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Hunting Down the “Case Card”

  • Martin HarrisMartin Harris
Hunting Down the “Case Card” 0001

On Day 3 of this year’s World Series of Poker Main Event, Phil Ivey ran into some bad fortune when a hand arose that saw him all in versus Max Steinberg on a flop of {3-Spades}{10-Hearts}{A-Spades} holding {3-Hearts}{3-Clubs} while Steinberg had {10-Diamonds}{10-Clubs}.

Each player had made a set, but Steinberg’s was best and Ivey was suddenly on the verge of elimination.

Those watching the hand noted to each other how Ivey needed the “case trey” to survive — that is, the last trey (or three) in the deck. Alas for Ivey, neither the turn nor the river brought him that needed {3-Diamonds}, and his Main Event run abruptly ended.

You might have heard that term before — that reference to a “case card” meaning the last remaining card of a particular rank in the deck. It’s kind of an odd, not-so-obvious term, with a curious origin that likely saw the word sneak its way into poker by way of another game, faro.

While poker is said by most to have originated in the U.S. in the early 19th century, many card games came before poker that could be called precursors to the game. Several of these precursor games came from Europe, and were developed and played around the same time faro originated in the south of France in the late 17th century.

Later when poker started gaining in popularity in the U.S. during the 19th century, faro was also a favorite gambling game. In fact for much of the 1800s faro was the single most popular card game in just about every gambling house in the U.S.

Faro involved a “banker” and a number of players who after buying chips would place them as bets on images of cards painted on a faro table, a little bit like putting bets on numbers in roulette. There would be 13 cards — one of each rank — for players to choose from when placing their bets. (That is, suits weren’t significant.)

Once bets were placed, the banker would then draw cards from a box one at a time. The first one would be set over on the left and didn’t matter for game play (it was like a “burn card”). The second was turned up and placed on the right, then another card was drawn and set atop the pile started on the left.

The first card drawn after the burned card was regarded as the banker’s card, while the other would be the player’s card. Bets placed on the banker’s card would be lost, while bets placed on the player’s card would win the player double the amount wagered. If a player bet on neither of the two cards, the bet could be picked up or left for the next draw.

Like in roulette, there were other ways to bet in faro, too, including betting on the banker’s card instead of the player’s. In any event, as play proceeded through the deck, there would be a person keeping track of what cards had been used and which were left in the deck, usually by means of an abacus-like device that was sometimes called a “case keep.”

Faro at the Orient Saloon, Bisbee, Arizona, ca. 1900; note the "case keeper" sitting on the left (photo courtesy U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
Faro at the Orient Saloon, Bisbee, Arizona, ca. 1900; note the "case keeper" sitting on the left (photo courtesy U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

The person operating this device was called the “case-keeper,” and he usually also kept track of other aspects of game play, too, to make sure all went as it should. To the right is a picture of a faro game being played in the Orient Saloon in Arizona from around 1900, and you can see sitting to the left the case-keeper with his device in front of him, keeping track of the cards.

It was the case-keeper who helped everyone see what cards were left in the deck while playing faro. Thus there on the “case keep” one could see at a glance, say, that there was just one six left to be drawn. It’s easy to see how that card would come to be referred to as a “case card” as well as how the term snuck over into other card games like poker, too.

That’s one theory, anyway, for how the phrase “case card” found its way into poker. From there that adjective "case" came to be used more broadly to refer to the last of anything, such as when Mike McDermott loses $30,000 to Teddy KGB at the start of Rounders, then laments to Knish “I’m down to the felt... I lost everything. Man, I lost my case money!”

Wherever the term came from, you know now what it means. And you also know how bad it is to be in a spot like Ivey was in at the 2013 WSOP Main Event when he needed to hit that one-outer to survive.

Reporting on the hand for PokerNews back in July, Mickey Doft described the situation for Ivey as a “worst case scenario.”

Indeed, anyone would rather have gotten those last chips in the middle under better circumstances. After all, aside from drawing dead, drawing to a case card really is worst case!

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