The History of Baccarat

This article explores the history of the casino game baccarat, unearthing specific information on it's origins and introduction to the United States. Spoiler alert - Famous Gaming Expert John Scarne had the date Wrong!


7/6/202211 min read

History of Baccarat

The true origins of modern Baccarat are probably lost to history. The first time the game Baccarat (spelled Baccara) was mentioned in print by a contemporary observer was in the early 1800’s. However, I was able to uncover some interesting facts surrounding the history of Baccarat, including a much earlier date for its arrival in the United States.

The Game, The Myth, The Legend

Many authors have guessed at the source of Baccarat, but these are just conjectures and hearsay until a pre-19thcentury document describing Baccarat is discovered. There are a couple of plausible origin scenarios. Baccarat may have partly derived from early non-card games such as the Chinese game Pai Gow played with tiles instead of cards, (Pai Gow means to make 9) or it may have come from the ancient Roman ritual of a vestal virgin casting a nine-sided die to determine her fate. If she rolled 8 or 9 she would become a high priestess, 6 or 7 meant her vestal virgin status was revoked, and any other result required her to walk into the sea and drown. As a “fixed number” card game Baccarat may have taken the number “9” from these two unusual sources. Baccarat, being played with cards, forces us to examine the source of playing cards themselves.

Prior to the invention of the printing press, playing cards were created either by hand painting or with carved wooded blocks used to stamp sheets of paper. The technology for block printed playing cards and the game Pai Gow tiles arrived in Italy from China after Marco Polo (1254 – 1324) returned to Italy from his expeditions in the late 1290’s.Circumstantial evidence seems to point to Italy as the likely source for Baccarat, where it may have appeared during the late 13th and early 14th centuries.

“Jouent aux des, aux cartes aux tables” (translation “play of cards at tables”) a line from a French manuscript dated between 1328 and 1341 was the first mention of playing cards in a historical document. For playing cards to become truly common place they had to overcome a hard fact: Namely that the hand crafting and block printing of playing cards were expensive and time consuming processes that consequently limited the availability of playing cards. A solution was found from an unlikely source, Johannes Gutenberg (1398 - 1468). We all know that his invention of a movable type printing press brought the Bible to the masses; he also provided them with another diversion, playing cards also known at the time as The Devil’s Picture Books. Gutenberg printed packs of 78 playing cards the same year he printed the first Bible (talk about irony). The natural result of more people playing card games was for existing games to evolve and for new games (based on older gaming devices) to appear. This is the environment where our modern Baccarat game was born and nurtured.

Most origin legends concerning Baccarat name Italy as its birth place. Baccara is said to mean “zero” in Italian (not true). Tarrochi was one of the first Italian card games documented during the 1300’s. No direct relationship with Baccarat has been established, however Tarrochi might be considered the first ancestor of all card games. In the 15thcentury an Italian named Felix Falguiere* is said to have invented the modern form of Baccarat using Tarot cards. Another popular early Italian card game was called; Macao. Of course Macao is a banking game not the new gambling Mecca of The East. Macao, is often referred to as Italian Baccarat, is a game played to the total of nine and seems to have a longer documented history than Baccarat. It is possible that Baccarat was derived from Macao.

*The Facts“Just the facts, ma’am” reportedly said by Sgt. Joe Friday 1950sMandela Effect Alert -what he actually said was “all we want are the facts, ma’am”

A note about Mr. Falguiere, I googled his name and found several web sites reporting that he created the modern form of Baccarat in the 1940’s, a neat trick for him since he had already been dead for five centuries. That incorrect date was published somewhere and then copied by the next website and the next and eventually might be taken as fact. The point I am making is do not assume everything you read online or anywhere else is true just because it has been written down. Until supporting evidence of his contribution can be substantiated, Falguiere will remain with of the legends of Baccarat. Although this book is loaded with my own opinions and theories I have taken great pains to verify as accurate all the information I report as fact. I feel a great responsibility to get it right. The last thing I want to do is help spread false assumptions or good guesses as fact.

According to the Regis Deloche and Fabienne Oguer in the book Optimal Play Mathematical Studies of Games and Gambling, Le Her is another possible relative to Baccarat. In Le Her there are two players only each is dealt one card. The cards are ranks 1 to 13 with the King being the highest rank and the Ace the lowest. The player who receives the first card has the option to exchange his card with the other player. If an exchange is made, player two must draw a new card from the deck. Kings are automatic winners. The first published analysis of Le Her was produced in 1713 by James Waldegrave.

