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Baccarat is often viewed as the most sophisticated game around, largely thanks to the high stakes roped off areas where the game is often played. This reputation has been further enhanced on the silver screen with James Bond et al donning the tuxedos for a few hands and indeed baccarat variant chemin de fer is Bond’s casino game of choice. From fictional heroes to real life villains, the notorious Lord Lucan was also said to be partial to an odd flutter on the game.

The game of baccarat refers not just to one game but to three distinctly different versions which have developed over time. Baccarat banque is an early form of the game where one hand is allocated as the bankers, in chemin de fer the role of banker passes from player to player around the table and punto banco is a modern simplification of baccarat banque. It is difficult to determine whether baccarat banque or chemin de fer came first but we can speculate on how the game of baccarat as a whole came into being.

Nine is the Magic Number

Much like other games amongst a casino’s staple offerings, the aim in baccarat is to obtain a number which the game has assigned special significance. In blackjack, 21 is the Holy Grail, whilst in craps much of the action hinges around the number seven. The number all players of baccarat hope to achieve is nine. Why nine you may ask? As we shall see, history throws up some pretty interesting explanations.

Gamblers around the private tables of Las Vegas may think they are playing for high stakes but they are nothing when compared to the predicament the vestal virgins of Roman times found themselves in. They were handed a nine sided die and instructed to roll. If they rolled an eight or a nine they would become a high priestess, a six or a seven and their vestal virgin status would be revoked, the equivalent of being sacked from their job. Anything less than a six though and they were informed that they must walk into the sea and, well, keep on walking! High stakes indeed! It is thought the importance of the number nine in baccarat originates from this ancient practice. This story also lends support to those who believe the game to be Italian in origin.

Another possible source is the ancient Chinese game of pai gow. A game that was initially played with dominoes but also has a modern playing cards variant. Literally translated, pai gow means to make nine.

Baccarat: Born in Italy. Or was it France?

With no definitive historical record we can’t say for sure which is the true country of origin for the modern game of baccarat. On the balance of evidence it does seem likely that the game has its roots in either the ancient Italian game of macao, or the early French card game le her.

Macao certainly appears to be an older game than baccarat but does share the feature that the object of the game is to reach the magic total of nine. The Italians also claim to have played an even older form of baccarat using tarot cards, although exactly how this worked is unclear.

Le her did not have the number nine as a significant part of its gameplay but nevertheless only featured two hands with the hand highest in numerical value being the winner. Unlike baccarat however this game did assign values to the court cards with the king being the highest card in value and an automatic winner, much like a natural nine in baccarat. Unlike baccarat however, players were dealt one card and one card only in le her.

Neither of these arguments truly convinces as being the source of our modern game. Blackjack could be said to have as much in common with baccarat as the much older games described above. It is at least similar in that each player is initially dealt only two cards and that the drawing of extra cards by the dealer is determined by a fixed set of rules.

With France also prominent in the history of blackjack it is probably fair to say that on balance the country played the largest part in the emergence of baccarat. There can be little doubt that it is the country in which it first gained widespread popularity. Folk stories dating from the Napoleonic era, way back in the late 1400s refer to troops playing a form of the game closely related to modern baccarat banque.

France also seems to be the home of the later non-banking variant which has come to be known as chemin de fer. This seems to have appeared on the scene much later, possibly during the early 1800s, around the time that France first developed its rail roads – indeed, chemin de fer translates as “iron road”. It was given this name as a reference to the way the deal moves around the table in this version. Some dispute this claim and state that chemin de fer refers to the iron box that cards were often placed in. If this definition is accepted it makes it possible to date the playing of the game in France to much earlier times and possibly make chemin de fer the oldest version of the game. As with so many things surrounding the origins of casino games, with little definitive evidence it is hard to say either way.

We can, however, be sure that baccarat in France was forced underground during the latter part of the 19th century due to the banning of all casinos at this time. It is during this era that baccarat began to take a foothold further afield. The game appears to have reached the United States towards the end of the 19th century, brought there by immigrants, but appears to have taken many decades to establish itself on any great scale.

Simplifying the Game: Punto Banco

Not even on the list of games on the first drafts of early Las Vegas legislation, it was not until 1959 that the game started to feature more prominently in the casinos of the Strip. Baccarat had been played prior to that time with chemin de fer being the version of choice. This non-banker version never really took off due to the relatively poor take for the casino and a lack of player interest and the perceived complexity of the game.

Punto banco is based on the banking form of baccarat and spent its embryonic years in South America. A gentleman by the name of Tommy Renzoni brought this game to the Las Vegas casinos in 1959 and after a slow start the game has never really looked back and is now the dominant form played around the world today, with one major alteration. In original punto banco a side bet on a natural was offered. This bet is now absent having been replaced by the option for a gambler to bet on the result of a hand being a tie.

The Present and the Future

Punto banco or mini baccarat as it has also come to be known, is now a staple offering in just about every bricks and mortar casino in the world as well as online. Baccarat banque and in particular chemin de fer are also widely played, though almost exclusively offline. New variants such as EZ Baccarat and Super 6 Baccarat have sprung up in recent times (primarily in online casinos) but the game hasn’t experienced as much innovation as some other casino games.

In an interesting and rather elegant end to our story of the game, there is one location where the game has proved to be more popular than any other casino offering. That place is Macao, a destination which just happens to share its name with the ancient Italian game that has a stake in the origin of the game.