Baccarat is considered by many to be a casino’s most elegant and prestigious game. Most times it is hidden away in a secluded corner of the casino and is roped off to give it an even grander appearance. Baccarat comes from the Italian word meaning ‘zero’ which might apply to the value given to the tens and picture cards.
The objective of baccarat is to draw a two or three card hand that totals closer to nine than the banker’s hand. The 10 and Royal cards are all worth zero, Ace is 1 and the rest of the cards are their face value. There is no going ‘bust’ in baccarat, as there is with blackjack.
While baccarat has always managed to attain its exclusive reputation over the years, many casinos have begun opening up the game to the ‘masses’ and have introduced a simple version of the game called mini-baccarat. Mini-baccarat is a faster and slightly simplified spin of the game and is a great way for novice players to get to know the rules.
The online version of baccarat has been a hit ever since the launch of the online casino industry. While it has not been possible to maintain the strict exclusivity that the land version of the game holds, online baccarat has made a strong impact in the remote gambling world.
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Ancient Roots of Baccarat
The revivers of the game of baccarat in the 15th century are believed to have based the game on an ancient Etruscan ritual. In this ritual, nine gods would pray for a young blond virgin on their tiptoes, while she was required to throw a nine-sided die to decide her own fate. If the virgin threw an eight or nine, she would become a priestess, is she threw a six or seven she would be exempted from participating in future religious activity and could live a free life, and if she threw a six or less she had to walk into the sea and drown herself!
Invention of Playing Cards and Birth of Baccarat
Playing cards are the tools for playing baccarat and they were brought back with the Crusaders in the 14th century. In the Church’s opinion, playing cards were the epitome of all evil, but Johann Gutenberg was of a different opinion and in 1455 he printed the first Bible, and also playing cards. Tarot cards were the first type of cards printed, with each suit representing a different class in society: swords (later spades) were the nobility, coins (later diamonds) were the merchant class, clubs represented the serfs and the cups (later the hearts) were the Church.
Felix Falguiere and the Revival of Baccarat
The earliest version of baccarat is believed to have been created in Italy in the 1480s from a deck of tarot cards. Most sources however, credit Felix Falguiere as the reviver of baccarat in the Middle Ages. Falguiere took the ancient Etruscan ritual and turned it into a wagering game using tarot cards. He named the game baccarat from the Venetian slang term for zero – for the zero value point that most cards hold.
Baccarat Discovered by French Nobility
Baccarat was introduced to the French by the Italians in the 1500s, while there are some that claim that baccarat was invented by the French. Both theories contribute to the fact that baccarat was an immense hit with the French nobility of the time. The nobility were constantly looking for new and exciting pastimes and they welcomed the game into the courts.
Baccarat was renamed Chemin de Fer (French for railroad) during this time period and the game required four players, with each taking turns to hold the role of the banker. The French also introduced new terms to the game: ‘banco’ which means that the players bet on the total of the bank’s funds; ‘cheval’ meaning other players can bet on either hand; ‘non’ meaning the player chooses to stand and ‘carte’ when the player would request another card.
At first, baccarat was illegal and the nobility were forced to play the game in secret. Legislation was then passed which began taxing the game and some of the proceedings were given to the poor. Suddenly this game that was previously played underground became an act of charity and philanthropy. The golden period of baccarat lasted until Napoleon came to power at the end of the 1700s and even though he did not make the game illegal, he frowned upon it. Having lost its social acceptability, baccarat also lost its popularity. When Louis Philippe came to power in 1830 he banned baccarat and other forms of gambling and this form of entertainment remained illegal until 1907.
British Aristocracy Play Baccarat Too
While the French nobility were leaping from charitable gaming to covert baccarat sessions, the game was spreading around the continent. British aristocracy was very keen on baccarat and the game was very popular in Victorian England. Baccarat was played in exclusive venues like Crockford’s Club in London and the Queen’s court was also hosted by John Aspinall for games playing.
