Faro (card game)

Faro is a card game, a descendant of Basset. It enjoyed great popularity during the 18th century, particularly in England and France, and in the 19th Century in the United States, particularly in the Old West, where it was practiced by faro dealers such as Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. It has since fallen out of fashion and is only practiced by dedicated Old West enthusiasts and Civil War reenactors.

Its name is believed by some to be a corruption of pharaoh and refers to the Egyptian motif that commonly adorned French-made playing cards of the period, though no records of any Egyptian Motif on any playing cards of that era have been found. An alternative explanation traces the name to the Irish word Fairadh (Pron. fearoo), 'to turn', which could have been brought to France and the UK through mass emigration from Ireland, in particular in the aftermath of the Flight of the Wild Geese, and among those of the Irish Brigade serving in France.

Faro is similar to the contemporary game of Mini-Baccarat.


A game of faro was often called a "faro bank". It was played with an entire pack of playing cards and admitted an indeterminate number of players, termed "punters", and a "banker". 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 square, with a distinguished cut-out 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" 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 was supposed to assure players of a fair game. Many sporting-house supply companies sold gaffed dealing boxes that were designed so that the banker could cheat.

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", which is placed on the right side of the dealing box in the other, called the carte anglaise, or English card, and simply called the "player's card" in the United States, for the players placed on the left.

The banker draws two cards. The first is the "losing card", and all bets placed on that card are lost by the players and won by the bank. The second card is the "winning card", and all bets placed on that card are returned to the players with a 100% winning paid by the bank. The banker collects on all the money staked on the card laid on the right and pays double the sums staked on those on the card remaining on the left (in the dealing box).

A player could "copper" their bet by placing an hexagonal (6-sided) token called a "copper". Some histories claim 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 "betting the turn". This bet offers a 4-to-1 (5-for-1) payout if the players can identify the exact order of the last three cards.


Faro was one of the most popular card games of the 18th and 19th centuries. Although both faro and Basset were forbidden in France, on severe penalties, these games continued to be played in England during the 18th century, apparently because it was easy to learn, quick, and when played honestly, the odds for a player were the best of all other gambling games. "Our life here", writes Gilly Williams to George Selwyn in 1752, "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."

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). Indeed, 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."

Faro's detractors regarded it as a dangerous scam that destroyed families and reduced men to poverty, because of the rampant rigging of the dealing box.

While the game became scarce after World War II, it continued to be played at a few Las Vegas and Reno casinos through 1985.

Faro is central to the plot of Alexander Pushkin's story The Queen of Spades and Tchaikovsky's opera The Queen of Spades.


  • John Nevil Maskelyne, Sharps and Flats (First Pub. London, 1894) - reprint by GBC Las Vegas. ISBN 0-8950-912-5. Gives chapter on the game, equipment, and cheating.
  • Tom and Judy Dawson, The Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards, 2000, Pub. US Games Systems Inc. Stamford CT. ISBN 1-57281-297-4. Gives historical account of Faro cards in the US, extensively illustrated.
  • United States Playing Card Company - Glossary With "Buck the Tiger" to play against the bank; and no less than 8 other popular terms have been contributed by the game of Faro.
  • Howard, M. The Traditional Game of Faro Barbary Coast Vigilance Committee. 8 June 2004
  • Sanders, J. R. Faro: Favorite Gambling Game of the Frontier Wild West Magazine - October, 1996

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