Alaska Life

How the movies lied to us all: Faro was the most popular card game in the Old West, and it came to Alaska

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

The first Anchorage police chief, John “Black Jack” Sturgus, was also the subject of one of Anchorage’s first mysteries. Late on Feb. 20, 1921, a single shot echoed in the cold, quiet night. A night watchman found the chief alone in an alley, bleeding onto the fresh snow from a single gunshot to the chest. A frenzied attempt to preserve his life failed. A long story short, he likely committed suicide. However, the evidence is weak for any conclusion, and no official cause of death was ever determined. Thus, Sturgus was the first unsolved murder in the nascent railroad hub.

Before his death, the lawman had not possessed the most sterling of reputations, at least not in Anchorage. The local sourdoughs suggested Sturgus was too soft on crime, too comfortable with the criminals he encountered, perhaps due to familiarity. Even after his death, the Anchorage Daily Times opined, “His manner of enforcing his duties was of the peculiar nature that he did not create the enmity of the law-breaker but on the other hand instilled friendship.” The anonymous horde also whispered that the police chief was too fond of “bucking the tiger” to have any energy left for his official duties.

Bucking the tiger, a gloriously colorful idiom, refers to gambling at faro. Despite what most western movies and television shows would lead you to believe, faro, not poker, was by far the most popular card game in the American West. This cultural detail was one of many that traders and prospectors carried north, so the game was similarly prevalent in Alaska into the early 20th century.

As played by Sturgus, faro in name and design is directly descended from a French card game called pharaon, the French word for pharaoh. Early pharaon decks likely featured depictions of Egyptian pharaohs. History is sometimes that simple. As the game enjoyed wider consumption, the name correspondingly devolved. French nobility had played pharaon at court. Cannery workers wagering their last pennies in hidden cigar shop backrooms played faro.

In faro, gamblers play against the house. The gameplay is fast and straightforward, requiring a single deck of cards plus an additional suit, though the latter would be printed on the surface of a proper faro table. If lacking such niceties, as in perhaps Alaska, the dealer lays down the extra suit from ace to king. Players place their wagers on those cards. The dealer discards the top card from the full deck, then deals two cards. The first is the losing card; the second is the winning card.

For example, say the losing and winning cards are an ace and king. All bets on the ace lose and go to the house. All bets on the king win with a one-to-one payout. Players can remove, leave, or change their wagers for bets on any other card. When three cards are left in the deck, players wager on their order, known as “calling the turn,” with a four-to-one payout. There is some specific nomenclature and variations, but that, in essence, is all there is to gameplay. Likewise, there is precious little strategy until the later rounds, after most of the cards have been dealt.


From only that much of a description, the more gambling-minded, angle-seeking reader will have already guessed at one of faro’s primary attractions. Its design favored the player with odds better than any modern casino game. By the early 19th century, the game dominated American cardrooms. Per a rather lurid 1882 expose, Americans gambled at faro more than all other games of chance combined. From his 1894 text on cheating at cards, John Nevil Maskelyne wrote, “Faro may almost be said to occupy in America the position of a national game.”

Pick your favorite character from the Old West, and they surely played more than a few hands of faro. Wyatt Earp notably dealt faro at his saloon in Tombstone, Arizona, before some disagreements with local outlaws prompted him to move on. John “Doc” Holliday spent much of his life as a traveling faro dealer. Wild Bill Hickok, John Wesley Hardin, Canada Bill Jones, Lottie Jones, Bat Masterson, Calamity Jane, and all the rest played faro.

While faro was certainly played before the Klondike gold rush, in towns like Juneau, Treadwell and Sitka, the massive influx of fortune seekers prompted a concurrent boom in gambling. One of those boomtowns, Skagway, was briefly the faro center of Alaska. In August 1897, still well before the gold rush peak the following year, a visitor noted that Skagway “is a city of eleven frame or log houses, a saw mill, five stores, four saloons, a crap game, a faro layout, blacksmith shop, five restaurants ... a real estate office, two practicing physicians.” August 1897 also happened to be when infamous conman and gangster Jefferson “Soapy” Smith first arrived in Skagway.

By the summer of 1898, Skagway had ballooned into the largest town in Alaska, with an estimated population of around 8,000 to 10,000 and several new gambling hubs that featured faro, including Soapy Smith’s Jeff Smith Parlor and Lee Guthrie’s Board of Trade. Smith had previously operated a notorious faro operation out of his Tivoli Club in Denver, Colorado.

Impossible as it would have been to tell from any town, gambling was illegal in 1898 Alaska. In 1899, that point was highlighted when Congress approved a new criminal code for Alaska that pointedly mentioned faro first in its prohibition on gambling. “Each and every person who shall deal, play, or carry on, open or cause to be opened, who shall conduct, either as owner, proprietor or employee, whether for hire or not, any game of faro, monte, roulette, rouge-et-noir, lansquenet, rondo, vingt-un, twenty-one, poker, draw poker, brag, bluff, thaw, craps, or any banking or other game played with cards, dice, or any other device ... shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars.”

