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BULLEThistory archive
History Archive Photo
Oriental Saloon, Tombstone

© Courtesy Bisbee Mining
& Historical Museum

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Easy Money
Gambling, cheating ... they went hand in hand in the Old West, especially when it came to faro, a card game that occasionally turned deadly.

By Sally Benford

Tombstone It wasn't poker or blackjack. In saloons and gambling halls around Arizona and the Old West, faro was the name of the game for gritty gamblers.

A card game of French origin, faro became extremely popular throughout Europe in the 18th century. It spread to America and migrated west with betting prospectors during the California Gold Rush. High-stakes gamblers in the Arizona Territory favored the game for its easy odds, while novices enjoyed the quick action. Money earned through faro even provided the land for the University of Arizona. It also provided Yavapai County Sheriff William Owen O'Neill with a nickname. The law enforcement officer was known as "Bucky," for his winning ways at "bucking the tiger," as the game was also called.

Another reason for faro's popularity was its simplicity. In other words, it was easy to cheat. Players bet against the house, placing their chips on or near playing cards that rested on top of a green cloth-covered table. Only the face value of the cards, not the suit, counted. As the dealer doled out two cards per turn from a standard deck, the object was for players to predict which cards would appear.

When the game was played honestly, a gambler could make some serious money. The house didn't have much of an edge, so cheating by dealers became commonplace. Sleight of hand, trick decks and modified dealing boxes were just a few of the tactics used by the likes of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson, who frequented Tombstone's faro tables. In fact, cheating at faro was so prevalent that 19th century editions of Hoyle's Rules of Games declared that a single honest faro bank could not be found in the United States.

At Tombstone's Oriental Saloon, an argument over a faro game between Luke Short and Charlie Storms in February 1881 led to a fatal gunfight, with Storms coming out on the short end. Tombstone resident George Parsons witnessed Storms' death and wrote in his journal, "The faro games went right on as though nothing had happened." Chances are, it wasn't the only gunfight that erupted over claims of cheating at faro.

By 1900, the Arizona Territory was still home to nearly 1,000 gaming establishments, but, eventually, public pressure to end the practice won out and faro was outlawed. A March 31, 1907, Prescott Journal-Miner headline read: "The Tiger is Dying!" By midnight, dealers had called their last faro turn.

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