It All Started With… The History of Baccarat, or How We Came to Bet on the Banker and the Player

Betiton
12 min readJun 22, 2021

It all started with… the series that explains the beginnings of gambling powered by Betiton™

Welcome to another entry in our series ‘It All Started With…’, which explores the history of casino games. This time round we’ll be delving deep into the faint beginnings of James Bond’s game of choice: baccarat. Unfortunately, the history of baccarat will probably remain unknown to us forever.

‘It all started with a card game somewhere in Italy…’

This is because, despite the game’s popularity, there is hardly any historical documentation about it, meaning that its history is both largely unknown and underappreciated. We hope that our article will be able to shed some light on the darkness of the history of baccarat — even if only slightly.

players around a baccarat table laying down their bets
Photo by CAPEHART

Chinese Domino Game or Ancient Roman Ritual? The Possible First Beginnings of Baccarat

There have been a number of theories, legends, and collectively held beliefs surrounding the origin of the game of baccarat. The first of which is the theory that baccarat might have descended from earlier games that didn’t make use of cards.

One such game is the Chinese pai gow, which is a game played on domino-like tiles and in which 9 is the maximum score attainable. Moreover, the name of the game itself mentions the number: pai gow is Chinese for “make nine” or “card nine”, which attests to the importance of the number 9.

Otherwise, a Roman ritual involving a vestal virgin casting a 9-sided die to determine her fate is also cited as being a possible ancestor of baccarat, mostly because the number 9 is also important here. In fact, if the virgin landed either a 9 or an 8, she would become a high priestess.

It has been theorised that baccarat might have acquired its rules from either one of these, or even from a combination of both of them. Pai gow might have been a likely source of the game, especially when you consider the connection established between China and Europe through the Silk Road.

For those unaware of what it is, the Silk Road is a network of trade routes that connects the East and the West. It was an important source of economic interactions between the two sides of the world for much of human history. Thus, pai gow might have travelled along the Silk Road and made its way into the hands of European players.

This would make most sense as a possible source. In any case, there is some evidence — especially when considering the possible etymology of the word “baccarat — that the game was created in Italy and imported to France. The exact details of when this happened are also unknown.

Yet, it’s believed that it was during the 1490s, after French soldiers returned from Italy. In fact, the French king Charles VIII had invaded Italy in 1494 with a significant army. Charles and his army marched back to France in 1495, meaning that it’s quite possible that they brought back the game with them.

It seems, then, that all signs point to Italy. However, before delving deeper into the Italian source of the game, let us dispel some myths that have endured in popular belief.

The Myths of Baccarat’s Origin: Separating Facts From Fiction

Certain websites will facilely tell you that creator of the game of baccarat was none other than an Italian gambler called Felix Falguiere. The story goes that Mr Falguiere invented baccarat in the 1400s using tarot cards as a game to be enjoyed by the crème de la crème of society.

Moreover, due to the fact that both the face cards and tens were worth nothing, he termed the game “baccara” which, the story goes, is Italian for “zero”.

Truth be told, evidence regarding Felix Falguiere’s contribution to the game is next to nothing and, according to Theodore Whiting, until more evidence comes to light about Mr Falguiere, he ‘will remain with the legends and myths of Baccarat.’ Furthermore, the word for “zero” in Italian is not “baccara” but simply “zero”.

Also, although the word and similar words appeared in dialects of both Italian and French, it never carried the meaning of “zero”. In fact, a Dr Frank Chance attempted to trace the etymology of the word “baccarat” and although he was unsuccessful, he came upon words that meant “little pitcher”, “a trifle”, “a group of noisy revellers”, and so on.

Furthermore, and interestingly enough, there is a municipality in France that’s particularly known for glass-making that bears the name “Baccarat”. However, if there is any connection between these various meanings, it’s hard to determine. At the very least, it refutes the idea that an Italian gambler came up with the game and called it “baccara”.

L’origine dei giochi di carte: The First Card Games & Baccarat’s Italian & French Ancestors

The first documented card game in Italy is tarocchi, which was mentioned sometime in the 1300s. Tarocchi is related to the modern-day tarot cards and perhaps, another family of Italian card games known as tarocchini. Interestingly, tarocchini use tarot cards as a deck; moreover, the word “tarocchi” is Italian for “tarot cards”.

tarot cards in the context of the history of baccarat
Photo by Viva Luna Studios on Unsplash

Whilst tarocchi has no direct connection with baccarat, there is another card game that actually might: macao. The name has nothing to do with the Chinese district we mentioned above. The game — whose earliest mention is from 1783 — is referred to as Italian baccarat and actually shares a number of similarities with baccarat.

