Faro is a card game played with a standard 52 card deck. No jokers or other wild cards are used.
This game is also known as Pharo, Pharao and Farobank. It originated in France in the late 17th century as a replacement for the banned card game Basset. Eventually, the French authorities banned Faro (Pharao) as well, but the game had already begun to spread to other parts of Europe.
In casinos that stick to tradition, Faro is played at an oval table covered in green baize. A special board is placed on the table, and a suit of cards (usually spades) is placed face up on the board. Players then put their wagers on top of these cards.
We need one 52 card deck + playing markers (chips) to play Faro. When playing Faro, the markers are called checks.
We also need one or more hexagonal copper tokens (known as coppers). If you don’t have any, you an use a copper coins or similar instead.
One person will be selected to handle the bank and sell checks to the players. This person is called banker. (In a casino, this position will be held by a professional dealer and it’s not up to the players to select a banker.)
The players are reffered to as punters.
The first card in the shuffled deck is called soda, and it will be removed and discarded before the dealing starts. The last card in the deck is called hock.
As mentioned above, a suit of cards (typically the suit of spades) will be placed in numerical order on the board at the start of the game. This is the area where the punters place their bets. If you want to bet on the king, you place your checks on the king, and so on.
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Notably, you are also allowed to split a bet between two adjacent cards by placing your checks halfway on each, e.g. on both the queen and king simultaneously. (If you’ve played roulette, you’re probably familiar with this method.)
This is an alternative bet in Faro. With a bet on High Card, you will get paid if the Player’s Card is higher ranking than the Banker’s Card.
If you want to bet on High Card, place your checks at the top of the layout.
The 52 card deck is shuffled before being placed in a dealing box (“the shoe”). The firs card (the soda) is removed from the deck and placed aside; a common practise for many different card games.
The dealer will now take the new top card from the deck and place it on the right side of the dealing box area, face up. This is the Banker’s Card. The second card form the deck is placed face up on the left side of the dealing box area. This is the Player’s Card.
If you bet on the same denomination as the Banker’s Card, you lose your wager. Example: You placed your checks on the seven of spades. The Banker’s Card is the seven of diamonds. You lose your money to the bank.
If you bet on the same denomination as the Player’s Card, you get paid your wager. Example: You placed your checks on the four of spades. The Banker’s Card is the four of hearts. You get paid 1:1 on your wager. One a €40 wager, this means that you get paid €40 and now have €80.
If you bet on High Card, you get paid if the Player’s Card is higher than he Banker’s Card. Example: The Banker’s Card is seven, the Player’s Card is four —> you lose your wager.
Sometimes, the Banker’s Card and the Player’s Card will be of the same rank. Example: One card is the five of clubs and the other card is the five of hearts.
When this happens, you lose 50% of any money that you had wagered on that denomination. Example: You had bet €20 on five. The bank takes €10 and let your keep €10.
This is how the bank gets a statistical advantage over the players.
The dealer will call the turn when there is only three cards left in the deck.
When this happens, the punters are allowed to make a special bet. The goal is to accurately predict the exact order of the three remaining cards.
The dealer will then draw the Banker’s Card, the Player’s Card and the Hock and place all three face up on the table.
If all three remaining cards are of the same value, there is no point in trying to predict their order, so the special bet is not done. This is extremely rare in Faro.
(In informal settings, players sometimes agree to bet on the order of the suits instead.)
A punter can reverse the intent of a wager by putting the copper item on it. This act reverses the meaning of the win/loss piles for the wager.
In 1691, a popular card game called Basset was banned in France. In an effort to circumvent the law, a new game was developed in the southwestern part of the country: Pharaoh. Eventually, the authorities caught on, and Pharaoh was banned as well. This wasn’t enough to erradicate the game though, and it even spread outside France. Exactly how this happened remains unclear, but we do know that it was a fairly well-known game in 18th century England, where it was known as Pharo. One famous 18th century Pharo player was the Venetian author Giacomo Casanova.
Pharo even made it to Russia and into some of the most famous examples of Russian litterature. In Leo Tolstoy’s novel “War and Peace”, one of the characters loses 43,000 rubles playing Faro. Faro is also essential to the plot in Alexander Pushkin’s short story “The Queen of Spades”, which means that it is also present in the Tchaikovsky opera based on Pushkin’s work. Another example of an opera where Pharo is played is Puccini’s “La Fanculla del West”.
Eventually, Pharao / Pharo spread to North America with immigrants from Europe, and it’s known to have been a popular game in North American saloons and gambling halls from at least the 1820s. In this part of the world, the name was normally spelled Faro. A record from the civil war era shows that at that point, there were over 150 establishments in the capital where Faro was played.
Examples of famous 19th-century Faro players in North America are Soapy Smith II, Canada Bill, Whyatt Earp, and Doc Holliday. Whyatt Earp and John “Doc” Holliday both lived in the Old West and played Faro in Tombstone, a little town in Arizona Territory. For a while, Doc Holliday actually made a living dealing Faro at the Bird Cage Theater there.
Soapy Smith II – who was actually named Jefferson Randholph – was a club owner in Denver, Colorado. He dealt Faro in his club, and got himself an advantage over the players by cheating. William “Canada Bill” Jones was a cheater too, carrying out various scams – including Faro cheating.