Baccarat is a card game with an intriguing history involving a royal scandal, James Bond and plenty of glamour. Here is a quick look at where and when Baccarat originates from, how it evolved into the game we know today and why it become prevalent across the globe.
Origins and Felix Falguiere
While the common conception is that Baccarat originated in France, some historians have suggested that the game’s roots can be traced back to ancient China and Rome. Pai Gow (‘make nine’ in English) was a popular game in the former that utilised tiles to denote numbers, potentially indicating a link to Baccarat, in which nine is the maximum score that can be achieved.
Falguiere named the game Baccara (Italian for zero) as the majority of cards are worth zero.
Meanwhile, it is claimed that in ancient Rome various games were played that involved rolling a nine-sided dice, with those who rolled an eight or nine receiving prizes. This has led some to suggest that the significance of eight or nine (a ‘natural’ in Baccarat) supplying the best outcome might have had a formative influence on the rules of the game.
The first official set of rules for the modern version of Baccarat were devised by a man named Felix Falguiere in 15th century Italy. It is believed that Falguiere was primarily influenced by games including Macao, today known as a Baccarat variant, and Le Her. Le Her was a game in which players would draw a card from the deck and the person with the highest rank (King being highest) would win.
Falguiere named the game Baccara (Italian for zero) due to the fact that the majority of cards are worth zero. When the game became popular in France, the French spelling Baccarat was predominantly adopted worldwide.
A royal scandal and James Bond
Baccarat was first brought to France by soldiers returning to the country from conflicts with Italy towards the end of the 15th century. The game quickly became favoured with the French nobility, who developed their own version called Baccarat banque, which also became known as Á deux tableaux, and is considered another Baccarat variant today.
Over time, Baccarat also become popular at casinos and other gambling establishments throughout the country. When these were outlawed by Louis Phillipe I in 1837, another variant was conceived named Chemin de fer (railway in English). Later shortened to chemmy, it is believed that this was also devised by the nobility in the late 1830s, who were amongst the first people to ride and use trains in France and played the game as a means to pass time on it.
Baccarat's popularity was boosted by the release of the debut James Bond novel Casino Royale.
For the remainder of the century, Baccarat garnered slow but steady appeal across the rest of Europe. It received particular attention in the UK when it was involved in a royal scandal in 1891, started by Sir William Gordon-Cumming filing a writ for slander after being accused of cheating during a game hosted by Arthur Wilson.
Not only was this controversial as Baccarat had been declared illegal in 1886, the other players in the game were called as witnesses for the subsequent trial. They included the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, marking the first time the heir to the throne had been compelled to appear in court since 1411. The nationwide interest in the trial prompted newspapers to publish rules and information about Baccarat, enabling mass public knowledge of it for the first time.
Elsewhere, the game reached North America. The first written reference of Baccarat being played in the US was in an 1871 article by the New York Times that described a gambling clubhouse in Long Branch, New Jersey, mentioning “the faro spread, the roulette table and the Baccarat board”.
However, for several decades Baccarat struggled for attention in the US against the likes of Blackjack and Craps, to the extent that it was not mentioned in the Assembly Bill which legalised gambling in 1931.
The game’s popularity was somewhat boosted by the release of the debut James Bond novel Casino Royale by Ian Fleming in 1953. An instant bestseller, the plot predominantly focused on a game of Chemin de fer between Bond and suspected Soviet spy Le Chiffre, and included instructions for the game for readers.
Somewhat inspired to capitalise on this newfound interest, the Sands in Las Vegas became the first major US casino to offer Baccarat when they opened a Chemin de fer table in 1958.
The birth of punto banco
Throughout the 1950s, a further version of Baccarat was developed, originating in casinos in Havana, Cuba. This was called punto banco (literally ‘player’ and ‘banker’ in English), the rules of which are explained in our guide to Baccarat.
The Sands opened a punto banco table in 1959 which famously lost $250,000 on its opening night.
Unlike chemin de fer and baccarat banque where players could simply play amongst themselves, punto banco could directly pit players and a representative of the house against each other for a series of bets in every round. As a result, it rapidly established itself as the preferred Baccarat format amongst casinos in South America.
Tommy Renzoni, who later published several books about Baccarat, discovered punto banco during a visit to the Mar del Plata casino in Argentina and quickly alerted casinos in Vegas. The Sands opened a punto banco table in 1959 which famously lost $250,000 on its opening night (equivalent to $2.2 million in 2020), although they persisted with the game to eventually start generating a profit.
However, by the 1970s there were still only 15 Baccarat tables on the entire Vegas strip. As a result, it became marketed as a glamorous game almost exclusive to the rich and famous. Casinos would often have Baccarat tables in private rooms hidden from the public by velvet curtains, and run them with extortionately high minimum bets and players sat in expensive leather chairs.
Baccarat has experienced a further considerable rise in popularity during the last few decades, largely courtesy of the prevalence of online gambling and casinos.
Macau is now considered the Baccarat hotspot of the world.
The ability to play an extensive range of Baccarat games any time, any place on websites such as Pinnacle Casino has shredded its image as prohibited to a wealthy elite, and it is now enjoyed by thousands (if not more) of players across the globe on a daily basis.
However, casinos still enjoy a large physical footfall on Baccarat, particularly in Asia. Macau is now considered the Baccarat hotspot of the world, and in 2017 the city’s casinos made 88% of their $33.2 billion profit from the game, outdoing Las Vegas.
There are also now several high-profile Baccarat tournaments with large prizes that regularly garner mass attention. These include the Baccarat Tournament of Champions, which paid out $440,395 to 2019 winner Ole Schemion, the Golden, Ruby and Royal Dragon Tournaments, and the World Series of Baccarat, which famously rewarded 2015 champion Lin Haisan with $12.9 million.
Learn more about Baccarat
If you’re looking for general advice on how to play Baccarat, check out our guide to Baccarat. If you’re interested in alternative ways to play Baccarat, check out our guide to Baccarat variants and Baccarat side bets.