Introduction to Baccarat


The English word “card” stems from the Greek term for paper, but actually, card games go back over 2,000 years, centuries before paper was invented. Historians have been unable to pinpoint their precise origins, but they have uncovered records of card playing in ancient China, India, and Egypt.

Like dice, cards were brought back to Europe in the fourteenth century by the Crusaders, and although the church was soon preaching that they were the invention of the devil himself, Johann Gutenberg printed playing cards in 1440, the same year he printed his famous Bible. Consisting of 78 cards, the pack was called Tarots, from which the modern deck evolved, with the four suits representing the four classes of feudal society. The nobility was symbolized by swords, in Spanish espadas, from which we get spades. Merchants were represented by coins, fre-quently square in shape, which, when turned on end, became today’s diamonds. The sign for the serfs was literally a club, then called a baton, and today the cloverleaf-shaped sign is still called a club. The emblem for the church was the grail, or chalice, and from its characteristic shape developed our hearts.

Gutenberg’s Tarot deck consisted of 22 “atouts,” or trumps—including a joker—and four suits of 14 cards, each with ten numbered cards plus a king, a queen, a knight, and a valet or jester. Before 1500, the 22 “atouts” and the valet were dropped, although today in some games the five top-ranked cards are still called trumps, and in other games the joker (jester) is still used. Originally, the face cards were portrayals of actual personages, and slight traces of them remain to this day. Charlemagne was the model for the king of hearts; the Hebrew King David was portrayed by the king of spades; Julius Caesar was represented by the king of diamonds; and Alexander the Great was the prototype for the king of clubs. On the feminine side were Helen of Troy as the queen of hearts, Palas Athena as the queen of spades, and the biblical Rachel as the queen of diamonds. Also honored from time to time were Joan of Arc and Elizabeth I, as well as a number of others. The knights, or jacks as they came to be called, were all patterned after famous soldiers, such as Sir Lancelot for clubs; Charlemagne’s nephew Roland for diamonds; Hogier Le Danois, another Charlemagne lieutenant, for spades; and Etienne de Vignoles, who fought for Charles VII of France, for hearts. By 1492 the modern deck of cards as we know it had been established and was introduced to America by Christopher Columbus and his sailors.
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At about the same time, the forerunner of our present day baccarat made its first appearance. I am indebted to Richard A. Epstein and his classic work, The Theory of Gambling and Statistical Logic, from which the following is excerpted:

Introduced into France from Italy during the reign of Charles VIII (ca. 1490), the game was apparently devised by a gambler named Felix Falguiere who based it on the old Etruscan ritualism of the “Nine Gods.” According to legend, twenty-six centuries ago in “The Temple of Golden Hair” in Etruscan Rome, the “Nine Gods” prayed standing on their toes to a golden-tressed virgin who cast a novem dare (nine-sided die) at their feet. If her throw was 8 or 9, she was crowned a priestess. If she threw a 6 or 7, she was disqualified from further religious office and her vestal status was summarily transmuted. And if her cast was 5 or under, she walked gracefully into the sea. Baccarat was designed with a similar partition (albeit with less dramatic payoffs) of the numbers, modulo 10.

Unfortunately, today it’s the casino patrons who are usually destined to face a fate similar to that suffered by the would-be priestess when she cast a 6 or 7.

European baccarat (pronounced ba-ka-ra with soft a’s and a silent t), baccarat en banque, and chemin de fer, are all descendants of this original Italian game of baccara, meaning zero and referring to the value of all 10-count cards. They soon became the exclusive games of the French nobility, not making their way to the public casinos for many years. But, over time, baccarat became very popular, just like bingo.

In European baccarat, in addition to the player’s standing or drawing on 5 as he pleases, the play of the dealer, who operates the permanent bank for the casino, is completely optional. In spite of these options, the decisions of the banker in almost all cases is exactly the same as required by the rules of play for American baccarat. Perfect employment of these options would not increase the fixed percentage in favor of the casino by .5%. In this game, players who choose to bet with the bank to win are charged 5% of their winnings on each bet.

The game of baccarat en banque is very similar, with the exception that one bank hand and two player hands are dealt. Frequently the casino leases the bank as a concession to a syndicate who shares 50% of their monthly winnings with the casino, but in the event of a loss, the syndicate absorbs it all. In this version of the game, the player can bet on either or both of the player hands but never on the bank hand. The banker, a casino employee, can stand or draw as he chooses. Normally he will play according to the fixed American baccarat rules, but he can modify this procedure to enhance his chances of beating the player hand with the greatest amount of money bet on it.

The basic difference in the game of chemin de fer (which is French for railroad, and refers to the shoe moving around the table like a train) is that the bank rotates among the players and the house acts as a broker, collecting a fee from the winnings of each banker, therefore assuming no risk whatsoever. The player who is acting as banker cannot draw down any part of his original bank or subsequent winnings unless either the players do not subscribe to all the bank or, after the completion of any hand, the banker chooses to pass the bank. In this game, the player also has the choice of standing or drawing on 5, and the banker’s play is completely optional. In any of these three games, the experienced American player who observed the European game long enough to become familiar with the variations in procedure would be able to play a professional game just by using the American baccarat rules.

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