Las Vegas Sun

July 22, 2017

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Baccarat attracts high-rollers with simple mystique

Those who sit in tuxedos at the $100,000-limit baccarat table can sip Dom Perignon champaign, though etiquette dictates they should go to their limousines or Lear jets if they want to eat caviar.

Those who sit in T-shirts at the $2-limit blackjack table may guzzle beer, but it is considered improper during a hand for a player to munch on bread sticks he had stuffed into his pockets during a trip through the buffet line.

While there are many common devotees of blackjack and other casino games, it is the elite baccarat players -- less than 1 percent of those who go into a casino that even offers the game -- who determine the fate of statewide casino profits.

And while blackjack players pay a casino electric bill or two with their losses, baccarat earnings go a lot further toward financing major hotel expansions. And the game provides the mystique and images of grandeur for which many more opulent casinos strive.

"Yes, there is the psychological thing -- the James Bond movies and all of that -- to playing baccarat, but it is also a game where you have all of the control without another player doing something that can cause you to lose," said David Vernon, a baccarat player and author.

"In baccarat, the rules play themsleves, so all you have to do is bet -- and you can bet a lot."

Inevitably, when the Gaming Control Board releases its monthly state casino winnings statistics, the lucrative business done at the 80 baccarat tables statewide determines whether casinos in general had a good month or a bad one.

Figures for May show that Nevada casinos posted a 10 percent increase in winnings -- the best in more than a year -- over May 1996. Also, baccarat was responsible for nearly $50 million of the $245 million won at all table games.

That greater than 20 percent figure is amazing, when you consider that just 20 of the state's 199 casinos with nonrestricted gaming licenses offer baccarat, and that 14 of them are on or very near the Las Vegas Strip.

'Silly little game'

While casinos are able to attract a number of high-rollers to this highly volatile game, there are those who wouldn't touch baccarat with a 10-foot croupier's stick.

"It is a silly little game," said David Sklansky, a high-stakes poker player, gaming analyst and author of eight gambling books. "It amazes me how much action this game gets. There are a number of other games that offer players much better odds for their money than baccarat."

In Sklansky's latest book, "Gambling for a Living" (2+2=4 Publishing, $24.95 paperback), which he co-authored with Mason Malmuth, he discusses several casino games that he says are "beatable." Baccarat is discussed in a chapter entitled "(Usually) Unbeatable Games."

Sklansky notes that with more liberal blackjack and craps available today, baccarat can no longer boast that its 1.1-1.3 percent player disadvantage are the best odds around.

However, Vernon, author of "Baccarat Made Simple" (self-published, $9.95 paperback), says that, like many folks, he had trouble making a living at other games and found baccarat to be quite beatable.

"I live baccarat," he said. "With blackjack, you need help (the player sitting next to you not foolishly splitting 10s, for example) and with craps you have no control.

"As for the odds, they are based on the assumption that everyone else in the game does everything right. But that does not always happen."

Vernon, 54, says he came to Las Vegas with $75 in his pocket in 1989 and learned to play baccarat a year later. He tried blackjack and craps, but experienced his greatest bankroll increases playing baccarat and mini-baccarat.

Vernon says he has been successful at baccarat by judging runs of the cards in favor of either of the two hands that are dealt during a single game. (For the rules of baccarat, see the information box accompanying this story.)

Knowing probabilities

"I know the extremes -- the probabilities of the changes," said Vernon, who recently started a baccarat newsletter. "I also practice money management, knowing before I start a session that I will play no more than four shoes (it takes about an hour to play a shoe), as well as set the amount I will risk."

While Sklansky, 47, also believes strongly in money management, as most good gamblers do, he says that with baccarat there is no pattern to what hands will win.

"This (predicting what the next winning hand will be based on previous hands) is a classic error in baccarat that many gamblers make," said Sklansky, a 17-year Las Vegan and a 25-year pro gambler.

"In baccarat, if the banker wins three or four in a row, the player has no advantage of breaking the streak and winning the next one. In gambling, these are called 'independent events.' There is no such thing as predicting (when) a hot streak (will occur)."

Vernon, who often is seen in baccarat rooms not in a tuxedo but in a cowboy hat, admits that baccarat offers a big ego trip.

"Ego is a strong component of the game," Vernon said. "I can show 10 people how to play better, but maybe only one will listen and take the advice because of their egos."

