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Best of Alan Krigman

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Baccarat: Three Frequently Asked Questions

9 October 2000

Baccarat was once exclusively a big buck game for high rollers. It's now also widely offered with more modest limits, usually as mini-baccarat. The tenor of the versions differ, chiefly because bettors handle the cards in the full-blown game while only dealers do so in the mini-variant. But the rules and payouts are identical. Here are three questions I'm frequently asked about this game.

Baccarat has rigid rules for drawing or standing. What are they?

Baccarat involves two hands, Player and Banker. The winner is that finishing closer to a score of nine. Bets can also be made on Tie -- the hands finish at the same score. Each hand starts with two cards. These are tallied. Ace to nine have matching values 1 to 9; 10 through king equal 0. Scores are added up to 9, then the leading digit is dropped. For instance, 4 + 9 yields 3 rather than 13, 7 + 8 + 9 yield 4 rather than 24, and so forth.

The hands stand or draw once, based strictly on the two-card scores. The simplest case occurs when at least one initial hand is a natural -- a total of 8 or 9. Player and Banker both stand. The fly hits the ointment when neither initial hand is a natural. Player then follows a single rule: draw on totals of 0 through 5; stand otherwise. Rules for Banker are more complex:

  • Banker starts at 0, 1, or 2 -- always draw.
  • Banker starts at 3 -- draw if Player stands, or draws and finishes at 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or 9.
  • Banker starts at 4 -- draw if Player stands, or draws and finishes at 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7.
  • Banker starts at 5 -- draw if Player stands, or draws and finishes at 4, 5, 6, or 7.
  • Banker starts at 6 -- draw if Player draws and finishes at 6 or 7.
  • Banker starts at 7 -- always stand.

What's the house edge on the possible bets at baccarat?

For every thousand hands, Banker is expected to win 459 and Player 446. The other 95 are Ties, which Banker and Player push.

Banker pays 1-to-1 but casinos normally take 5 percent commission on wins. In 1,000 tries at $1 each, bettors therefore expect to win $0.95x459 = $436 and lose $446 -- $10 net deficit. The $10 is a $10/$1,000 = 1.0 percent edge based on rounds.

Player pays 1-to-1. In 1,000 tries at $1 each, bettors should accordingly pick up $446 and drop $459 -- $13 net deficit. The $13 is a $13/$1,000 = 1.3 percent edge based on total rounds.

Tie pays 8-to-1. After 1,000 hands at $1 each, bettors should win $1x8x95 = $760 and lose $1x905 = $905. The edge is $905 - $760 = $145, divided by the $1,000 in action, or 14.5 percent.

Why is tie is considered a "sucker bet?"

Bet quality is generally rated in terms of edge. This is a percentage you can picture as the amount the casino theoretically earns per dollar wagered, averaged over time. Clearly, the greater the edge, the more of the money in action the casino keeps, and the less bettors -- as a group -- take home.

You may not notice the impact of edge during individual sessions. This is because inherent fluctuations in the game tend to swamp the gradual effects of edge in the short run. Still, the higher the edge, the luckier you must be to win enough rounds over the expected number to overcome it. And, the edge on Tie, 14.5 percent, far exceeds the roughly 1 percent on Banker and Player.

Why do solid citizens make this bet? Often, they just don't know how bad it is. Or, they don't care. Perhaps they focus on the 8-to-1 payoff. Maybe they perceive patterns in past hands and bet on Tie when a sense of gestalt tells them it's next in some mystical sequence. Either way, they're avoiding the advice adduced by Sumner A Ingmark, the adept advocate of advantage:

Though seeing is believing,
The mind's eye is deceiving.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.