Faro, Pharaoh, or Farobank, is a late 17th-century French gambling card game descendant of basset, and belongs to the lansquenet and Monte Bank family of games, in that it is played between a banker and several players winning or losing according to the cards turned up matching those already exposed or not.
Although not a direct relative of poker, faro was played by the masses alongside its other popular counterpart, due to its fast action, easy-to-learn rules, and better odds than most games of chance. The game of faro is played with only one deck of cards and allows for any number of players.
The earliest references to a card game named pharaon are found in Southwestern France during the reign of Louis XIV. Basset was outlawed in 1691, and pharaoh emerged several years later as a derivative of basset, before it too was outlawed.
Despite the French ban, pharaoh and basset continued to be widely played in England during the 18th century. Pharo, the English alternate spelling of Pharaoh, was easy to learn, quick and, when played honestly, the odds for a player were the best of all gambling games, as records Gilly Williams in a letter to George Selwyn in 1752.
With its name shortened to faro, it soon spread to the United States in the 19th century to become the most widespread and popularly favored gambling game. It was played in almost every gambling hall in the Old West from 1825 to 1915. Faro could be played in over 150 places in Washington, DC alone during the Civil War. An 1882 study considered faro to be the most popular form of gambling, surpassing all others forms combined in terms of money wagered each year.
The faro game was also called "bucking the tiger" or "twisting the tiger's tail", which comes from early card backs that featured a drawing of a Bengal tiger. By the mid 19th century, the tiger was so commonly associated with the game that gambling districts where faro was popular became known as "tiger town", or in the case of smaller venues, "tiger alley". In fact, some gambling houses would simply hang a picture of a tiger in their windows to advertise that a game could be found within.
Faro's detractors regarded it as a dangerous scam that destroyed families and reduced men to poverty because of rampant rigging of the dealing box. Crooked faro equipment was so popular that many sporting-house companies began to supply gaffed dealing boxes specially designed so that the bankers could cheat their players. Cheating was prevalent enough that editions of Hoyle’s Rules of Games began their faro section warning readers that not a single honest faro bank could be found in the United States. While the game became scarce after World War II, it continued to be played at a few Las Vegas and Reno casinos through 1985.
Historians have suggested that the name Pharaon comes from Louis XIV's royal gamblers who called the game pharaon because of the motif that commonly adorned one of the French-made court cards.
The layout of a faro board.
A game of faro was often called a "faro bank". It was played with an entire deck of playing cards. One person was designated the "banker" and an indeterminate number of players, known as "punters", could be admitted. Chips (called "checks") were purchased by the punter from the banker (or house) from which the game originated. Bet values and limits were set by the house. Usual check values were 50 cents to $10 each.
The faro table was typically oval, covered with green baize, and had a cutout for the banker. A board with a standardized betting layout consisting of all cards of one suit pasted to it in numerical order, called the "layout", was placed on top of the table. Traditionally, the suit of spades was used for the layout. Each player laid his stake on one of the 13 cards on the layout. Players could place multiple bets and could bet on multiple cards simultaneously by placing their bet between cards or on specific card edges. Players also had the choice of betting on the “high card” bar located at the top of the layout.
A deck of cards was shuffled and placed inside a "dealing box", a mechanical device also known as a "shoe", which was used to prevent manipulations of the draw by the banker and intended to assure players of a fair game.
The first card in the dealing box was called the "soda" and was "burned off", leaving 51 cards in play. The dealer then drew 2 cards: the first was called the "banker's card" and was placed on the right side of the dealing box. The next card after the banker's card was called the carte Anglaise (English card) or simply the "player's card", and it was placed on the left of the shoe.
The banker's card was the "losing card". All bets placed on that card were lost by the players and won by the bank. The player's card was the "winning card". All bets placed on that card were returned to the players with a 1 to 1 (even money) payout by the bank (e.g. a dollar bet won a dollar). A “high card” bet won if the player’s card had a higher value than the banker’s card. The dealer settled all bets after each two cards drawn. This allowed players to bet before drawing the next two cards. Bets that neither won nor lost remained on the table, and could be picked up or changed by the player prior to the next draw.
A player could reverse the intent of his bet by placing a hexagonal (6-sided) token called a "copper" on it. Some histories said a penny was sometimes used in place of a copper. This was known as "coppering" the bet, and reversed the meaning of the win/loss piles for that particular bet.
