A crash course in the exotic game of baccarat

Jan 9, 2001 6:15 AM

QUESTION: I’ve always been curious about baccarat. Can you give me a quick lesson?

GAMBLING GURU: We’d be happy to. Baccarat is the most glamorous, if not mysterious, game in the casino. The playing tables are usually roped off, and the croupiers staffing them are typically dressed in tuxedos. Three croupiers service the game. The one in charge is the callman, who handles the cards, decides the draw and announces the winning hand. The other two, who remain seated throughout the game, pay off winning bets and collect losing bets.

The object of the game is surprisingly simple. Baccarat is played with multiple decks of standard playing cards. Two hands composed of two cards each are dealt — one for the "player" and one for the "bank." Players can bet on either hand. The winning hand is determined by the point totals of the respective hands. All 10s and face cards are valued at 0. The rest of the cards retain their face value (the ace counts as one).

If the two-card total exceeds 10 points, you simply count the last digit of the number as your score. For instance, if a hand contains a 6 and 8 for a total of 14, the hand is valued at 4. The winning hand, either the "bank" or "player," will have a higher total value than the other.

The rules determining whether additional cards are drawn are complicated, but it is not necessary for the player to memorize them. The croupier will decide if and when a draw is necessary; the player is never required to make that decision. They are included here so you will understand the reasons behind the croupier’s action.

1. If either hand has a value of 8 or 9 (these scores are called "naturals"), no further cards are dealt. The higher of the two hands is declared the winner. Should both hands have the same value, a tie is declared and neither wins.

2. If neither hand is a natural, a set of complicated rules comes into play. Again, the croupier will make the decisions on drawing cards. Basically, the player’s hand will take a third card if its value is from 0 to 5. It must stand on 6 or 7. The bank’s hand must draw if its value is from zero to 2. When the bank has a value of 3 or more, draw is determined by the printed rules.

3. A bet on the player’s hand pays even money. But, because the bank hand has a slightly higher percentage of winning (50.7 percent), winning bets on the bank hand are subject to a 5 percent commission paid to the casino. (In practice, the bank bets are paid at even money, and the accumulated commissions are paid to the house at the end of the deal or when the player leaves the table.)

4. Players can also bet that the hands will end in a tie. This bet pays at odds of 8-1, but it is a poor bet because the house has an advantage of nearly 15 percent.

Because players cannot decide when to draw cards, there is no skill involved in playing baccarat. It is purely a game of chance. However, streaks do occur, and a winning strategy can take advantage of these cycles.

A reliable winning strategy calls for placing bets on the bank hands. This surprises many players because bank bets are subject to the 5 percent commission. However, the bank should win 50.7 percent of the time. And the 5 percent commission is paid only on winnings and not on losing bets. So, a player has a slightly better advantage by playing the bank.

As with other table games such as blackjack and craps, flat bets will, at the very best, even out over the long run. To be successful at baccarat, you should increase bets after winning hands in order to take advantage of short streaks that often occur. Conversely, losing bets should never be increased.

A sound betting system for baccarat calls for increasing your bets after a previous win over a cycle of five hands, according to the following schedule:

1. An initial bet of one unit is made.

2. The second bet is three times the original bet.

3. The third bet is four times the original bet.

4. The fourth bet is five times the original bet.

5. The fifth bet is six times the original bet.

After the fifth bet, the cycle reverts to the original bet. Although this system calls for increasing bets in the ratio of 1-3-4-5-6, no bet beyond the second one is ever double the previous bet. This prevents the player from being wiped out by a losing bet.