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Gambling: Big Time Baccarat

Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02

Lou is a big guy with a big bankroll. He's used to visiting Las Vegas casinos and being schmoozed by hosts, set up with fight tickets and gifted with TV sets and automobiles on his birthday. Lou likes the action and he digs the vibe -- especially in the high-limit rooms around town, where minimum bets are $100, the Scotch is smooth and the cigars are aged. Over the years, he has established himself as a serious blackjack player. He puffs hard on his Montecristos, bets big, employs basic strategy and enjoys the game's streaky nature.

On this quiet night he sits at the Hard Rock Café's Peacock Lounge, taking a breather between hands of blackjack and grooving to the booming beats that sonically define the casino's high-roller enclave. A dealer asks Lou if he has ever tried baccarat before.

Lou acknowledges that he has no idea how the game works, although he's seen it played and been intrigued by its rituals and Bond-dipped mystique. That night, he discovers baccarat possesses a beautiful Zen-like minimalism: you bet on player or banker (a term that is purely symbolic) and the side that gets closest to nine (picture cards and 10s count as zero, aces are one) is the winner.

The player and banker each get dealt two cards; the player always goes first and draws a third card if the first two cards total from zero to five. The banker may or may not draw a third, depending on the player's total and the banker's first two cards. However, the banker always gets a slight advantage over the player (in terms of his drawing situations), and, in exchange for that, the banker pays a 5 percent commission on every win. There is a third bet as well: wagering that the two hands of cards will tie. It pays 8-to-1, but an expert gambler I know points out that the real odds are 15-to-1 and that "it is one of the five worst bets in a casino." However, this does not stop countless baccarat aficionados from laying down money on the poorly valued long shot. Apparently, in a game that seems to be based on hunches and irrational trends, they can't keep themselves from placing big bets on the highest paying hunch of all.

On this night, as Lou becomes initiated into the brotherhood of baccarat, he quickly realizes that the game's surface simplicity is deceiving. Blessed with a mathematical mind, he immediately likes the way players keep track of winning hands, using black ink to denote player victories and red ink for banker's. Players sketch in little rectangles and track scores so obsessively that the sheets look like studies for big two-toned abstract artworks. Sometimes Lou and the other players save their cards, study them in hushed quorums and scrutinize them for information that will provide an edge next time.

These days, 18 months after first being exposed to baccarat, Lou has filled in many cards. He sketches and bets with the best of them. Employing some of the same skills that once made him a gifted options trader, he keeps an eye out for trends, riding dips and rises with the gameness of a big wave surfer who skitters from one life-threatening curl to the next. "You look at the patterns that develop," says Lou. "And you jump on them for as far as they'll take you."

It is the day after a long night of play at the Hard Rock. Lou's sitting at a big table in his stylishly posh, wood-paneled suite on the top floor of the new Palms Hotel and Casino. He's been given the kind of elite accommodations where anything seems possible, but you won't spend a night here unless you bet enough to make your presence worth wooing. Downstairs, in the high-rollers room, Lou made his presence so well known that a sign has been placed on the seat near the dealer (the center spot, which Lou prefers for its vantage point). It reads: Reserved for Lou.

"Last night I was hot because the patterns kept repeating," says Lou. "I think it is just totally random, but I can show you cards that go banker, player, banker, banker for 10 hands in a row. When you see these spreads you play them. When there is no pattern, it becomes an expensive game. That's when I bet low amounts and wait for the patterns to redevelop."

Other players lack Lou's patience. One guy who's been gambling with Lou tells me about his worst session at the tables. He'd been playing for three days and managed to get ahead by $170,000. "Then," he says, half bragging, half woeful, "I gave back the whole buck-70 in three hours. I got frustrated and started chasing the losses. Most people would be ecstatic to be up that much. I thought the cards would turn themselves around, so I pressed my bets and they just wouldn't hit." But don't feel too bad for this mega-roller. "My greatest night," he recounts with significantly more gusto, "was winning $290,000. What's really unbelievable, though, is that $210,000 came out of one shoe in 40 minutes. I have a high-paying job, but I can't make that kind of money at work. Unfortunately, though, I think this may have been as rare as Halley's Comet. I had 27 straight pattern payouts."

At the Hard Rock tonight, the situation is a modified version of that great run. Cards are hitting hard, players are high-fiving, sipping Corona beer and reaping rewards.


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