A vintage faro gaming table. A card-based gambling form which has been consigned to history.

A vintage faro gaming table. A card-based gambling form which has been consigned to history.

Just about everyone has watched that scene in a western film.

Four men around a saloon table each holding their cards looking shiftily at one another as they play a high stakes game of poker. All it will take is one man to turn his losing hand into a winning one with a bit of sleight of hand…

…Except in the wild west they wouldn’t have been playing poker.

Although poker is better known today, it was fairly obscure until the late 1850’s and didn’t really catch on until the 1870s. Faro was the premier game; high-rolling gamblers liked the easy odds, and others enjoyed the quick action and the thrill of staking it all on the turn of a single card. One Colorado Gold Rush observer noted that faro was played by everyone ‘from the bonanza kings in their private clubs to the little bootblacks who buck the tiger in a shack on Carbonate Hill.’

Faro was the game of choice – fast, easy to learn and highly addictive. Poker was favoured by early 20th century filmmakers who wanted to create tension in static camera shots and thus the ‘poker face’ was born.

Going back 100 + years Faro was born in the salons of French society where playing cards – sometimes depicted with an Egyptian Pharaoh (Faro) give rise to the name of the game. From the court of Louis XIV to England’s shores, Faro became one of the most popular card games among the aristocracy.

Here’s how to play:

The Layout
The complete spade suit, either pasted to a board or enameled on felt, is placed on a table. Players indicate their bets by placing chips on any card on the layout. (The spade suit is selected arbitrarily-all suits are equivalent; only the ranks of the cards are relevant.)
The Deal
The cards are shuffled by the dealer and cut by any player. After bets have been placed against the dealer (banker), as described below, the dealer turns up the top card of the pack and places it to his left. This card is called “soda” and has no bearing on bets. The dealer then turns up the next card and places it face up on his right. He then turns up a third card and places it on top of soda, to his left. The dealing of these three cards constitutes a turn.
The first card turned up in any turn (except soda) always loses. The second card wins. Before the turn begins, the players may place their bets on cards in the layout. Chips placed on any card are a bet that the card will win unless a copper (penny or similar disc) is put on top of the chips. In this case, the player is betting that the card will lose. Any bet is settled the next time that a card of the indicated rank is turned up. For example: A player puts a chip on the 6♠ in the layout. The dealer turns up two cards, neither of which is a six, so the player’s bet remains on the layout, unsettled. But on the next turn, the first card turned by dealer is the 6♥; this means that the six loses, and the dealer takes the player’s bet. If the player had bet on the six to lose (by coppering his bet), the dealer would have paid him; or if the 6♥ had been the second card in that turn, instead of the first, the player would have won.

Gambling, like many social vices – drinking, drug-taking, adultery – were not only tolerated but pretty much de rigeur amongst the upper classes (not much has changed today when you consider that well-heeled celebrities, movie and music stars are today’s aristocrats – that will be a feature for another time…).

Gaming in the 18th century was a way of advertising a healthy surplus of disposable income. Among aristocrats, gaming was an indication of status, rank, wealth and class. It was also a family affair. The upper echelons of French society considered games a highly instructive learning tool for the little ones. Children honed their math skills by counting cards, reading the dice, and tallying the score.

The gambling vice ended up being quite a problem and agitation in the more sober minded emerging middle classes agitated for vice legislation and ended up catching some of England’s leading lights at the end of the century – the notorious Faro Ladies. The good girl-bad girl conflict of the gambling woman was delightfully exploited by doyen of Regency romance, Georgette Heyer in Faro’s Daughter.

 The notoriety of these “Faro ladies” reached a peak in 1796 when, in a widely publicized statement, the Chief Justice, Lord Kenyon, threatened them with the pillory. In early 1797 they were eventually brought before a magistrate and fined for illegal gambling. The subject of numerous caricatures, novels, and suppressed plays, as well as extensive comment in newspapers and journals, the Faro ladies have been neglected by orthodox political history and by a feminist history that has (understandably) been more preoccupied with radical women such as Mary Wollstonecraft.

In Moonstone Conspiracy (anti-?) heroine Lady Abigail Houghall is an accomplished gambler – and cheat.

Faro ladies, unkindly satirised in the late 18th century.

Faro ladies, unkindly satirised in the late 18th century.

Here’s an excerpt:

Abigail placed a shiny copper penny on the six of spades card embroidered onto the rich green baize. She held her breath and trusted her luck would hold.

Don’t let it be a six, don’t let it be a six. The silent instruction became a prayer she repeated over and over.

The banker, Admiral Cecil Worthington, flipped over the card.

The Jack of Diamonds.

She silently released the air in her lungs as Sir Reginald de Witt, seated to her left, let out a groan and watched his stake slide towards the Admiral.

The squat-bodied fop, aged in his sixties, pulled himself up from the table, the jeweled rings on every finger glittering in the light of the overhead chandelier.

“Won’t you play just one more game, Sir Reginald?” Abigail purred.

The man gave his blonde gaming companion a slight lascivious smile, but shook his head.

“I can’t think of anything I would rather do than spend more time basking in your beauty, but I’m afraid my purse couldn’t take the strain, my dear.”