On Case Keepers

Faro table in saloon at ghost town of Bodie, CaliforniaThursday before last, Dave and I visited Bodie, an old mining town turned ghost town in the eastern Sierras. It’s a fascinating place, and I also accomplished a small personal goal there, which will take some explaining.

A couple years back, I wrote an adaptation of the Puccini opera The Girl of the Golden West, which is set in a Sierra mining camp in the first years of the Gold Rush. As far as I know, mine is the first and only English version that has anything like the right kind of language, that has the characters singing in the authentic American dialect for that time and place. There’s a faro game going on during much of the first act, and I wanted to get the actions and the table talk right, so I did some research into the rules and language of faro.

(As far as I can tell, by the way, the Italian libretto gets it all very wrong, as though the librettists just made up a lot of rules and terminology. Unless perhaps faro was played rather differently in Italy. Though even that would be only half an excuse, as the story takes place in the California Gold Rush, not in Italy.)

And it wasn’t just the table talk that depended on getting the rules of faro right. At a very important point in the first act, the central character, Minnie — the “Girl” of the title — reminisces about her childhood. Her parents ran a saloon, and she remembers her father running the faro game and her mother sitting at the table with him. The memory is important for understanding her character and her actions later in the play. Here she is in the original Belasco play:

And me, a kid as little as a kitten, under the table sneakin’ chips for candy. Talk about married life! That was a little heaven. I guess everybody’s got some remembrance of their mother tucked away. I always see mine at the faro table with her foot snuggled up to Dad’s an’ the light of lovin’ in her eyes. Ah, she was a lady!

So why was Minnie’s mother at the table? The Italian libretto assumes that she was one of the players:

Mother was lovely, she had pretty little feet:
Sometimes she played, too, and I,
hiding myself under the table
waiting to catch any coins that fell,
would see her secretly press my father’s foot —
They loved each other so much! Ah!

But that doesn’t make any sense. It would look — and in fact be — very improper for the part owner of the saloon to be a player in a gambling game being run by her own husband, the other part owner. At this point in the story, there has already been cheating at cards, and there will be more later on, and it’s a crucial point of Minnie’s character that she greatly admired her father for his honesty as a faro dealer. So the very last thing I want to do is have anyone in the audience thinking that the point of the anecdote is that Minnie’s mother and father were cheating by passing signals to each other under the table with their feet, and that Minnie was mistaken in thinking that her father was an honest man. (In fact, it would be pointless to try to cheat in this way at faro, because there’s no useful information you could communicate in this way. But the audience doesn’t know the rules of faro and won’t know this.)

As a secondary matter, I really hate the line in the Italian libretto about Mother’s pretty little feet. What on earth does the fact that her feet were small and pretty have to do with the point Minnie is trying to make with this anecdote? So I was hoping to find other, more worthwhile words to put on those notes.

In Belasco’s novelization of the play, Minnie says more:

“Why, mother tho’t so much o’ that man, she was so much heart an’ soul with ‘im that she learned to be the best case-keeper you ever saw. Many a sleeper she caught! You see, when she played, she was playin’ for the ol’ man.” She stopped as if overcome with emotion, and then added with great feeling: “I guess everybody’s got some remembrance o’ their mother tucked away. I always see mine at the faro table with her foot snuggled up to Dad’s, an’ the light o’ lovin’ in her eyes.”

The lines in the novel are loaded with character, and I knew I wanted to try to capture some of that flavor in my libretto. (The formal, literary language that the characters speak in the Italian libretto is breathtakingly wrong for this story, and why all the existing English translations I’ve seen emulate it is beyond me. It’s bad enough that it sounds ridiculous to American ears for characters in the Old West to be speaking formally correct English, but worse, the marked difference in background and education between Minnie and Dick is crucial to the story and crucial both to why they’re attracted to each other and to why they have trouble opening up to each other, and it ought to, needs to be reflected in how they speak, as it is in the play. If you’re not hearing that difference between them in every dialogue they have together, you’re not getting what is maybe the single most important thing about their relationship.)

But for all the color of the lines in the novel, the matter was still puzzling. What was it that her mother was doing to help at the table, exactly? I felt I needed to know in order to get Minnie’s reminiscence right.

With some reseach, I found the answer: An abacus-like device called a case keeper or case counter was used at the faro table to keep track of the cards that had been played. Usually the dealer “kept case” (kept track of the cards), but if the game was a busy one, the dealer might have an assistant, who was also called the case keeper, or sometimes the lookout. The lookout’s duties included keeping an eye out for sleepers, which were bets made that could no longer win because all four cards of the rank had already appeared; the dealer could claim those as his own if he — or his lookout — spotted them before the players who made those bets noticed them and took them back. Since the case keeper was on the table in full view of everyone, for a player to lose a sleeper wasn’t a matter of bad luck but of carelessless. As the game of faro is a fair one, with the odds giving no advantage to the dealer, spotting sleepers was the only way the dealer could make a profit from the game. I assume that a saloon would run a faro game primarily as a way of drawing in customers who would then buy drinks, and not so much as a way to make a profit from the game itself, but a lookout who was good at catching sleepers would have been an asset all the same.

So in my adaptation, I have Minnie sing:

Square, though — that was Father!
An’ when the game was busy,
Mother sat as the dealer’s lookout.
An’ underneath the table
I’d be keepin’ quiet,
hopin’ someone’d drop
coins on the floor.
An’ I’d see how her foot would snuggle
right up close to father’s.
Lord, they was happy! They was so happy!

It’s not much, only a line about “the dealer’s lookout”, but it’s right, right for Minnie’s character and right for the story, and even though I’d be lucky if one person in the audience had any idea what the dealer’s lookout did, the audience at least gets that her mother was there to help the dealer, not to play.

So now that I had learned so much about a nearly forgotten card game, I’ve wanted ever since to see an authentic faro table and case keeper with my own eyes. I’ve seen pictures, of course. And I’ve seen a faro table now in the Oakland Museum, but there wasn’t a case keeper with it.

Well, in the ghost town of Bodie, they’ve locked up the old buildings, but they’ve taken whatever furniture and other items were left behind when the town was abandoned, and they’ve arranged them in something like the layout they may have had, so that you can look in through the windows of the buildings and see them. And Bodie has one surviving saloon building, and sure enough, in the saloon is an old warped faro table, and on the faro table is an honest-to-god case keeper.

In my photo, the faro table is the nearer of the two tables (the one in back is a roulette table), and the case keeper is at the near right corner of the table.

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