In fact, the rules are largely the same: the objective of the game was to obtain 9 points, or as close as possible to 9 points, in the quickest time possible. Each player is dealt a card by the dealer and more cards may be acquired. Aces count as 1 point, cards from 2 to 9 have points according to their own value, and face cards and tens count as 0.

There’s also another game that seems to be related to baccarat, this time a card game from France that dates back to sometime in the 16th century. Known as le Her or le Hère, its earliest mention is from 1597; however, it seems to also have been mentioned under a different name (coucou) in 1534.

In any case, the rules are also quite similar to that of baccarat: the dealer deals a card to the player and to himself. The player then can change his card with the dealer unless the dealer has a king; similarly, the dealer can exchange his card with the top card of the deck unless it’s a king.

However, what’s different from baccarat is that the value of the cards is wholly different. In fact, the points run from 1 to 13, with aces being lowest and kings being highest. It seems that kings were also automatic winners. At any rate, the conclusion is the same either way: a previous game gave way to baccarat via changes in rules.

But Which Version of Baccarat Came First? Tracing the “Original” Baccarat Game

Anyone who knows a thing or two about baccarat will be able to tell you that the most common form of baccarat is known as punto banco. Despite having a non-English name (the name can be either Italian or Spanish; it’s most probably Spanish, however, due to reasons we shall go over further down), the game is also known as “North American baccarat”.

Punto banco is by far the most popular form of baccarat, so much so that the word “baccarat” is nowadays taken to mean “punto banco baccarat”. However, there are other varieties of baccarat which, for better or for worse, are far less known nowadays. These are: chemin de fer (or “chemmy”) and baccarat banque (or “à deux tableaux”).

Funnily enough, however, chemin de fer and baccarat banque predate punto banco by quite some time. The first mention of baccarat in print seems to be from Charles Van-Tenac’s book Album des jeux (spelt as “baccara” in the book), which was published in 1847. In the book, Van-Tenac writes: Il y a, à ce jeu, un banquier et des pontes’ (‘in this game, there is a banker and some punters’).

If we’re not careful, this might actually throw us off and lead us to the wrong conclusion: that Van-Tenac was referring to punto banco (especially because “punto” refers to “player” and “banco” refers to “banker”). But in actual fact, punto banco came into being a century later. Moreover, in punto banco, both the “player” and the “banker” aren’t actual people, but meaningless designations on which punters can bet on for the sake of playing.

In Album des jeux, however, Van-Tenac refers to actual people playing the game when he uses the terms “banker” and “punter”. Furthermore, when describing the game, Van-Tenac clearly refers to baccarat banque since the banker has a rather fixed position, unlike in chemin de fer where the banker constantly changes.

With punto banco out of the way, this forces us to turn our attention to the other two versions of baccarat. It’s commonly believed that during the Napoleonic era (1799–1815) both baccarat banque and chemin de fer were played throughout Europe, most especially in France — though there is no evidence to truly support this claim.

However, the name “chemin de fer” gives us an important clue: “chemin de fer” is French for “railway” and the first railway in France began operations in 1827. Although the game might have been played prior to the first railway, its current name would have definitely been adopted after the railway was inaugurated.

This seems to suggest that baccarat banque is the “original” version of baccarat. At any rate, the exclusion of chemin de fer from Album des jeux seems to suggest that baccarat banque was the more prevalent version at the time of its writing, either due to popularity or due to the fact that chemin de fer was still being developed.

Baccarat Outside of Europe: Baccarat’s Journey in the US

The earliest mention of baccarat in the US is from 1871, where baccarat was enjoyed in the state of New Jersey. This was an earlier date than previously thought; in fact, it was formerly believed that baccarat arrived to the US in 1911 but Whiting proves that this is not the case with the help of a newspaper article.

In fact, the article speaks of a summer resort in Long Branch, New Jersey, where table games were held and the fascination that took hold of the visitors as they looked upon these games being played. Interestingly enough, this date actually predates the legalisation of gambling in Nevada by 60 years. Incidentally, baccarat wasn’t mentioned in the bill that first legalised casinos in Nevada.

Despite being known as “North American baccarat”, the birthplace of punto banco seems to be Argentina. At some point in time before 1955, this baccarat variant was created in the casinos of Mar del Prata in Argentina with the name punto y banco (“punter and banker”). Thus, the name of the game is ultimately Spanish in origin.

