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Gambling: Big Time Baccarat

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

(continued from page 1)

Lou has a fortress of yellow $1,000 chips stacked in front of him. A fresh shoe of cards is being prepared and the beautiful rituals of baccarat slowly unfold. It begins with six fresh decks being cracked open. Next, the cards are washed in beautiful swirls across the table. They are finally grouped together and loaded into the shoe.

Following much consideration and consultation, players lay down their bets on player or banker or tie, cards are dealt, and gamblers take turns looking at the two cards in totally idiosyncratic ways. Some slowly fold the cards up with choppy turns. Others tear the card as they expose it. Lou stabs his cards with the inky end of a ballpoint pen. He skewers the plastic and flips it up for all to see. At the end of each hand, used cards are permanently disposed of, making for tiny passion plays that always end with symbolic death as the spent cards get folded, spindled and mutilated.

Win, lose or draw, baccarat is a hell of an entertaining gamble, loaded with drama and symbolism. Considering all the flash and show, it's not surprising that the game was invented by somebody other than the guys who came up with, say, Red Dog and Caribbean Stud. Baccarat is of French descent and it dates back to the fifteenth century. The game from which it originates was dubbed chemin de fer -- with rules that require elevated risk and more decision making than baccarat does -- and was introduced stateside around 1900 in Saratoga, New York. American gamblers didn't take to the game and it returned to Europe, where it remained a beloved pastime of French and Italian noblemen. What's now called American baccarat actually originated in the United Kingdom, became the rave of pre-Castro Havana, and migrated to Las Vegas in the late 1950s. Though the game retains an aura of bygone elegance, in Vegas it's often played by men in chinos and Bermuda shorts and whatever else they feel like wearing as long as they've got the bankroll to withstand baccarat's brutal swings. (For the less well-heeled, mini baccarat, which is offered on the casino floor and is essentially the same game, requires much lower minimum bets.)

The high-limit players are not the only ones who fret over big swings of money -- the casinos do as well. One regular player recalls a heart-pounding session in which two Asian whales -- one from Taiwan, the other from mainland China, ideologically opposed, and situated in salon privés so that their paths would never cross -- were placing specially arranged $250,000-limit bets. Casino managers continually monitored the action and seemed to be sweating it more intensely than the players, who, in this case at least, might be better equipped to withstand the multimillion-dollar swings primed to occur every 10 minutes. But it can get even hairier than that.

Kerry Packer, the Australian media tycoon, dropped a reported $20 million during a a September 2000 stay at the Bellagio. In 1992, he raked in $9 million in one day from Caesars Palace, managing to win the casino's quarterly profits at the tables. Lucky for Caesars, though, Packer remained in town and played long enough and high enough to give back those winnings and then some. But even his mega-wagers can only put a dent in the long-term take that Las Vegas Strip casinos enjoy from baccarat, which, according to The Wall Street Journal, totaled $536 million in 2000.

But Packer is not baccarat's only iron man. Players with bankrolls that fail to rival those of casinos have been known to play for three days straight, to get virtual full-body massages alongside the baccarat table, to have casino bosses shuttling in chefs who cook gourmet meals that get consumed during play.

"Baccarat is a repetitive, seductive activity," says gambling historian Peter Ruchman, himself a veteran of many hours behind the felt-topped oval. In trying to figure out why people tend to play rather than sleep, he points out, "If you stand on four in blackjack, you know you're making dumb mistakes, you're tired, you shouldn't play anymore. You get disgusted. In terms of baccarat, if you wind up with a four, you made a bad choice" -- in selecting which side of the game to bet on -- "or the gods weren't with you. That [continual testing of fate] makes the game popular among Asians. If you do well, the gods are with you and you are fortunate."

For all the luck and drama and theories attached to the game, there is one very good reason to play baccarat: it offers some of the best odds to be found in a casino, second only to blackjack. Players who employ basic blackjack strategy have a 0.5 percent disadvantage; with baccarat, the casino's advantage is 1.3 percent, but 15 million hands must be dealt before that edge becomes something close to a certainty. In trying to shift the odds toward them, players watch past patterns and try using them to predict the future.

"It's like fortune tellers reading tea leaves," says Ruchman. "So some players follow the shoe, trying to see streaks. Others just play bank [which has a slight mathematical advantage]. Another strategy might be to not play every hand. One edge for a player is that casinos let you observe play and not bet; since card counting doesn't matter in baccarat, they don't care [about stuttery playing patterns] the way they would in blackjack. You can wait for what the mathematicians call deviations, and those are what players want. Then I've seen people sit at the table, watch a winning player, and just mirror everything that he does."

If the clueless copycat happens to find himself at a table occupied by a Frenchman we'll call François, he will have a very lucky night indeed. When you ask most baccarat players about their strategies, they can articulate them only after the fact, when they look at the scorecards, see the patterns that emerged, and explain how they played them. François has a definite strategy, one that clearly works, and one that, maddeningly but not surprisingly, he refuses to reveal in any detail. A former card counter who's been banned from global blackjack pits and would never play any game where he has no edge, François has worked out a strategy that remains invisible to the casinos. He plays American baccarat in Monte Carlo, Baden Baden and Las Vegas. The game provides him with a handsome living and he wins most every night.

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