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The History of Baccarat

29 Aug 2022

Alongside the other giants of casino table games, baccarat is sort of the third member of a Big 3 - the other two being blackjack and roulette.

Arguably the most complex of the three, it’s a popular game that, whether for historical reasons or others, is in many ways also the more luxurious of the three.

Not to mention, the one generally played for high minimum bets and at times somewhat ludicrous amounts of money, often in private rooms at casinos by the real high-rollers of this world. 

But let’s look at the history of baccarat, how the rules evolved and how online baccarat became one of the top-tier games as well as other interesting trivia about this much-loved card game. 

Baccarat Origins: The Theories

You can read about the origins of other card games such as the history of blackjack and you’ll see that some of them went through a lot more changes and evolution than this one. 

But the history of baccarat is an intriguing one no less and it’s time to look back at how baccarat started.

Because Felix liked a Flutter 

The concept of the celebrity gambler has been around for a lot longer than one might think. 

These days the likes of Floyd Mayweather, Dana White, Michael Jordan, Ben Affleck and Phil Mickelson make headlines for their casino gambling and sports betting exploits, whether in winning or losing causes.

But back in Italy in the 1400s, the big gambler about town was an Italian man called Felix Falguiere, also known as Falguierein.

Falgiere is thought to have created the game himself and called it ‘baccara’ which in Italian translates as ‘zero’. 

That’s because it’s a zero-sum game where all face cards and tens were worth zero, which is true to this day and is still how modern baccarat is played. 

Etruscan Woman all at Sea 

But where did Falguiere get his own inspiration from? 

The answer might lie in an old Etruscan legend based on a story of a virgin who had to throw a nine-sided die. 

If she threw an eight or a nine, she’d get an instant promotion up the ladder each time she threw one, on the journey to becoming a priestess. 

A six or a seven meant she’d stay alive but lose all her priestly roles. 

Which was a whole load better than throwing any value lower than six. If that happened, she’d be sentenced to death by drowning at sea. 

Whereas the Falguiere scenario is credible based on accounts from the time, this version is probably more myth than anything so should be taken with a pinch of salt. 

Were the Chinese Playing it Almost 1000 Years Ago? 

Perhaps a more credible origin of the game pre-Falguiere lies in the Chinese tile-based game Pai Gow. 

It’s very possible that Marco Polo and his crew saw it being played on their travels to China and that Falguiere created his card-based version based on it. 

There’s also a theory that early versions of Baccarat used Tarot cards rather than the traditional playing cards. 

Baccarat Reaches France: A Game made for Kings 

Baccarat is thought to have reached France in the 1490s, probably through soldiers returning home after the Franco-Italian wars at the end of the 1490s, who witnessed and played the game while on duty in Italy. 

Its popularity received a huge boost when it became a firm favourite for King Charles VIII and as a consequence, one also enjoyed by members of the French nobility. 

In addition to casinos, the baccarat table would also find its way into private rooms at noble mansions or even palaces, where players gambled huge amounts of money on any given hand. 

It was also around this time that the French spelling baccarat began to be used rather than the older Italian version. 

Louis Philip may have banned casinos in France in 1837 but it was too popular a game for people to stop playing. 

It was also in France that the original baccarat game became split in two, as two different versions became available at baccarat tables. 

First up there was Baccarat Banque, a three-person game. There are mentions of it in the 1847 book “Album des Jeux”  by Charles van-Tenac.

Much later, a second version emerged called Baccarat chemin de fer, or “Chemmy”, named after the French word for railways, which were the big thing of the day. 

Baccarat Crosses the English Channel 

The exact date when baccarat was brought from France to the UK by travellers and holidaymakers isn’t known. 

But here’s what we do know. 

The first written mention of it is in an article by The Daily Telegraph on the 13th of January 1866.

One of the important influences from its arrival in the UK was the shift from playing the Chemin de Fer version to the Baccarat Punto Banco version. 

We talk about this in the next section. 

Another was that it became a favourite game for the English author Ian Fleming, who played it himself. 

Years later, when he created James Bond, his secret agent was also a big fan of baccarat and a fearless player who was prepared to take big risks at the baccarat table, just like he also did at the roulette table. 

Bond’s baccarat sessions, featured in several different films and discussed in the ‘Pop culture’ section below, increased the awareness of the game and left fans of the movies with a thirst to go out and try it themselves. 

