Saturday, December 3, 2016

Bucking the Tiger

Growing up in the fifties and the sixties meant that I watched a lot of television Westerns.  It is fair to say that my family was addicted to horse opera. My mother was a fan of Have Gun Will Travel, my father never missed an episode of Gunsmoke, my brother liked Hopalong Cassidy, and I was obsessed with James Garner in Maverick.  For most of the early sixties, at any given hour of the evening, at least one of the three television networks was offering at least one Western.

This was not exactly educational television…I think we personally saw more Indians killed on television than probably existed in the New World when Columbus arrived.  Even as a child, I knew that these television shows had a strange sense of geography since their version of Texas never looked like where I lived.  As I got a little older and studied history, it was downright hilarious how little of it television got even remotely correct.

If you will forgive me, I’m about to correct another one of those popular myths:  While gambling was indeed very popular on the frontier, it was not Five Card Draw Poker that was usually played in those cowtown saloons and gambling houses—it was a card game called Faro.  You have probably never played it and probably have never even seen it played, but from just before the Civil War until the last decade of the 19th century, it was the most popular gambling game in the West.  (And James Garner never mentioned it in a single episode of Maverick!).

Most card games in America got their start in Europe and migrated to the new world with immigrants.  While no one is completely sure, Faro probably started in Venice, migrated to France where it was called Pharaoh, then moved to America in the early 19th century.  Since the game was played with a French deck (one with 52 cards), as the game became more popular, the popularity of the Italian deck (with only 40 cards) ended, as did most of the games played with the smaller deck.

Following the Civil War, the most popular deck of inexpensive cards was made by the Russell and Morgan Playing Card Company.  Their deck, the Tiger 101 deck, was used so often, that the game of Faro became known as Bucking the Tiger.  Saloons that wanted to advertise the availability of a game, simply put a small sign with a Bengal Tiger in the window—gamblers knew what it meant.

Faro is not even remotely similar to poker.  In Faro, the betters, called punters, do not hold cards, but bet on which card will next be dealt from a shoe, or box, containing all 52 cards.  There can be as many punters as can crowd around a table, most of the rules are very simple, and the game is fast-paced.  These factors made the game very popular in gambling dens and saloons.

Five guys sitting in a bar playing draw poker does not make the bar any money.  There is no “house” in a traditional poker game.  But in Faro, the table is run by the bar and the rules are set up to give the dealer, the house, a slight edge.  And the faster you play the game, the more money the house makes.

Here is simplified version of how the game works:  A dealer sits behind a large table that has thirteen cards glued or painted onto the table.  While the suit doesn’t matter, traditionally these cards were usually spades.  Players could place their bet in the form of chips, usually called checks in faro, on any of the cards, essentially betting that the selected card value—regardless of the suit—would be the next winning card. 

The dealer would then deal one card from the spring-loaded box face up.  This first card was the “losing card” and the dealer would collect any chips that had been bet on that card.  The next card dealt face up was the “winning card” and bets placed on those cards would be paid the same amount they had bet.  At this point, punters could make new bets, move, or remove existing bets and wait for the dealer to deal two more cards.  In the case of a pair, meaning that the winning and losing card had the same value, the dealer won half the bets on that card.  This last rule gives the house a very small edge.

Here’s an example.  You bet $5 on the Three of Spades.  The first card bet is the Jack of Diamonds, and the dealer collects all the losing bets, then his next card dealt is the three of Hearts.  You win!  And as fast as the winning bets are paid and the losing bets can be collected, the dealer is ready to deal two more cards.  You can see why this was a fast paced game.

To help collect the bets, and keep track of the betting, usually the dealer had an assistant who sat in front of a special device that looked like an abacus.  This kept track of every card that had been dealt in the game.  Called the “Case Keeper” or the “Coffin Keeper” the assistant also helped the dealer watch for card cheats.  And cheating was a large part of the game.

It was incredibly easy to cheat in Faro, especially for the dealer.  Among the simpler methods to cheat the player was to simply stack the deck so that pairs of cards came up more often.  Even small amounts of cheating enabled the dealer, and thus the house, to make more money.   This, in turn, made the game very popular with saloon keepers.  During the Civil War, there were 160 faro parlors in Washington DC alone. 

It was also easy for the punters to cheat.  You could “copper” a bet by placing a penny, or copper coin, over your checks.  This meant that you were reversing your bet, betting that the card would lose instead of win.  Some punters would glue a long thread or hair to the back of their copper coin so they could quickly yank it away after they saw the first turn of the card.

The rampant cheating prompted a lot of violence on the part of the punters trying—almost always unsuccessfully—to recoup their losses.  There is a wonderful, and thus almost certainly false, story about Wild Bill Hickok recouping his losses by flipping a Faro table upside down and demanding his money back at gunpoint. 

This violence meant that larger cities began to outlaw the game, and before long, faro parlors vanished in most eastern cities.  But, in the West, the game flourished.  Nightly fights in a bar are hardly good for business, so in many towns, the House simply rented out the Faro tables to men who could run them and maintain order at the same time: gunfighters.

Some of the most famous lawmen of the Old West, either ran Faro tables on the side, or quit being marshals and sheriffs to be gamblers full time.  Ben Johnson dealt  in the Bulls Head Saloon in Ellsworth, Kansas.  Luke Short ran Faro in Fort Worth’s famous White Elephant Saloon, Arizona.  Bat Masterson, Bill Gates, and Wyatt Earp all ran Faro tables.  Many historians believe that the famous ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’ was fought over who got to control the Faro tables in Tombstone, Arizona.

Before long, most of these men were making far more money from gambling than law enforcement. 

Having a notorious gunfighter dealing the cards didn’t stop all the violence, but it slowed it down.  After a while, however, even the Western border towns tired of the fighting in the bars.  One by one, towns began to ban the game.  By 1890, both poker and blackjack were more popular in the West.  By the turn of the century, the game was getting hard to find.

The last games were, of course, played in Las Vegas, Nevada.  The last recorded Faro game was played at the Palace Station in 1979.  Other than a few antique stores, the only remaining Faro table in Vegas is on display at the Clark County Museum.


  1. It's funny how card games come and go. Whist was highly popular with sailors of the 18th and early 19th centuries. I knew about Faro. Now it's poker. Personal two handed games like gin rummy have served as a way to redistribute wealth. I've only played cards for money once in my life. It was an odd game I'd never played before where everyone put up a dollar and as the game went all the money eventually went to one person. Then you'd start another hand. I don't remember what it was called, but I wound up $10 ahead. I had just taken a job with the group I was playing with - as a fund-raiser ironically. Beginner's luck as it turned out. Haven't played for money since, though I went on a trip to visit a tiger facility in Vegas once and the wife talked me into playing the slots. Lost my money. The wife came out ahead. Played the slots once more with a friend who funded me because she wanted someone to go to the boats in Shreveport with her I think. Lost it all in short order. I decided God did not want me to be a gambler. I think angels must cheat for the house.

  2. I take it back, everyone put up a quarter ante. These were not big stakes. The most you'd lose in a hand was a quarter. Something about collecting certain types of cards.