A Beginners Guide to Baccarat & How to Play

Baccarat Dealer Sorting Casino Chips

Like many other casino games, the exact origins of Baccarat are hotly debated. There is enough evidence to state with confidence that the game has been around for at least 150 years or so, although some theories suggest it could be much older than that. The most widely played variant of the game today is the simplified Punto Banco, which has a much shorter history.

Visit a casino in Europe or North America today and Punto Banco will likely be the only form of baccarat you can find outside the private high limit rooms, where a few tables of Chemin De Fer are known to still be offered. In the online casino world, any game labelled as baccarat will invariably be Punto Banco too – the older variations simply do not exist on the web. For this reason, we’ll be concentrating primarily on Punto Banco in this article.

Baccarat in the Media

Baccarat is well known as a favourite pastime of the rich, but its popularity was beginning to dip towards the end of the 20th century favouring games such as blackjack and roulette. More recently, the game has enjoyed a small-scale resurgence, demonstrated by the fact that baccarat accounts for a higher share of casino profits every year. Some Macau casinos make as much as 90% of their profits just from this one game!

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This has no doubt been helped by an increase in media attention, fuelled by several high-profile scandals involving the game. The most notable of these was the edge-sorting controversy of 2014, which saw professional poker player Phil Ivey collect over $25,000,000 from several of the world’s largest casinos using a controversial advantage-play technique.

Baccarat has always been a contentious game and was at the centre of the Tranby Croft affair of 1891 which saw disgraced socialite William Gordon-Cumming tried and subsequently ejected from the military for cheating at a high-society baccarat game. Such a tale might not have garnered much attention were it not for the fact that Edward, Prince of Wales and future king of England was also in attendance. This led to the story being nicknamed the “Royal Baccarat Scandal”, much to the dismay of his mother Queen Victoria.

Fans of the fictional secret agent James Bond will, of course, be familiar with baccarat too, as the legendary character is well known as a fan of the chemin-de-fer variant of the game. Bond is seen playing baccarat in several of his most popular movies including Thunderball, Dr. No, and of course, the original movie adaptation of Casino Royale which features an extended baccarat scene in which Bond gets the better of his nemesis Le Chiffre.

How to Play Punto Banco Baccarat

The objective of Punto banco is to bet on the hand which finishes with a point value as close to nine as possible. The numbered cards count at their face value, the pictures and tens are zero, and the aces are worth one. When adding the total of your cards together, only the last digit is counted therefore four and seven equals one, not eleven.

Typical Baccarat Table Layout

Typical Baccarat Table Layout

The game is dealt from a shoe using either six or eight decks. Each round is called a “coup” in baccarat and begins with two sets of cards being dealt, called the player and banker hands. Note that no player has any particular association with the player hand, nor is the dealer directly linked with the banker hand.

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The naming of the hands may be a tad confusing at first, but the easiest way to think about this is simply to remember that Punto banco is an evolution of a much more complicated game. In this simplified version of baccarat, the names given to the hands are only there to provide clarity as to which of the two totals you are betting on.

You can also choose to bet on a tie between the two hands if you wish, but after you have selected from the three available options you do not need to make any further decisions for the remaining duration of the coup. Instead, the cards are dealt according to fixed drawing rules, so the dealer will handle all future actions for you.

This lack of player decisions makes Punto banco an ideal choice for live dealer casinos, as it allows a single dealer to serve an unlimited number of customers at a single table. It is advantageous for players too, who have the peace of mind of knowing that a problem with their internet cannot cause them to lose money as it can in blackjack.

Drawing Rules

Once you have placed your bets and the initial two cards have been dealt to both the player and banker hands, the dealer will then follow a set of fixed guidelines to determine what to do next. The first step is to determine if either hand has a total of eight or nine, as the coup will conclude immediately if this is the case. If both hands are of equal value the current round will complete in a tie, otherwise the hand with the highest total wins.

