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Baccarat heaven!

Sep 4, 2007 2:54 AM

The crowd around the semi-circular, green felt-covered table was three deep and their heads bobbed to try to afford a view of the "lucky" dealer.

A gaggle of arms leant over, each piling as many chips as they could. Everyone was betting on the "banker," who was enjoying a winning streak.

But this time the "banker" lost out to the "player" and the Wynn Macau dealer swept thousands upon thousands of patacas into his tray, and into the casino’s coffers.

Welcome to baccarat, the game that Macau’s astonishing success is built on.

As the tiny former Portuguese colony looks to overtake the greater Las Vegas area in revenue — it already takes more cash per year than the casinos on the famous Strip — the European-invented game continues to empty the deep pockets of Chinese gamblers.

According to Macanese government statistics, in 2006 it brought in 48.3 billion patacas ($6 billion) in revenue for the casinos in the territory, up 25% on the previous year.

The figure represents 85% of Macau’s income from "games of fortune," essentially what it makes in casinos.

The popularity of the game in China is often linked to the country’s obsession with luck, manifested in lucky colors to auspicious dates. Baccarat, in many ways, is a pure test of chance, with no element of skill.

"The game is simply finding out, ”˜How is my luck today?’ " said Jay Dee Clayton, executive vice-president of operations at Wynn Macau.

But although it is often surrounded in mystery, the game is very simple. Two hands are played — a "player" and a "banker" — and gamblers bet on either of the two or on a tie.

The one with the highest total wins, with a maximum of nine, thanks to some unusual counting rules. Players who bet correctly double their stake, and a tie pockets them 11 times their bet.

While players will try and spot lucky streaks, which the casinos encourage with computer screens detailing the previous games, every game, in fact, starts anew and previous patterns have no bearing on future results.

Despite this, fictional spy James Bond’s game of choice has gripped Chinese gamblers for decades and created its own mystique.

Gamblers who are given the privilege of turning over the cards "squeeze" them, meaning they slowly bend the corner over in a ritualistic, though unnecessary, element of suspense.

Wynn was forced to add more baccarat tables to its casino after it opened, and it now makes up 80% of its tables. U.S. casinos tend to be dominated by blackjack and slot machines.

Clayton says the longevity of some players is legendary. Asian gamblers used to fly to Las Vegas and play non-stop for up to 20 hours or longer.