Fan-Tan, or fantan (Simplified Chinese: 番摊; Traditional Chinese: 番攤; pinyin: fāntān) is a form of gambling long played in China and among Chinese immigrants to America and other countries.


Fan-tan is no longer as popular as it once was, having been replaced by modern casino games, and other traditional Chinese games such as Mah Jong and Pai Gow. However, it was once a favorite pastime of the Chinese in America. Jacob Riis, in his famous book about the underbelly of New York, How the Other Half Lives (1890), wrote of entering a Chinatown fan-tan parlor: “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 large Chinatown was also home to dozens of fan-tan houses in the 19th century. The city’s former police commissioner Jesse B. Cook wrote that in 1889 Chinatown had 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 is still played at Macau casinos, where play goes on day and night, every day of the week, and bets can be made from 5 cents to 500 dollars.

The game

The game is simple. A square is marked in the centre of an ordinary table, or a square piece of metal is laid on it, the sides being marked 1, 2, 3 and 4. The banker puts on the table a double handful of small buttons, beads, coins, dried beans, or similar articles, which he covers with a metal bowl, or “tan koi”.

The players then bet on the numbers, setting their stakes on the side of the square which bears the number selected. (Players can also bet on the corners, for example between No. 2 and No. 3). When all bets are placed, the bowl is removed, and the “tan kun” or croupier uses a small bamboo stick to remove the buttons from the heap, four at a time, until the final batch is reached. If it contains four buttons, the backer of No. 4 wins; if three, the backer of No. 3 wins, and so on.

A 25% commission is deducted from the stake by the banker, and the winner receives five times the amount of his stake thus reduced.

The Card Game Fantan

Fantan is also the name of a card game, played with an ordinary pack, by any number of players up to eight. The, deal decided, the cards are dealt singly, any that are left over forming a stock, and being placed face downwards on the table. Each player contributes a fixed stake or ante. The first player can enter if he has an ace; if he has not he pays an ante and takes a card from the stock; the second player is then called upon and acts similarly till an ace is played. This (and the other aces when played) is put face upwards on the table, and the piles are built up from the ace to the king. The pool goes to the player who first gets rid of all his cards. If a player fails to play, having a playable card, he is fined the amount of the ante for every card in the other players hands.

The card game Sevens is also sometimes called ‘Fan Tan’



  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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