When you see baccarat depicted in Hollywood movies, usually spy flicks of the James Bond variety, the game is invariably presented as a complicated contest involving only the savviest and sophisticated of gamblers.
In reality, baccarat is nothing more than a guessing game based on just two choices: banker or player. Most similar in spirit to betting the color on a roulette wheel, baccarat asks that you decide which hand, player or banker, will reach the total closest to 9 using either two or three cards.
Part of baccarat’s reputation for complexity comes from the game’s post deal mechanics. Using a scoring system that reverse’s that of blackjack, 10s and face cards are worth 0 in baccarat rather than 10. For players accustomed to blackjack, this change can be confusing enough, but baccarat tends to lose most new players when it comes time to explain the tableau.
Third Card Dealt
Based on the first two cards dealt to the banker and player hands, a third card may be distributed to complete the hand. Determining whether each hand will take a third card involves comparing their values relative to one another, and a dense assortment of traditional rules known as the tableau is applied.
Memorizing the multiple iterations of the tableau can be quite difficult, even for experienced baccarat players, but fortunately for newcomers, there is no need to learn these rules. The dealer will always administer the tableau when the need arises, and as a player, you don’t need to do anything more than pick a hand, place your wager, and wait to see how the cards lie.
After overcoming the initial trepidation associated with learning how to play baccarat, new players tend to realize that the game is actually one of the most straightforward and simple affairs on the casino floor.
What brings players back to the table is the significant value baccarat represents. Sporting a house edge as low as 1.06 percent on the banker bet, baccarat offers one of the most favorable table games in any casino, provided you know how to play the game properly.
The game of baccarat can be played in one of two ways: big baccarat, which is the standard format using a full table, up to 14 players, and at least three dealers; and mini baccarat, which is an abridged version of the game using a single dealer and up to seven players arranged around a blackjack like table.
Big baccarat is usually spread in the casino’s high-limit area, and minimum bets typically start out at $100. Mini-baccarat, on the other hand, can be found in the low limit table game area, and minimum bets usually start at $5. For the most part, beginners tend to stick to mini baccarat, both because the stakes are lower and the game itself involves fewer moving parts so to speak.
In big baccarat players take turns passing around a shoe – or a container holding between 6 and 8 decks – and dealing out the cards. In mini-baccarat, however, the table dealer takes care of this task, and thus the game runs along at a brisker pace.
Basic Baccarat Rules
The object of baccarat is to wager on the outcome of a contest between two hands, the banker hand and the player hand, based on their total values. In baccarat, the 2 through 9 cards are valued at their numerical rank, while aces are valued at 1. The 10s and face cards (jacks, queens, and kings) are all valued at 0.
A hand’s total can never reach 10 or above, and when this occurs the left-hand digit of the two digit number is simply removed to give the actual total. As an example, consider a hand containing a 7 and a 9. These cards add up to 16, but removing the ‘1’ leaves an actual total of 6.
Whenever a 10 value card is dealt along with an 8 or a 9, this is called a natural and the hand is an automatic winner. If two naturals are dealt on the same hand, a natural 9 always beats a natural 8, and two natural 8s result in a standoff or a push.
Player Options and House Edge
As a player, your options are as follows:
- Bet on the banker’s hand to win
- Bet on the player hand to win, or
- Bet that both hands will tie (a standoff).
The player and banker bets pay out at even money, with the banker bet (1.06 percent) offering slightly lower house edge than the player bet (1.24 percent). The standoff bet pays out at 9 to 1, but the 14.36 percent house edge renders the wager as an overall loser avoided by knowledgeable players.
Understanding the Tableau
The two hands (banker and player) are dealt out one card at a time face down, and based on the rules of the tableau; the dealer determines whether either hand will draw an additional card. The player hand always draws first, which gives the banker bet its slight advantage over the long run.
The first rules applied to determine the draw are as follows:
After the tableau has been applied completely, the final hand values are totaled, and the closest to 9 is deemed the winner. Wagers on the winning hand are paid out at even money, and wagers on the losing hand are claimed by the house.
Proper Strategy for Beating Baccarat
Given the game’s binary, one or the other betting system, it’s no surprise that the optimal strategy for beating baccarat is as basic as it gets: bet on the banker’s hand every time out.
The math is clear on this subject, and the banker wager offers a house edge of just 1.06 percent on any given hand, which is slightly better than the 1.24 percent house edge affixed to the player bet. Put another way, the banker’s hand wins 45.483 percent of the time while the player hand wins 44.615 percent, and 9.543 percent of hands result in a tie.
It’s true that most casinos will charge players a 5 percent commission on winning banker bets, or a tax which is tabulated by the dealer and paid out when a player leaves the table. This is intended to offset the extremely generous odds provided by the banker bet, but even after deducting this cost, your expected return when betting banker will always be better than any other bet in baccarat.
The reason for the banker hand’s advantage is that the player hand must always draw first. This is similar to blackjack, where the house edge is derived from the fact that the dealer always acts after players.
Use Common Sense
Besides sticking to the safe play of the banker bet, you can reduce your variance in baccarat just by using a little common sense. While other players at the table might try to convince you to adopt their hand tracking system, or to otherwise predict the outcome of the next hand, never succumb to this temptation. Superstition will always reign supreme within the confines of a casino, but by alternating between banker and player based on perceived systems, patterns, or trends, you’re only costing yourself precious equity and expected value.