The same code also carried severe penalties for prostitution and requirements for liquor licenses. As the Douglas Island News wrote, with tongue firmly in cheek, “Alaska will be made the model country of the earth in the passage of the criminal code for this district, which places the liquor licenses so high that there will be but few saloons. The penalties for gambling are very severe and prostitution is to be entirely stopped. If the law is enforced, and we presume it will be, there will be no further need for the missionaries, for everybody will be good — compelled to be good by force of the statute.”

Yet, enforcement was sporadic and weak. For example, in 1899, Guthrie was charged with dealing faro in Skagway. The open case was ignored for over two years before it was dismissed in 1901. Wherever the settlers went, faro and other forms of gambling followed. The Klondike Gold Rush was followed quickly by a similar rush to Nome, where several new saloons opened, ready for business. In the summer of 1901, a character named “Walla Walla” Smith won $5,200, very roughly $190,000 in 2023 money, there in an extended faro hot streak. When the prospectors moved on to Fairbanks, the Skagway Daily Alaskan said of the town, “In every saloon there is gambling. Faro, roulette, blackjack, craps, keno, stud-poker, and other gamers were running, and it is said all were receiving play.” Again, note how faro was listed first.

The origin of “bucking the tiger” is uncertain but may have derived from decks of cards decorated with tigers. Likewise, playing faro was sometimes referred to as “twisting the tiger’s tail.” Another possible explanation is the speed of faro games, as much as three times faster than blackjack or roulette. As faro dominated 19th century America, gambling districts were sometimes called a “tiger alley” or “tiger town.”

Knowing the terminology opens another corner to the historical records. In 1902, the Douglas Island News reported, “Pat Renwick has been bucking the tiger at Skagway the past week and pulled out winner to the extent of $3,200.” In 2023 dollars, Renwick won roughly $115,000. The news was plastered on the front page of the newspaper. Therefore, gambling can be considered massively significant and widely accepted in Alaska, or at least in Southeast Alaska.

As trite as it sounds, faro’s demise came from its own popularity. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to play faro, yet there was only a narrow advantage for the house, whether saloon, gambling hall, or proper casino. Other games, however less popular, were proportionally more profitable for the establishment. So, as if unified in spirit, almost every gambling den across the nation decided to cheat. If the consumers were going to force their hand, then the house would ensure their earnings by whatever means necessary.

Cards were marked for dealers gifted with sleight of hand. Decks were rigged. Machinery was employed, and the table itself gimmicked in more advanced dens. The more dangerous operations had crowds that cooperated to cheat the player, or to separate them from their winnings in more physical interactions. John Nevil Maskelyne, who was a stage magician devoted to exposing frauds and cheats, wrote of faro, “The methods of cheating used in connection with it are so numerous and so ingenious that it becomes really necessary to devote an entire chapter specially to them.” He concluded, “This Faro is a hard-hearted monarch whose constant delight appears to be a slaughter of the innocents.”

As a game so inextricably linked with grift, cons, and crime, faro became a targeted villain of the temperance movements in the early 20th century. In 1902, faro and other games of chance were outlawed in New York. Arizona, once a hotbed of faro activity with more than a thousand gaming establishments, banned the game in 1907. Gradually then quickly, as these things tend to happen, other games like poker and craps became more popular.

Western movies and shows boomed in the 1940s, the beginning of the genre’s golden age. Yet, faro was absent. Instead, the gunslingers, lawmen, cowboys and outlaws played poker. While faro had once been an inescapable aspect of life in the American West, the game would have been unrecognizable to many if not most viewers. Other than the long-running show “Gunsmoke,” the exceptions to this rule tended to come later, in movies like “The Shootist” (1976), “Tombstone” (1993), and” Wyatt Earp” (1994), or shows like “Deadwood” (2004-2006).

Faro faded from the cultural landscape, a difference from one generation to the next. By the 1950s, it was rare. By the end of the 20th century, it had disappeared almost entirely, except for the odd Old West reenactment and the faro shuffle. Otherwise, the game is a dusty relic in the corner of history, its place in the American West and Alaska history forgotten.

Key sources:

Harris, A.C. Alaska and the Klondike Gold Fields. Chicago: Monroe Book Co., 1897.

“Hit the Bank for $5,200.” Nome Nugget, July 9, 1901, 3.


Maskelyne, John Nevil. Sharps and Flats: A Complete Revelation of the Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill. New York City: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1894.

“Pioneer Echoes.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 15, 1920, 3.

Schwartz, David G. Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling Casino Edition 3. Las Vegas: Winchester Books, 2013.

“The Missionaries Can Move Out.” Douglas Island News, March 15, 1899, 1.

“The Northland.” Douglas Island News, April 30, 1902, 1.

Spude, Catherine Holder. The Mascot Saloon: Archeological Investigations in Skagway, Alaska, Volume 10. Anchorage: United States Government Printing Office, Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2005.

Trumble, Alfred. Faro Exposed; or, The Gamber and His Prey. New York City: R.K. Fox, 1882.

Turner, Nigel E., Mark Howard, and Warren Spence. “Faro: A 19th Century Gambling Craze.” Journal of Gambling Issues no. 16 (2006).

David Reamer | Histories of Alaska

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.