Macau is the gambling hub of the world. Known as the Monte Carlo of the Orient, this tiny, 30.5 km2 former Portuguese enclave (64 km west of Hong Kong, across the Pearl River Delta) pipped Las Vegas for the lead back in 2007, and the city’s casinos have never looked back since.
What drives Macau’s extraordinary success is casino table games, specifically baccarat. As far as Chinese gamblers are concerned, baccarat (pronounced “ba-car-a”) is far and away the best casino game in town, with a special atmosphere all its own. You can play baccarat in casinos worldwide, but you’ll never capture the Macau experience unless you travel there. Here are seven things you should know about the baccarat culture of Macau.
1. Macau gamblers play punto banco
Baccarat comes in three major variations: Baccarat banque, chemin-de-fer (as played by James Bond in Dr. No and GoldenEye) and punto banco. This is the variant preferred by the overwhelming majority of gamblers in Macau. The rules are very simple and easy to learn. After the dealer shuffles six or eight decks of cards in a shoe, you place your bet on one of three table positions: Banker, Player and Tie. (There are also side bets, but more on those later.)
The dealer then deals two cards to the player’s hand and the banker’s hand. The closest to nine wins, with Aces scoring one, cards 2–9 score face value, and 10s and picture cards zero. For a two-digit hand value, discard the first digit. For example, if you get a 7 and a 5 for a total of 12, you drop the first digit and get two. A third card may be dealt depending on the hand totals. No further cards are drawn if the player’s or banker’s hand totals eight or nine. If the player’s hand is five or less, a third card is dealt. After that, if the banker’s hand is two or less, they get a third card. Bets are then resolved (banker bets and player bets pay out 1:1, ties 8:1) and a new hand begins.
2. Baccarat is bigger than slots
If you go to Vegas, you’ll notice that the majority of people playing casino games are seated at the slots. In fact, slots account for approximately 80 percent of total Vegas casino revenue. The rest are playing casino table games, mostly blackjack, followed by baccarat and roulette. For Macau gamblers, on the other hand, it’s all about baccarat. The casino game of choice by a country mile, baccarat makes up more than 88 percent of Macau’s total gambling revenue.
Why is this simple card game so popular? Maybe it’s because baccarat is widely considered to be the casino table game with the lowest house edge. According to the math, the statistical disadvantage of a “banker bet” is a super-low 1.06 percent. The odds for a “player bet” are a little less favorable, with a house edge of 1.24 percent. This discrepancy explains why winning banker bets incur a 5 percent commission.
3. The baccarat squeeze
Watch Chinese baccarat players in Macau and you’ll most likely see them perform the “baccarat squeeze.” They squeeze the cards between their fingers and lift the vertical end slightly for a peek at the suit and number, then rotate the card horizontally for another peek at the number. This ritual creases the cards, so they’re useless for another round, but Macau casinos tolerate it as part of the tradition. The squeeze doesn’t affect the outcome of the game, but it heightens the suspense at the table as the player chases the number 9. You can perform the squeeze for yourself online if you play Baccarat Live, one of the most innovative live dealer games on the market.