Monday, May 06, 2013

[Vegas] Got Your Baccarat

Got Your Baccarat: Apparently Baccarat is the table game of the future in Vegas. On track to displace blackjack as the most popular table game.

Blackjack is pretty much a settled proposition. The house advantage is cut to the minimum by playing a specific strategy. Once you know that strategy you have no decisions to make. Playing hunches that go against that strategy will simply increase the house edge. Trying to "feel" the cards or react to trends is voodoo. The worst thing that can happen to an inexperienced gambler is to have a good blackjack session based on gut feel. He'll end up deluded, although from my point of view I'm glad he's there so the casinos can keep making money. You may at some point meet someone who claims to consistently win at blackjack; they are either mistaken, lying, or just haven't played enough yet. (Note I am discounting card counters who in some Rain Man-esque way can actually shift the odds against the house.)

But with blackjack, at least here is the strategy to learn. When to hit, fold, split, double down -- it takes a little effort to learn and it can be difficult to apply when they keep bringing you free drinks.

Now along comes baccarat. Baccarat has been noticeably popular among Asians in Vegas (a big demographic) as long as I have been going, but it's getting more widespread. I'm not sure of the attraction of Baccarat. It is an absolutely mindless game. There isn't really even a strategy. There is a "banker" and a "player". Cards are dealt without any decision or intervention. Either the player wins or the bankers wins or it's a tie. You bet on either the player or the banker (although you can bet on a tie, but that would be truly dumb) and it's 50-50 as to who will win. And each hand the casino takes a little cut. So it is essentially a coin flip with vig. There is no strategy involved, although the superstitious will follow some imagined one. House edge is similar to blackjack -- which is to say it's one of the better deals in table games.

Perhaps that's what makes it perfect. Anyone can walk up and play as well as anyone else. You sit with some friends or make new ones around the table. Sip some comp drinks. Have a good time. It's not like you'd be more likely to win if you were playing some other table game. Why not baccarat?

Note that the type of baccarat we are discussing is not what you see James Bond playing in Dr. No and Thunderball. That variant is called Chemin-de-fer and it is a more ritualistic game where you play against others players at the table (not the house). I know of nowhere in the U.S. where Chemin-de-fer is offered. It's a European thing.

None of this affects me. I gave up table games. I stick to sports betting and occasionally poker. At least in those cases you are not mathematically pre-destined to lose over time. In poker if you don't screw up, make good reads, and get some cards you can win. In sports betting if you outsmart the general public, you can win. As a rule, you don't win, but it's not out of the realm of possibility to outperform based on your own wit. I've got a way to go on poker. But I generally feel good about at least breaking even on my football bets. By comparison, you cannot outperform your statistical disadvantage in table games for longer than a brief period.

The psychology of gambling is fascinating. I'm currently reading The Odds, by Chad Millman, about sports gamblers in Vegas back in 1999. It's gripping both in its examination of the gamblers and for some historical perspective. But that's a review for next month.