In 1967 G. TH. Guilbaud suggested in his work, Les problemes de la stastistique, that the old form of Baccarat is derived from Le Her. He based his theory in part on the fact that both games are fixed number games each seeking the highest point total possible. There is also a critical count for both games in which the player attempts to improve is own hand by taking a card.

Since it is reasonable to surmise, as Deloche and Oguer have, that games evolve from simple forms to more complex ones, than Le Her may indeed be the ancestor of Baccarat. The fact remains though that it is still only a theory.

In the 19th century Hoyle’s Official Rules of Card the description of Baccarat claims a direct relationship to Vingt-et-un. Vingt-et-un is French for twenty-one. We must add the American casino, table game juggernaut, now known as Blackjack to the list of possible parents to Baccarat. Those early Holye books are referring to Baccarat en Banque when they use the word Baccarat, evidenced by the detailed explanation on how to play the game. Baccarat is known the world over as a French game, so let us look there for a moment. The first uncovered mention of Baccara was made by Charles Van-Tenac’s in his book called Album des jeux published in 1847, Album has a 13 page mathematical analysis of Baccara, the first known in print. I have been unable to locate a document published by a first person observer prior to the 1847 that mentions Baccarat. The legends go on to suggest that Baccarat came to France via Soldiers returning from the Italian conflicts instigated by the French King Charles VIII (1483 - 1498) during the 1490’s. As the accounts go the game then quickly became popular with the French nobility. There are tales of the game being played during Napoleon’s time, but no mention from actual period documents. As the stories go, while Napoleon was sacking Europe two forms of Baccarat were in vogue; one a banking game called Baccarat en Banque (Baccarat Deux Tableaux) the other Baccarat Chemin de Fer, a non-banking version. These games were popular all over Europe but reportedly held their greatest sway over the people of France; that is until 1837 when during the reign of the French King Louis Phillip (1830 – 1848) casinos were made illegal in France. Baccarat in both forms survived in clubs operating outside of the law in that country and remained fairly popular throughout Western Europe.

The words “Chemin de Fer” means “iron way” or “railway” and the action of the shoe moving around the table to different players is why the name was adopted for this, most elegant version of Baccarat. The name “Chemin de Fer” helps us date the game. Since the first actual railroad opened in France in 1832 it is reasonable to conclude that the name “Chemin de Fer” would not have been applied to this form of Baccarat until sometime after 1832. While Chemin de Fer could have existed in its present form under a different name prior the invention and proliferation of the railroad, the iron way/railway connection seems to suggest Baccarat en Banque may be the elder form.

Baccarat en Banque was described in 1911 by “The Official Rules of Card Games Hoyle Up to Date” simply as Baccarat. The Hoyle books make a very clear distinction between the games Baccarat and Chemin de Fer always listing them separately. Back in the 1800’s The New York Times and other sources also refer to Baccarat en Banque only as “Baccarat.” The name confusion seems to have arisen only after gamblers began to call Punto Banco, Baccarat. It seems a reasonable assumption to make that mention of “Baccarat” made before the 1830’s are discussing Baccarat en Banque and not Chemin de Fer.

Many respected authors who have tackled the subject of Baccarat, from John Scarne to Steve Forte and every one in-between, have placed Baccarat as arriving in the United States around 1911. According to Scarne, Chemin de Fer was played in illegal casinos all over the eastern United States in the early 1900’s. Scarne specifically mentions Chemin de Fer being played in 1911 in Saratoga Springs, New York, but he explained it could not compete with two other banking games Craps and Blackjack. Both were widely played by American servicemen during World War I.

The 1911 date appears to be a case of incorrect information being mentioned so often that is has become accepted as fact. I can prove that Baccarat was being played in the United States as early as 1871 in New York state. While other authors maintain that it was Chemin de Fer that was first being played, Baccarat en Banque was the version actually played by earliest American Baccarat punters.

As I mentioned, the first printed record of Baccarat being played in the United States that I have found was printed in the New York Times 08/14/1871. The article was titled: The Summer Resorts. Gossip from Long Branch, Saratoga and Newport. According to the article the Club-house at Long Branch was the place to see; “everybody goes to see it, staid country deacons and all. They look with intense curiosity at the faro spread, the roulette table and the Baccarat board...”

In 1899 a group of 30 Frenchmen were arrested in New York City for playing Baccarat. This was chronicled once again in the New York Times on 11/13/1899. The organizers of the illegal game complained that their game was targeted and shut down while every liquor store in New York ran illegal gambling operations. Maybe the local elected officials and law enforcement didn’t accept Francs as bribes. The fact remains that Baccarat had a foothold in America in the 19th century, decades earlier than previously thought.

