By John Grochowksi
“Easy to play” and “low house edge” aren’t often ideas that usually go together in casinos games. If you want a low house edge, the tradeoff is usually lengthy strategies to learn as in blackjack or video poker, or the knowledge to sift through good and bet bets as in craps.
It all comes together in baccarat. There are no strategies to learn. Hands are played out according to a chart the dealer must follow.
And two of the three available wagers have house edges among the lowest available in casino games: 1.06 percent if you bet on a hand designated “banker” and 1.24 percent on player. You also can bet the hands tie, but that carries a whopping 14.4 percent house edge.
Baccarat has been available in American casinos since 1958, when it debuted at the Sands on the Las Vegas Strip. The game traces its history to Italy in the 1400s. A version called “chemin de fer,” popular in Europe, allows players to bank the game.
In the U.S., the house is the bank in a baccarat version sometimes called “punto banco.” For many years, it was found primarily in high-limit rooms catering to big players. Mini-baccarat brings the game to the main casino floor with lower minimum bets.
Baccarat traditionally has been played at an oversized, 14-player table. Player positions usually are numbered 1 through 15, though there is no No. 13 – a nod to the superstitious.
Mini-baccarat is played at a blackjack-sized seven-player table. Rules and edges are the same as big baccarat.
Each player position has areas marked off to bet player, banker or tie. You place your own chips in the appropriate box to make the bet.
Baccarat almost always is dealt from an eight-deck shoe.
Only two hands are dealt in baccarat. One is designated the player hand and one is the banker hand. You may bet on either.
Each card is worth its face value – 1 for an Ace, 2 for a deuce and so on, except that the 10 and all face cards are have values of 0.
Values of all cards are totaled, but only the last digit matters. If banker is dealt 7 and 4, the total is 11, but the first digit is ignored. The value of the hand is 1. If a third card is drawn and it’s a 5, the hand value becomes 6.
The hand that finishes with a value closer to 9 wins. If both hands finish with the same value, the tie bet wins, but banker and player bets push and are returned to players.
After players make the bets, the two-card player and banker hands are dealt.
Whether each hand gets a third card depends on their values. They are played out according to these rules:
**If either hand totals 8 or 9, that is called a “natural” and both hands must stand on two cards.
**If there is no natural, the player hand gets one more card if the first two total 5 or less, but stands on 6 or 7.
**If the player hand stands on 6 or 7, then banker draws a third card with 5 or less, but stands on 6 or 7.
**If the player hand draws a third card, then banker always draws with a total of 0, 1 or 2; draws with a total of 3 if player’s third card is anything but 8; draws to 4 if the player’s third card is 2 through 7; draws to 5 if player’s third card is 4 through 7; draws to 6 if player’s third card is 6 or 7; and always stands on 7.
There are no optional plays. The dealer may not vary from that strategy.
If the player hand is closer to 9 than the dealer hand, it is paid at even money (1-to-1).
If the banker hand is closer to 9 than the player hand, it also is paid at even money, but bettors who win on the banker hand must pay the house a 5 percent commission.
If the two hands tie, those who bet on banker or player retain their bets. Tie bettors are paid at 8-to-1 odds (or 9-for-1 which is actually the same as 8-to-1).
Let’s try a few hands to see how this works.
**Player is dealt Ace-6, Banker is dealt Jack-8: The player total is 7, and the banker total is 8, with the Jack counted as 0. That 8 total is a natural, and that stops the hand with no draws. Banker wins 8-7.
**Player is dealt 8-3, Banker is dealt Ace-6. Player total is 1, dealer total is 7. By rule, player gets a third card and banker stands on 7. Imagine the player’s third card is a 10. That adds zero to the total, so banker wins 7-1. If player’s third card had been 7 or 8, player would have won with 8 or 9, and if it had been 6, the hand would have been a tie. All other player draws would have resulted in a banker win.
**Player is dealt 9-2, Banker is dealt 6-6. Banker leads the hand 2-1, but since player total is less than 5, a third card is dealt to player. And since banker total is 2 or less, banker gets a third card, too. Imagine the player’s third card is 3 and the banker’s is a Jack. Then player wins 4-2.
ODDS AND THE HOUSE EDGE
The draw rules lead to the banker hand winning 45.9 percent of hands, player winning 44.6 and 9.5 percent resulting in ties.
Note that banker wins more often than it loses since the ties are pushes. If banker wins were paid at even money with no offset, bettors would have an edge, no one would ever bet the other options, the house would lose money and the game would disappear.
The five percent commission on winning banker bets gives the house its 1.06 percent edge and keeps the game on the floor and profitable.
Player bets lose a little more often than they win, so no commission is necessary to yield the 1.24 percent house edge.
Ties occur once per 10.5 hands but pay only 8-1. That results in the 14.4 percent house edge and make the tie bet one to avoid.
A WORD ABOUT SPEED
Big baccarat in high limit rooms has its traditions, with players handling cards, slowly squeezing them apart to reveal hands, even crumpling cards in bad hands so that fresh decks are used for every shuffle.
Casinos have moved to speed up the games, but are happy to cater to high rollers. You might see as few a 40 hands per hour in big baccarat.
In mini-baccarat, dealers play out the game quickly and efficiently at more than 200, and sometimes 250, hands per hour.
Speed is important along with bet size in weighing your risk per hour.
Stay within your risk comfort zone and don’t overbet. But you can take comfort in getting a low-edge game that requires no skill or strategy.
HOW DO YOU WIN AT BACCARAT?
This article has explained the basics of baccarat, but now we need to take a look at the bigger question: how do you become a winner at baccarat? Well, as noted above, the player hand has only a 1.24% edge for the casino and, when betting the banker hand, the casino edge drops even lower to just 1.06%.
So, although the casino advantage for both of these bets is very low, the problem is that you will always be playing baccarat at a mathematical disadvantage and, therefore, in the long run, the game of baccarat is unbeatable. Yes, you can win on occasion, but there is no skill involved in baccarat so there is nothing you can do to increase your chances of winning, other than relying on luck.
Keep in mind that compared to other casino games, such as double-zero roulette which has a 5.26% advantage, or slot machines where the casino advantage is about 7% to 15%, the game of baccarat offers two simple bets that have a very low casino advantage of only 1.06% and 1.24%. So, the game is actually one of the better games for all players in the casino.
The best advice for playing baccarat is to always bet the banker hand, simply because it has a lower house edge. However, you will still be a long-term loser because baccarat is a negative expectation game where you can never get an edge over the casino.
So, even though we know that the baccarat is unbeatable in the long run, there are still many players who think they can get an edge on the game by following trends. These players believe that the winning hands come in streaks and they track the results by writing down the results of each hand on paper score cards that are available at each table. Some of these players prefer to bet on whatever hand just won because they think that the new hands will continue on that same streak. However, other players may do the exact opposite because they think that the winning hands will alternate.
While each of these bettors may have their own reasons for choosing their particular betting pattern, the bottom line is that neither one of these systems is any better than the other and no matter what they do, they will still be playing at mathematical disadvantage.
So, if you use either one of these betting systems, you won’t be a long-term winner, but you will save yourself the trouble of guessing what to bet on the next hand. Rather, you simply follow your system and if you don’t win then you can just blame it on your system rather than yourself.
John Grochowski has been covering casinos and casino games for nearly 40 years. He is the author of six books
and his work appears in newspapers, magazines and websites around the world.
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