Derived from the European games of chemin de fer and punto banco, baccarat is a game of mystery to most of the betting public even though it's a staple of American casinos. With the aid of this article, you can unravel the secrets of baccarat and even learn how to become a winning player. Let's begin with a little history of the game:

Baccarat is the French spelling for the Italian word baccara, or zero, signifying the point values of face cards. The game has been traced to 1490, when the Italian baccara was introduced into France, where it was a favorite of nobles during the reign of King Charles VIII. Baccarat was first offered in Las Vegas in 1959, about a year and half after chemin de fer was introduced. Both games already were flourishing in illegal casinos in the East.

The direct ancestor of baccarat as played in the United States, chemin de fer is similar in play. One major difference is that the customers bet among themselves, rather than against the casino, with the house taking a commission from the customer holding the bank. Chemin de fer was offered in Las Vegas briefly in the 1950s, but it was quickly replaced by baccarat. Today it remains popular in European casinos.

Baccarat Today

Baccarat comes closer than most other casino games to offering the customer an even break, with house edges of just 1.17 percent for a bet on the banker hand and 1.36 percent for a bet on the player hand. Blackjack players who use basic strategy do better; as do video poker players with refined skills. But baccarat is a game with no playing strategies to master. The average baccarat player is at less of a disadvantage than average blackjack or video poker players.

Nevertheless, the game is familiar to only a relative handful of customers. For decades it was kept under wraps, played in lavish high-roller pits for the amusement of millionaires. The lowest minimum bet in the baccarat pit usually was $20, and at that the customer would feel like a piker near the likes of the late Akio Kashiwagi, who once accepted a challenge to a $12 million freeze-out at an Atlantic City casino. With $200,000-maximum bets, Kashiwagi was challenged to play until he'd either lost the $12 million or won $12 million from the casino. Six days later, with Kashiwagi having played 12 hours a day, the challenge was called off, and Kashiwagi left $10 million behind.

In casinos that cater to high rollers, baccarat has long been the game of the "whales" -- the highest of the high rollers. The full-scale version is played in a separate, roped-off area at a table for 14 players, run by three dealers -- none of whom actually deals the cards out of the shoe holding the eight decks. A ceremonial passing of the shoe allows players in turn to slide out the cards. In the related game of chemin de fer, the player holding the shoe banks the bets of the other players, but that's not common in the United States.

In the 1980s, casinos began to reach out to the average customer with mini-baccarat, played on a seven-player, blackjack-sized table on the casino floor with the rest of the table games. It moves faster than baccarat, the shoe-passing ceremony has been eliminated, and the dealer deals all cards, but the rules are the same. Now anyone with $10 for a minimum bet, even $5 in some casinos, can play the game of the whales.

At the full-scale, 14-player baccarat table, one dealer -- the "callman" -- stands up. The callman turns cards faceup after they are dealt by the bettor holding the shoe. The callman is responsible for calling out the point totals of each hand and announcing whether either hand gets another card according to the set hit/stand rules of the game. Two other dealers remain seated on either side of the callman. They are responsible for paying off winning bets and collecting losing wagers. Mini-baccarat has just one dealer, who deals the cards and combines all the responsibilities of the three dealers at the larger table -- but does it much faster.

Some casinos have traditional baccarat tables that can accomodate up to 15 players.

This layout is typical for baccarat. Some casinos have traditional
tables that can accommodate up to 15 players.

At either table, numbers indicate each customer position. In front of the numbers, each bettor has a lined-off area in which to place a banker bet and another in which to place a player bet. In front of the dealer are also numbers corresponding to each customer. Each time a customer wins a banker bet, the dealer places a marker in the box corresponding to that customer. Bettors must pay a 5 percent commission on winning banker bets, so these wagers must be tracked.

Enough introduction, let's learn how to play. In the next section, you will learn the rules of baccarat, as well as strategies to become a winning player.