Again, these early references to Baccarat are surely concerning Baccarat en Banque and not Chemin de Fer. Before 1959 the term Baccarat meant Baccarat en Banque and Chemin de Fer was used for only for the non-banking version of the game. Baccarat in NevadaI’m Just a Bill, I’m only a Bill… A fact that may surprise you about Baccarat is that it is completely absent from Nevada’s 1931 Assembly Bill 98 which legalized casino gambling. The games the Nevada State legislature made legal were: “Faro, monte, roulette, keno, fan-tan, twenty-one, blackjack, seven-and-a-half, big injun, klondyke, craps, stud poker, draw poker…”.

Chemin de Fer became the first version of Baccarat to be played in Nevada casinos when the Sands opened a table in 1958, but “Chimney” (as it was often referred to) was never a major game. The modern form of Baccarat seen in today’s Las Vegas casinos started out as Punto y Banco and was first developed in Argentina at the Mar del Plata casino sometime prior to 1955. Cuban casinos picked up the game in the 1950s and that is where an American Gambler/Casino boss discovered it. His name was Tommy Renzoni.

In 1959 the Baccarat world changed forever when Tommy Renzoni brought this new version of Baccarat, Punto Banco to Las Vegas from post-Castro Cuba via Argentina. Punto Banco is essentially the modern game of Baccarat we know today. It is a banking version of Baccarat en Banque and Chemin de Fer. On 11/20/1959, amidst a casino promotional blitz Las Vegas saw a new chapter in gaming history begin, the first Baccarat table opened at the Las Vegas Sands. Baccarat got off to a rough start; losing $250,000 on its inaugural night. Luckily for today’s casino operators the folks running the Sands in 1959 believed in the game and stuck with it long enough for it to show an inevitable profit. I wonder what high limit rooms would be like today if the Sands bosses had decided to give up on Baccarat.

The Baccarat table you can sit down at today is not quite identical to the game Renzoni introduced to Sin City. Those early modern Baccarat games played in Las Vegas casinos during the early 1960’s had some interesting differences. The initial version of Baccarat had a side bet on naturals that has since been replaced by the Tie wager. The games used cash for all wagers instead of casino cheques (chips, to the layperson). There is a cool photo taken some time in the 1960’s of Frank Sinatra dealing on a Baccarat table covered with cash bets.

Here is an interesting fact that might have been lost forever if not for its printing here in this article. The cash used on Las Vegas Baccarat tables was waxed with a kind of soap-like substance so it would be easier for the dealers to handle and so the bills would lay flat on the table. It was quite an impressive sight with all those $100 bills lying around the table. The wax made the bills stand out from a regular bill, which was fine for the casinos but I wonder how may store owners across the country refused to take the waxed bills out of fear that they might be counterfeit. Most Baccarat tables in Las Vegas moved from cash to chips in the early 1970s but as late as the early 1980’s, Las Vegas residents and casino patrons were still running across these strange feeling, wax bills from the old Baccarat tables. As you can imagine, cash slowed the game down terribly. Time is money, so the cash was inevitably replaced with casino cheques.

Baccarat had a very different vibe in Las Vegas during its first 30 years or so. Besides the aforementioned cash play there was an extra employee at many Big Baccarat tables, they were Shills. Shills are casino employees who actually play on the table to keep the action going, today a Shill might be used only in a few Poker rooms and in some of the Topless pools that have sprung up at most large Casino resorts in the 2010's.

Back in the early days of Baccarat right up until the 1980s the pretty girl making small wagers and pulling cards from the shoe was most likely in the employ of the casino. These shills made minimum wage and like dealers counted on tips for the lion’s share of their income. Many people and players assumed these Baccarat Shills were prostitutes, a practice the casinos strongly discouraged (believe it or not).

Here is another oddity about the early Baccarat tables; players in the 1960s and into the 1970s could actually shuffle the cards, which were then (sometimes) re-shuffled by the dealer. )…” I found the following excerpt from “Baccarat Made Easy” a how to pamphlet given to customers at the Sahara casino printed in 1973. “Baccarat is played with 8 decks of cards that are thoroughly shuffled “you may help shuffle!?!” Players shuffling the cards, yikes! I wonder how many cheating crews worked those early tables over. The opportunities for fraud are virtually endless when a mechanic gets his hands on all the decks.

A modern casino would never allow a player to touch the cards before they were put in play. The policy is so strict that a violation from it cost one casino shift boss I know his job. This casino shift manager was fired for allowing a customer to demonstrate “magic” tricks with cards in a discard rack on a live game. The cards were later shuffled and dealt to the amateur magician. Although no cheating occurred, the casino boss lost his job after casino Surveillance reported the incident to senior management.