Learn the game played by James Bond: A Baccarat Primer

Learn the game played by James Bond: A Baccarat Primer

Virtually everyone remembers the famous image of secret agent James Bond playing the casino game of baccarat (pronounced bah-cah-rah) in the popular James Bond novels and movies. Although the game appears serious and eloquent (and intimidating to average players), it's actually as simple to play as betting on a flip of a coin; and, get this, the house edge is one of the lowest in the casino.

There are several variations of baccarat that are played in casinos around the world; however, in the U.S.A., it's “Punto Banco” baccarat (usually just called baccarat) that is offered, in which the casino will bank the game on every round, and the play-out of the hands is done according to fixed rules.

There are three types of baccarat tables found in casinos. The full-scale version, which seats from 12 to 14 players, is located in a separate area from the main casino (usually called the “Baccarat or High Roller Room”), ostensibly to provide an extra measure of privacy and security because of the high-stakes betting. The game is played by very high rollers (known as '”whales”), who often wager tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on a single hand. (Even the minimum betting limit is high, usually $25 to $100 or higher per hand.) The game is very formal (the three dealer's usually wear tuxedos and players are well dressed), and players will take turns dealing the cards.

Located on the main casino floor, usually adjacent to the blackjack tables, are the mini-baccarat tables that are shaped similar to a blackjack table (semi-circle), with room for six or seven players. In mini-baccarat, the casino dealer deals the cards (not the players). The playing rules are the same as the full-scale version except the table stakes are much lower (usually more in line with what you would find with the other table games on the main casino floor).

Lastly, there is the midi-baccarat table, which is a shorter rectangular version of the full-scale table, except a single dealer staffs the table. However, don't let the size and shape of the baccarat table confuse you because they all have the same playing rules.

Baccarat is usually played with eight decks of playing cards. Initially, two cards are dealt to each hand, which are called the Bank hand and the Player hand. The player's objective is to guess which hand will come closest to nine (i.e., the hand which has a point count closest to nine wins). Note: If the Player and Bank hands have the same point count, all bets on either hand are a push or tie and you neither win nor lose.)

Like blackjack, every card in baccarat counts its face value with two exceptions: Aces are worth 1 point, and tens and picture cards are worth 0 points. For example, a hand consisting of a 3-Queen has a point value of three; likewise, Ace-6 has a point value of seven.

In blackjack, 21 is the highest point count for a hand and if you go over 21, you bust and automatically lose. In baccarat, nine is the highest point count for a hand, and, unlike blackjack, you can't bust. Therefore, if the point count of your hand exceeds nine in baccarat, you simply subtract 10. For example, if a hand contains a 9-7, the point count is six (16 minus 10); likewise, a 6-8 would be four, and an Ace-9 would be zero. Alternately, the point count of a hand that exceeds nine is just the second digit of the point count. Therefore, a 9-7, which is 16, has a point count of six.

Regardless of the number of players, each player wagers on either the Bank or the Player hand before the cards are dealt (there are betting spots for the Bank and Player hands on the layout in front of each player.) There is also a third betting option, a bet on the Tie, where players are hoping that the Bank and Player hands have the same point count. (Tip: Even though the payoff for a winning Tie pay is 8-1, the house edge is ridiculously high at 14.36% and you should avoid this bet.)

Sometimes one or both hands must draw a third card. The rules for standing or drawing are summarized below; however, the rules are fixed by the casino and you don't need to memorize them to play, although if you familiarize yourself with the rules, you'll enjoy the game better. (The dealers know when one or both hands must draw a third card, which is the maximum allowed for both hands.)

Natural

If the point count of either the Bank or Player's initial two-card hand is 8 or 9, this is a natural and both hands must stand (i.e., the round is over).

Player Hand

If neither hand has a natural, then the Player hand acts first and follows this rule: if the point count is zero through five, it must draw a third card, and if it's six or seven, it must stand. (Note that the point count of the Bank hand has no bearing on whether the Player hand stands or draws.)

Bank Hand

If the Player hand initially stood, then the Bank hand follows the same rules (i.e., draws with 0-5 and stands with 6-7).

If the Player hand drew a third card, then the rules for drawing a third card for the Bank hand are more complicated, and are based on two factors: the point count of the Bank hand and the value of the Player's third card. The following table summarizes the Third Card Drawing Rules for Bank hand. (D means draw and S means stand.)

For example, suppose the point count of the initial hands were four (Player) and six (Banker). The Player's hand acts first and must draw. Suppose the draw card is a three, giving a final point count for the hand of seven. According to the above table, when the point count of the initial Bank hand is six and the Player's third card draw is a three, the Bank hand must stand. (Round is over, and Player hand wins seven over six.)

