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Chapter 55 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

On Games and Gambling

The passion of gaming is universal amongst men. Every nation indulges in it to a greater or less extent. Every nation, civilised or savage, has its game, from whist and cribbage at Almacks to “chuck-a-luck” and “poke-stick” upon the prairies.

Moral England fancies herself clear of the stain. Her gossiping traveller rarely fails to fling a stone at the foreigner on this head. French, German, Spaniard, and Mexican, are in turn accused of an undue propensity for this vice. Cant—all cant! There is more gambling in moral England than in any country of my knowing. I do not speak of card-playing about the purlieus of Piccadilly. Go to Epsom races on a “Derby day,” and there you may form an idea of the scale upon which English gaming is carried on—for gaming it is in the very lowest sense of the word. Talk of “noble sport,”—of an admiration for that fine animal—the horse. Bah! Noble, indeed! Fancy those seedy scamps, who in thousands and tens of thousands flock upon every race-course,—fancy them and their harlotic companions possessed with the idea of anything fine or noble! Of all who crowd there the horse alone is noble—naught could be more ignoble than his entourage.

No, moral England! You are no pattern for the nations in this respect. You are not free from the stain, as you imagine yourself. You have a larger population of gamblers,—horse-gamblers if you will, than any other people; and, however noble be your game, I make bold to affirm that your gamesters are the seediest, snobbiest, and most revolting of the tribe. There is something indescribably mean in the life and habits of those hungry-looking vultures who hang about the corners of Coventry Street and the Haymarket, out at elbows, out at heels, sneaking from tavern to betting-house, and from betting-house to tavern. There is a meanness, a positive cowardice in the very nature of their game,—their small ventures and timid “hedging” of bets. In comparison, the bold ringer of dice has something almost noble in him. Your apathetic Don, who stakes his gold onzas on a single throw of the ivory—your Mexican monte-player, who risks his doubloons on each turn of the cards,—are, to some extent, dignified by the very boldness of their venture. With them gambling is a passion—its excitement their lure; but Brown, and Smith, and Jones, cannot even plead the passion. Even that would exalt them.

Of all gamblers by profession the “sportsman” of the Mississippi Valley is perhaps the most picturesque. I have already alluded to their elegant style of attire, but, independent of that, there is a dash of the gentleman—a certain chivalresqueness of character which distinguishes them from all others of their calling. During the wilder episodes of my life I have been honoured with the acquaintance of more than one of these gentlemen, and I cannot help bearing a somewhat high testimony in their favour. Several have I met of excellent moral character,—though, perhaps, not quite up to the standard of Exeter Hall. Some I have known of noble and generous hearts—doers of noble actions—who, though outcasts in society, were not outcasts to their own natures; men who would bravely resent the slightest insult that might be put upon them. Of course there were others, as the Chorleys and Hatchers, who would scarce answer to this description of Western “sportsmen”—but I really believe that such are rather the exception than the rule. A word about the “games of America.” The true national game of the United States is the “election.” The local or state elections afford so many opportunities of betting, just as the minor horse-races do in England; while the great quadrennial, the Presidential election, is the “Derby day” of America. The enormous sums that change hands upon such occasions, and the enormous number of them, would be incredible. A statistic of these bets, could such be given, and their amount, would surprise even the most “enlightened citizen” of the States themselves. Foreigners cannot understand the intense excitement which is felt during an election time throughout the United States. It would be difficult to explain it, in a country where men generally know that the fate of the particular candidate has, after all, but a slight influence on their material interests. True, party spirit and the great stake of all—the “spoils” of office—will account for some of the interest taken in the result, but not for all. I am of opinion that the “balance” of the excitement may be set down to the credit of the gaming passion. Nearly every second man you meet has a bet, or rather a “book,” upon the Presidential election!

Election, therefore, is the true national game, indulged in by high, low, rich, and poor.

To bet upon an election, however, is not considered infra dig. It is not professional gambling.

The games for that purpose are of various kinds—in most of which cards are relied upon to furnish the chances. Dice and billiards are also in vogue—billiards to a considerable extent. It is a very mean village in the United States—particularly in the South and West—that does not furnish one or more public billiard-tables; and among Americans may be found some of the most expert (crack) players in the world. The “Creoles” of Louisiana are distinguished at this game.

