fast action. Though the game has intricate props, elaborate betting formalities, plus ornate names like soda and hoch, Faro is a game you can set up and learn on your kitchen table in less than two minutes. So, Stella, go fetch yourself two decks of cards and let’s learn by doing.

With the first deck we’ll use just thirteen cards for your layout, or spread. The other deck is for the game itself. Using one complete suit (layouts generally used spades), running from ace to king, lay them face up. This is your game layout. As the bettor, “back a card” (place your bet) on any rank (card) by putting a chip on it. With the other deck shuffled, deal the top two cards (dealers from yesteryear dealt from a box, sort of like today’s shoe). If you backed the first card dealt you lose. Place a bet on the second card, you win. If you have a bet on any of the other cards, they can be withdrawn or left standing for the next turn. The house derived its advantage when a pair was dealt. Here the bank would take half the money that had been staked on the paired cards. It’s that easy, Stella.

Faro’s demise came from a combination of many factors although two stand out. The opportunity for a dealer cheating was greater than any other card game, plus faro had a low house edge. Too bad. I would love to see the game reappear in towns like Virginia City, Deadwood, or on a Mississippi riverboat.

Gambling thought of the week: One of the more legendary gamblers of all time was a Three-Card Monte dealer named Canada Bill. His gambling immortality does not rest on his gambling prowess, nor his formidable wins or losses. He is remembered by a single line he once uttered on the Mississippi, a phrase recited by a myriad of gamblers since. Bill was losing his entire bankroll at Faro when a friend approached and said, “Bill, don’t you know this game is crooked?” “Yes,” answered Canada Bill, “but it’s the only game in town.”

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