The Origins and History of Baccarat

31st Aug 2020, 10:21:52 AM

In Casino Royale, the original book, not the film, a tuxedoed James Bond plays high-stakes Baccarat with the villain Le Chiffre against a luxurious casino backdrop.

And so the image of Baccarat as an exclusive game for the privileged classes was re-enforced in popular culture. But the truth is, long before it was a game of Kings, it was a game of foot soldiers and mercenaries.

Here we’ll walk you through the fascinating origin and colourful history of this popular card game.

Early Origins – Chinese or Ancient Roman.

Baccarat is often said to be the oldest card game in the world. But the truth is, the origins of this high-stakes casino classic are shrouded in mystery.

Some say it is a descendant of an ancient Chinese game, Pai Gow. This is played with tiles instead of cards, but the name translates literally as Make Nine. Since the best score in Baccarat is also nine, it is claimed that there is a connection between the two. There is, however, no historic records or evidence to substantiate this theory.

Another more colourful theory is that the game is based on a ritual involving the Etruscans of ancient Rome.

Legend has it that the Etruscan princes would select a pre-pubescent girl and worship her as the embodiment of a deity. When she came of age, she would have to cast a pair of dice to determine her future fate.

Rolling an 8 or 9 guaranteed her a future as a priestess. 6 or 7 meant she would return to secular life. But if the poor girl rolled less than 6, she had to walk into the sea and drown herself.

Again, there is no historical evidence to back up this story. And the only correlation with Baccarat is that 9 is good, and less than 6 very bad. But it is a good tale and could also go some way to explaining why Baccarat is traditionally a high-stakes game.

Ancient vase with Etruscan motif - two warriors with maiden

Humble Beginnings in Italy

A French manuscript dating back to the 1330s is where “the paly of cards at table” is first described. At the time, before the invention of the modern printing press, cards were not a common pastime as they were extremely hard to come by. They either had to be hand-painted or printed using wooden stamps.

The wooden stamp method was introduced to Italy by Marco Polo. He had seen it used to produce Pai Gow tiles in China. On his return from his travels in the 1290s, the knowledge he had brought back with him was put to use making, among other thing, playing cards.

But it wasn’t until a century or two later, when more advanced printing methods became available, that cards and card games became popular.

Printed in packs of 78, and known as The Devil’s Picture Books, cards were frowned on by the clergy of the time, but that didn’t stop people from playing the. Soon there were a whole host of new games, as well as adaptions of older games so they could be played with cards, Baccarat among them.

The French like to take credit for inventing Baccarat. But there is strong historical evidence that suggests the game actually originated in Italy. There were three card games popular in Italy at this time that could all be forerunners of modern baccarat

Tarrochi, which could be one of the first card games ever.

Macao, often referred to as Italian Baccarat, where the aim was to get a 9

Le Her, also a fixed-number game that allowed players to exchange their card, similarly to drawing another one in modern Baccarat

An Italian man, Felix Falguiere, is regarded as the inventor of the modern form of Baccarat. He developed the game of Baccara, as it was known at the time, using Tarot cards.

The French Connection

Baccara was popular among soldiers and mercenaries fighting in the Habsburg–Valois Wars that raged in Italy at the time. Returning fighters brought the game back to France with them.

Ancient vase with Etruscan motif - two warriors with maiden

Here it quickly became favourite among the nobility, who added a -t to the end of the name, for reasons best known to themselves, and nicknamed it “the game of Kings”.

Two versions of the game were popular during the Napoleonic era - Baccarat en Banque (Baccarat Deux Tableux) and Chemin de Fer.

In fact, they were so popular that after casinos were outlawed in 1837 by Louis Phillip the games were run in illegal gambling operations in private houses. And all the while, their popularity in Europe was spreading.

As the phrase Chemin de Fer means “way of iron” or “railway”, it would suggest that this game became widespread after 1832, the year the first railroad in France opened.

This leads us to assume that Baccarat en Banque is the older version of the game. But that is only an educated guess and we have no real way of proving it.

A Royal Scandal

The first written mention of the game comes from 1847. This is when the first printed mathematical analysis of the game was included in Charles Van-Tenac’s book Album des jeux.

But the game made the press in a big way in 1891, thanks to a scandal the royal family of the UK. It all started when the host of a game, one Arthur Wilson, accused a player, Sir William Gordon-Cumming, of cheating.

Sir William didn’t take the accusations kindly, and promptly sued Wilson for slander. This move immediately gained public attention as Baccarat had been declared illegal in 1886.

The other players at the game were called as witnesses during the trial. And as they included the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, the first time the heir to the throne had been compelled to appear in court since 1411, the press and public couldn’t get enough.

Such was the nationwide interest in the trial, newspapers published rules and information about Baccarat, massively spreading knowledge of the game for the first time.

Crossing the Pond

1911 is pinpointed by researchers as the year the first game of Baccarat was played in an American gambling venue. This date is supported by many respected authors and card experts who have grappled with the history of the game.

But there is plenty of evidence that they are mistaken in their belief. An article in the New York Times from 1899 details the arrest of 30 French nationals who were playing Baccarat at the time.

And an earlier article, from the same publication, describes visitors flocking around the “faro spread, the roulette table and the Baccarat board” at the Clubhouse at Long Branch N.J.

These should serve as proof that Baccarat was known in the states in the 19th Century. Yet, despite this, John Scarne’s 1911 description of a game of Chemin de Fer being played in New York is still considered the birth of Baccarat in the States.

Whatever the true date of its arrival Stateside, the game wasn’t as popular as the two other casino staples, Blackjack and Craps.

It did not feature at all in the Assembly Bill that legalized gambling in 1931. And when the Sands opened its first Baccarat table in 1958, the version played was Chemin de Fer.

This is a non-banking game where the casino gets a cut of the winning bet. This arrangement prompted Mark Twain to say he would have stayed at the table if he could borrow the croupier’s paddle.

Punto Banca Comes to Casinos

Baccarat did not become a major casino game until 1959. A new version of the game, Punto Banco, had been developed at the Mar del Plata casino in Argentina in the early 1950s.

This was brought to Las Vegas by Tommy Renzoni in ’59 and is the one that is played most today in casinos across the USA, Australia and the UK.

The introduction of Punto Banco to the American public didn’t go quite as planned. On 20th November 1959, amid an avalanche of promotional glamour and glitz, the Las Vegas Sands opened its first Punto Banco table. And by the end of the night, the casino had lost a quarter of a million dollars (worth a lot more in 1959 than it is today).

The Sands, Las Vegas, where the first Punto Banco table in America was opened

Despite this rocky start, the casino kept the table open, but only to high-rollers. There thinking was probably along the lines of the higher the stakes, the quicker they’d get their money back.

Baccarat retained this air of exclusivity over the coming decades. In the 1970s, there were only 15 tables in the entire Vegas Strip. And since most of these were only open part-time, you had to be rich, famous or, best of all, both, to be guaranteed a seat.

The Game Today

Baccarat has evolved a lot over the years since soldiers played it huddled around campfires in the middle of Medieval Italy.

Thanks to its huge popularity in Asia, the game is constantly developing, with different variations, added features and side bets all upping the excitement.

And thanks to the Internet and online casinos, you no longer have to be a high-roller to play. So try your luck at this historic game here at We have several baccarat online versions, which you can also play for fun. Or if you want a more James Bond like feel to the game, go to our Live Dealer section and enjoy the added glamour. Good Luck!

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