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How'd you like a game where the house counts the cards for you?

25 July 2011

The early 20th Century Harvard social philosopher, Georgio Santayana, is famously quoted for saying, “Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.” He did, in fact, write this in 1906 (in “The Life of Reason”). But he was paraphrasing the Irish political philosopher, Edmund Burke, who noted pretty much the same thing a century earlier. Santayana is less-well recognized for also having observed, “History is a pack of lies about things that never happened told by people who weren't there.” This wasn’t entirely original, either; Napoleon, who like Burke predated him by about 100 years, reportedly stated “History is a set of lies agreed upon.”

All of which, astute solid citizens will have surely guessed, leads to thoughts of faro. This card game originated in France as “pharaoh” during the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715). Historically incorrect movies aside, it – not poker – was the primary gamble in old west saloons and Civil War troop encampments, where it was often referred to as “bucking the tiger.” Faro was popular because it was fast and imposed a low edge on players. The banker was either the “house” or a free-lancer who rented a table or layout (a “snap”) from the joint for a percent of the take.

A snap depicts the 13 ranks of a suit in a standard deck of cards. The arrangement runs up from ace through six in one column and down from eight through king in a second, with a seven by itself on top. The traditional suit illustrated on the layout is spades. In early versions of the game, the graphic on one rank on the snap and in the deck depicted a pharaoh and on another a tiger.

The banker shuffles a 52-card deck, which was at one time dealt from the hand and later from a face-up open shoe. The first card off the top, dubbed the “soda,” is burned. Players then bet by placing chips on one or more of the spots on the snap. The action involves a series of coups or “turns,” in each of which two cards are exposed. Bets on the rank of the card exposed first lose and on the second win even-money, although players can reverse the order of the cards on which they win or lose by placing tokens (pennies were commonly employed, giving rise to the term, “coppering”) on top of their chips. Bets on ranks other than the two drawn get no action and may be taken down between turns. If the draw is a pair, termed a “split,” bets on that rank lose half. Turns proceed until only one card (the “hock”) remains. The deck is then reshuffled.

Card counting is not only allowed, the house does it for the players. Tables are equipped with “case keepers,” sometimes known as“cue boxes.” These abacus-like gizmos have strips down the middle with the 13 ranks marked on them in two columns, mimicking the table layout. Wires extend from each rank on the center strip to the frame of the box; four beads are mounted on each wire. Initially, the beads are all pushed toward the center, against the strip. When a card is used, a croupier moves the bead at that rank toward the outer edge of the device. Participants can determine how many cards of each rank are still in the deck by looking at the case keeper.

The count, as shown on the case keeper allows for a special bet – “calling the turn” – when only three cards remain. It not only indicates when this condition holds, but what ranks are available. The bet is on the order in which the cards will appear. If the three ranks differ, six permutations are possible so the bet is a 5-to-1 shot; it pays 4-to-1 and gives the banker a huge 16.7 percent edge. If the three cards include a pair, the bet is referred to as a “cat-hop.” Three permutations are possible – a 2-to-1 proposition; the bet pays 1-to-1 and gives the banker a whopping 33.3 percent edge. Other wagers are sometimes booked, including whether either card in a turn will be odd or even and which of the two will be higher. Players can also bet on combinations of ranks.

The probabilities associated with winning and losing on the two cards are equal. Edge in the main game arises entirely from the half bets lost on splits. Further, edge changes as cards are withdrawn. If only one card in any rank is left, a split is out of the question so a bet on that rank gives the house no edge. With all four of a rank still to be drawn, edge on that rank goes from 0.24 percent with a total of 51 cards remaining to 50 percent with four cards left – a split being certain in the latter instance. Likewise, edge on a rank with three yet to be drawn goes from 0.12 percent with 51 cards to be drawn to 50 percent with three cards left. With two of a rank not previously drawn, edge is from 0.04 percent with 49 cards left to 16.7 percent with three cards left. Players can accordingly minimize expectation by not calling the turn, betting on depopulated ranks, and wagering the most when the deck is the largest..

Low-edge play, aided by the count shown to all on the case keeper, caused the demise of faro. Income from edge was so low that cheating by bankers was rampant in unregulated environments and gave the game a bad reputation. It is now a disincentive for legitimate modern casinos to revive it. Circumstances which induced the indefatigable inkster, Sumner A Ingmark, to note:

If an enterprise can’t earn a profit,
Honest business people ought stay off it.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.