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Baccarat Bonanza

Everybody knows that baccarat is the world’s biggest table game. It’s a bonanza for Macau casinos, which won almost US billion in 2007. It’s the great casino game, the game of James Bond.

Edward O. Thorp, who beat blackjack, could not beat baccarat. It’s the ultimate table game, wholly player-independent even while its players exhibit a high level of the illusion of control; a low house-edge game whose game structure makes it the star earner. For U.S. casinos, whose baccarat win is well beneath Macau’s, making baccarat the number-one game on the casino floor ought to be priority one.

But importing Macau’s success into the U.S. and other non-Asian venues requires effort and creativity. In the U.S., baccarat is too easily designated an Asian game, and that creates the excuse not to commercialize it for non-Asian consumption for fear of driving away the Asian play. That excuse is ridiculous.

Objective observation of the casino floor reveals quickly that Asian players are far more adaptable to non-Asian gaming than non-Asian players are to Asian gaming. In addition, Asian-oriented baccarat in U.S. casinos is generally unsuccessful at attracting non-Asian players. So, smart table games operators understand that aggressive commercialization of baccarat in the U.S. will substantially increase their non-Asian baccarat player population and win with no effect on their core Asian baccarat player population and win.

Commercializing baccarat is easy to learn but difficult to master. Once the commitment is made to commercialize U.S. baccarat, a number of tasks need to be accomplished in parallel, by top-performing employees enjoying the complete support of management.

Steps to Success

The following suggestions can transform baccarat into one of the leading table games in the U.S. and beyond.

U.S. casinos need to turn on the promotion and publicity machine for baccarat and turn it off for far less profitable games such as poker. If the multi-dimensional effort that has gone into promoting poker is put into promoting baccarat, baccarat should double or triple and maybe even quadruple its penetration and win.

Don’t blow amazing promotion and publicity opportunities like the most recent James Bond blockbuster film Casino Royale, where the actual Ian Fleming story that centered on James Bond’s favorite game baccarat was allowed to be altered to a poker theme. Cinema drives gaming-witness the effect of Chow Yun-fat’s legendary Chinese God of Gamblers films. So make a baccarat-oriented film or get one made. It’s good fun for everyone.

And promote the game every which way, using the lessons learned from the poker experience (and this time to make some real money). Baccarat has the built-in allure of its connection to style and intrigue, high rollers and James Bond. All casino industry psychologists understand that even middle-level players’ gaming experiences have one or more role-playing elements. What better role to play than the whale in the baccarat room, or James Bond on assignment? That’s entertainment!

It is easy to see that very entertaining single-player and multi-player machine implementations should be a priority for training in the new wave of non-Asian U.S. baccarat players. At the risk of being repetitive, this is an assignment for James Bond (the staying power of the 007 film series is irrefutable proof of the obviousness of this assertion).

Make baccarat entertainment for non-Asian U.S. players.

That familiar vintage photograph from the old Sands Hotel connects American baccarat to its glamorous beginnings with Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack. Tighten the connection between baccarat and entertainment, and super-glue it with some kind of tie-in to Old Blue Eyes.

Blackjack dealers and craps dealers are significantly more entertaining than their baccarat counterparts, who tend to be businesslike. A notable U.S. exception: At Harrah’s Las Vegas, dealers like Kenny from Cincinnati and Kyong from Korea put on a consistently great show, the U.S. players love them, and the Asians like them too! The money will be won anyway; why not make the players smile? Harrah’s gets it! In blackjack, players become attached to dealers with style. They will come to a particular casino to play with a particular dealer. Ditto for baccarat-at Harrah’s, anyway.

Also, baccarat scoreboards in the U.S. need to be more like Megabucks displays than some of the new scoreboards, whose key data may only be discerned with a telescope or a magnifying glass. Give us more visual entertainment!

Noted Macau gaming and Chinese gambling psychology expert Desmond Lam has shown the tight junction of baccarat and the illusion of control, so tap into the illusion of control big-time by projecting that baccarat shoe data with the same flare as data displayed at the Las Vegas Strip sports books. The payback is certainly far better!