Next, the dealer will turn their attention to the player hand only. If the total is less than six, the dealer will add a third card to the player hand. Totals of six or seven do not receive a third card, which is known as “standing pat”. The rules for the banker hand are a little more complicated, and use the following formula:

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  • The banker stands if he has a seven, otherwise his decision depends on the value of the player hand
  • If the player hand stands, the banker will hit if his total is five or below.
  • If the player hand hits, the banker hand is played as follows:

If the banker has a…

  • Zero, one, or two, he will always hit
    • Three, he will take another card as long as the players’ third card is not an eight
    • Four, he will take another card if the players’ third card is a two through seven
    • Five, he will take another card if the players’ third card is a four through seven
    • Six, he will take another card if the players’ third card is a six or a seven

This might seem like a lot to remember, but the truth is you don’t need to memorize this schedule unless you want to, as the dealer handles all such decisions without any player input. If you do play a lot of Punto banco though, you’ll probably find that you will soon know what the dealer is about to do at any given point anyway!

Bet Types, Side Bets & Payouts

There are three main bets you can choose to make when playing Punto banco:

  1. Player Bets pay even money and have a house edge of 1.24% in a regular six or eight-deck shoe game. Occasionally you may come across a single deck baccarat, which increases the house edge to 1.29%.

  2. Banker Bets usually pay even money minus a 5% commission, which results in a house edge of 1.06% in games using a six or eight-deck shoe. Single deck baccarat reduces this to just 1.01%. Some casinos occasionally use different payouts for the banker bet, usually by increasing or lowering the commission.

  3. Tie Bets return 8 to 1 at the vast majority of casinos, and has a house edge of 14.36% in an eight-deck game or 14.44% when using a six-deck shoe. The single deck variant increases the house edge still further to 15.75%.

Most casinos also offer several side bets at their baccarat games and tables too. Whilst these bets can make the game a little more exciting, they all have a house edge which is far higher than simply betting on the player or banker. Here are a few of the most popular options at online casinos, along with their odds:

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  • Big/Small are popular side bets at land-based casinos but are only available with a few online gaming providers at this time. When placing a wager on big or small you are betting on how many cards will be dealt during the next coup. The “small” bet has a house edge of 8.07% and pays 3 to 2 if only the four initial cards are dealt, whereas the “big” bet pays 0.54 to 1 when the total number of cards is five or six. The big bet has a house edge of 4.35%.
  • Perfect Pairs is offered as a side bet in several card games and works in much the same way at the baccarat table as it does when playing blackjack. You can choose to bet on the player or banker specifically, which returns 11 to 1 if their hand receives a pair of identical valued cards. 

Alternatively, you can bet on either hand at the same time for a payout of 5 to 1, or on a perfect pair of matching suits and values which returns 25 to 1. The house edge on these bets is over 13%, making it one of the worst bets you can make whilst playing baccarat.

  • Dragon Bonus, sometimes known simply as Bonus is another side bet where you choose to wager on either the player or banker hand individually. The payout varies from even money if you win with a total of four, then increases gradually culminating in a payout of 30 to 1 if you win with a total of 9.

This makes it one of the more generous side bets, but only if you stick to betting on the player as that has a house edge of 2.7%. The more complicated drawing rules for the banker hand means that there are fewer winning combinations for the higher payouts, resulting in a house edge of 9.4%.

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Best Online Gaming Providers for Baccarat

All the major online gaming providers have at least one version of baccarat available, with the biggest names often offering two or more with slight differences in visuals, side bets, or payout structure. There are a couple of dozen live dealer providers offering the game too, although country restrictions prohibit players from certain countries from playing their games. The most obvious example is the United States, so we have broken up our recommendations between the US and the rest of the world:

For US Players

The American online gambling market is slowly opening up state-by-state, but the country seems much more relaxed at the prospect of online sports betting than it does online casino games and poker. The only states that have moved to regulate all three activities are Delaware, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but further developments are expected in 2021. Citizens of legal gambling states have most of the same options as the rest of the world (detailed below).

If you aren’t fortunate enough to live in a state that has already joined the 21st century you can still play at many offshore casinos, although many of the largest providers do not allow US gamblers to play as a result of the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which makes it difficult for casinos to accept deposits from American citizens. Instead, a secondary market has appeared of offshore sites that target the USA specifically.