Sklansky says baccarat players no longer should thumb their noses at the plebeian blackjack players because "they really shouldn't feel superior when they are playing more of a sucker game (than those at the '21' tables)."

Yet, Sklansky also admits that because of the James Bond movies, the rich ambiance of the rooms and the enticing simplicity of the game, baccarat will "remain popular indefinitely" among many high-rollers, some of whom have egos that would rival the size of their bankrolls.

Dealing with egos

It is the players' egos that baccarat dealers see every day -- and it never fails to amaze them.

"I've seen players sit for two or three days and lose $1 million, and it seems so insignificant to them," said Joe Smith (not his real name) who deals at a Las Vegas casino. "Few of them smile -- it's like they are working."

Because a lot of casinos pool all table game tokes, baccarat dealers get only a share of the potential huge tips from high-rollers, he said.

"There were bigger scores years ago when just the baccarat dealers shared the tips they got in the baccarat games," Smith said.

The game has some real characters. Smith noted that a number of players have little rituals before turning over the cards that are dealt face-down.

"Some will blow on them or root for a natural 9 -- get real dramatic," he said. "That sometimes aggravates other players who want them just to turn the cards over and get on with the game."

Smith admits he has to be real careful, because making a mistake on a $100,000 bet can be dangerous to a dealer's financial well-being.

"You upset a player who is betting a lot of money, and he goes to your boss and says he doesn't like you, he (the boss) might decide he wants to keep that player happy, and that could mean not keeping you (employed)," Smith said.

One reason Smith was offered anonymity to speak to the SUN was because several Las Vegas casinos that offer baccarat either refused or ignored requests to cooperate with this story.

Mum on baccarat

A spokesperson for one casino said it was feared the SUN was trying to find out who its high-rollers were. Another said its casino bosses felt there was nothing that could be written about baccarat that would be beneficial to the casino.

"One reason they won't talk is because some of them are afraid they will be asked about things like rebates and other issues they don't want people to know about," said Howard Schwartz, a gambling analyst and longtime operator of the Gamblers Book Shop.

"Rebates are offered to high-rollers to entice them to bet more. For instance, players might be offered $1 million back for every $5 million they lose. There are questions about this practice (as gaming tax revenues are involved).

"Also, baccarat is a dangerous game for the casinos. Gamblers like (Australian) Kerry Packer can come in and win $4-6 million on a weekend," Schwartz said.

Sklansky reckons if stories begin to surface that baccarat does not offer great odds, many high-rollers would "wise up" and play more beatable games at the maximum limits and better use their vast financial resources to really hurt the house. Casinos definitely do not want that, he said.

Schwartz believes, however, that casinos should be more open about baccarat in order to attract the mass of middle-class blackjack players, with whom baccarat has never caught on.

Baccarat dates back to the Romans. It was brought to France by the military in the early 16th century, where baccarat and its sister game, chemin de fer, flourished in places like Monte Carlo. Baccarat means nothing or zero. Chemin de fer means railroad car (because the shoe travels around the table).

Chemin de fer, affectionately called "shimmy" by the aristocrats who play it, differs from baccarat in that a bettor chooses to bank the table, covering all the player bets. The banker also has options on taking a third card. There have been instances where gamblers have actually won a casino property.

In baccarat, the casino books all of the bets. Also, there are set rules on drawing a third card.

Comes to Vegas

Chemin de fer was the first of the two games to come to Las Vegas. It was offered by the Stardust in 1956, but never caught on. It has not been played in Las Vegas in decades.

Baccarat was brought to Las Vegas from the casinos of Havana, Cuba, in 1959 by John Scarne and Tommy Ronzoni. It was first played in the Deuville Room at the old Sands Hotel.

Today, baccarat is extremely popular among wealthy Asian gamblers.

In more recent times, mini-baccarat was established in an effort to bring the game to the masses. There is a $2 mini-baccarat table in at least one downtown casino, so the game is affordable to low-limit players.

Sklansky says, however, that the smaller game has served mainly as a way of preparing gamblers of means for bigger baccarat, where many of them eventually would have gone anyway.

Though critical of the game from a gambler's standpoint, Sklansky once recommended it for a casino that had hired him as a consultant because he says it would have been good for that house's operations.

Vernon advises new baccarat players not to be influenced by other players at the table, especially those making the astronomical wagers, because they don't necessarily know anything more than the smaller bettors.

"Baccarat is the simplest game in the world," Vernon says. "It's comparable to heads or tails, white or black. It's as pure as a glass of water."