Faro: The gambling card game of the BC gold rush

Among the first to arrive at a mining camp on the heels of the gold seekers were saloon keepers and faro bankers. In the mid 1800s, the gambling card game of Faro was very popular because it was simple, fast-paced, and the odds were good that a player would win if the game was played honestly.

James Anderson, known as the bard of Barkerville, didn’t have many kind words to say about gamblers and their game of faro. He wrote a song called “Come Back Faro” in which he describes the faro dealer:

I’ll sing you now a mournful song,
All of a fine old man,
Who liv’d some years in Cariboo,
All by his sleight of han’

I’ve often watched his little game,
And even been case-keeper;
And tho’ his eyes were pretty sharp,
I’ve sometimes nailed a sleeper.

Some say old Faro was a rogue,
Tho’ tis not my belief;
But if he were—then I’m sure
Young Lansquenet’s a thief.

The roots of faro can be traced back to the game of ‘Landsquenet’ played by Teutonic foot soldiers in the 1400s. The game was eventually called ‘Pharaoh’, because some of the playing cards used had an Egyptian king’s face on the backs of the cards. This was then simplified to ‘Faro’.

The game was also referred to as ‘Bucking the Tiger’ because in earlier times, many faro boards folded up into a wooden box which featured a Bengal tiger on the back.

How To Play Faro

Professional gamblers would set up their faro boards and case keepers at a saloon and wait for miners to bet their hard-earned gold dust. Faro was a fast game so it was necessary for a faro banker to have two assistants; one to watch the crowd for cheaters and one to keep track of the cards that had been dealt by moving the discs in the case-keeper.

faro board

faro board

A faro board was simply a board covered with a cloth and on it were pasted (or painted) 13 cards of one suit, usually spades. Across the top, nearest the dealer, was printed the words, ‘High Card’.

Players or ‘punters’ as they were referred to, would purchase chips called ‘counters’ from the ‘banker’ who ran the game.

Players would choose which of the 13 cards they wanted to bet on and lay their chips on them, or if they wanted to place their bet on two or more they would place their chips in between or at the corner. Players who placed wagers on the high-card bar were betting that the winning card (the second card drawn) would be higher than the losing card (the first card drawn). High cards were ranked from Ace (the lowest) to highest.

faro case-keeper

faro case-keeper

Playing cards in the mid 1800s didn’t have any numbers or letters on them.

When all the bets were placed, the banker would shuffle and cut the pack of playing cards, then place them face up in a dealing box. The first card was set aside.

The faro banker took out the next two cards from the deck.

Bets matching the first card lost. Bets matching the second card face up on the deck, won. Whether the card was in the same suite (diamonds, spades, hearts, clubs) didn’t matter.

Each pair of cards was called a ‘turn’. There were 25 ‘turns’ to a game. The first and last cards in the deck weren’t played.

If a player put a ‘copper’ (a token) on top of his or her bet, that was betting a card would lose instead of win.

Whenever there were two of kind in a turn, (two kings, two kings etc) then the dealer took half the chips staked on them. In an honest game, this could occur about three times in two deals, however, some dealers were often accused of stacking the deck in their favour.

Cheating at Faro

A dealer could tamper with the cards beforehand. Often times the dealer could tell what cards would be next because the dealing boxes were rigged with special levers or plates that would allow two cards to be taken out at the same time. With a sleight of hand, the dealer could change the sequence of a deck. Because of the game of Faro was so fast some of these tricky moves would have been hard to catch.

Players could cheat as well and some of them had creative ways of moving their chips around before anyone could notice.

Bucking The Tiger

The British Colonist published a letter to the editor on February 4, 1862 about a ‘Faro Bank’ in Victoria:

…six more non-professional gamblers…have been among the constant feeders of this Royal Bengal Tiger and…several more of the regular hangers-on or “ropes”.

I heard a great many strange statements from one and another of the “sports” – but the strangest of all was that “‘the Police were all right'”. In other words, that the force had been bribed not to interfere with the game…several of the victims have declared their intention to feed the tiger no more. They have suffered greatly, and assert openly that they have been “hogged.”

I hear that the next steamer will bring us some more sporting gents, fully prepared to open business at an hour’s notice.

The term ‘sporting gentlemen’ was often used when referring to professional gamblers.