Friday, June 12, 2015

Whooping It Up: Gambling in the Old West

When a new town popped up in the Old West, recreation was among the first of the services offered. And that recreation typically involved the "Three W's" -- whiskey, whoring and wagering. We've already dealt with the first two subjects, so let's talk about some of the many ways a cowboy could be parted from his money in a gambling hall.


(supposedly so-called because of the Egyptian pharaoh printed on the backs of the cards)

This is a very old game, invented in France and made popular in England, whence it moved to America. During the Civil War era, there were over 150 gambling houses in Washington, D.C., and faro was the principal game in each house.

A game was called a faro bank. It was played with an entire deck of playing cards. Any number of people could play. One player, usually the one with the largest stake, was the banker and dealt the cards with a mechanical dealing box, or shoe. The other players, or punters, bet on the outcome of a two-card draw. They purchased chips or checks from the banker or the house, with which they placed their bets. These checks were placed onto cards either glued down or drawn onto a faro board. Players could place multiple bets at one time, or could bet more than one card by placing their chip between two cards.

Once the top card in the deck, called the soda, was discarded, the banker proceeded to draw two cards at a time. The first card drawn, called the banker's card, was the losing card: any bets placed on that denomination lost the bet. The player's card was the winning card, and any bets on that denomination won. Players could also bet high card, in which case they won if the player's card was higher than the banker's card.

An abacus-like device called a casekeep was used to keep track of which cards had been played. This had one spindle for each denomination of card, with four counters per spindle. Counters were moved each time a card of that denomination was played (either winning or losing).  The operator of this device was known as the casekeeper, or in the Old West, the coffin driver.

When only three cards remained in the shoe, the players could call the turn, which was a special type of bet that occurred at the end of each round. Players bet on the exact order of the three cards -- the banker's, player's and the final card, called the Hock. The player's odds were five to one, while a successful bet paid off at four to one (or one to one if two of the cards are the same, called a cat-hop). If all three of the final cards are the same, there is no final bet.

A player could reverse the intent of his bet by placing a hexagonal token called a copper on top of it. Some histories say that a penny was used for this purpose. This was called coppering the bet, and reversed the meaning of the win/loss piles for that particular bet. In other words, the bet ordinarily guessed which card would win. Coppering the bet meant that you were betting on which card would lose.

The banker had certain advantages in the game. If he drew a pair, he won half the stakes bet on that card. In a fair game, this provided the only house edge. However, in practice, many dealers cheated in order to give themselves more of an advantage, and to counter the losses from cheating players.

Stacked Deck: a deck consisting of many paired cards, allowing the banker to claim half the bets on those cards.

Rigged Deck: a deck containing textured cards that allowed the banker to create paired cards while giving the illusion of shuffling the deck.

Rigged, or Gaffed, Shoe: these boxes might contain a small mirror or prism that allowed the banker to see the next card. If it was heavily bet, the banker could draw two cards at once, thus hiding the card that would have paid out. In this case, the coffin driver would need to be in on the game so that he would "accidentally" fail to log the extra card.

Sleight of Hand: In a risky move, the banker could surreptitiously slide a bet off the winning card on the board. At a hectic table, he might get away with this. The player could also get in on this action, moving their bets to the winning spot after the card had been drawn.

Thread or Wire: the player could attach a single thread or horse hair to the bottom check of his bet, allowing him to slide the entire stack to a new location on the board. In a variation of this, the thread might be attached to the copper instead. If the losing card matched the player's bet, the copper would reverse that and make it a winner instead; however, if the card came up in the winning spot, that player could quickly snatch the copper off the stack and win the bet.

 J.E.S. Hays



  1. Much more than I knew before. Thanks.

  2. Glad you liked it Frank - and glad you're feeling better!

  3. Very interesting. Good to read about the mechanics of the game.

  4. I still don't get it, but hey, great photos!!

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