If you’re looking for a story about ancient civilizations, royal scandals, high rollers, and even 007 himself, look no further than this one – the history of baccarat!
Baccarat is one of the most glamorous casino games, so it’s only fitting that its origins are shrouded in mystery and allure.
Some trace baccarat back to a legend from the Etruscans – an ancient Italian people – in which a virgin has to roll a 9-sided die to determine her fate.
If she rolls an 8 or 9, she will become a powerful priestess. A 6 or 7 will mean that she can live, but if she rolls lower than a 6? Well… the poor girl will be banished to the sea to drown.
(If you’re not familiar with baccarat, players’ hands are valued between 0 and 9, and just like the Etruscan legend, higher scores win the game.)
Some speculate that baccarat actually originated in Asia, where European soldiers encountered similar games and brought them home.
Pai Gow, for example, comes from Ancient China and resembles the baccarat game we know today. Its name translates loosely to “make nine” or “card nine.”
Additionally, Macao – a gambling game whose name suggests Asian origins – is sometimes cited as a direct forerunner to baccarat due to similarities in the rules. Macao was very popular in 18th-century Europe among all classes.
With so many theories floating around, we may never know the true origins of baccarat, or whether the game came to be through a mix of factors.
That being said, it’s widely believed that a man named Felix Falguiere created the first rules of the game in 14th-century Italy, and even gave baccarat its name!
Felix spoke Italian, so he actually called it ‘bacarra,’ which means ‘zero’ (all face cards and 10’s are worth zero in the game). Its popularity amongst the French nobility meant that the French version of the name, ‘baccarat,’ gained steam later on, eventually being adopted worldwide.
The French Connection
The Italian Renaissance wasn’t all fun and games.
During the period’s Italian Wars, French forces moved through the country, and it’s theorized that when they got home, they had brought Baccarat with them!
Apparently, the card game became a favourite of the 15th-century French king Charles VIII and his court.
Whichever baccarat origin story you like best, we know for sure that by the 19th century, the French aristocracy was onto a baccarat craze. The game was played in exclusive, opulent private rooms.
Baccarat’s French popularity accounts for why two of its three main variants feature French names: Baccarat Banque, and the later Chemin de Fer.
British Baccarat: Royal Trouble, 007 and the Beatles
The British public became very interested in baccarat thanks to the ‘royal baccarat scandal’ (also known as the Tranby Croft affair), which began at an 1890 house party.
The then Prince of Wales and future King of England, Edward VII, was invited to Tranby Croft, Yorkshire. The party included Edward’s advisors, as well as his friend, Sir William Gordon-Cumming.
The men played Baccarat, but unfortunately, Gordon-Cumming was accused of cheating.
In exchange for the silence of his party on the matter, Gordon-Cumming signed a document saying he would never play cards again.
However, the man’s secret wasn’t kept for long, so he decided to bring the party’s hosts to court for slander. The Prince of Wales was called as a witness in the case, and his friend was eventually found guilty.
The whole event was extensively covered by the media, and articles even included baccarat rules for the curious public.
Baccarat also found fame across the channel when Ian Fleming’s novels cited the game – specifically the Chemin de Fer version – as James Bond’s favorite.
In 1953, the secret agent played baccarat in Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale.
In fact, the novel’s plot revolves around a game between Bond and his adversary, Le Chiffre, who is taken out by his Soviet bosses after Bond bankrupts him.
Casino Royale even included an introduction to baccarat for readers!
If you’ve seen the 2006 film Casino Royale, you’ll know that baccarat was traded for Texas hold ‘em poker, since the latter was extremely popular at the time.
If you do want to see Bond play baccarat on film, you can find it in Dr. No, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, For Your Eyes Only, and GoldenEye. However, the most detailed baccarat scene can be found in Thunderball – the 1967 adaptation of Casino Royale.
Further attesting to baccarat’s appeal in mid-century England, The 1964 film A Hard Day’s Night, starring the Beatles, features the game.
Paul McCartney’s (fictional) grandfather steals the band’s invitation to a posh casino. He doesn’t seem to know how to play baccarat (he is corrected by the croupier when he yells “bingo” instead of “banco”), but that doesn’t stop him from playing the game – and winning!
Baccarat was too good for Europe to keep all to itself, and the game moved swiftly across the ocean to South America and the Caribbean.
In 1940s Havana, the Punto Banco variant was developed, and the rest is history!
Frank Sinatra deals baccarat at the Sands Casino, Las Vegas, 1959
Punto Banco baccarat surged in popularity, and the late 1950s brought it to the Sands casino in Las Vegas. It was marketed as a glamorous game for the rich and powerful. Minimum bets were high, which successfully added to its drama and allure.
Today, Punto Banco is the most popular form of the game, often labeled by casinos as simply “baccarat.”
To experience the glamorous game of baccarat for yourself, play at one of our top-rated online casinos today!