Evolution of the Baccarat Game over Time

These days there are three main variations played:

  • Punto Banco, 

  • Chemin de Fer 

  • Baccarat Banque

But irrespective of the individual rules for each variation, how has the essence of the game changed over the centuries? 

When There were Four Dealers 

While the original game played by Felix Falguiere about 800 years ago used the same counting system as the one used today, the way the cards were dealt and by who were quite different. 

Cards were dealt by four different dealers, each of the players had an opportunity to be the banker, and players could place bets against other players as well as against the house. 

Today there is one dealer, bets are generally placed against the house, and the house also serves as the banker.

Baccarat Banque and Chemin de Fer

The first version of baccarat played in France was pretty much what we refer to today as Baccarat Banque. 

It’s a three-player game that uses three inter-shuffled decks and one of its characteristics is that players take turns being the Banker based either on order of arrival at the table or on who is prepared to take the biggest financial risk on the next hand.

But Baccarat Banque became quickly rivalled by Chemin de Fer, in France.

This baccarat game is a “player vs player” rather than a “player vs banker” card game, which is what Baccarat Banque is. 

Another of its chief differences is that if you’re dealt five in ‘Chemmy’, you can either draw or stand, whereas in the ‘Banque’ version, you’re forced to draw.

This version uses a minimum of six decks of cards. 

Players settle on Punto Banco 

We’ll talk in due course about how this American baccarat version evolved just now but the key point is that once Punto Banco arrived on the scene, it quickly became by far the most popular of any of the baccarat games. 

And casinos around the world reacted by making it the most readily available of the many formats. 

This version uses a “dealer vs player” format. Here players win or lose against the House as opposed to ‘Chemmy’, where players are up against each other and the house takes a rake, similar to poker. 

The casino banks during rounds and plays hands based on standard rules using eight decks of cards in a shoe. 

This version is also the most popular game you will find in the online casino here at Pure Win.

Baccarat Makes its Way to America

Baccarat has arguably overtaken blackjack and roulette as the most popular game of all in casinos in America. 

Interestingly, it was the last of the three to hit casinos in Las Vegas, and later Atlantic City, the other two games being around for a while before baccarat joined them.

But how did it get to America in the first place? 

Havana acts as the “House” 

In the 1940s, Havana in Cuba was the place to be if you were in South America or Latin America. 

With classy casinos, stylish parties, plenty of music and booze flowing freely, there weren’t many quiet nights in Havana. 

And it was here that many believe that Punto Banco was born. 

It was called Punto Banco by merging the Spanish words punto (player) and banco (bank) and was played slightly differently to some of the previous versions.

One of the key features was that the game was always managed by a dealer, rather than different players taking turns, so casinos acted as the “House” at all times. 

This led to smoother gameplay with trained and experienced dealers running the game quickly, which led to more hands being played.

In this sense, it was more in line with local culture, where players preferred to just play rather than having to deal, as well. 

It then became the most popular version of baccarat in casinos across the whole of South America and it was at this stage that it was discovered by a certain Tommy Renzoni. 

Some say he played it in the Mar Del Plata casino in Buenos Aires, others claim it was in Havana. 

But either way, Tommy Renzoni brought the game to Las Vegas after discovering it down south. 

The Sands Casino’s big opening night

Renzoni was sure Punto Banco would be a big hit in Las Vegas and so introduced this version to the Sands Casino in the late 50s.

The Sands bought into it. On the game’s opening night, there was a roped-off area with a baccarat pit that gave the whole thing an air of exclusivity and dealers showed up wearing tuxedos. 

According to Renzoni’s memoirs, the Sands lost close to a quarter of a million dollars on opening night thanks to a handful of players going big and securing some big winning bets at this new and intriguing game.

But the casino owners at the Sands Casino bit the bullet on those losses and kept the baccarat pit open and the players kept coming in. 

Unsurprisingly, other Las Vegas casinos followed suit but if you thought it could be found everywhere on the entire Vegas strip, you’d be wrong.

Baccarat goes exclusive on the strip in the 1970s 

By the 1970s everyone knew about the game in Vegas but there were still only 15 tables you could play Baccarat at on the Vegas strip.

This was deliberate. 

