Monday, May 30, 2011
Faro was the name of the game and it made John Morrissey a lot of money, enough — along with his winnings from boxing — to help bankroll the biggest gambling house and horse racing operation in the East: Saratoga Springs, New York.
Faro was a card game of pure chance that originated in France in the late-17th century when it was known as Pharaon, which when it found its way to England not long after was shortened to Pharo. In the United States it was known as Faro or Farobank and was the most popular card game of the 19th century. The game's popularity was due to its simple rules and fairly good odds of winning as compared with other games such as Black Jack.
The odds were so good that nearly every game was rigged, and yet the suckers kept on coming back for another go at "bucking the tiger."
The game consisted of a playing board and a faro box, a mechanical device from which playing cards were dealt.
The board, about three feet long by 1 1/2 feet wide and covered in green felt, had the 13 cards of a single suit — often spades — painted on it.
Players, known as punters, would choose which card to lay their money on and place chips on the painted version in hopes that the corresponding card (it could be of a different suit) would come up.
The dealer, called the banker, would place a deck of cards face-up inside the faro box (which had a cutaway that revealed the top card) and pull three cards. The first was called the Soda, which was discarded to the left of the faro box. The second was known as the loser and any money placed on that card went to the banker, with one exception.
Players could choose to bet on what they believed would be the losing card by "coppering," that is placing a copper washer, purchased, as were the regular chips, from the banker, on the appropriate space. The banker and player would then split the pot.
The third card was the the winner. Anyone lucky enough to have placed their chips on that card would double their money.
If two of the same cards were both winner and loser in a particular hand, called a "split"— say two aces, queens, etc. — the banker would get half the chips staked on them.
This was the dealer's advantage, but was apparently not one lucrative enough to keep the house from using a variety of techniques to cheat players.
There were several ways of cheating, two main ways of which involved the faro box.
The first involved convincing a mark to be the banker, with the players in on the scam. A rigged faro box would be used that produced cards with a distinctive "tell," using either sanded or slightly misshapen cards, that clued the players in as to which card would win for them and which for the bank.
The methods employed by bankers to cheat the players also often involved gaffed boxes that allowed the dealer to spit out whatever card they chose. This was apparently a very expensive device to buy.
The practice of using gaffed boxes was so widespread there were mail-order companies that specialized in them. But not all dealers used crooked boxes, many employed the old-fashioned method of card manipulation, which, while requiring some skill, didn't require the outlay of cash for a gaffed box.
The trick was to ensure that the banker came up with as many splits as possible, since they allowed the banker to keep half the winnings. A specific way of shuffling that helped guarantee splits was known as "the faro dealer's shuffle." For more information as to specifics go to the Sharps and Flats website.
In 1850, 19-year-old John Morrissey sailed for California with the vague intention of prospecting for gold, but instead he and his friend Daniel Cunningham set up a faro bank and let the gold come to them without nary a pick in the dirt. After returning to New York, he continued in the gambling business and eventually owned a number of high-class dens throughout the city, before turning his sights to creating a gambling mecca in Saratoga.
While faro remained popular for more than a century it had died out with the shuttering of the last faro bank in Nevada in 1985.