A University of Nevada paper written at the turn of the last decade cites that baccarat was first mentioned in print in the 19th century. It’s likely however, that baccarat has a ‘lost’ history, much like many other things that originated before computers and our newly connected world.
James Bond’s favourite casino game may be as old as Ancient Rome. One of the few things we know for certain is that baccarat originated in Italy. But, the idea that the word ‘baccarat’ is translated as ‘zero’, an assurance that frequently pops up online, doesn’t seem to be true.
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In this guide, we’ll take a journey back centuries to the birthplace of an enigmatic casino game. We’ll touch on baccarat rules, its spread across oceans, and learn how baccarat has managed to stay relevant in modern times.
One of the more unusual stories behind baccarat involves Vestal priestesses in the Roman Empire. These patrons of the goddess Vesta were asked to roll a nine-sided dice to determine their future, with an eight or nine offering a path to a higher role in the priesthood.
Oddly enough, the importance of the number nine also points to an origin in China, in the dominoes game Pai Gow. Considering that the Venetian explorer Marco Polo had connections in Asia and the Mediterranean, this doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
Only ‘circumstantial evidence’ places baccarat in Italy, again, according to the University of Nevada. So, let’s leap forward a bit in time.
Most of the records for the baccarat games begin in France, first with 15th-century soldiers and, then, with the nobility. This is where things get a little strange, as scholars try to connect baccarat with card games like Le her, vingt-et-un, and even blackjack.
The invention of the railroad does seem to place the origin of the baccarat variant Chemin de Fer in France by 1827, as the name translates as ‘railway’, an invention that didn’t make its way to the country until that year.
Baccarat Banque (also known as Baccarat à Deux Tableaux) and Baccarat Chemin de Fer co-existed in France - and still do. The former is believed to be the predecessor of the latter, though, which helps us pick an earlier date than the railway for the appearance of baccarat in Europe.
In any case, the game started as a private affair, with the nobility arranging games for their friends and business associates. Many sources note an almost immediate leap to the United States after this short stopover in France, which is where the clearer bits of its development are found.
Chemin de Fer and Baccarat Banque were the two most well-known rulesets in the game’s formative years. A variant called Punto Banco would eventually take the crown away from Baccarat Banque, becoming the most popular game in the US.
The main difference between these three games is how the player is allowed to bet. Punto Banco allows for wagers on the banker winning, the player winning, or a tied game. Older variants like Chemin de Fer and Baccarat Banque insist the players bet on their hand only.
As we mentioned earlier, baccarat’s history is a bit of a blur until it made the trip over the Atlantic to the United States. Writer Theodore Whiting claims that Baccarat Banque was being played in New York state by 1871, making it the first baccarat variant on US soil.
It’s possible to pin this to a single day - 08/14/1871 - or the date the New York Times mentioned baccarat in an article. The newspaper would repeat this in 1899. What might surprise fans of the game is that it wouldn’t make it to America’s gaming paradise, Nevada, until 1958.
The popularity of baccarat in North America hides an unlikely truth about the game. This European export is more popular in Asia than anywhere else. Casinos in the former Portuguese colony of Macau, now Chinese, generate 80% of their income from baccarat.
The fondness for baccarat in Asia seems to stem from a cultural interest in luck and fortune in the Far East. This means that games of skill, like poker, aren’t quite as popular in China as gambling as they are in the West.
As a final footnote in the history of baccarat, a theory that the game arrived in the United States via Cuba after the closure of casinos in the capital Havana, sometimes crop up. However, this occurs almost a century later than the New York Times mention of the first game played in the 1900s.
The vast majority of casinos in the world offer Punto Banco baccarat. This is a well-worn, standardized version of the game that uses six or eight decks. Similar to blackjack, the object of a baccarat game is to get closest to a certain total (in this case, nine) without going bust. The reason why ‘baccarat’ is sometimes translated as ‘zero’ is because face cards aren’t worth anything and aces are only worth a single point.
The internet changed the trajectory of most casino games, chiefly by allowing developers to experiment with new rules and formats. Here at LeoVegas, we offer titles such as Mega Baccarat, Baccarat Deluxe, Speed Live Baccarat, and even tables in different languages, like Baccarat Brasileira. Visit our dedicated baccarat section for almost 40 different ways to play this venerable casino game.
Baccarat’s history started to become easier to uncover once it reached France in the 15th century but the game likely originated in Italy.
Italy. There’s also an outside chance it came from trade with China.
Punto Banco only lets the table play against the dealer. In other forms of the game, they can bet on each other’s hands, too.
The game name “baccara,” is Italian for “zero,” because all the tens and face cards are worth zero.
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