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Fun and (Table) Games: Try Baccarat

29 November 2004

By Alan Krigman

So, you want to try the tables. Say you fancy a casino classic cloaked in tradition, but simple enough that everyone makes a straightforward bet then waits for the outcome. As a novice you might opt for a game with low inherent volatility, where your bankroll normally drifts up and down gradually; this means you're not apt to be zonked by a steep drop, but you accept the rider that you're unlikely to strike it filthy rich. As other criteria, perhaps you want action that moves along briskly but lets you pace yourself by betting only the table minimum on every round.

Baccarat may be right for you. This game was once played almost exclusively for big bucks, and you can still find large-size high-limit tables in the "baccarat pits," overseen by three tuxedo-bedecked dealers. Nowadays, "mini-baccarat" is offered with lower minimum bets, at seven- or nine-seat tables run by single dealers. The two versions have identical rules, with minor procedural differences. In mini-baccarat, dealers handle all the cards and place them right-side-up on the table. In standard baccarat, bettors draw cards from the shoe then place them upside down on the table before making a ritual out of turning them over. Rigid conventions dictate whether to hit or stand. Dealers in the one and bettors in the other must follow the same formula.

Check the sign on the table showing the limits. Neophytes are wise to play for $5 or less per round, $10 if this is the lowest bet accepted. Grab a seat and put your cash on the table -- don't hand it to the dealer. The dealer will exchange it for chips.

Two hands, "Player" and "Banker," are dealt in every round. Each starts with two cards. The totals dictate whether one or both get a third card. The decisions are preordained; they're complex but only the dealer really has to know them. After the drawing phase, the highest total wins. Aces rank as ones, pictures as 10s, and twos through 10s as their face values. Counts go to a maximum of nine, then repeat. That is, when a total exceeds nine, subtract 10. Three plus four therefore yields seven and three plus six is nine but three plus eight is 11 minus 10 or one.

When a round begins, bet anything between the limits by placing chips on the spots marked "Player" or "Banker" at your position. Some folks monitor patterns and bet accordingly. It's balderdash. The game is random. On the average, though, Player wins slightly less often than it loses; it pays 1-to-1. Banker wins a bit more often than it loses; it also pays 1-to-1, but the house deducts 5 percent "commission," which the dealer usually tracks with a set of tokens and asks you to settle occasionally and when you quit.

Most casinos let you bet below the nominal minimum on Tie, as long as you're at or over the lower limit on Player or Banker. But Tie, a longshot paying 8-to-1, gives the house a huge edge. A few seasoned solid citizens bet Tie, pursuing hunches or systems in which they want badly to believe. Brighter bettors boycott it.

Say you stick to Player or Banker. On a win, the dealer pays you. Take the spoils; keep your bet in place, move it from one to the other, or reclaim it and sit out the next round or quit. On a Tie, no money changes hands and you have the same choices as with a win regarding bets on the layout. On a loss, the dealer whisks away your chips; start again, sit out a round, or quit.

You can estimate how much you need to play from the accompanying chart. It shows chances of outlasting normal downswings and of earning typical profits before busting out with various stakes. Data are for $10 bets, roughly half each on Banker and Player.

Effect of bankroll on chances at mini-baccarat
with $10 bets evenly distributed between Player and Banker

Chance of
for 3 hrs
Chance of
winning $50
before busting
Chance of
winning $100
before busting

One more thing. Mini-baccarat is a favorite of venerable Asian dowagers with gambling in their hearts. Being in the fray with these true aficionados is an experience to be relished and from which you can learn a lot. As the poet, Sumner A Ingmark, noted:

Steadfast bettors have a spirit that's contagious,
In their presence even cowards get courageous.

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 were focused on those interested in gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.