Variant: Falling out of Fashion
A few weeks back, my wife and I went to Knott’s Berry Farm. In addition to the roller-coasters (which we both enjoy), we also took some time to walk around the old timey museums. On walking through one, I found the above : an old fashioned Faro board. I was only vaguely familiar with Faro, so I was fascinated by the description and researched it a little more (I looked it up on Wikipedia).
Faro was extremely popular in the U.S. for most of the nineteenth century. It was a gambling game, like Poker, but was said to have the best odds for the player of any game. The house advantage was remarkably small. The board shows a card of each denomination. Players can bet on which card they think will come up. Faro uses a single deck of cards and, after betting, the first card is “burned” or discarded. The second card is the dealer’s card and the third card is the player’s card. All bets on the dealer’s value are lost. All bets on the player’s value win even money. Because it’s played with a single deck, players are allowed to count cards. In fact, the small abacus looking thing in the lower left of that picture is a device given to the players specifically to help them count cards.
Despite all that, Faro was renowned for being rigged in favor of the house. Manufacturers of Faro equipment would even rig draw boxes specifically so that dealers could cheat. Despite this reality, Faro was extremely popular. According to Wikipedia, famed scammer Canada Bill Jones played Faro even though it was rigged because “it was the only game in town.”
Today, no one plays Faro. I’m sure a lot of that stems from the cheating dealers. But there have always been cheats and crooked games. Poker is somewhat notorious for cheaters, and yet it is still widely played. So how did Faro fall out of favor? It’s less interactive than many gambling games, but so is Baccarat and that is still played today.
But while Faro is an interesting historical anecdote, I wonder if the same happens today. One can only hope that someday Monopoly will fall out of favor with the American public – or at least the horrible house ruled version of it. But what about Settlers? Settlers is often credited as the grandfather of modern hobby boardgaming, and certainly did much to bring it here to the New World. Will there come a time when Settlers is likewise a historical footnote?
I guess the question is a broader one. What makes people latch on to some games (like Poker, Monopoly, or Faro) such that they become ubiquitous in American society? And, from such prevalence, what makes them become unpopular and eventually fade into obscurity? Since hobby boardgaming is still described with the adjective “hobby,” I don’t think any of the modern games have risen to a Poker/Monopoly/Faro level in society’s consciousness. But I do wonder what it is that capture’s the public’s imagination and, once captured, how it is lost.