It was marketed as an exclusive game for high-rollers and to add to the glamour, it was often played in private rooms with comfortable leather chairs, strict dress codes and high minimum bets. 

All of this just added to its appeal. 

These days the Vegas Casinos aren’t so keen on it being exclusive, instead reckoning they’re better off making it available and affordable to everyone. 

Baccarat in Pop Culture

Baccarat hasn’t featured in pop culture as much as other games you’d find at a casino, like roulette or blackjack.

Maybe it’s the fact that the rules of the game of baccarat aren’t as well-known to the general public that explains its somewhat rare appearances in books, films, TV and other media over the decades.

But here are a few times it did make an appearance. 

Bond does Baccarat 

We’ve mentioned Ian Fleming’s love of baccarat and he gave the baccarat bug to his creation James Bond. 

Bond is very much a “Chemin de Fer” man, even making reference to his favoured version of baccarat in Dr No.

So it’s hardly surprising that baccarat makes several appearances in Bond films, starting with the first-ever one: Dr No. It then also features in ThunderballOn her Majesty’s Secret Service and Goldeneye

But the one where it’s most central to the plot is in the 1967 spoof Casino Royale, which for the record, isn’t an official Bond film but does have James Bond in it. 

Here Bond hires a baccarat expert to take on the villain Le Chiffre at a game of ‘Chemmy’ after discovering his nemesis has a foolproof way of cheating. 

Though there was a showdown card game between Bond and Le Chiffre at the end of the movie, the producers felt that given the poker boom at the time the film was released, it was more relevant to audiences that the two rivals should play Texas Hold’em, rather than baccarat. 

Baccarat is played in A Hard Day’s Night 

Three years before Bond was taking on Le Chiffre at baccarat, it was being featured in the musical comedy A Hard Day’s Night, starring The Beatles. 

In the movie, Paul McCartney’s grandfather is a troublemaker who at one stage steals an invite meant for the band, to go to an exclusive casino and ends up playing baccarat.

Inebriated and unaware of the rules of the game, he somehow manages to go on a big winning run nonetheless.

Rise to King of Gambling Games

Figures on the overall popularity of casino games and how they compare to each other in European casinos aren’t so easy to come by. 

But it’s a slightly different story in Nevada, home of Las Vegas, and Macau. 

In May 2014, the state of Nevada estimated that around 45% of its gaming revenue from Las Vegas came from the game of baccarat, dwarfing what it drew in from blackjack, roulette, slots, War and the other extremely popular games at Las Vegas casinos. 

Just two years earlier, revenue from Las Vegas casinos generated from baccarat stood at just 18.3%, proof of its huge increase in popularity over the past few years.

But that figure of 45% is small fish compared to Macau. 

In Asia’s gambling capital, it accounted for a staggering 87.6% of gambling revenue in 2019. 

The next highest type of game on the list was slot games, accounting for just 5%. 

It’s come a long way since the days when it was only the nobility in France who played it behind closed doors.

The Transition to Online Casinos

The Punto Banco table went online in the mid-1990s as casinos became one of the internet’s most popular uses. 

Players could enjoy a faster-paced game, no closing hours, bonuses given to players for signing up and beyond, and other benefits. 

But the gameplay and experience took a big leap forward with the emergence of the Live Casino around a decade later. 

The action is streamed from a studio or land casino with real Dealers managing the games. 

Players can interact with the Dealer or other players and the game has much more of a real feeling to it than the previous mechanical incarnations of the game online, though these are still available for those who want them.

Baccarat Casino Games in India

In India, you can play baccarat at any land-based casino. 

The problem, as we know, is that there are only three places in India where casinos are permitted: Goa, Sikkim and Daman. 

Goa has the most casinos, many of them floating casinos on the Mandovi River. 

Would-be baccarat players need to be at least 21 years old and should be aware of any dress codes that apply at a particular casino. 

The alternative of course is to go online. 

Indian players can open accounts with any casino operating in India and benefit from bonuses, lots of different games, 24/7 customer service and other features. 

All online casinos have a mobile version or app these days, so you can play baccarat from your phone wherever you are.

Conclusion

So now you should be completely up to speed with the history of baccarat.

From its humble beginnings in Italy over 800 years ago to its presence in just about every casino on the planet and its availability online, both in mechanical and Live Casino form. 

The obvious next step is to see what the fuss is all about and play online baccarat for yourself!


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