This game playing in the Victorian court was not without scandal. In 1890, the playing partner of the Prince of Wales was caught allegedly cheating in baccarat. The partner, Sir William Gordon-Cumming was playing baccarat at the home of a well-known millionaire and was accused of rigging the game in favor of his playing group, which included the Prince of Wales. Sir Gordon Cumming was forced to sign an agreement which stated that he would never play baccarat again and the prince did not come to his defense. Sir Gordon-Cumming was thus rejected from the royal social circle and subsequently sued for defamation. Even though he lost the case, the entire situation was very unpleasant for the royal court and the baccarat playing community was rendered tabo
Baccarat made its way to Argentina and a variation called Punto Y Banca evolved. This form of the game migrated to Cuba where it was renamed Punto Banco and also underwent some minor rule changes. This type of baccarat became known as American baccarat – the European version of the game allowed players to bet against each other and the house took a percentage, while in the American form all players were able to bet against the house.
Frances “Tommy” Renzoni was a junior manager at the Capri Hotel Casino in Havana and he had observed the popularity of baccarat. In a politically volatile Cuba of the mid 1950s, Renzoni decided to try his luck moving the popularity of baccarat away from Cuba and towards Nevada. Renzoni approached the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas and suggested that they introduce the game that he had grown to love in Cuba.
A baccarat pit was set up in the casino and it included all the fanfare that a normal baccarat playing area consisted of. The area was roped off, the dealers wore tuxedos and the very vibe it let off was exclusivity. While the average gambler might have been put off by this vibe, the more adventurous of the lot decided to give the game a try. According to a memoir written by Renzoni, the Sands Casino lost $250,000 in the first night of play.
In the 1920s in France, baccarat was once again legal and bettors were occupied with trying to find a way to master the game and crack the casinos. One group known as the Greek Syndicate, a superb team of baccarat gamblers, was lead by Nico Zographos. Zographos was an engineer who had done an in-depth mathematical study of the game and his team, made up of a two Greeks, an Armenian and a Frenchman succeeded in breaking casinos’ banks across France. By reading body language and counting cards, this team made over $5 million in gambling loot.
Baccarat's Changing Image
Baccarat has been accepted everywhere around the world, but there are some places that have warmed more to baccarat than others. In the 1950s and 1960s, Americans were less excited about baccarat than they were about other games. The American gambling culture of the time was far too casual and players tended to prefer informal games such as craps that did not have such a formal image. In order to facilitate the opening up of baccarat to the less experienced and more relaxed gambler, casinos invented mini-baccarat. This game could be played in the main casino area on a table similar in size to a blackjack table. Mini-baccarat was far less intimidating than its predecessor and only required one dealer, as opposed to the traditional four dealers required for regular baccarat.
Baccarat is hugely popular amongst the Asian community as well. The number of Asian visitors to Las Vegas every year attributes to the fact that baccarat has spread all over the world. In casinos located in the Portuguese territory of Macao near Hong Kong, baccarat is highly popular. Unlike its American counterparts, Portuguese baccarat tables generally allow several players to bet on a single spot at the same time. The dealers, too, have an ingenious method of keeping track of the bettors’ commission on successful bets.
In February 1990, Akio Kashiwagi, also nicknamed “The Warrior” made baccarat betting history when he won $6 million in Atlantic City’s Trump Plaza casino. Kashiwagi had been wagering $200,000 per hand and this method seemed to pay off. However, the famous bettor also managed to break another betting record, but less successfully. In May of the same year, Kashiwagi participated in a six-day gambling stint, wagering similar stakes each time, ultimately loosing $10 million. As they say – you win some, you lose some.
Baccarat’s historical journey has recently crossed a new frontier with the dawn of the online casino industry. When the game was introduced to the online casino scene, it became instantaneously popular. The exclusivity of the game had always made it of great interest to regular gamblers. Suddenly the opportunity presented itself for any player who had access to an online casino, to play this previously ‘forbidden’ game. The elegant dress code and exclusivity that was attributed to baccarat in land casinos has been replaced by an enthusiasm and enjoyment from a new group of online baccarat fans.
Posted by Denise Marie
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