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The Times They Are A-Changing

The elegant game of baccarat has become popular on the casino floor

The Times They Are A-Changing

To most North American casino customers, baccarat is considered an unusual gambling game. Many players compare baccarat to that more popular card game of blackjack. In blackjack, the customer plays against the dealer and has the option to make decisions on his hand such as hit, stand, double down, split, and then some.

The same blackjack customer who sits down on a baccarat game is somewhat dumbfounded with the lack of ability to participate in determining the outcome of the hand. Based on a standard “third card” rule, the dealer makes the decision to draw a card or stand. To many North American card players, this limitation makes the game somewhat unattractive.

In the past, a large portion of casino baccarat play in North American was attributed to customers from south of the border. Baccarat has been very popular with Latin American players from Mexico, Central America and South America.

Most of baccarat customers in Las Vegas during the ’70s and ’80s happened to be the wealthy class from Mexico—players out of Monterey and Mexico City, looking to vacation in Las Vegas and gamble at baccarat. Unfortunately, Latin gamblers started to diminish as the U.S. dollar got stronger and the Mexican peso suffered through periods of terrible inflation.

Enter the 1990s and the Asian customer.

Based on the Asian gambling psyche, baccarat is the perfect casino game. Once the cards are shuffled, cut and placed into the dealing shoe, Asian players feel their fate is “sealed” in the shoe. The lack of sequence-altering options, as experienced with blackjack, is perfect for what most Asians want in a gambling experience.

As Asian customers started to flood the baccarat games, many casinos rightfully refocused their marketing efforts to attract this type of gambler who is virtually “hard-wired” for monetary risk-taking. More baccarat games started to appear on the casino floor, replacing the previously revered blackjack games.

In addition, casinos were able to trade in those old 14-spot tables that required an extensive support staff. Asian customers preferred the smaller sit-down table, dealt by one dealer, and with a lot less “bling” and allure associated with the “big table” baccarat games.

How Has The Game of Baccarat Changed?

Baccarat scorecards are essential for running a successful game

What has changed in baccarat with the switch in the cultural market from primarily Latin American to overwhelmingly Asian? Since many Asian customers are more superstitious than their predecessors, the casino must take certain factors into consideration.

First, Asian gamblers find certain numbers lucky and others unlucky. For example, the numbers 4 and 14 are considered extremely unlucky. In the Cantonese language, the word for the number “four” sounds similar to the word for “death.” The wise casino executive needs to remember this fact and remove “4” and “14” from the table layout.

The number 8 in the Chinese and Southeast Asian cultures represents “luck.” On a seven-spot baccarat layout, the “4” can be removed and an eighth position added after the seventh position, which will accommodate both the unlucky and lucky numerical situations nicely.

Management may also consider Asian number preferences when making change for currency of higher-denomination casino chips. Breaking a $100 chip or bill should not be done by giving the player four $25 chips, but by giving the player eight chips—three $25 chips and five $5 chips. This number preference can also be done when changing $500. The customer is given four $100 chips and four $25 chips. There are several other superstitious issues that need to be taken into consideration by management.

Note: It is important to accommodate the Asian customer’s superstitious habits, but that does not mean that management needs to always make changes to baccarat and its established procedures. In some instances, the customer will use the casino’s willingness to change procedure to gain the customer an advantage over the house. Sometimes it is best just to say “No.”

Following are some other changes to the game of baccarat that have been made to accommodate the shift in the baccarat market.

Condition Of “Squeezed” Cards In Baccarat

Asian players love to “squeeze” the cards imagining they can add or attract a spot or two

In the beginning, “big table” players would touch the cards. It was standard procedure for the customers wagering to handle the dealing shoe and with instruction from the “stick” baccarat dealer, draw cards from the shoe. Few baccarat customers bent or twisted the playing cards.

Occasionally, a customer would blame his or her cards for a losing outcome and crumple or rip the cards in half. This was usually followed by a stern reprimand from the baccarat supervisor. It was standard practice to reuse the playing cards over and over again unless the cards showed obvious wear or the cards appeared to have been marked.

Asian customers on a baccarat “squeeze” game generally treat the playing cards much differently. When peeking the result of the two-card hand, the player will roll the corners and side of each card looking to identify the value of the card based on the spot configuration. Once the customer has peeked the cards in this manner, reusing the cards in any future rounds is out of the question. Today, it is standard baccarat procedure to immediately replace all eight decks at the end of the shoe.

Why Pre-Shuffled Cards?

Primarily, pre-shuffled playing cards used in baccarat are vital for speeding up the introduction of new decks onto the game. When introducing eight new decks of cards, standard procedure is to have each deck inspected, backs and faces, by both the floor supervisor and the dealer, and then scrambled or “washed” together before the cards are inserted into a shuffling machine or manually shuffled.

This process is extremely time-consuming, considering that most baccarat games utilize a batch-type shuffling machine that requires the use of two eight-deck sets of cards. Pre-shuffled cards, on the other hand, can be introduced immediately into the game without the time-wasting inspection process.

Regulators in most gambling jurisdictions have approved the use of pre-shuffled playing cards when taken directly out of their packaging at the table. Pre-shuffled cards come with an additional cost, but this cost, usually a few cents, is easily recovered by the speed of getting the packaged cards on the table and in action.

In some instances, casinos have brought the process in-house, and have a dedicated “card control” room and staff manually prepare the eight-deck batch. The staff opens the decks, removes the joker and blank cards, washes the eight decks together, and places them through a shuffling machine. Once the machine shuffle is completed, the eight decks are run through a deck-checking machine and scanned for completeness.

