How to Play Fan Tan

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Fan Tan is an exceedingly simple game played with buttons. Invented more than 2,000 years ago, it was once as popular in China as Mah Jong, Sic Bo and Pai Gow. The game can still be played at the casinos of Macau as well as at Internet gaming sites where the software version has been installed.

When Chinese immigrants moved by the thousands to the United States to work on the nation’s transcontinental railroad in the 19th century, they brought with them their ancient traditions, including various forms of gambling. Fan Tan was played in the Chinese enclaves of railroad camps and mining colonies, from which it spread across the country al the way to East Coast.

In a famous book about the underbelly of New York, “How the Other Half Lives” (1890), author Jacob Riis wrote about what it was like to enter a Fan Tan parlor in Chinatown: “At the first foot-fall of leather soles on the steps the hum of talk ceases, and the group of celestials, crouching over their game of fan tan, stop playing and watch the comer with ugly looks. Fan tan is their ruling passion.”

San Francisco’s own Chinatown was home to dozens of Fan Tan houses, too. Jesse B. Cook, the city’s former police commissioner, estimated that by 1889 the city was home to no fewer than 50 Fan Tan games, and that “in the 50 fan tan gambling houses the tables numbered from one to 24, according to the size of the room.”

Fan Tan requires very little equipment—just a pile of white buttons, a cup and a bamboo wand. The game is played on a specially marked table about the same size as standard casino craps table. In the middle of the table, a square is laid out with its sides marked as betting areas: 1, 2, 3 and 4.

In some cases, a clear plastic dome may take up the center of the table, and the four betting areas appear on either side of the table, where up to six players may stand or be seated. In this case, the surface of the table is often translucent and illuminated from below so the winning wagers can easily be identified, much like a Sic Bo table.

Play begins with the dealer placing the cup over a portion of the buttons, typically around 60 to 100 of them in total. Players then have the opportunity to make their bets before the dealer lifts the cup and begins using the want to count out the buttons in groups of four. Bets win or lose according to how many buttons are in the very last group: 1, 2, 3 or 4.

The most basic bet is called a “Fan.” It is a wager on a single number. In the ancient version of the game, a successful Fan bet would pay 3-for-1 (equivalent to 2-to-1), giving the House a huge edge of 25%. In the modern version, the payout table has been modified so that all wins are paid at fair odds, minus a 5% commission.

Because the commission is applied by the House only to the amount won, not the amount wagered, the resulting advantage for the House on a winning Fan is reduced to 3.75%. Four other types of bets are also available, as indicated below. In case where a push (tie) occurs, the original wager is returned and no commission is deducted.

Nim - A wager on two numbers taken together as a betting unit, such as 1 and 2, or 2 and 3. If one wins, it pays out at 2-to-1 and the other is treated as a push. The 5% commission results in a House advantage of 2.50%.

Kwok - A wager on two numbers, such as odd or even, both of which may win. The winning bet pays even money. After deducting the commission, the House’s margin is 2.50%.

Nga Tan – This is a wager on three numbers. If any of them come up, a payout of 1-to-2 is applied to two of the numbers and the third number is treated as a push. After taking out the 5% commission, the net result is a 1.25% edge for the House.

Sheh-Sam-Hong – This is a wager on three numbers. If the excluded fourth number does not come up, all three of the selected numbers receive a payout of 1-to-3. Post-commission, that works out to a House advantage of 1.25%.

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