Faro: Forgotten Game of the Old West

Victoria Bylin BlueI’m completely snowed under with revisions for The Outlaw’s Return.  The book is for Love Inspired Historicals, and it’s scheduled for a February 2011 release date.  Some of you might remember last August when I posted about discovering my next hero while listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Outlaw Pete on a cross-country flight.  That hero turned into the feared and awesome J.T. Quinn, a gunfighter determined to win back the only woman he ever really loved.

There’s a problem, though.  More than one actually . . . J.T. has some bad habits.  One ofcards those vices is Faro.  Most people think of Old West gamblers sitting around a poker table, but poker was a rarity until the late 1870s. Faro was the game of choice, particularly during the Gold Rush period. Just about every saloon in every Old West town had at least one Faro table. 

Faro became popular in the Old West because it’s fast, uses a single deck and is easy to learn. It also has better odds than most games of chance, with the odds of winning being close to even.  Of course, that doesn’t account for cheating. I won’t go into the rules–they make for interesting gambling but dull reading–but the betting got steeper as the game progressed. The last bet of the game was the most exciting, with players getting rowdy as they stood around the table. 

Faro started to fade in the late 19th century. A couple of factors contributed to its Faro gunsdemise.  Ironically, the thing that made it popular–nearly even odds–also led to its downfall. Saloons didn’t make as much money on Faro as they did on other forms of gambling. To compensate for the lack of profit, the bankers (the house dealers) were known to cheat by using doctored-up banker’s boxes.  Not all players were honest, either. Sleight of hand was a common practice.  When Hoyle’s Rules for Card Playing was published, it began its Faro section with a disclaimer that an honest Faro game couldn’t be found in America. By 1900 many other gambling games were offered, and Faro faded into history.

Faro has always been a bit disreputable.  Its origins go back to 17th century France, and it  was called Faro, Pharaoh or Farobank. The name originated during the time of  Louis XIV when a deck of cards included a card depicting an Egyptian Pharaoh. The game was also referred to as “Bucking the Tiger,” and back alleys and streets populated with Faro parlors were sometimes known as Tiger Towns.

I don’t remember if the movie Tombstone uses the phrase “bucking the tiger,” but it’s a got a Faro scene with Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp. Doc Holliday played Faro, as well. There are also Faro scenes in Kevin Costner’s version of Wyatt Earp.  Showing Faro instead of poker is more accurate, but the western movies of the 1940s largely ignored the game because viewers were more familiar with poker.  The first movie to correct that false image was The Shootist (1976) with John Wayne.

Faro Table cards

When I started the research for my gambling outlaw, I thought poker was the way to go. I’d never heard of Faro, and I had no idea how popular it had been. As things turned out, Faro suits him perfectly. It’s a game of chance, the stakes can be high and he’d have no trouble finding a Faro table in his travels. My hero doesn’t cheat at cards, but he knows men who do, and one of them is going after the heroine.  Let the romance begin!

How about you?  Do you have a favorite card game?  I’m a Skip-Bo fan, but I like just about all card games. Canasta is a favorite, too!

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Victoria Bylin is under contract with Bethany House Publishers for two inspirational contemporary romances.Prior to jumping to the present day, she wrote westerns for Harlequin Historical and Love Inspired Historical. Her books have finaled in the ACFW Carol Awards, the Rita Awards and RT Magazine’s Reviewers’ Choice Awards. She and her husband live in Lexington, Kentucky and have two grown sons. You can learn more about Vicki at www.victoriabylin.com

29 thoughts on “Faro: Forgotten Game of the Old West”

  1. Vicki, what a terrific blog. I’ve heard of Faro but had no idea it was the game of choice for so long! Thanks!

    I’m not much of a card player, but my hubby and I do play cribbage once in a while. I always forget how until we start playing again. Oh, I do like Spider solitaire on the computer but realize I haven’t played it in a long time…too many other things to do when I’m in front of the screen and keyboard LOL.

    oxoxox Loved the post.

  2. My favorite card game is solitaire – used to know several ways to play it but now the computer has taken over my life – even that card game LOL!

    Hubby and I used to play rummy or get family/friends together and play a little booray and an occasional round of poker but never heard of the game Faro – learn something new every day!

    Good luck with your edits ~ I’m in the midst of those too for my short story, The Gift, recently accepted by White Rose Publishing.

    Be blessed ALL.
    PamT

  3. Hi Tanya! Spider solitaire is totally addictive to me. I like really hard games, so I play with four decks. It’s one of those things that’s on the “after 8 p.m.” list, though I sneak a game or two if I’ve had a good writing day . .. somtimes if I haven’t!

    I was going to have my hero playing poker until I started researching. Faro was much more common and rowdier, too! The rowdiness fits him 🙂

  4. Hi Pam, Don’t worry about the duplicate omments. WordPress has a strange way about it. I’ll go ahead and delete 2 of 3.

    The computer sure has changed things… When I played spider solitaire with two decks of cards and I had to shuffle and deal, I’d finish a game even if it was a hands-down loser. Now I hit redeal if I get too many Kings on top.

    Good luck with your edits for “The Gift.” I like the title. It’s simple and intriguing. I immediately want to know what “the gift” is!

  5. Interesting post, Vicki. For some reason I always associated Faro with those card rooms at regency balls, not the Old West.

    We play lots of card games around our house, although not as much as we used to. Spades, hearts, cribbage, bridge. The kids like Uno, war, Phase-10, and crazy-8s. That’s what happens when you have a family of analytical thinkers.