Three big names continue to offer online gaming to the US market, despite the problems caused by the UIGEA. These are Realtime Gaming, Rival and Betsoft who all these offer excellent virtual Baccarat.

Realtime Gaming (RTG) was falling behind visually a few years ago but their recently updated HTML5 games are bang-up-to-date, and every bit as attractive as the alternatives as their competitors. The Rival casinos are well known for their generous bonuses, whilst Betsoft primarily stakes their name on the quality of their 3D slots. Whichever brand you choose, be sure to check that the actual casino you choose to play with is licensed by a trustworthy gaming authority.

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Three companies currently offer high-quality live dealer baccarat to the US market, specifically Visionary iGaming (ViG), Arrow’s Edge and Fresh Deck Studios. ViG uses a six-deck shoe and offers the Perfect Pairs and Dragon Bonus side bets, as well as a slightly different variant known as Super 6. The maximum bet is a little lower than the other two companies at $500, although this should still be enough to satisfy most players.

Arrow’s Edge and Fresh Deck Studios both use an eight-deck shoe and offer two sets of table limits, with a maximum bet of $2,000 at Arrow’s Edge and $1,500 at Fresh Deck Studios. They offer the big/small, Perfect Pairs and bonus side bets. Both providers have a free play option available too, allowing you to try their games out before you make a deposit.

For Europe & The Rest of The World

If you live outside the United States, you should be able to gamble with the majority of online gaming providers, including those mentioned previously who accept bets from Americans. Some casinos do not accept players from certain countries as a result of strict local regulation, but the situation differs from that in the US as it is only individual casinos that do not accept those players rather than the entire software provider.

A good example of this would be the Vegas Partner Lounge casino group and their extensive range of Microgaming-based casinos. This group was present in the United Kingdom and all of Europe until roughly 2014, when several countries introduced much tougher gambling regulations causing the group to abandon those markets. The casinos continued to operate, but in a much smaller number of territories than they did previously.

Some of the largest software providers outside of North America are NetEnt, Playtech, Novomatic and Microgaming. NetEnt and Playtech have live dealer divisions too, which are some of the largest operators of those games in the rest of the world alongside Scientific and Evolution Gaming.

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Microgaming have been producing online casino games since the birth of the online casino, and have earned a reputation for creating some of the best-looking slots and table games during that time. They even offer a virtual Punto banco game with increased odds for the tie bet and lower commission when betting on the banker, which results in an extremely low house edge. Their All Aces Video Poker and Classic Blackjack Gold are also legendary for their offering some of the lowest odds you will find on the web.

The Playtech brand has expanded rapidly over the last two decades and is now the software of choice with all the large British bookmakers including William Hill, Ladbrokes Coral and Paddy Power. Unfortunately, the founder of the company, Israeli businessman Teddy Sagi has long been the subject of controversy amid allegations of questionable business practices, damaging the company’s image in many people’s eyes. Despite his departure from the company in 2018, the resulting suspicion and mistrust are yet to be forgotten.

Swedish brand NetEnt is exceptionally well respected throughout Europe for both their traditional and live dealer gaming products. The company began to make a strong push into the land-based casino market in the latter half of the past decade, a move which rapidly piqued the interest of fellow Swedish software brand Evolution Gaming.

In what seemed like a counter-intuitive move to many within the industry, NetEnt was subsequently purchased by Evolution in a deal that concluded with them taking full control in December 2020. The tie-up between these gaming giants created an online casino juggernaut that boasts one of the industry’s most impressive portfolios of tier-one gaming brands, casino partners and world-class software. Their casinos already boast a combined customer base of several hundred million regular active players.

The sheer quantity of options and large size of these monstrous gaming brands ensures that players from the rest of the world have virtually unlimited choices for playing both regular online baccarat and its live dealer counterpart. High rollers can request a private table (both online and in-person) and can expect to see table stakes permitting wagers of up to an astonishing £/€ 250,000 on offer on the VIP tables of the very largest casinos.

