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Photo of a fan-tan game in Canton, China, by Lai Afong

Fan-Tan, or fantan (simplified Chinese: 番摊; traditional Chinese: 番攤; pinyin: fāntān, literally "repeated divisions") is a form of a gambling game long played in China. It has similarities to roulette.


A page from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper depicting a fan-tan parlor in New York, a raid by the police, and cards and coins used in fan-tan, in December 1887.

The game may have arisen during third and fourth centuries, during the period of the Northern and Southern dynasties.[1] It then spread through southern China during the Qing dynasty.[2] It was prominent during the Republican period, at least in Canton.[2]

Fan-tan was once a favorite pastime of the Chinese in America.[2][3] 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." The large Chinatown in San Francisco 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Fan-tan is no longer as popular as it once was, having been replaced by modern casino games, and other traditional Chinese games such as Mah Jong and Pai Gow. Fan-tan is still played at some Macau casinos.[4]

The game[edit]

A square is marked in the center 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; if two, the backer of No. 2 wins and if one the backer of No. 1 wins.

All winning wagers are paid true odds less a house commission,[3] which ranges from 5% to 25% depending on the establishment.[4][5][6] For example, assume a bettor has $100 wagered on a 3 to 1 wager; if the bet wins, the bettor is paid $285 ($300 less 5%).

See also[edit]


  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "FANTAN". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 171. 
  1. ^ Guo Shuanglin; Xiao Meihua (1996). Zhongguo dubu shi [History of gaming in China]. Taibei: Wenjin chubanshe. p. 225. 
  2. ^ a b c Paulès, Xavier (26–28 September 2007). "« Le fantan, une étude préliminaire »" [The fantan, a preliminary study] (PDF). Atelier 37 : Le Jeu en Asie / Workshop 37 : Gambling in Asia, 3ème Congrès du Réseau Asie - IMASIE / 3rd Congress of Réseau Asie - IMASIE (in French). Paris, France. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 July 2011. 
  3. ^ a b Culin, Stewart (1891), "The Gambling Games Of The Chinese In America", Series in Philology Literature and Archaeology, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA: University of Pennsylvania Press, I (4), retrieved August 30, 2017 
  4. ^ a b K., James (1 April 2009). "Fan Tan in Macau". The Wizard of Macau. Retrieved 30 August 2017. 
  5. ^ Heller, Edmund (1917), Handwritten China journal, 5, ...less 10% for the house. 
  6. ^ The 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica says "Twenty-five per cent of the stake is deducted by the banker..."

External links[edit]