When only 3 cards remained in the dealing box, the dealer would "call the turn", which was a special type of bet that occurred at the end of each round. The object now was to predict the exact order that the 3 remaining cards, Bankers, Players, and the final card called the Hock, would be drawn. The player's odds here were 5 to 1, while a successful bet paid off at 4 to 1 (or 1 to 1 if there were a pair among the 3, known as a "cat-hop"). This provided one of the dealer's few advantages in faro. If it happened that the 3 remaining cards were all the same, there would be no final bet, as the outcome was not in question.
A device, called a "casekeep" was employed to assist the players and prevent dealer cheating by counting cards. The casekeep resembled an abacus, with one spindle for each card denomination. As a card was played, either winning or losing, one of 4 counters would be moved to indicate that it had been played. This allowed players to plan their bets by keeping track of what cards remained available in the dealing box. The operator of the case keep is called the "casekeeper", or colloquially in the American West, the "coffin driver".
Certain advantages were reserved to the banker: if he drew a doublet, that is, two equal cards, he won half of the stakes upon the card which equaled the doublet. In a fair game, this provided the only "house edge". If the banker drew the last card of the pack, he was exempt from doubling the stakes deposited on that card. These and the advantage from the odds on the turn bet provided a slight financial advantage to the dealer or house. To give themselves more of an advantage, and to counter the losses from players cheating, the dealers would also often cheat as well.
In a fair game the house's edge was low, so bankers increasingly resorted to cheating the players to increase the profitability of the game for the house. This too was acknowledged by Hoyle editors when describing how faro banks were opened and operated: "To justify the initial expenditure, a dealer must have some permanent advantage."
Dealers employed several methods of cheating:
Stacked or rigged decks: A stacked deck would consist of many paired cards, allowing the dealer to claim half of the bets on that card, as per the rules. A rigged deck would contain textured cards that allowed dealers to create paired cards in the deck while giving the illusion of thorough shuffling.
Rigged dealing boxes: Rigged, or "gaffed", dealing boxes came in several variants. Typically, they allowed the dealer to see the next card prior to the deal, by use of a small mirror or prism visible only to the dealer. If the next card was heavily bet, the box could also allow the dealer to draw 2 cards in one draw, thus hiding the card that would have paid. This would result in the casekeep not accounting for the hidden card, however. If the casekeeper were employed by the house, though, he could take the blame for "accidentally" not logging that card when it was drawn.
Sleight of hand: In concert with the rigged dealing box, the dealer could, when he knew the next card to win, surreptitiously slide a player's bet off of the winning card if it was on the dealer's side of the layout. At a hectic faro table he could often get away with this, though it was obviously a risky move if caught.
Players would routinely cheat as well. Their techniques employed distraction and sleight-of-hand, and usually involved moving their stake to a winning card, or at the very least off of the losing card, without being detected. Their methods ranged from crude to creative, and worked best at a busy, fast-paced table:
Simple move of their bet: The most basic cheat was simply to move one's bet to the adjacent card on the layout while avoiding the banker noticing. While the simplest, it also carried the greatest risk of detection.
Moving with a thread: A silk thread or single horse hair would be affixed to the bottom check in the bet, and allowed the stack to be pulled across the table to another card on the layout. This was less risky, as the cheating player would not have to make an overt action.
Removing the copper: A variant on the use of the thread was to affix it to the copper token used to reverse the bet. If the losing card matched the player's bet, the copper made it a winning bet and no cheat was needed. If, however, the winning card, dealt second, were to match the player's bet the copper would ordinarily make it a loser, but quickly snatching the copper from the stack with the invisible thread turned it into a winner. This held the least risk, as once the copper was yanked from the stack, there was no thread left attached to the bet.
Being caught cheating often resulted in a fight, or even gunfire.
French terms used in Faro
By 1870, the words used in the game were a mixture of French and English words and spellings.
Banker – The person who keeps the table.
Tailleur (Dealer) – Generally the banker.
Couche or Enjeu – The stake.
Coup (a Stroke or Pull) – Any two cards dealt alternately to the right and left.
Croupier (Croup) – An assistant to the dealer
Doublet – When the punter's card is turned up twice in the same coup, then the bank wins half the stake. A single paroli must be taken down, but if there are several, only one retires.