Taking a page from the craps playbook, bring back the original American baccarat side bets on banker natural eight and banker natural nine. That’s the side bet that makes perfect sense to non-Asian U.S. players, and what’s better, the numbers 8 and 9 are lucky numbers for Chinese players.

So what if Edward O. Thorp and William Walden published a method to beat the natural side bets? Closer analysis concludes that is of mostly theoretical interest and cannot break the game. Price the natural eight and natural nine side bets intelligently along the craps model and factor rationally expected Thorp-Walden attack losses into the price.

Popular side bets can make a table game. Notes gaming authority Frank Scoblete, author of Baccarat Battle Book and numerous other gaming books, “Proposition bets give the player that longed-for big hit with a small investment. The players are willing to buck what most of them know is a big house edge in order to play based on their dreams instead of on the reality of the big house edges. Not all players think this way, of course, only most of them.”

Harness the Edward O. Thorp Effect.

Blackjack exploded once people learned that Edward O. Thorp beat the dealer. Blackjack was not broken; it is doing just fine, thank you. Few can actually do what Thorp describes, and casinos can easily counter most of his methodology or just price it into the bet-witness the amazingly smooth transition to 6-to-5 blackjack payoffs. When U.S. players decided that “blackjack is beatable,” the popularity of the game exploded. Even today, the Edward O. Thorp Effect lives, as evidenced by the success of the recent Kevin Spacey film 21.

Baccarat should be commercialized the same way. Savvy U.S. casinos should embrace improved playing methods. After all, most blackjack dealers are encouraged to tell their players what Thorp’s basic strategy indicates in any given situation.

What’s more, the unique underlying psychology of baccarat offers it additional protection that blackjack does not have-a big real-world edge contained within its “test of luck” form factor. Baccarat cannot be made player skill-dependent like blackjack, but it can be made much more player decision-dependent, and that is just as good for the house if the game is pushed hard.

Invent American VIP baccarat.

The Macau VIP baccarat junket operations concept should be used as a starting point to generate U.S. VIP baccarat. With its marketing innovations, Harrah’s made every player a VIP to a lesser or greater degree. Every player can potentially be made a VIP baccarat player at some level or another in a fully integrated baccarat commercialization program.

Import the three most powerful elements of the astounding success and staying power of Macau VIP baccarat. Blanket the player with service. Immerse the player with best-quality hospitality from irresistible female hosts who are quick and smart as in Macau. Assist and advise the customer with his play, do anything and everything to reinforce the notion that “baccarat is beatable,” and embrace winners as in slots. Observe that baccarat expert Zuan Xin, like Edward O. Thorp in blackjack, describes the patterns of the game of baccarat but emphasizes that money management is the key to winning. Embrace winners!

Make the credit process appear more like Frank Sinatra’s Vegas and less like Sears or Pottery Barn.

Computers, computers, computers! There is nothing quite like sitting down to a waiting stack of chips to inject a baccarat player into the role of whale or James Bond. Use technology to make it so.

U.S. casinos must get to work. This is laziness. Massive baccarat win is being lost. It’s a strategic issue for U.S. casino industry management, and there’s a lot riding on it. With determination and direction, the baccarat chips can be rolled almost as fast in the U.S. as in Macau. This is a bonanza, it is beyond doubt. But an old gold rush saying applies: A prospect can make a mine, a mine a bonanza, and bonanzas can be mismanaged.

Harvard-educated polymath David Sofer is an expert on casino gaming specializing in baccarat. Appointed to teach Zuan Xin’s Baccarat Great Learning in the U.S., he is the featured baccarat columnist for Baccarat, Hong Kong’s gaming lifestyle magazine. Contact Sofer at [email protected]

Harvard-educated polymath David Sofer is an expert on casino gaming specializing in baccarat. Appointed to teach Zuan Xin's Baccarat Great Learning in the U.S., he is the featured baccarat columnist for Baccarat, Hong Kong's gaming lifestyle magazine. Contact Sofer at [email protected].