Wednesday, June 12, 2013


A Discourse on The Game of Faro, as Played in The Wild West

The first card out of a faro box was called the “soda” and did not count in the betting. The last card in the deck, the “hock,” was also dead. Thus derived the expression, “from soda to hock,” meaning from beginning to end, one of many idiomatic terms that came into the language from the frontier’s most popular game (from The Knights Of The Green Cloth by DeArment).
In preparation for the writing of my book, Divine Gamble, due to be released later this year, I did an in-depth study of the game of Faro (also spelled pharo). Dealing faro, you see, was how my heroine, Maisy Jessup, earned her living.
Between 1850 and 1910, the stereotypical frontier gambler was found in every mining camp, railhead, cattletown, and army post, plus a few places in between. Hiding his thoughts and emotions took no effort for this man, for he naturally avoided letting anyone too close; they might discover his secrets. His eyes flick over every surface, every face, while his brain calculates the possible opportunities to be had on site. His ear takes in everyclink of a coin, every whisper of pastebacks being shuffled. No weapons are visible on his person. Gems flash from rings and stickpins. He appears amiable, but don’t be fooled; he can be ruthless to a fault.
Seeing a game starting up at a back table whose occupants wear fine broadcloth suits, gold watch chains and polished shoes, he saunters over, and takes a seat. They’re playing faro, a game that gave the player fair odds at winning, until late in the century when sharps figured out how to cheat. Our gambler figures to pass the time and earn the confidence of the other men at the same time, before he invites them later to a friendly game of brag (a 3-card game that evolved into 5-card draw poker), the game he found most profitable.
Layout & positions of dealer & players
The dealer, a young man in clean but ordinary clothes, a cigarette dangling from his mouth nods and opens a fresh pack of pasteboards (cards). Beside him stands another man—the banker/guard. On the table in front of him lie the case counter and a metal box containing cash. The table is oblong, the dealer and guard on one long side, the players ranged along the opposite side and ends of the table. A cloth covers the table, a faro layout painted on its surface. The dealer places the new deck in the card case (a special box made for this purpose).
“Place your bets, gentlemen,” the dealer calls out.
Each player lays a “chip” which he has “bought” from the banker, on whatever painted card on the cloth layout he believes will win. When they finish, the dealer announces “Bets are in. Play begins,” and draws the top card (the soda card) off of the deck, laying it aside. Groans and pleased chuckles sound about the table upon seeing the now exposed second card. The banker claims lost chips and pays out on winning ones. You see, the players who bet upon the card in the layout which corresponds in value to the card now visible in the dealing-box have won. Those who did not bet on that card lost.
From the top card downwards, the cards alternately win for the players and the bank/dealer. The second card, then, after the soda card is drawn, wins for the players. On the next round, players bet on which card with lose, rather than win, and so on. The banker keeps track of what cards have been played on the case counter. And so the game goes. As you can see, the bank has little edge. Gradually, after cheating began and regulators moved in, the game went out of favor and faded into history. But until then the game of faro was THE game to play and a rowdy good time was had by all at the tables. 
Most sources say an early version of faro was first introduced in the Americas around 1717 in what would later become New Orleans by a Scotsman. But its roots date back to the game of landsquenet, played by Teutonic foot soldiers in the 1400s. In 1861 it was called Basset. 
Faro was also called “bucking the tiger” because of the drawing of a Bengal tiger on the backs of early cards. “Twisting the tiger’s tail” was another of the game’s euphemisms. Alleys, streets and districts containing numerous gambling parlors were often referred to as “tiger alley” or “tiger town.” A drawing of a tiger usually decorated the outer wall of a gambling hall so illiterate miners and other laborers would know the game was available inside.

Why is it that poker is always considered the official game of the Old West? Movies. Dime Novels. Poor research. Draw poker or “Bluff poker” as it was called then, was actually a rarity on the frontier until the late 1870’s. Even after that, each saloon featured at least one faro bank, especially during the gold rush. An 1882 New York Police Gazette study estimated that more money was wagered on faro in the U.S. each year than all other forms of gambling, including sport wagering. Photos or paintings showing people playing poker prior to 1870, are actually displaying brag.

By the way, although movies like Tombstone were correct in showing faro being played, they had the layout wrong and made other errors as well. 

Charlene first serious writing attempt came in 1980 when she awoke one morning from an unusually vivid and compelling dream. Deciding that dream needed to be made into a book, she dug out an old portable typewriter and went to work. That book never sold, but her second one, Tender Touch, became a Golden Heart finalist and earned her an agent. Soon after, she signed a three book contract with Kensington Books. Five of Charlene's western historical romances were published between 1994 and 1999: Taming Jenna, Tender Touch (1994 Golden Heart Finalist under the title Brianna), Forever Mine (1996 Romantic Times Magazine Reviewer's Choice Award Nominee and Affaire de Coeur Reader/Writer Poll finalist), To Have and To Hold Affaire de Coeur Reader/Writer Poll finalist); and writing as Rachel Summers, The Scent of Roses. Forever Mine, Tender Touch, To Have and To Hold and The Scent of Roses are available as eBooks.




Kemberlee said...

Next time I see you, Charlene, you'll have to teach me how to play. I'll expect a silk lined velvet car bag and a set of authentic cards ;-)

Charlene Raddon said...

Sure, Kem. You bet.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Thanks, Charlene. I never understood Faro.

Ciara Gold said...

Clearly there's more to the game than I imagined. We have friends that love to gamble and my sister-in-law is a floor manager for a casino, but I've never had the desire to go and play. I suspect because if I did, I'd enjoy it too much. Maybe I'll have to try it just for the sake of research.

Charlene Raddon said...

Ciara, thanks for stopping in. You won't find faro at your sister-in-law's casino. At least I doubt you would.Thanks for the visit.

Lyn Horner said...

Charlene, very interesting and valuable info about faro. I had no idea how the game was played, though I've often heard of it and even mentioned it in one of my westerns. Thanks for explaining how it works.

Meg Mims said...

Great post, Charlene! I still had my hero playing poker, just for fun with friends or strangers. But I'm sure Faro was the game of choice in saloons. Thanks for explaining it!