“Ten-pins” is also a very general game, and every town has its “ten-pin alley.” But “billiards” and “ten-pins” are not true “gambling games.” The first is patronised rather as an elegant amusement, and the latter as an excellent exercise. Cards and dice are the real weapons of the “sportsman,” but particularly the former. Besides the English games of whist and cribbage, and the French games of “vingt-un,” “rouge-et-noir,” etcetera, the American gambler plays “poker,” “euchre,” “seven-up,” and a variety of others. In New Orleans there is a favourite of the Creoles called “craps,” a dice game, and “keno,” and “loto,” and “roulette,” played with balls and a revolving wheel. Farther to the South, among the Spano-Mexicans, you meet the game of “monte,”—a card game, distinct from all the others. Monte is the national game of Mexico.

To all other modes of getting at your money, the South-Western sportsman prefers “faro.” It is a game of Spanish origin, as its name imports; indeed, it differs but little from monte, and was no doubt obtained from the Spaniards of New Orleans. Whether native or exotic to the towns of the Mississippi Valley, in all of them it has become perfectly naturalised; and there is no sportsman of the West who does not understand and practise it.

The game of faro is simple enough. The following are its leading features:—

A green cloth or baize covers the table. Upon this the thirteen cards of a suite are laid out in two rows, with their faces turned up. They are usually attached to the cloth by gum, to prevent them from getting out of place.

A square box, like an overgrown snuff-box, is next produced. It is of the exact size and shape to hold two packs of cards. It is of solid silver. Any other metal would serve as well; but a professed “faro dealer” would scorn to carry a mean implement of his calling. The object of this box is to hold the cards to be dealt, and to assist in dealing them. I cannot explain the internal mechanism of this mysterious box; but I can say that it is without a lid, open at one edge—where the cards are pressed in—and contains an interior spring, which, touched by the finger of the dealer, pushes out the cards one by one as they lie in the pack. This contrivance is not at all essential to the game, which may be played without the box. Its object is to insure a fair deal, as no card can be recognised by any mark on its back, since up to the moment of drawing they are all invisible within the box. A stylish “faro box” is the ambition of every “faro dealer”—the specific title of all “sportsmen” whose game is faro.

Two packs of cards, well shuffled, are first put into the box; and the dealer, resting the left hand upon it, and holding the right in readiness, with the thumb extended, pauses a moment until some bets are made. The “dealer” is in reality your antagonist in the game; he is the “banker” who pays all your gains, and pockets all your losses. As many may bet as can sit or stand around the table; but all are betting against the dealer himself. Of course, in this case, the faro dealer must be something of a proprietor to play the game at all; and the “faro bank” has usually a capital of several thousands of dollars—often hundreds of thousands to back it! Not unfrequently, after an unlucky run, the bank gets “broke;” and the proprietor of it may be years before he can establish another. An assistant or “croupier” usually sits beside the dealer. His business is to exchange the “cheques” for money, to pay the bets lost, and gather in those which the bank has won.

The cheques used in the game are pieces of ivory of circular form, of the diameter of dollars: they are white, red, or blue, with the value engraved upon them, and they are used as being more convenient than the money itself. When any one wishes to leave off playing, he can demand from the bank to the amount specified on the cheques he may then hold.

The simplest method of betting “against faro” is by placing the money on the face of any particular one of the cards that lie on the table. You may choose which you will of the thirteen. Say you have selected the ace, and placed your money upon the face of that card. The dealer then commences, and “draws” the cards out of the box one by one. After drawing each two he makes a pause. Until two aces follow each other, with no other card between, there is no decision. When two aces come together the bet is declared. If both appear in the drawing of the two cards, then the dealer takes your money; if only one is pulled out, and the other follows in the next drawing, you have won. You may then renew your bet upon the ace—double it if you will, or remove it to any other card—and these changes you may make at any period of the deal—provided it is not done after the first of the two cards has been drawn.

Of course the game goes on, whether you play or not. The table is surrounded by betters; some on one card, some on another; some by “paralee,” on two or more cards at a time; so that there is a constant “falling due” of bets, a constant rattling of cheques and chinking of dollars.

It is all a game of chance. “Skill” has naught to do with the game of faro; and you might suppose, as many do, that the chances are exactly equal for the dealer and his opponents. Such, however, is not the case; a peculiar arrangement of the cards produces a percentage in favour of the former, else there would be no faro bank; and although a rare run of ill-fortune may go against the dealer for a time, if he can only hold out long enough, he is “bound to beat you” in the end.

A similar percentage will be against you in all games of chance—“faro,” “monte,” or “craps,” wherever you bet against a “banker.” Of course the banker will not deny this, but answers you, that that small percentage is to “pay for the game.” It usually does, and well.

Such is faro—the game at which I had resolved to empty my purse, or win the price of my betrothed.

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