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Important Baccarat Questions Answered

Q. The so-called “baccarat” games I have found whilst playing online bear little resemblance to the what I have seen in movies such as Casino Royale. Bond was much more involved in the game and was repeatedly asked if he wanted to hit or stand much like in blackjack. The dealer also was using a paddle to distribute and organize the cards in play – what is the purpose of this?

Was Bond playing a different variant of the game, or have the rules ended up changing significantly since that movie was shot? In short, what is going on here?

A. Baccarat was always Bond’s favourite game throughout all of Fleming’s early books, so it’s not surprising to see him playing the game on the silver screen. Whilst punto banco is by far the most popular variant of the game amongst regular players, there aren’t many opportunities to create suspense or drama which makes translating it into a movie extremely difficult, if not impossible.

The game Bond is playing is Chemin de fer, which differs from punto banco in many ways. One of the most obvious changes is the fact that players have the opportunity to decide if they wish to take a third card, rather than all of the decisions being made automatically depending on which cards have already been dealt.

The paddle is used to pick and drop cards onto the table so the dealer doesn’t have to touch them, which removes many opportunities for cheating. The game looks impressive in a movie for sure, and the extra decisions delegated to the player create a perfect opportunity for adding suspense to a scene.

The bottom line is, although it looks good on television, Baccarat Chemin-de-Fer just isn’t well suited to being played online. Even if somebody did come up with an online version, they might struggle to find players as it just isn’t very popular anymore.

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If you insist on experiencing Baccarat the way James Bond does, you’ll need to start saving right now – the game can still be found in the high limit rooms of the major Macao casinos, but the insane table stakes will probably destroy your bankroll before you’ve finished sipping your first complimentary Martini.

Q.  What is the difference between regular online casino baccarat and the live dealer version?

A. Regular online casino baccarat is completely virtual. The order of the cards determined by a random number generator and the “table” is nothing but graphics drawn on the screen. Live dealer games feature a video stream of a real person dealing physical cards from a shoe.

The regular (or virtual) games are almost always played one-on-one, by a single-player versus the computerized dealer, and the cards are digitally shuffled at the end of each coup. These games are the fastest versions of Baccarat you can play online, although the live dealer games can be very quick also. This is because, unlike at a land-based casino, the gaming server deals with settling all of the bets automatically, allowing the dealer to concentrate on dealing the cards.

Q.  Is online baccarat fair? I’ve heard that online casinos cannot be trusted.

A. As long as you choose a reputable, licensed casino that offers games from mainstream software providers then you can feel confident that the games on offer have been thoroughly tested and audited which ensures that the advertised odds match what happens when you play the game.

With regards to virtual baccarat games which use a random number generator (RNG), those systems are also checked regularly to ensure that their output is truly random. Nevertheless, many players still do not trust these games completely and would prefer to play live dealer baccarat instead.

It’s hard to see how the casinos could cheat at live dealer baccarat – the cards are thoroughly shuffled before being placed in the shoe, ensuring that neither the dealer nor the casino software have any idea what the order of the next cards will be.

Q.  There are videos on Youtube that seem to show the results of a live dealer baccarat coup before all of the cards have even been dealt! This looks very suspect to me, how is that possible?

A. As the dealer pulls each card from the shoe, it is passed over an electronic scanner which enables the gaming server to add up the value of each hand. This information is first used to add the little boxes to the table, which show the total of each hand. When the coup is over, the computer knows exactly which cards were dealt to both the player and the banker, enabling winning and losing bets to be calculated automatically.

These hand totals are overlaid as a separate graphics layer on top of the streaming video, and provide a quick way for players to see the value of each hand. The problem is, this second layer can sometimes lose synchronization with the streaming video layer, particularly if you have a slow internet connection which has caused the layers to lag.

Whilst it may appear that the value of the next card is already known before the dealer has pulled it from the shoe, what’s really happened is that the video has ended up a few seconds ahead of the rest of the user interface, including the overlay produced by using the card scanner data.

