There are many words to describe the dramatic and exciting games that inhabit a casino, but elegant isn’t normally one of them. Baccarat is the exception to this rule. It is a game of prestige and elegance that often takes place in an exclusive area of the casino floor which is often roped off. The game gets its name from Italian slang for the word “zero” which is the value of face cards and tens in the game.
The goal of baccarat is to have the sum total of your hand closer to nine than the hand of the banker. All the cards are their face value with the following exceptions: Aces are worth 1, and tens and face cards are worth zero. The baccarat hand is made up of two or three cards. Unlike blackjack you don’t automatically lose if your hand goes over nine.
To encourage more people to get into baccarat, a lot of casinos offer a version called mini-baccarat. It’s a quicker and simpler version of the card game which is ideal for beginners to become familiar with the game and how it is played.
Outside of casinos and private games, there is another place to play baccarat and that is online. Like online poker and other casino games, baccarat has become a hit over the internet. Of course the online version of the game doesn’t have the same exclusivity of a roped off V.I.P. area of a casino, but it does allow players from all over the world to play anywhere and anytime.
Ancient Roots of Baccarat
The game of baccarat is said to be based on an ancient Etruscan myth about the fate of a young blond virgin as decided by the gods. Nine gods would pray for the girl on their tiptoes while she would hurl a nine-sided die which would decide her futures. If she rolled and eight or nine she was destined to be a priestess, a six or seven and she would be free to decide her own fate, and if she rolled a six or less she would be forced to drown herself in the sea.
Invention of Playing Cards and Birth of Baccarat
Cards and card games became popular in Europe in the 14 th century after they were introduced by the returning Crusaders. The Church thought playing cards were evil. Johan Gutenberg felt differently. In 1455 Gutenberg printed the first Bible along with playing cards. The first type of cards printed were Tarot cards. In a deck of Tarot cards the suits are divided by the different classes in society. Swords (which later became spades) were the suit of the nobility, coins (which became diamonds) represented the merchant class, clubs symbolized the serfs, and cups (which later became hearts) stood for the Church.
Felix Falguiere and the Revival of Baccarat
The original version of baccarat is thought to have come from Italy in the 1480s. It was originally played with tarot cards. The real creator of the version we know today though is generally regarded to have been Felix Falguiere who took the ancient Etruscan myth and revived the game in the Middle Ages and added the extra element of gambling. His game also used tarot cards and he named it “Baccarat” which was Venetian slang for zero, which as noted is the value for all the face cards and tens.
Baccarat Discovered by French Nobility
The Italians introduced the game to the French in the 1500s. There are some who claim the game is a French creation but this speaks more to how popular it was with the upper crust of French society in this period. The life of leisure required many new games and interests, and baccarat was quickly a favorite of the nobility and the rich.
In France baccarat evolved and was given a new name. It was called Chemin de Fer which is French for railroad. This version also required four players who took turns being the banker. Also new terms were brought into use such as “banco” which meant the players bet on the total of the banker’s money. “Cheval” meant players could bet on either hand while “non” was the term used when a player wanted to stand, while “carte” meant the player wanted another card.
When the game first came to France it was played in secret because it was illegal. New laws were passed that legalized the game and allowed it to be taxed with some of the revenue used to assist the poor. It was a strange twist as the game moved from being played in secret to being celebrated as a charitable act. This was the golden age of baccarat which lasted until the end of the 1700s until Napoleon came into power. He didn’t ban the game, but he disapproved of it. When this happened baccarat’s popularity plummeted. In 1830 Louis Phillipe came into power and baccarat was banned along with other games that involved gambling. Games of chance stayed illegal in France for over seventy years until 1907.
British Aristocracy Played Baccarat Too
While baccarat was undergoing changes in France and had come from Italy, it was also spreading to other parts of Europe. Aristocrats in Britain were very excited about the game and it was played in the Queen’s court along with the elite entertainment venues of the day like London’s Crockford’s Club.
Games of chance and the Victorian court did not always go well together. During a game of baccarat in 1890, the playing partner of the Prince of Wales was allegedly caught cheating. The player was a millionaire named Sir William Gordon-Cumming and he was accused of having rigged the game so that he and the prince could win. The prince did not defend his partner who was made to sign a document stating he would never gamble on baccarat again. Sir Gordon-Cumming sued for defamation and even though he lost and was kicked out of the royal social circle, the unpleasant situation resulted in baccarat falling out of favor with the royal court.
Baccarat in the Americas
In the Americas a version of baccarat existed in Argentina where it was called Punto Y Banca. This version of the game then traveled to Cuba where some of the rules evolved and it became known as Punto Banco. This version became known as American baccarat and differed from its European counterpart. The main difference in the two games is that in American baccarat players can bet against the house while in the European version the players bet against each other with the house taking a rake.
Cuba was politically very volatile in the 1950s and a junior manager at the Capri Hotel Casino in Havana had an idea to move the game north into Las Vegas. That man was Frances “Tommy” Renzoni who had witnessed baccarat’s popularity and thought it would work in Nevada. He approached the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas and introduced them to the game he loved in Cuba.
The Sands went all out in its introduction of the game. A baccarat pit was created in the casino and was roped off giving the game an air of exclusivity. Adding to this atmosphere were the dealers who all wore tuxedos. Many adventurous gamblers took a chance on this new game that night and according to Renzoni’s memoirs the Sands Casino lost a quarter of a million dollars on baccarat’s opening night.
The Greek Syndicate
In France in the 1920s baccarat was again legal and many gamblers were obsessed with finding a way to create strategies that would allow them to beat the casinos. One such group of gamblers was the Greek Syndicate. They were a brilliant group of baccarat players lead by an engineer named Nico Zographos. The Greek Syndicate consisted of two Greeks, a Armenian, and a Frenchman who used a mathematical study of the game done by Zographos. Their strategy revolved around mathematical odds, card counting and body language and it allowed the Greek Syndicate to win more than $5 million from casinos across France.
Baccarat’s Changing Image
While baccarat has enjoyed great success in Europe, Americans in the 1950s and 1960s preferred to wager on other games. American gambling culture was more casual than the exclusive image of baccarat. Games like blackjack and craps were much more popular. To help expose baccarat to more players a new version was created known as mini-baccarat. This was a game held on the main casino floor among the other blackjack and roulette tables which made it far less intimidating. It also only used one dealer whereas the original version used four.
Baccarat is extremely popular in the Asian community and in the Portuguese territory of Macao which is the Las Vegas of its region with many, many casinos. In the Portuguese version of baccarat several players can bet on one spot at the same time. The dealers have a complex system of tracking the bettors’ commission on winning bets.
Infamous Baccarat Bettor
In 1990, Aiko “The Warrior” Kashiwagi bet his way into the baccarat history books by winning $6 million in the Trump Plaza casino in Atlantic City. He had been betting around $200,000 a hand. In the “win some, you lose some” tradition though, Kashiwagi also went on a six-day gambling binge later that year and ended up losing $10 million. This was another betting record.
Throughout history, baccarat has traveled all over the world but it has now traveled to a new location with the birth of the online casino industry. Along with online poker, baccarat has become very popular in its online version. The game that was once so exclusive is now available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.