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30 April 2016
By John Marchel
Faro, pharaoh, pharaon or pharo were all the names of the late 17th-century French gambling card game known today as simply faro. It is descended from the card game of basset, and belongs to the monte bank family of games due to the use of a banker and several players.
After being introduced by French immigrants in New Orleans, it became extremely popular in the U.S. Later, Faro was played in every saloon hall in the Old West from 1825 to 1915. By the late 1800s it was considered to be the most popular form of gambling in the country. However, it is no longer played in casinos or card rooms anywhere in the country today.
The game is one of the simplest card games to learn and play. The “house” puts up the money to cover the bets and players bet against the house. The player places a bet on a card and two cards are drawn. If the player’s card is drawn first, he loses, and if his card is drawn second, he wins. However, if neither card is drawn it is a push; no win and no loss. If a pair is drawn (the first and second card) the house takes half the bet on the paired card, and is said to be the bank’s maximum percentage gain.
The main reason why this popular card game vanished from casinos lies in the fact that the game offered an extremely small advantage for the house. The house edge was so small that it was virtually insignificant. To help the house overcome their low win-rate, things had to change.
Extra “skills” were needed to improve the small advantage for the house. Dealers began to adjust the way cards were placed in the dealing box; lots of pairs seemed to appear. In time, even companies that produced legitimate gambling devices began to make dealing boxes with a special button that could be pressed to release two cards instead of one. That cheating device greatly increased the odds in favor of the house.
Due to the natural speed of the game, slight of hand in moving bets around the layout became common by dealers which also helped the house. In the heyday of faro, a first-class dealer was called a “mechanic” or an “artist” and paid from $100.00 to $200.00 a week plus a percentage of the profits.
Cheating at faro became so prevalent that 19th century editors of Hoyle’s Rules of Games book began their faro section with a disclaimer, warning readers that an honest faro bank could not be found in the U.S. As time went on other games, like poker, 21 and roulette, became more popular and profitable for both the house and player.
The last known faro casino bank game was played at the Ramada Hotel and Casino in Reno, Nevada, in 1985.
BET YOU DIDN'T KNOW
• It's been documented that Casanova’s favored card game was faro. He mentions the game several times in his autobiography.
• The earliest references to a game named pharaoh were found in a document in southwestern France during the reign of Louis XIV in the late 1690s.
• In the 1830’s Elijah Skaggs, a note gambler, who had been barred from faro games in the East and South, trained teams on how to cheat at faro and sent them all around the U.S.
• At Brook’s, an eighteenth-century London gambling club, the pharaoh table had a large semicircular section cut out of one of its sides in order to accommodate the enormous stomach of the U.K.’s first Foreign Secretary, Charles James Fox.
• On March 1, 1907, The Prescott, Arizona Journal-Miner newspaper ran a headline reading “The Tiger is Dying.” At midnight the faro card game was outlawed in the Arizona Territory.
• When it came to faro, sometimes there was an additional “lookout” involved. That individual, who was normally armed with a pistol, was assigned the duty of restraining any player who might became unhappy with the action and became violent.
• There is an old faro table in the Delta Saloon on South C St. in Virginia City, Nevada called the Suicide Table. It gained that name after three previous owners were reported to have committed suicide because of heavy losses over the table.
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