Friday, April 7, 2017

Bucking the Tiger

Picture the scene: a saloon in the old west. A long bar, shelves lined with bottles on the wall behind it, and maybe a painting of a scantily clad woman. Cowboys, gamblers, lawmen, the town drunk, tinny player piano music, and dance hall girls. At one table sit men playing a game of poker that's been going on for hours. Someone's accused of cheating. Chairs scrape on the floor as accuser and accused jump up and reach for their guns. A scene we've seen played out countless times on both the big and little screen.
Scrape. "Are you calling me a cheater?"

The characters played poker because that's the card game the writers and directors were familiar with. Except in reality, the card game of choice in the old west is one no longer played. Not poker. Faro.

 I was raised watching the great western series of the 1970's and have been a fan of the genre all my life, and yet I never heard of faro until recently when I read a book about Doc Holliday's Tombstone years.

I was curious about the game so I did some research. I was surprised to find out that faro was the most popular gambling game--far more common than poker. Opposed to the long poker game, faro is a fast game, taking about ten to fifteen minutes. Also unlike poker, very little skill is involved. And like the roulette wheel or Blackjack in today's casinos, there is somewhat of a community atmosphere with spectators. Any number of players could play at one time, so it could be quite raucous.

Faro comes to us from 17th century France where it was known as pharaoh, which in turn is derived from the English game, basset. The game came to America with the French who settled in Louisiana. It then made its way up and down the Mississippi River at the gambling tables on steamboats. Before long it became so popular that every saloon out west had a faro table.

Because decks of cards at the time often featured a tiger, playing faro was also called "Twisting the tiger's tail" or "Bucking the tiger." Gambling districts were known as "Tiger Towns" or "Tiger Alleys."

Playing cards

The game was played on a table covered in green baize with thirteen spaces for players to place their bets on cards they hoped the dealer would draw from "the shoe." The dealer would pull two cards. The first was the "banker's card" and the second was the "player's card." The banker's card was always the "losing card." So if you were lucky, your card was on the space on the board corresponding with the "player's card." Pretty straight forward. No need to bring your poker face to the faro table.
Faro table in the Oriental Saloon, AZ. Notice the crowd of onlookers.

A couple of elements made the game more interesting. Cards played were keep track of on an abacus-like device called a "casekeep," and as more cards were played, the game got more exciting with diminishing possibilities. The only skill involved in the game was being able to keep track of the cards already played. A player could also reverse the win/lose cards by placing a copper disc on the board, which was known as "coppering the bet."

Famous faro players? Wyatt Earp started out his stint in Tombstone as a faro dealer in the Oriental Saloon. Doc Holliday supplemented his income in the same town as a dealer in at the Birdcage Saloon.

So, why don't we play faro anymore? Cheaters ruined it, that's why. It was so easy to cheat that the expert book on card games, Hoyle's, warned against it.

Want to know how to cheat at faro in case you come across a game? Watch those dealers. Because faro is a game where the player is as likely to win as the house, the dealer would sometimes resort to methods to insure his livelihood. For one thing, the cheating dealer could rig the shoe by placing tiny mirrors inside. If he didn't like the look of the card about to be played, the dealer could hide that card in a special compartment in the box. Then the deck itself could be tampered with so some cards were marked. For instance the backs of two cards could be sanded so they'd stick together, drawing a third unmarked card out of the shoe. And because the sometimes the unruly atmosphere around the table lent itself to acts of deception, there was the old sleight of hand. The dealer could move the winning card to his side if nobody was watching.

But, never fear, player! There are ways you too can cheat. The sleight of hand employed by the dealer worked for the player as well, though this is a riskier move. A less risky move would be to attach a horse hair or a silk thread to the bottom of a card and move it to a more favorable spot. Likewise the copper could be moved in this way. I have to say I have trouble picturing someone doing this undetected. They must have been nimble-fingered and quick. And what did they use to stick the hair to the card, I want to know? Or do I....

I am alone in not knowing about faro? How many of you knew it was the game of choice in the old west? Is it a game you'd like to play? Cheat? Do you like to gamble at all? What's your favorite game of chance?


Paty Jager said...

Good post! And perfect information for my upcoming new series set around a saloon! Thanks for the info.I'd heard of Faro but didn't know how it was played.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Hi, Paty! Got to love the atmosphere of a saloon! Sounds like a fun series you have planned. There are a lot of images on Pinterest for faro but I wasn't sure about the copyright, so I didn't use them,but you can check them out. Good luck with your writing and thanks for stopping by. Have a great weekend!

Andrea Downing said...

Ah, Patti, it's the ol' sleight of hand... Great post. The current issue of True West is all about Doc and, of course, has several mentions of Wyatt Earp being a Faro dealer, so this is very timely for me. Never knew how Faro was played!

Margie Vickers said...

I had heard of it but didn't know how it was played. When I was young I player a lot of cards but not anymore. It sounds like it would be fun to try. Thanks for sharing.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Hi, Andi! Doc Holliday is one of the most interesting characters of the time. It's amazing he managed to hang in there as long as he did. A remarkable man in a remarkable time. I'll have to look for that issue of True West I'm glad you stopped by today! Have a great weekend.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Hi, Margie! Thank you for your comment. I have such a short attention span and no head for numbers so I'm terrible at most cards games (unless there are picture cards like Old Maid), but Faro looks like a game even I could play. I remember my parents' generation being big card players, but it seems you don't see much of that anymore. Have a great weekend!