Faro, also known as Pharoah or Farobank, is an old west gambling game of French descent that first showed up in
the late 17th century.
Although it’s hard to find a game of Faro being played anywhere today, it’s sometimes compared to poker because of their similar qualities of being easy to learn, fast, and having good odds.
The game of faro is a descendent of the game basset. Basset was a gambling card game played by high society members because of the large sums of money to be won or lost. It was considered a
polite game but was outlawed in 1691.
The reign of Louis XIV is when Faro was first mentioned under the name of pharaon. It first emerged in Southwestern France
several years after basset was outlawed but eventually the French outlawed faro as well.
Even though the French banned these games, you could still find both basset and faro being played in England all through the 18th century. The English changed the French name of
pharoah to pharo.
By the 19th century it had spread to the United States and had its name changed to how we know it today, faro. Faro soon became the most popular gambling game especially in the Old
West and it could be found in every gambling hall from the years of 1825-1915.
Faro was so popular in 1882 that all other forms of gambling combined didn’t surpass it.
Due to early card designs of a Bengal tiger, Faro was also being called “twisting the tiger’s tail” or “bucking the tiger”. You could often find gambling houses that hung a tiger in their
window to show that Faro was being played there. Popular Faro towns or establishments would be referred to as a “tiger town” or a “tiger alley”.
Faro became considerably less popular after World War II but you could still find a game in Reno or Las Vegas casinos until 1985.
A round of faro was called “faro bank” because one person would be designated as the banker. Faro is played with a whole deck of cards. Players are called punters and any number of punters could
be admitted to the game. Punters would purchase chips, which were called checks, from the banker.
Limits and bet values varied based on where you played but check values were usually 50 cents for $10 each.
A typical faro table was covered in green baize and was in the shape of an oval. This table would have a cut out for the banker to operate.
A board with one suit of cards glued to it in numerical order would be placed on the faro table. This suit of cards would usually be the suit of spades. This board would represent the betting
Each player could bet in three different ways. The first would be to lay your bet on one of the 13 cards. The second would be to bet on several different cards at one time and you did this by
laying your bet between multiple cards. The third way you could bet would be to bet on the high card bar which is on the top of the layout board.
The banker would first shuffle an entire deck of cards. After this the deck of cards would be put into a dealing box, also called a shoe. The dealing box was a mechanical device that would assure
players that the banker was not cheating them by preventing drawing manipulations.
The first card pulled from the dealing box was the soda, which would get burned off; this would leave 51 cards left in play. Next the banker would draw two cards. The first card is a banker’s
card and it’s placed to the right of the dealing box. The second card is a player’s card and it’s placed to the left of the dealing box.
The baker’s card on the right hand side of the dealing box is the losing card. Suit was not followed in this game, only denomination. Any card on the layout board that had the same denomination
as the banker’s card lost and the banker won any bets on those cards.
The player’s card on the left hand side of the dealing box is the winning card. Any card of the same denomination that had bets on it would be returned to players with a 1 to 1 payout from the
Players that bet on the high card won if the player’s card denomination was higher than the banker’s card.
Each player gets paid after each two cards are drawn. Any bets that were placed on cards that did not win or lose remained there unless the player that placed them wished to collect them or
change them to another card.
A six sided token called a copper could be placed by players to reverse the intent of the bet. Sometimes pennies would be used in place of these tokens. This betting was known as coppering the
bet and reversed the win/loss piles.
The banker would continue to draw two cards out of the dealing box at a time until only three cards were left. When this happened the baker could call a special bet referred to as call the turn.
The point of this special bet was for players to predict the order the three reaming cards could be drawn out. These three cards are the banker’s card, the player’s card and the last card in the
box which was called a Hock.
If the player won they would be paid 4 to 1 unless there was a pair among the three cards that were drawn, known as a cat-hop, and then they would be paid 1 to 1. If all three of the remaining
cards are the same denomination bets would be voided.
A device known as a casekeep was used to prevent banker cheating and to help the players keep track of what denominations have already been played. The operator of this device would be called a
“casekeeper” or a “coffin driver”.
If a banker drew two cards of the same denomination, known as a doublet, he would win half the bet that was placed on the card of that denomination of the layout board.
If Faro is played fairly than the house’s edge is low, this led to cheating by bankers to increase profitability for the house.
Bankers used several different methods of cheating like:
Stacked or rigged decks
Rigged dealing boxes
And Sleight of hand
A stacked deck would be when the banker put pairs together in a deck so that they won half the bets placed on that denomination.
A rigged deck would have different textures of the back of the cards that allowed the banker to find the pairs and put them together while it looked like he was shuffling.
A rigged dealing box would also be called gaffed. A small mirror would be in the dealing box that was only visible to the banker. The banker would be able to look at the next card being drawn and
if it was bet on heavily he could switch it to allow the house to have the edge.
Sleight of hand was also used with the rigged dealing box. The banker would look at the next card being played and if there was a large bet on that denomination he could move it to another card
causing that players bet to lose. This was a common move because faro tables were often loud and hectic, so many players wouldn’t notice.
Players cheating worked best at busy and hectic faro tables because they often used sleight of hand and distraction to do their cheating.
Common cheating moves would be:
Simple move of their bet
Moving with a thread
Simple move of their bet is similar to what the banker does in their sleight of hand cheating. The player waits for the banker to be distracted then moves their bet to another card on the layout
Moving with a thread would use a single horse hair or a silk thread. This thread could be attached to the bottom of the pile of the bet and the player could pull on the thread to move it to other
cards. This was a more popular form of cheating than the simple move of their bet because it was less detectable due to the player only needing to move their hand slightly instead of their whole
Removing the copper is similar to moving with a thread because players would attach a thread to the copper to remove it from the layout board quickly if the card they played on lost. This
cheating tactic was popular because it left no thread on the table to be detected.
When a player was caught cheating, more often than not they would end up in a fist fight or gun fight.
Although faro is practically extinct in gambling establishments today, it’s a fun game that can be played with as few as two players and as many as can fit around the table. If you enjoy the
quickness and odds of poker and the excitement of a blackjack table, try to find a game of faro to test your hand.
If you can’ find a game why not start your own? Gather a group of friends, teach them how to play, and enjoy an evening of fun with a new game. You can find everything you need to get a game
started on this page.