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!

Cheryl St.John’s Secret Mob Affiliation Revealed

bejeweled1I finished a book yesterday! It’s a June Harlequin Historical for next year, and it’s tentatively titled Her Make-Believe Husband. I almost blogged about breweries in the 1800s, part of the research for my book, but then I decided to share how I celebrated last night. I bought five beachfront properties, a couple of mega casinos, fifty chain guns, a couple of getaway cruisers, and then I wiretapped the cops and robbed a couple of five-star hotels, putting them out of business. What a night.


scrabble-facebookI’m talking about a game, of course. Remember your first computer? If you can really stretch way back, you might remember when Apple came up with a few games on floppy disks and they were revolutionary! Schools even used Oregon Trail for the elementary kids.


And your first real computer, remember how it came with solitaire and minesweeper? Land o‘mercy, who could have anticipated the games that were to follow, and even online games?


I used to play hearts. And an occasional game of spider solitaire. And one of my computers came with a really addicting game where you lined up matching rocks to make them disappear – sort of like Bejeweled, but I liked it better. I was never able to find that game again. I do play Bejeweled occasionally.


spider-solitaireI’m not a big game player, but I do go through periods where I play something to unstress, and it’s most often late at night. I didn’t realize until I asked around, but Facebook has a lot of game applications, like Poker, Risk and others. I have a friend who is addicted to Fashion Solitaire. Most of the kids I know play some type of online game, like Tunetowns, Millsbury, and of course the online pets.


I was never really HOOKED until my daughter talked me into trying a My Space application called Mafia Wars. Oh, my goodness. It didn’t take me long to climb the ranks in the mob. Once you join, you need members for your mafia, and there are all kinds of people out there whacking each other with tommy guns and crow bars and robbing each other’s convenience stores who are more than willing to join your mafia.


world_of_warcraftYou start out as a street thug and earn your way up by doing jobs and fighting other gangs. You buy property and getaway vehicles and earn loot in heists. I own more bulletproof vests and body armor than I will ever use in a lifetime.  And, of course, you snuff the occasional bad guy. And every once in a while when someone beats the tar out of you, you add him to the hit list. Revenge is sweet.


There are other My Space applications, and my family has tried a lot of them, but this is our favorite. We played Fashion Wars for a while—too girly—and right now we’re also playing Pirates.


mafia-warsDo you have a secret—or not so secret—obsession with a game? Which ones test your skills? Do you play a few hands of solitaire before you go to bed? How about Word games like Scrabble?


If you confess a passion for a game today, I’ll add you to a drawing for an advance copy of my June book, The Preacher’s Wife. Come on, spill it!


Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I have an illegal poker game to run.

Oh, and if you play Mafia Wars, come find me. I’m Bad Bama. 🙂