    My husband will, on a rare occasion, play poker with some of his friends (very low stakes, of course – can’t afford much else), and he played in a Texas Hold ’em tournament when he visited Las Vegas last year. Didn’t win any money but made it to the second to last round and was proud of the accomplishment.

  6. Hi Karen, You mentioned having “a family of analytical thinkers.” Now I know why I find card games so appealing. I analyze everything 🙂 I learned bridge but didn’t keep it up. I wish I had. Canasta is probably the game my family played the most. My grandmother loved it!

  7. Hi Victoria, we love cards in our family. My husband and I play bridge nearly every Sunday with my parents. We plso play spades, Uno, 2000, and cribbage.

    When I was growing up, my family played Auction 45’s. It’s a crazy bidding game where the 5 of trumps is the high card, followed by the jack, then the ace of hearts, then the ace of trumps. The numbered cards rank from low to high in red suits and from high to low in black suits. I don’t know if it’s played anywhere except in Maritime Canada. Great fun.

  8. I’ve heard the WORD Faro but I don’t know a thing about it.
    I’ve had several passing references to poker in my books. I’m going to change that now and refer to Faro if a card game comes up again.

    As for favorite card games, our family plays Up and Down the River…when we play at all. It’s a game where more people can play or less, really easily. And with our big family it’s nice to have that flexibility.

  9. Hi Jennie, Auction 45’s sounds like fun. I’ve never heard of it. Don’t you wonder how games like that get started? Someone had to be very creative!

    Howdy, Mary! I had all sorts of visions of my hero at a poker table, all based on those old western movies. Poker became more popular later in the 19th century, but Faro ruled. After reading the rules, I can see why. It’s a little more complicated than “War,” the world’s easiest kid’s game, but not much.

  10. Great post Victoria, I have never heard of Faro. I don’t play many card games any more. When I was growing up we played a lot of Rook and Rummy, also a little poker, but its been so long since I played any of these games I don’t remember how!

  11. Terrific post. I didn’t know the history of faro, either, and it’s information I’ll certainly use in the future.

  12. Hi Quilt Lady! Rook and Rummy are both great games. I’m wondering, with everyone having computers and enjoying computer games, if playing cards are destined to be antiques!

    Hello Pat! The Faro info surprised me, too. I first noticed it in the movie “Tombstone.” Do you remember the scene where Kurt Russell / Wyatt is dealing? He’s got a gun mounted under the table to ward off bad guys. Love that movie!

  13. Fascinating post, Vicki! I’d never heard of Faro either, but I love how you made it come alive here on the blog.

    Have fun with those revisions, congratulations on the February 2011 release and thanks for posting such an interesting blog even though you’re very busy. 🙂

  14. Hi Kay! Thanks for the well wishes on the revisions! As for informative blogs, yours *always* give me something new to think about. Hope the book tour is sailing along!

  15. Your story sounds wonderful, Vicki! I’ve used faro in a couple of books but have never known much about how it was played. Thanks for a very informative post.
    As for me, aside from playing “Go Fish” as a kid, I’ve never been much of a card player. Chalk it up to a total lack of competitive skills.
    Good luck with your revisions and your new book. Can’t wait to see the cover.

  16. Hi Elizabeth! My next two books both have “hero” titles, “Wyoming Lawman,” October 2010, and “The Outlaw’s Return,” February 2011. I’m hoping for covers that will knock my socks off 🙂

  17. Vicki, I researched this game for a book not long ago. Faro sounds interesting, a game I might have to try and learn. Thanks for the reminder!

  18. Vicki,

    Faro is something I am going to have to learn to play. You always find the most amazing things to blog about.

    ***By the way I am moving Monday, May 3rd to AZ so I will not be on the computer probably for several weeks. Just wanted to let the fillies know***

    Walk in harmony,
    Melinda

  19. Hi Jo! It’s supposedly pretty easy to learn, but reading the instructions gave me a headache 🙂 That’s why they aren’t in the blog. My hero never actually sits down at a Faro table–he’s given up gambling–otherwise I’d have had to learn a lot more.

    Hello Melinda, Good luck with your move! Here’s hoping you love your new home and that the travel is smooth all the way.

  20. hmmm, very interesting!
    maybe i could have played faro if it was easy and had good odds of winning, lol
    i’m not much of a gambler
    and not much of a card player..i don’t have the attention span for it…and other than drinking games in my younger days…and games from my childhood–“spoons” and “peanuts” i lack card playing skills

  21. Hi Tabitha, You might have liked Faro. The odds were the best of all the gambling games, and it moves fast. Crowds formed around tables and things got pretty exciting. Thanks for visiting P&P today!

  22. Hi Estella, I never learned how to play pinochle. I just know that the deck is different, with all high cards. I once bought a pinochle deck by mistake! It’s not so good for solitaire 🙂

  23. Interesting post. Like most people, I thought poker was the game of the West. I had heard of Faro, but not in relation to the old West.

    We played Canasta all the time as kids. Both sets of grandparents would come over and play it with my parents. My grandfathers were a bit cut throat, so the kids didn’t play with them. They also played Pinochle, but I never learned to. We haven’t played Canasta in such a long time. No one to play with.

    There is a “board game” called Tripoly. You start with Hearts, use the same cards for hearts, and then move on to Michigan Rummy. We would bet with pennies. Our kids loved it. They caught on to the poker part better than I ever did. I still need a cheat sheet to figure out the hands and who wins.

  24. I love Shanghai Rummy. It’s like gin rummy but with 7 rounds where certain combinations of cards are the goal. This was a fascinating topic, Vicki.

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