Fasse – The first card turned up by the Banker, by which he gained half the value of the money laid upon every card of that sort by the punters or players.
Hocly – The last card but one, the chance of which the banker claims, and may refuse to let any punter withdraw a card when eight or less remain to be dealt.
Livret – A suit of 13 cards, with 4 others called Figures. One named the little figure, has a blue cross on each side and represents ace, deuce, tray; another yellow on both sides, styled the yellow figure, signifies, 4, 5, 6; a third with a black lozenge in the centre, named the black figure, stands for 7, 8, 9. 10; and a red card, called the great or red figure, for Jack, Queen, King: those figures are useful for those who punt on several cards at once.
L'une pour l'autre (One for the other) – Means a drawn game, and is said when two of the punter's cards are dealt in the same coup.
Masque – Means turning a card, or placing another face downwards, during any number of coups, on that whereon the punter has staked, and which he may afterward play at pleasure.
Oppose – Reversing the game, and having the cards on the right for the punter, and those on the left for the dealer.
Pli (Bending) – Used when a punter, having lost half his stake by a doublet, bends a card in the middle, and setting it up with the points and foot towards the dealer, signifies thereby a desire either of recovering the moiety, or of losing all.
Ponte or Punt (Point) – The punter or player.
Pont (Bridge) – The same as paix.
Paix (Peace) – Equivalent to double or quits; that is, when the punter having won, does not choose to paroli and risk his stake, but bends or makes a bridge of his card, signifying that he ventures his gains only. A double paix is, when the punter having won twice, bends two cards one over the other. Treble paix, thrice, etc. A paix may follow a seven, fifteen, or thirty, etc.
Paroli or Parolet-Double – Sometimes called cocking, is when a punter, being fortunate, chooses to venture both his stake and wins, which he intimates by bending a corner of his card upwards.
Cocking – See Paroli.
Paix-Paroli – When a punter has won a paroli, wishes then to play double or quits, and save his original stake, which he shows by doubling a card after making his first paroli; double-paix-paroli succeeds to winning a paix-paroli; treble-paix-paroli follows double, etc.
Sept et le Va (Seven and it goes) – Succeed the winning of a paroli, by which the punter being entitled to triple his stake, risks the whole again, and, bending his card a second time, tries to win seven-fold.
Quinze et le Va (Fifteen and it goes) – When the punter having won a sept, &c., bends the third corner of the card, and ventures for 15 times his stake.
Trente et le Va (Thirty and it goes) – Follows a fifteen, etc., when the punter again tries his luck, and makes a fourth paroli.
Soitraitte et le Va (Sixty and it goes) – When the player having obtained a thirty, ventures all once more, which is signified by making a fifth paroli, either on another card, if he has parolied on one only before, or by breaking the side of that one which contains four, to pursue his luck in the next deal.
The old phrase "from soda to hock", meaning "from beginning to end" derives from the first and last cards dealt in a round of faro. The phrase evolved to the better known "from soup to nuts".
In turn, "soda" and "hock" are probably themselves derived from "hock and soda," a popular nineteenth-century drink consisting of hock (a sweet German wine) combined with soda water.
Lord Strongmore in John William Polidori's The Vampyre plays Faro in Brussels.
In "Showboat" by Edna Ferber, the gambler Gaylord Ravenal specializes in the game of Faro.
In Oliver La Farge's 1935 story "Spud and Cochise", when the cowboy Spud is in an exceptionally good mood, he plays Faro with the local Faro dealer in the saloon of the small town that he's passing through. Apparently aware of the almost universal dishonesty of American Faro dealers in his time, he nevertheless bets heavily, and views his gambling losses as a form of charity.
When planning The Sting on New York gangster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), one of the conmen researching their mark mentions that he "only goes out to play faro" making him a hard target for the big con.
^Blackwood's Edinburgh magazine vol. 15 pg. 176 London 1844 Our life here would not displease you, for we eat and drink well, and the Earl of Coventry holds a Pharaoh-bank every night to us, which we have plundered considerably.
^Oxford Dictionary of Card Games, p. 16, David Parlett – Oxford University Press 1996 ISBN 0-19-869173-4
Tom and Judy Dawson, The Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards, Stamford, CT: US Games Systems Inc., 2000. ISBN 1-57281-297-4 (Gives historical account of Faro cards in the US, extensively illustrated.)