Men playing faro in an Arizona saloon in 1895.
|Playing time||10–15 min.|
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, usually referred to as "punters".
The earliest references to a card game named pharaon are found in Southwestern France in the late 17th century (1688) during the reign of Louis XIV.
Pharaoh and basset, the most popular card games of 18th and 19th century Europe, were forbidden in France during the reign of Louis XIV on severe penalties, but these games 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. Also called "Bucking the Tiger", which comes from early card backs that featured a drawing of a Bengal Tiger, it was played in almost every gambling hall in the Old West from 1825 to 1915.
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.
Criminal prosecutions of faro were involved in the Supreme Court cases of United States v. Simms, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 252 (1803), and Ex parte Milburn, 34 U.S. (9 Pet.) 704 (1835).
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. Another idea traces the name to the Irish word fairadh, pronounced "fearoo", meaning "to turn". It could have been brought to England and France through the mass emigration from Ireland, in particular in the aftermath of the Flight of the Wild Geese. Also the Irish Brigade served in France and may have brought the term with them.
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 a "banker" and an indeterminate number of players 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 oval, covered with green baize, and had a cutout for the banker. A board with a standardized betting layout consisting of one card of each denomination pasted to it, 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 placed face-up inside a "dealing box", a mechanical shoe 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 is called the "soda" and is "burned" off, leaving 51 cards in play. As the soda is pulled out of the dealing box, it exposes the first card in play, called the "banker's card". This is placed on the right side of the dealing box. The next card exposed after the banker's card is called the carte Anglaise (English card) or simply the "player's card", and it is placed on the left.
- The banker's card is the "losing card". All bets placed on that card are lost by the players and won by the bank. The player's card is the "winning card". All bets placed on that card are returned to the players with a 1 to 1 (even money) payout by the bank (e.g. a dollar bet wins a dollar). A “high card” bet won if the player’s card had a higher value than the banker’s card. The banker collects on all the money staked on the card laid on the right, and he pays double the sums staked on those on the card remaining on the left (in the dealing box). The dealer settles all bets after each two cards drawn. This allows players to bet before drawing the next two cards.
- A player could "copper" 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 reversed the meaning of the win/loss piles for that particular bet. An abacus-like device, called a "case keep", is employed to assist the players and prevent dealer cheating by counting cards. The operator of the case keep is called the "case keeper".
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. In most cases, when three cards remained, the dealer would offer a specialized bet called "calling the turn", with the house paying to the players who can identify the exact order of the last three cards a 4-to-1 (since the real odds of naming the order is 5 to 1) payout and a 1–1 payout if there is a pair, called a "cat-hop". 
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.
- In a famous scene from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Nicholas Rostov loses 43,000 rubles to Dolokhov playing Faro.
- Friedrich Freiherr von der Trenck makes mention of playing faro in his memoirs (February 1726 – 25 July 1794); he was a Prussian officer, adventurer, and author.
- Faro is central to the plot of Alexander Pushkin's story "The Queen of Spades" and Tchaikovsky's opera The Queen of Spades.
- In "Showboat" by Edna Ferber, the gambler Gaylord Ravenal specializes in the game of Faro.
- Numerous references to faro are made in the HBO television series Deadwood.
- Casanova was known to be a great player of faro. He mentions the game several times in his autobiography.
- The 18th century Whig radical Charles James Fox preferred faro to any other game, as did 19th-century American con man Soapy Smith. It was said that every faro table in Soapy's Tivoli Club in Denver, Colorado, in 1889 was gaffed (made to cheat).
- The famed scam artist Canada Bill Jones loved the game so much that, when he was asked why he played at one game that was known to be rigged, he replied, "It's the only game in town."
- In Misfortune by Wesley Stace, Pharaoh is named after his father's profession, a faro dealer.
- Wyatt Earp dealt faro for a short time after arriving in Tombstone Arizona having acquired controlling interest in a game out of the Oriental saloon.
- John "Doc" Holliday dealt faro in the Bird Cage Theater as an additional source of income while living in Tombstone, Arizona.
- Numerous references to faro are made in the Western radio drama Gunsmoke, starring William Conrad.
- The miners in Puccini's opera La Fanciulla del West play a contentious game of faro in Act One.
- 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.
- The town of Faro, Yukon was named after the game.
- Lord Strongmore in John William Polidori's The Vampyre plays Faro in Brussels.
- The episode "Staircase to Heaven" in the TV series Murdoch Mysteries involves a murder during a game of Faro.
- ^ a b Scarne, John Scarne on Card Games: How to Play and Win at Poker, Pinochle, Blackjack, Gin and Other Popular Card Games pg. 163 Dover Publications (2004) ISBN 0-486-43603-9
- ^ 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
- ^ The hand-book of games, p. 336, H.G. Bohn – Bell & Daldy, London 1867
- ^ The book of card games, p. 121, Peter Arnold – Barnes & Noble 1995 ISBN 1-56619-950-6
- ^ William M. Breakenridge,Richard Maxwell Brown Helldorado: bringing the law to the mesquite pg. 171 University of Nebraska Press (1992) ISBN 0-8032-6100-4
- ^ Wesley Treat, Mark Moran, Mark Sceurman Weird Arizona: Your Travel Guide to Arizona's Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets pg. 190 Sterling (2007) ISBN 1-4027-3938-9
- 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.)
- John Nevil Maskelyne, Sharps and Flats, (London: 1894; reprint, Las Vegas: GBC. ISBN 0-8950-912-5
- J. R. Sanders, "Faro: Favorite Gambling Game of the Frontier", Wild West Magazine, October 1996