This may make for a great Youtube video, but in truth the game will always resync itself automatically at the end of the current coup, so there really is nothing to worry about.

Q. Are there any baccarat games I can play for free, as in without having to deposit real money? I don’t want to risk my money before I feel sure that the games are trustworthy.

A. Most online casinos do have a free play option, although a few countries have recently introduced regulation either banning this functionality altogether – for what reason, I have no idea – or forcing sites to verify the user’s age before allowing them to play the game.

This isn’t much of an issue for the casinos, because they already verify your age during the registration process. Other gaming sites have not been so lucky – those sites previously offered hundreds of free slots and table games for anyone to try, but are now forced to block players from countries such as the UK due to their archaic regulation.

You can even play some live dealer games with play money at participating casinos – just go to the lobby like you normally would and look for the free play table option. This feature is usually only available for games such as Baccarat and Roulette, where an unlimited number of players can participate at a single table.

Q. Why does the banker bet have a lower house edge than the player bet? I’ve been told I should always bet on the banker, and avoid the tie like it was a rabid dog! Why is this?

A. The player hand is always checked first at the beginning of the coup (assuming nobody has an 8 or a 9, which will end the round immediately!)  which gives the banker hand the advantage of knowing exactly what total needs to be beaten. This gives the banker hand a slight advantage, as a mathematical set of rules is used to determine whether the banker should receive another card with full knowledge of the player’s final total.

The difference isn’t very large, however – the player hand wins 44.62% of the time compared to 45.86% for the banker hand. The remaining 9.52% of the probabilities is taken by the tie bet. As a tie always results in a push, you can divide that total 50/50 to show the games true odds of 50.62% for the banker and 49.38% for the player.

The house edge for the banker bet is lower simply because it wins more often, but the difference is quite small – 1.24% for the player and 1.06% for the banker. But as for the tie bet… the house edge on this monster is a ridiculous 14.4%.

Your friend certainly had an interesting way of describing the tie bet! He’s right though, you should stay well clear of the tie bet unless you can find a casino who are offering improved odds on this bet. One example is Bodog, who pay 9 to 1 for a tie which reduces the house edge to 4.8%. That’s still poor compared to betting on the player or banker, but at least it isn’t a complete joke like the regular tie payout!

Q. Can you count cards playing baccarat, or does that only work when playing blackjack?

A. Yes! Advantage players have been counting cards at the baccarat table ever since the concept was first invented. The advantage you can gain from doing so can often be much lower than that which can be obtained whilst playing blackjack. The system used to count cards whilst playing baccarat is much simpler than the technique used in blackjack, too.

A detailed analysis of the effect of counting cards at baccarat revealed that you can gain an advantage of around 0.5% if the count reaches its most extreme level. You are extremely unlikely to ever see that situation arise though, unfortunately. The average improvement to the house edge from counting will usually be in the region of around 0.2%. It’s not enough to beat the house edge, unfortunately, and some would say it’s just a lot of work for very little gain. If you do fancy trying it though, there is no reason you can’t try this whilst playing at a live dealer casino!

Q. Which live dealer game has the lowest house edge – blackjack, baccarat or roulette?

A. Blackjack varies from around 0.17% up to around 1% for the very worst rule variation. The majority of common and reasonably fair games tend to have a house edge of around 0.5%. This is around half the house edge of betting on the banker in baccarat, and one fifth the house edge of European roulette.

It’s no coincidence that the amount of skill required to play each game with perfect strategy correlates directly with the house edge. The casinos like to exploit the fact that the majority of players will not play with perfect strategy, which will always increase the house edge dramatically.

Q. I heard that Phil Ivey was able to beat the casinos for millions playing punto banco. How was this done?

A. Phil was using a technique known as edge-sorting, which while not illegal, is frowned upon by the casinos. He was able to get away with this by manipulating the dealer and claiming to be performing these actions because of superstition rather than advantage play. He was also taking advantage of the fact that the cards the casino was using were cut imperfectly. This technique is unlikely to be usable today, as the case was publicized very heavily and several casinos lost millions as a result of it. It sure was a great story, though!

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