An interesting fact about baccarat is the third card draw rules favor the Bank hand more so than the Player hand. This results in the Bank hand winning more than 50% of the time (Bank hand wins 50.68%, and Player hand 49.32%, discarding ties). The significance of this is that if you bet on the Bank hand all the time, you would become very rich because you would have a greater than 1% edge over the Player hand. The casinos are well aware of these percentages and they, therefore, charge a 5% commission on every winning Bank hand bet (meaning, you get a 19-20 or 95% payoff for a winning Bank hand bet with a 5% commission going to the casino vs. a 1-1 or 100% payoff for a winning Player hand bet). When the 5% commission is factored into every winning Bank hand, the house edge becomes 1.06% for Bank hand and 1.24% for Player hand. This means a player can expect a return of roughly 99% over the long term when playing baccarat, which is quite good for a table game that doesn't require memorizing a complicated playing strategy.

Keep this in mind when you play: if you win a Bank hand bet, you'll be paid even money and the dealer will place a laminar in an area of the layout where he or she tracks each player's commissions (i.e., the 5% commission that you owe the casino on every winning Bank hand bet). At the end of a shoe, or when you quit playing, the dealer will add up how much you owe in commissions and you are expected to pay up. So don't lose all your money … you'll need some to pay off your commissions on the Bank hand bets that you won when you are done playing.

Casinos provide baccarat players with a scorecard and pencil so they have the option of keeping track of the sequence of wins and losses on each round. (Some casinos also have electronic boards, where the winning hands for the last 10 or so rounds are posted for all players.) Many baccarat players use their scorecard to look for trends that guide them into deciding which hand to bet on. Trends are nice but they don't influence future results. In other words, keeping score will not change the house edge against you.

Winning Tips

1. Unfortunately, card counting or using progressive betting systems will not give you the edge at baccarat. My advice for casual players is to stick with betting on the Bank hand because it has a slightly lower house edge than the Player hand, even with the 5% commission. Never bet the Tie. My suggestion for casual players is to start with a session bankroll equal to 20-times your base bet, with a goal of winning 25% of your bankroll. (For a $10 bet on, say, a mini-baccarat table, that means a $200 bankroll with an initial goal of winning $50. If you get lucky and your winnings exceed $50, increase your win goal to $100. As long as you keep winning, keep increasing your win goal in $50 increments. However, if you start losing and your winnings drop below the last win goal that you exceeded, quit your session with a profit. (Better to win a small amount then to end up broke trying for a big score.)

2. Keep this in mind if you decide to play mini-baccarat. It is a very fast game with upwards of 150 hands dealt per hour by the dealer. This fast pace exposes more of your bankroll to the house edge. Since you don't have to bet on every round, one way to slow down your play is to wait for the Bank hand to win before betting on it. By betting this way, you'll reduce the casino's exposure by about 50%, avoid all Player hand win streaks, and capitalize on any Bank hand win streaks should they occur.

3. Sometimes, you might find a casino that lowers the commission on a winning Bank hand from 5% to 4%. This is a good deal because the house edge is reduced to only 0.6%.

4. Always give your Player's Card to the dealer when you play baccarat to get rated. Based on how much action you give the casino and their policy on comps, you should be able to get some free meals and other complimentary services for your play. These have some value, which when added to the 99% return on the game, will boost your overall return to greater than 99%.

5. There are several versions of “commission free baccarat” in casinos, in which the 5% commission on winning Bank hand wagers has been eliminated. The most popular version is EZ Baccarat. In this game, all winning Bank hand bets are paid at 1-1; however, when the Bank hand wins with a three-card 7, all Bank hand wagers push (or tie). The house edge in EZ Baccarat is 2.25%, which is about double the house edge in the traditional game (with 5% commission). I would recommend you avoid playing EZ Baccarat.

Henry Tamburin

Henry Tamburin

Henry Tamburin hosts the web site smartgaming.com, which contains a collection of his gambling strategy articles for different casino games. Go to www.bjinsider.com to read the current issue of his Blackjack Insider e-Newsletter, or to www.bjinsider.com/FreeTrial for a no-risk, three-month trial subscription. You can also read his gambling strategy tips each month in the following magazines and web sites: Casino Player Magazine, Strictly Slots Magazine, Southern Gaming Magazine, Gaming South Magazine, Midwest Gaming and Travel Magazine, Jackpot, New England Gaming News, Bingo Bugle, and www.casinocitytimes.com.

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