What the hell is baccarat and why do they keep decks of cards in their shoes? And while we’re at it, what the hell is chemin de fer and punto banco and baccarat banque?
Baccarat has always carried with it a certain mystique, there’s a sense that it’s not for the likes of us. It’s for European aristocrats and is played in the impossibly swank casinos of Monte Carlo and London by people who holiday, San Maritz, and own banana yellow Lamborghinis. It is James Bond’s game, not ours, and therefore it must be hellishly complex and dangerous.
This is, of course, nonsense. In this brave new internet age, baccarat is accessible to everyone, and the rules are so straightforward even the most simple-minded can pick it up in seconds. This, in fact, may be the reason for its enduring popularity with the European aristocracy; as long as you can add two numbers together, you can play.
Baccarat has been around in one form of another since the 15th Century and is believed to have originated in Italy, before finding favour in France, where it was popular with the French royalty.
These days, though, it’s a game beloved, above all, of the Chinese, and the recent Chinese economic slowdown is being blamed for a global downturn in casino baccarat revenue. We kid you not!
But what the hell is it? Well, it’s a table game played with several decks of cards that are kept in a “shoe.” This is, of course, merely the word for the dealing box in baccarat and not a real shoe.
We’ve been unable to discover, incidentally, why it’s called a shoe, but since the game developed in France it’s reasonable to suggest it either came from the French word choux, a light pastry dough used to make profiteroles, or chou, a cabbage. Absolutely none the wiser, then.
There are many variations of baccarat and they’re all pretty similar really, but three in particular are known the world over: punto banco, chemin de fer, and baccarat banque. Punto banco is the English version, which crossed the Atlantic to the US and is the game widely played in American casinos and in fact most casinos the word over.
Chemin de fer, which means “iron box,” is the French version, so called because the cards used to be placed, not in a shoe, or a cabbage or a light pastry dough, but an actual iron box. The phrase’s use in baccarat predates its modern usage of “railway.” Baccarat banque, meanwhile, also played mainly in France, is its close relative.
There’s not a vast amount of difference between these three games, other than the way the cards are dealt and who gets to be the banker, and stuff like that, so we’re going to ignore the French variants and concentrate purely on punto banco to keep things simple. As we’ve explained, baccarat is a very simple and we feel we’ve already confused you enough with talk of pastry.
So, typically using an eight-deck shoe, cards are dealt out to the Player and the Dealer, or ‘banker’ (who is our enemy), and the aim of the game to create a hand witha points total closest to 9, without going over.
Note that only two hands are dealt. This isn’t like Blackjack, where everyone gets their own hand. Before each hand, everyone has the opportunity to make one of three bets: either on the “Player,” the “Banker,” or the tie.
The Dealer deals two cards to each side and the winner is the side closest to a total of 9. There may be a third card drawn, if the Player or Banker has 5 or less, but never more than that.
In terms of card values, all picture cards are worth zero, and if the total is over 10 then the left-hand digit is dropped. For example, 16 becomes 6, 17 becomes 7, etc. Hands worth both 9 and 8 are called “naturals,” with 9 beating 8. If the Player hand or the Banker hand has a natural 8 or 9 and the opposing hand has a lower point value, the “natural” hand wins.
Increasingly in casinos you may encounter mini-baccarat. The rules of play are the same as the rules at the big table, except that the house dealer is turning over the cards and everything is dealt face up. This tends to be a much faster, not to mention mellower game than the big table version.
And that’s about it, really. Simple enough for a small child to understand, although he wouldn’t be able to hit Vegas until he’s at least 21 and to be honest he’d probably be much happier playing League of Legends II, or whatever it is nowadays.
James Bond might think it’s a skill game, hence the preposterous idea that MI6 would fund his attempt to bankrupt soviet spy Le Chiffre via the power of baccarat, as is the plot of the original novel. But nope, baccarat is about as “gambly” a game as they get.