Next, the eight decks are placed into a transparent carrier that is sealed with a security strap. This strap is removed only when the carrier reaches the table. Several casinos that have gone to this process eventually reverted to the manufactured pre-shuffled decks due to cost of card control labor and added security the factory-packaged playing cards provide.

To further enhance their baccarat game safety, many casino executives have elected to use a shuffling machine in conjunction with pre-shuffled playing cards. This process, even though more time-costly than immediately cutting and dealing the pre-shuffled cards, has eliminated several game protection issues by adding a final machine shuffle.

Following the Player/Banker Patterns (The Scoreboard)

Basically, the predominant Latin customers of baccarat went from blaming their luck on bad cards in the ’70s and ’80s to the Asian player guessing their fate based on their ability to identify game trend patterns. Casinos provide baccarat customers with paper score cards and two-colored pens which the customers can use to record and track the Player/Banker/Tie results.

The customers would use these notations to locate any winning hand trends. The trends the baccarat customer is mostly looking for are indications that the shoe’s winning hands seem to repeat or go back and forth between Player and Banker.

Management quickly saw the advantage of providing the customers with a more efficient result-tracking system, and installed electronic scoreboards on each table. Scoreboards in baccarat track the previous results, usually in two different scoreboard screen formats (Bread Pan and Big Road). The boards also post “prediction” screens such as “Little Road, Big Eyed Boy, and Cockroach Tail” which advise the customers if the patterns indicating the winning results will “streak” and repeat, or if the winning outcomes “chop” or bounce back and forth between Player and Banker.

The scoreboard serves an additional purpose—advertising. Customers walking around the gaming area near the baccarat tables will be able to view different table scoreboards and look for patterns that may attract them to a certain “lucky” game.

What Are Free Hands?

The “big” baccarat table with seven seats on each side and operated by a team of four dealers is limited to high-limit rooms in today’s casino

When looking for these patterns, sometimes customers request the dealers deal hands where no player places a wager. These are known as free hands. This situation free hand is also known as dealing a “dummy hand.”

Free hands serve two purposes. First, they are used when a dealer makes a third-card drawing error. Instead of burning the mistake card similar to standard error procedures in blackjack, the error card is placed aside and used in the next hand, with that hand being dealt “free” or without bets being placed. This procedure maintains the (perceived) order of the shoe.

The second use of free hands is so customers can view the flow of the cards (again perceived) to help them predict future hands. Almost all Asian customers track hand win/loss patterns either on a paper scorecard or the scoreboard. If a higher-limit customer is uncertain as to the win/loss pattern, instead of sitting at the table until someone else places a wager, as a courtesy, the dealer can be requested to draw a free hand. Some higher-limit players are allowed to request several free hands in an attempt to identify a win/loss pattern.

Note: Free hands do not represent any change to the game’s mathematical advantage, but are wasted hands that do not generate revenue. Any excessive amount of free hands per shoe will reduce the shoe’s revenue potential as well as lower the game’s standard hold percentage.

In an effort to accommodate higher-limit customers, a few casinos will immediately draw free hands at the beginning of each new shoe. The standard number of free hands drawn to begin the shoe is three or up to five. These hands can be drawn and called quite quickly since there is no bet contemplation period by the customer.

Where the overall free hand concept hits a snag is when the casino offers this option to any baccarat customer. In some situations, close to half the hands drawn end up as “non-revenue” events, which damages income potential during the standard gaming day. It can also affect the cost of customer reinvestment if the casino does not have the ability to reduce the number of decisions per shoe in the player tracking computer when a large number of free hands are drawn.

The Myth Behind Offsetting Wagering in Baccarat

One of the more common myths in baccarat is the wrongly perceived mathematical change that occurs when a customer bets on both the Player and Banker wagers at the same time. This is known as offsetting wagering. Many casino executives believe that this offsetting wagering situation actually nullifies any mathematical advantage of the house. How can the customer lose? If one side loses the other side wins, and the customer receives player reinvestment credit while not risking any money.

This myth is absolutely not true. Both bets are subject to the same house advantage as if they were wagered individually or at different times. The Player bet is still subject to a 1.24 percent mathematical house advantage while the Banker bet is subject to that game type’s Banker house advantage (1.06 percent in standard, 1.02 percent in EZ, or 1.46 percent in Tiger).

This hypothesis holds true for all table game situations where the customer can “bet against themselves,” such as the “Do” and “Don’t” wagers in craps and the “even money” wagers in roulette. Each bet is still subject to the individual mathematical advantage regardless of the wagering strategies used.

In all actuality, offsetting wagering situations are good for the casino. These situations eliminate any risk due to game result volatility and provide the casino with a consistent outcome that is positive for the house. What an offsetting situation indicates is that specific customer’s reluctance to gamble. For instance, casino executives need to question why a customer utilizes an offsetting strategy to wager any promotional chips or coupons.

Recently, casinos are questioning why their slot customers have elected to wager their accumulated slot reinvestment “free play” vouchers by offsetting the promotion instruments on Player/Banker in baccarat. Obviously, they would rather “wash” their reinvestment dollars on a 1 percent game instead of a 10 percent game while experiencing no outcome volatility.

As former Nevada Gaming Control agent, casino operator, professional card counter and casino consultant, Bill Zender has been involved in various areas of gaming and hospitality since 1976. He has instructed courses on game protection, card counting, advantage play and gaming operations at various colleges and institutions throughout the country. As a member of JMJ, Inc., Zender was an owner and operator of the Aladdin Hotel and Casino. He has additional operational experience in card room casinos in California and is considered an expert in Asian gaming. For more information, visit billzender.com.

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