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Best of Mark Pilarski

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Starting with the blonde virgin . . .

17 February 2003

Dear, Mark,
Isn't baccarat the exact same game as chemin de fer, and only different in name? My Uncle believes they play baccarat differently in Europe. We have a dinner riding on this. Who's right? Carl V.

Your Uncle, Carl, is on the winning slope.

There are many variations of baccarat today, all descendants of the Italian baccara, a game invented in Italy by gamester Felix Falguiere, who baptized it baccara, a word translating into English as "zero." Is there a clue there someplace?

The game's roots are in the old Etruscan ritual of the nine gods, who prayed to a blonde virgin (a tourist, obviously) on their tiptoes, waiting for her to pitch the nine-sided die. The die toss decided her fate. If an eight or a nine were thrown, she would become the priestess; if she threw a six or seven, she would be banned from any further religious activities; if she threw any number less than six, she would walk into the sea. (Possibly, the origin of loaded dice — how many wet, blonde virgins do you know?) The game was introduced in France around 1490 A.D., though the French often claim credit for its invention (as they do for most pleasurable pastimes). For some time, the game remained exclusive to the French aristocratic set, but eventually evolved into European baccarat and the French game chemin de fer (meaning railroad; talk about clues...). The late Francis "Tommy" Renzoni brought baccarat, American casino-style, to Las Vegas from Havana. There are, Carl, some slight variations among the different forms of the game, and while European baccarat is the more popular in most of Europe, the French prefer to play their own version, chemin de fer.

Here is why you have to fork up for dinner.

The baccarat game you play in your typical casino is automated, meaning you make no decisions concerning your cards and when to take that third card. But in chemin de fer, if a player has a total of five, he must decide whether or not to ask for a third card. The draw is optional, whereas in the style you are used to playing, the player always draws a third card if the hand totals 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5.

In modern American baccarat, there are three betting options: 1) betting on the player hand, 2) betting on the bank hand, 3) betting on a tie hand. In chemin de fer, the bank automatically rotates among the players. (Chemin de fer, the French explain, simply refers to the "shoe" moving among the players like a train).

Also, you are limited in your wager to the amount that the bank is willing to lose. The banker is never liable for the payment of bets more than his bank. Against a casino, you play against the casino's entire war chest. As you can see, Carl, though the differences are subtle, there is enough variation that your Uncle deserves a good steak dinner on your dime. If you still want to fight him on this, or he's your least favorite Uncle, blow it big at Burger King and let him Supersize his order.

Dear Mark,
Do you happen to know how the game blackjack gets its name? Kevin K.

Friend of mine says it was named after him, but actually the game known here as either twenty-one (casino speak) or blackjack (kitchen table-ese), is ancient, having originated in France, where it is still called Vingt-Et-Un (21). During the game's infancy in the States, players were awarded a bonus for getting an ace of spades and a jack of spades as their first two cards. Hence, the name blackjack.

Gambling quote of the week: "When you go to a casino, always carry a concealed weapon . . . your brain." VP Pappy

Recent Articles
Best of Mark Pilarski
Mark Pilarski

As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.