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.
4. Baccarat superstitions
One thing about the baccarat players of Macau is that they seem more interested in luck than working out the odds. Some players will blow on the cards in hopes of “blowing away” unlucky numbers. There’s also a widespread belief that luck, good or bad, is contagious.
Gamblers will walk around the casino looking for trends. If a player’s having a streak of three straight wins, they’ll bet for a fourth or fifth straight win. This creates a remarkable community spirit. If a player is doing well, people will pack around the table and cheer, just like at a craps table in Las Vegas. Some casinos have installed computer monitors at their tables, each showing the winners of the last 20 or 30 rounds.
5. Baccarat drives innovation
With baccarat being as big as it is, it’s no surprise that the game is also responsible for driving innovation in Macau’s casino industry. One example would be MGM Macau’s “Golden Chip” mystery progressive table game bonus. Launched in 2014 with a total prize pool of 8,888,888 Hong Kong dollars across linked tables (approximately $1,139,666 today), this jackpot can be triggered by any eligible player at any time.
This was a world first, as most progressive casino table games, such as Caribbean Stud, required a side bet (and still do). The jackpot, however, is only available to Golden Lion Club members. For less exclusive progressive jackpot options, try online casino games such as Loot’en Khamun, Book of Myths, Dragon’s Hoard, Luck O’ The Jackpot or Melon Madness Deluxe.
6. Baccarat bets on the side
Side bets can add variety to all casino games, and baccarat is no exception, especially in Macau. The simplest side bets are any pair (dealt to the player or banker), banker pair, player pair and perfect pair (same suit and rank). But there are many more. One of the most interesting is the Dragon Seven side bet. Here you’d bet on the banker winning with a score of seven from a three-card hand. The odds of this happening are slim, which is why Dragon Seven pays out 40:1.
The most recent side bet to come out of Macau (in 2018) is called Lucky Six. This is a bet that the banker hand will win with a total of six. It pays out 12:1 if the banker’s hand contains two cards and 20:1 if it contains three. The Lucky Six side bet has proven to be a popular side bet at baccarat tables around the world.
7. Macau is a high roller magnet
One noticeable difference between Vegas and Macau is that the Asian gambling hub has much higher table limits. This is to satisfy high rollers from mainland China or Hong Kong — the types of players who sparked Macau’s casino boom in the first place. Bets of five or six figures per hand are not unusual. As a result, some casinos in Macau will accept baccarat wagers of as much as $500,000.
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