From Etruscan Priestesses to James Bond
The wild and crazy history of baccarat is nothing short of spectacular. There are so many times in history that we have to begin our story with: “As legend has it…”, and this story is no different.
As legend has it, the ancient Etruscans held a high-stakes ceremony that would come to influence the game we now know as baccarat. Believed to have arrived in Italy between 900 and 800 BC, the Etruscans eventually settled an area around the region we now know as Tuscany. It is believed by some, that one of their religious ceremonies was one of the first predecessors to our modern-day version of baccarat. In order to divine who would receive the honors of high priestess status, the Etruscans would use a nine-sided die to cast the young virgin’s fate. If the young would-be-priestess rolled an 8 or 9, then BAM – priestess she was! If she rolled a 6 or 7, then she was merely cast out of society, neither killed nor made a priestess. If she rolled a 5 or less, then she was asked to walk out to sea until she …well, you get the picture.
So, that is a great legend indeed, but how do we get from the ancient Etruscans to the posh baccarat game we now know and love?
Felix Falguierein was an Italian croupier of the 15th century. According to many sources, he is the one given credit for inventing earlier version of the game, as the known earliest reference to baccarat itself is from 1820. However, there are also sources that contest baccarat’s birthplace was France. Let’s look further at the name for more clues as to where this game could have originated.
Even the name baccarat is a dizzying debate with several explanations offered. The most pervasive definition is that the French word baccarat derived from the Italian word “baccara” which translates to “nothing”. (Ref: The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Copyright 2008 Columbia University Press.) But wait, peruse the Italian Dictionary and you will not find it. One explanation from renowned historian Thierry Depaulis is that “baccarat” comes from a Provencal dialect for “go bankrupt” (‘fa bacarrat’).
Baccarat is a unique casino game in that it is named after the losing hand. Just as the young Etruscan virgin would be hoping for an 8 or a 9, these magic numbers will score you a win. Draw cards for a total of 5 or 6 and the play continues until there is a 8 or 9 to be declared winner. If you draw cards that total a zero, then you have baccarat. At least when you play now, you are not cast out as an offering to the sea gods, (although you may wish it after a particularly bad night at the tables).
Baccarat steadily gained popularity throughout Europe. In France it was made a favorite among the French nobility and crème de la crème. However, during different monarchs, baccarat was made illegal and forced to move underground. During the reign of Louis XIV, gambling was forbidden with severe penalties for law breakers. There is nothing like a prohibition to move an activity indoors!
By the 19th century, French and English immigrants have spread baccarat throughout the Americas. Americans were not as quickly captivated by baccarat as the Europeans had been. However, in the 1950s, the Dunes Hotel of Las Vegas decided to change all that. Hoteliers of the Vegas strip decided that with a little bit of polishing up this game could be a favorite for Americans as well. The third version of baccarat “Punto Banco”, which means Player and Banker, became the version preferred in North America.
In Las Vegas casinos, there were special VIP areas set aside to play Baccarat and the buy-ins were not for the faint of heart. With the space that the tables demanded, the amount of money that the casino could lose in a single night, and the mystery it created for the general public, most of these tables have been down-sized. Maybe the most recent mutation of Baccarat in the North American casinos is the mini baccarat tables. These tables are about the size of a Blackjack table and on the floor with the other casino games. The minimums are significantly lower, and the ceremonial duty of rotating the “banker” is gone. The dealer handles all cards in this stripped down version.
Now that the computer casinos have become a preferred method for players around the world, there is Baccarat online. Which version do you play after this game has traveled the world? There are the versions that are still played in Europe: Chemin de Fer, and Baccarat Banque. There is the full Punto Banco, or North American version, and the mini Baccarat tables too. In fact, they are all almost identical with the differences lying in ceremony and number of players. Most online casinos offer you a choice to play which version you are comfortable with. However, if you are an American and take a vacation on the French Riviera, they still play their version, Chemin de Fer (which means “railway” in case you were curious).
Baccarat’s history is storied and rich. It is often a joke in the movies since it has been shrouded in mystery and reserved for the black-tie crowd. My favorite joke on Baccarat is in Rush Hour 3 when Chris Tucker’s character is trying to get the attention of a beautiful woman and joins a Baccarat table. He doesn’t understand this game so when he sees his 3 Kings he gets excited before he is told that he has baccarat! In fact, there is much chatter about the James Bond series since the book version of Bond is a huge Baccarat fan, but the movie scripts have him at the poker table. The original movie version of Casino Royale had Bond playing Baccarat while in the recent movie version he was with LeChiffre at the Texas Hold’em table.
Legend and history of casino games reflect a real slice of our human history. From Etruscan rituals, to gambling grandfathers and prohibitions; this game has moved in and out of fashion with little tweaks to suit the time and player. Now there are three versions of Baccarat that you will find in casinos all offering just a little something different for the lucky and the skilled players.