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How to Play Faro

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Photo Courtesy (William Pettite)

Faro game, Palace Club Reno, NV

Photo Courtesy (William Pettite)

Faro used to be the most popular house-banked game played in the Old West of the United States. Although the game originated in Europe, it was never as popular as roulette. However, in mining camps and boom-towns, all that was needed was two decks of cards to play Faro, or Faro Bank. One deck was used as the wagering layout and one as the actual gambling deck. As chronicled in The Roots of Reno, lawman and legend Wyatt Earp was known as a skilled dealer of the game of Faro.

Earp dealt Faro in several places, including the Oriental Saloon in Tucson, Arizona as well as casino in the town of Goldfield, Nevada after the turn of the century. Faro would continue to be a very popular game in early Reno and Las Vegas, but the skill needed to deal the game, the small house advantage, and the need for a supervisor to continually watch the game all led to its eventual removal from the casino floor. The Reno Ramada did train several dealers and offer the game in the mid 1980's, but the casino closed shortly thereafter. Previously the game was a favorite of both dollar betters and heavy gamblers of the 1940's and 1950's like Nick "The Greek" Dandalos.

The Suicide Table

Virginia City, Nevada was one of the states most popular and successful cities in the late 1800's. The mining in the area made rich men from previously dirt-poor farmers and miners, and the saloons and gaming halls took a fair share all all the gold and silver dug from the ground. Although most of the gambling involved poker and roulette, Faro was also a favorite, but it's destructive force on some gamblers of the time is best illustrated by what has become known as the Suicide Table.

Found along the wooden sidewalks of the city, the Delta Saloon, opened in 1875 and still operating today, visitors can glimpse the Suicide Table, so-called because of the demised of several owners and players of the Faro game.

According to legend, owner "Black Jake" lost his bankroll of $70,000 to several lucky miners one evening. He had one final drink at the bar, went to his room and shot himself. The next owner lasted through just one night of dealing the game before he too lost all his money and committed suicide. The saloon owner took the table off the premises and it was stored away for several years before being converted to a 21 table in the 1890's.

On a stormy evening a minor wagered his one gold ring against a five dollar gold piece and won. As the night wore on his luck stayed with him as the lightening crashed outside. He may have been drunk, but by the end he had won the owner's bankroll of $86,000 plus a team of horses and a mining claim. The once prosperous owner was cleaned out and he too committed suicide. Was the table cursed?

How Faro is Played

The game of Faro is played with a standard English deck of 52 cards. No jokers or wild cards are used. A traditional layout for the game is a raised wooden board with images of the thirteen ranks of cards from ace to King. The deck is shuffled and placed into a steel box (Faro box or case) with an open side and top. An abacus-style device called the case-keeper is used to keep track of all cards played. Early decks of the Old West often had a Bengal Tiger on the back, possibly one of the reasons playing Faro became known as Bucking the Tiger.

Players use colored chips with their own personal denominations like those used at roulette to wager on one or more of the 13 cards shown. Split bets could also be placed between cards. A separate wager could also be made on which of the two exposed cards would be high.

The first card (called the soda) is exposed but burned. Then the banker's card is exposed and the player's card is exposed. The banker's hand is the losing card, and bets on the layout that match the card are won by the house, or bank. The player's card is the winning card and wagers that match the card win even money.

If the exposed two cards match (a doublet), the house takes half of each wager on the same card (exposed cards are a queen and a queen, so bets on queen lose one-half), resulting in a tiny edge of less than 1/4 of a percent. To help increase the house edge, a bet on the last three cards in the case is offered to all players: calling the turn. In this case the players had to predict the exact order of the last three cards, such as 5-7-jack. A winning prediction paid 5 to 1. If two of the cards remaining were the same (called a cat hop), such as 8, 8, king, the payout is only even money.

As with other games of chance in a casino, the amount won at Faro by the house was considerably higher than the house edge, but craps, slots, blackjack, and roulette continued to hold nearly twice as much as Faro did and the game faded into obscurity. Today, the game of baccarat is quite similar, with a banker and player hand and a small house edge.

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