Fan Tan 番攤 is a traditional Chinese gambling game played on a flat surface with a cup and many handfuls of small plastic beads. Years ago, the beads used in large gambling dens were made of bone, or ivory. In home games, less fancy objects were used, such as beans or even coins. While played in China and other Asian countries first, the game of Fan Tan became quite popular around the world in the 1800s.
In the United States, references are made to the game being enjoyed by work gangs building the Trans-Continental railroad, and many cities across the states, especially New York and San Francisco, had large communities of Asians who lived together and accepted gambling as an exciting recreational pastime. Gambling houses in San Francisco’s China-Town offered many types of games, including Chinese dice game Sic-Bo, Mah Jong and Fan Tan, and large casinos had as many as 20 tables filled with players.
The game of Fan Tan is actually quite simple. The large splash of beads across the table makes the game look both mysterious and confusing, but the object is easy: choose a number from one to four that represents how many beads are left after subtracting groups of four.
In a traditional game, the dealer (tan kun) announces a new game and tells the players to make their wagers. Bets are placed on any one number (1, 2, 3, 4) and on combinations of numbers. Once the wagers are set, the dealer rings a bell, ending the wagering, and takes a cup (jug – tan), and covers approximately 60 of the 200 beads. The remaining beads are swept away and the cup is removed. The dealer then uses a small bamboo stick with a crook similar to one used in a craps game to separate the beads in groups of four. Eventually, there will be just a few beads remaining; one, two, three or four – and that is the winning number.
This video shows how Fan Tan works when playing at a live dealer online casino.
Originally the game offered bets only on a single number (Fan), and the payoff was 3 for 1, a very healthy 25% edge for the house. Today, casinos offer more options.
A bet on one number: 1, 2, 3 or 4. This wager pays the correct odds of 3 to 1, minus a 5% commission. This makes the house edge 3.75%.
A bet on two numbers: 1-2, 1-3, 1-4, 2-3, 2-4 or 3-4. This wager pays 1 to 1, minus a 5% commission. This makes the house edge 2.50%
A bet on three numbers: 1-2-4, 1-3-4, 2-3-4, 1-2-3. This wager pays 1 to 3, minus a 5% commission. This makes the house edge 1.25%.
In addition, some casinos offer wagers against any group of either two or three numbers, paying true odds minus a 5% commission. A wager on either odd or even can also be made at some casinos, with the same 5% commission and an even-money, or 1 to 1 payoff.