Moving on: during the 1950s, the game was picked up by casinos in Cuba, where it started becoming very popular. That’s where a man named Tommy Renzoni observed punters playing punto banco and saw a casino goldmine simply waiting to happen. Renzoni took punto banco with him to Las Vegas in 1959, changing the way the world played baccarat forever.

On the 20th of November, 1959, the Las Vegas Sands casino and resort opened the first ever punto banco table in the US. But rather surprisingly, it was off to a rocky start: The Sands lost $250,000 on the first night with its baccarat table. However, the operators of the Sands believed in the game and kept its baccarat tables open.

This proved to be a smart move: both for them as they ended up making profit off of their tables and for the rest of humanity as it brought a new and exciting way of playing baccarat to the fore. The game was constantly improved upon until it gave us the modern game we know and love today.

Even now, however, the game is constantly being innovated, as we shall see later on.

Why Exactly Was Baccarat Created?

Well, for exactly the same reasons any other card game was created: to pass the time playing. As you know as well as we do, gambling has a long history and different games spring up from different corners of the world and at different points in time.

This happened continually in human history as old rules are forgotten and new ones are added instead; or new games are created based off old ones; or totally new games are created out of thin air!

However, for all these new card games to be created, there needed to be an environment that fosters all of this creation. In fact, there is just one technological marvel that led to this environment…

How to Make Playing Cards Popular: The Gutenberg Press & the Mass Production of Cards

Before the first printing press, cards had to be painstakingly drawn by hand. Thus, card games would have been something played largely be the elite who could afford to pay for the costly process of creating a deck of cards. However, in 1440, the printing press was created and this facilitated the creation of new games through the mass production of playing cards.

Playing cards were finally affordable for the lower strata of society, arguably creating a boom in the popularity of card games. This was the perfect environment for new games to be created: whether it’s through the bending or forgetting of rules, or the introduction of new ones, or what have you, the large-scale availability if playing cards encouraged new games to be created and old ones to evolve.

From Soldiers’ Game to World Sensation: How Did Baccarat Become Popular?

There are many possible reasons as to how baccarat became as famous and as popular as it is today. Firstly, we must never forget the simplest reasons: baccarat is a game that perfectly combines simplicity, fast play, and elegance. You can easily learn the game in a couple of minutes and begin playing without any difficulty.

Moreover, the rounds in baccarat are some of the fastest in the entirety of the casino. Finally, baccarat is considered one of the most elegant casino games of all, especially because for much of the history of punto banco, the only baccarat tables that were available were for high rollers and celebrities.

However, nowadays baccarat can be enjoyed by all sorts of players alike, thanks to the fact that modern online casinos offer low-limit tables. Lastly, it’s also important to mention that baccarat features in the novels of James Bond, most notably in the first novel Casino Royale. This would have surely contributed to the popularity of the game especially amongst fans of the series.

The Future of Baccarat

It would be nearly impossible to imagine a future without baccarat. In fact, we can only imagine this game becoming more and more popular than it already is (which is quite the feat). At the same time, we also expect this game to be continuously innovated, creating a new way of playing it each time.

players playing baccarat at a casino baccarat table
Photo by Shevigejoshi

In fact, recent innovations to the game include its transition to live casino and the several live baccarat variants that have emerged in recent years. Here, we can mention variants like Lightning Baccarat, Baccarat Squeeze, No Commission Baccarat, and Speed Baccarat.

We firmly believe that these innovations are merely the beginning of the game’s evolution in modern times.

Conclusion

It seems to all have started with a tile game somewhere in China but we can’t be certain for sure. What we do know, however, is that a card game was created somewhere in Italy and it seems to have been disseminated across Europe, reaching heights of popularity that is equalled by only a handful of other games.

Like every other casino game, it seems to have made its way to the US, likely thanks to the influx of European immigrants. Baccarat, it seems, might have been taken to America by French immigrants. There, the game slowly became more and more popular, despite the law outright banning gambling.

Baccarat, then, continued moving around until it finally found itself in Argentina, where a significant rule change brought about an entirely new way of playing baccarat. From there, the game found itself once more in the US, where, despite its rough start, it exploded in popularity once again.

Nowadays, the game has reached unprecedented levels of popularity, and not only in certain parts of the world. It’s easy to say that baccarat is enjoyed the world over, contributing to its immense popularity. We truly believe that baccarat will likely continue reaching higher and higher levels of popularity.

In the meantime, join us on our next entry where we’ll be going into the history of another highly popular casino game!

Other Articles in Our Series It All Started With…

Curious to know more about the history of gambling? You can find out more by reading our other articles in our series It All Started With… which you can find below:

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