I've never really celebrated the Chinese New Year. I'm not Chinese, so I've never had a cultural reason to do so. And I've also never been in a city with a big Chinese population as the Chinese New Year celebration was taking place. So as I read about all of the cool stuff
Las Vegas was doing to celebrate the Year of the Tiger, which began Sunday, I started to wonder what I could do to get into the act. Traditionally, the Chinese New Year is a huge deal in Las Vegas. Casinos schedule traditional lion dances, build and decorate beautiful Chinese gardens, offer special menus and do everything they can to make Asian gamblers feel at home.
I'm traveling to Las Vegas in March, so I'm going to miss all the festivities. But I can take up baccarat, which is wildly popular in China.
Baccarat is a game I've been meaning to play at the casinos for some time now, and I've listed my top-10 reasons below. But I suspect the best thing about playing baccarat on my Vegas trip is I'll finally be able to keep a (Chinese) New Year's resolution.
10. Expand my horizons
There are all sorts of gamblers. Some people like to play exclusively poker. Others identify themselves as craps or blackjack players, and play only those games. And there's nothing wrong with that. Until a few years ago, I considered myself a "blackjack player." Sure, I played craps for a while to hang out with my friends. But I enjoyed myself because I was with my friends, not because I was playing craps. But all of that has changed over the past few years. I've started to play a larger variety of games on a regular basis. And I've been pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoy it. When I go to a casino now, I play craps, pai gow, poker and bet at the sportsbook in addition to playing blackjack. I enjoy playing all of these games because I've taken the time to learn them, and appreciate what makes them fun. As a result, I can't wait to play craps with my friends in March. I'm also hoping I'll enjoy baccarat enough on this trip to add it to my regular repertoire of games.
9. More fun in person
Baccarat is easy to play online. Because there are strict rules regarding when you can take a card and when you can't, the software essentially does all the work for you. That's very helpful in terms of learning the rules, so I've been practicing away on Bodog for fun money. But I suspect that the real fun of the game comes in when you're sitting down at a table and making those decisions (under the dealer's watchful eye) on your own. And I'm looking forward to that in Vegas.
8. It's cheaper than going to Macau
Baccarat is hugely popular in Macau. In fact, it's the most popular game there. And to really appreciate baccarat and the intense passion surrounding the game, I'd have to have travel to Macau. To draw a sports analogy, baccarat in the United States is like Major League Soccer. And baccarat in Macau is like the English Premier League. Sure, it's the same game. But in Macau, baccarat is at another level. I can't afford to travel to Macau right now, so I'm going to have to settle for baccarat in Vegas.
7. To help the Vegas economy
Every time I read a news story about how much gaming revenue Las Vegas took in the previous month, the baccarat take seems to be on the rise. And since President Obama isn't doing much to send visitors to Las Vegas, it is my patriotic duty to help contribute to their economy and help the uptick in baccarat earnings continue.
6. It's easy to pick up
Baccarat, as it's played in North America and Macau, is easy to pick up. You can bet on the player's hand, the banker's hand or a tie. After the bets are down, the cards are dealt. The player (and there's only one player in each baccarat hand -- the entire table bets on that hand or the dealer's) gets two cards, and the banker gets two cards. Numbered cards are worth face value. Face cards have a value of zero, and aces are worth one. The goal is to get as close as possible to nine without going over. If total of your card values is 10 or greater, your hand is worth only the last digit. So if you've been dealt a 9 and a 3, your score is actually 2 (9+3=12, take the last digit as your score). This scoring system also makes it impossible to bust. After you've been dealt your cards, the game's rules take over. If the player is dealt a score of 0-5, he automatically gets one more card. Otherwise, the player stands -- by rule. If the banker is dealt an 8 or a 9, the banker stands. Otherwise, he draws one more card according to pre set rules. And that's it. At that point, the game is over. If you've bet on the hand closest to nine, you win. And if this sounds a bit like betting on a coin flip, it is -- except more fun.
5. Formal attire fits in
Whenever I go to Vegas with my buddies, there's always one night where get dressed up in our finest suits for a night on the town. But the shirt and tie look just doesn't work at the craps or blackjack table. If you're wearing a suit there, you like either a convention attendee who's sneaking in a few hands or an easy mark for the working women of Las Vegas. Either way, it doesn't look good. But suits, and tuxes for that matter, fit right into the baccarat scene. Despite its "coin flip" nature, baccarat has the reputation of being a stylish, refined, upscale game played by people who regularly wear tuxedos and fine tailored suits. Baccarat games -- especially at the higher limits -- are routinely roped off from the rest of the gaming floor, giving it an exclusive feel. So if you're dressed to the nines and want to fit into your gambling environment, baccarat is the game to play.
4. Low house edge
Whenever you play or bet at a casino, you have to consider the house edge. The house edge is essentially what the casino's profit (that's why they're in the business) will be for each bet you place. According to the Wizard of Odds, the house edge in baccarat is 1.24% when you bet on the player and 1.06% when you bet on the banker (you pay a 5% commission on winnings when you bet on the banker). That means for every $10 bet you place on the player, you will lose -- on average -- about 12 cents per bet. By comparison, the house edge in Caribbean Stud is 5.22%, the house edge in Three Card poker (with pair plus play) is 2.32% and the house edge in blackjack (with liberal Vegas rules) is .28% (with perfect basic strategy). A lower house edge will keep your losses down over the long haul.
3. Fun with banking
In most table games, players are almost always trying to "beat the dealer." Baccarat, however, offers the opportunity to "be the dealer" without risking your own money. In baccarat, the shoe is passed from player to player until one elects to be the banker. The person that chooses to be the banker doesn't risk any money -- the casino still does that. But he gets to deal the cards, and it's his hand that the player is trying to beat.
2. Card touching permitted
One of the best things about baccarat is players get to touch the cards. In most casino games, touching the cards is a no-no. But it in baccarat, it's built into the game. You can even deal baccarat, which really cool. I like casino games where you can handle the cards (or dice). And that makes baccarat a natural fit for me.
1. Bond, James Bond
Fans of the Bond movies (and books) will instantly get this one. The game of choice for 007 is baccarat. And almost all of the Bond movies that had a gambling scene (except for the most recent Casino Royale remake) showed Bond playing baccarat. And while playing baccarat won't make me James Bond, it will be fun to play a version of the game that he made famous -- and that I've always wondered about. Now if only I could get my own Q....