How to play baccarat
With some help from a high-stakes gambler, our writer tries his luck at the elusive game of baccarat.
On the casino bus to Indiana, a sign in English and Chinese warns “Eating or drinking is not allowed.” Johnnie Taylor’s “Last Two Dollars,” a blues song about a woman who lost all her money on the slots, is blasting through the cabin. Outside the window, the moon is a tangerine rising over the BP oil refinery.
I am on my way to the Ameristar Casino in East Chicago to learn baccarat from a gambler so indifferent to bankruptcy he once wagered $24,000 on a single hand. James Bond played baccarat at the casino in Monte Carlo, wearing a tuxedo. I will play on a barge floating next to a steel mill, wearing a lucky hat I bought for $5 outside a Detroit junk shop.
Most casual casinogoers try their luck at slots or blackjack. But baccarat is one of the simplest casino games. The player and the banker are each dealt two cards. Closest to nine wins. There are three basic bets: player, banker and tie. Baccarat also has one of the smallest house edges: 1.17 percent if you bet banker, 1.36 percent if you bet player.
John Michael Yee meets me outside the sports grill, and we escalator to the casino’s specialty, a fourth-floor baccarat room. Yee, a modern-day Man with the Golden Arm, makes his living dealing poker at a private game in Chicago.
The room’s demographic is 90 percent Chinese and Vietnamese. The seats at each table are numbered 1-2-3-5-6-7-8-9-10, because the Chinese word for four sounds like death.
Baccarat, Yee explains, is an unbeatable game. Unlike blackjack, there’s no way to beat the house by counting cards or betting strategically. You wager before the deal. Every baccarat bet is a loser in the long run, but some bets are worse than others. Tie pays 8–1, but ties occur on fewer than one in ten hands. A Dragon Bonus Bet, a side bet offered by some casinos, pays high odds for a large victory spread.
“Any time a casino offers a side bet, it’s pretty bad,” Yee counsels. “The reason people do it is because it can pay 30–1.”
Above the table, an LED scoreboard displays the winner of each hand. If player or banker hits a streak, gamblers ride it. Yee dismisses this strategy.
“The casino puts this board up here to encourage people to make more bets, because they think they’re seeing patterns,” he explains. “If a casino gives you information, it’s probably worthless.”
Yet, more money is bet on baccarat “than all our other table games combined,” an Ameristar employee tells us.
On Yee’s first hand, he wagers $40 on banker, $10 on the Dragon Bonus.
“You told me the Dragon Bonus was a bad bet,” I say.
“I’m a gambler,” he responds. “It makes the handmore exciting.”
Yee’s bets reach $175. (“I thought I saw a pattern,” he explains.) Once he’s down $400, it’s my turn to lose money. I’ve set aside $40. It lasts eight hands. I put all my chips on banker, since the odds are better. Banker wins once, player five times, Tie twice.
Over free roast duck at the noodle bar, Yee explains that I was undercapitalized. I should have brought$200, to ride out losing streaks. He then offers me alift home.
“I was saving my last ten dollar bill for the El,” I say excitedly. “Now I can play one more hand.”
“You’re thinking like a gambler,” Yee says. “Save your ten dollars. Let’s get out of here.”
Find out the deal at Ameristar, 777 Ameristar Blvd, East Chicago, IN. Baccarat is available at most other area casinos as well.