Although often overlooked in favour of blackjack and poker, baccarat is one of the oldest card games around. In fact, baccarat pre-dates both blackjack and poker by some margin.
This somewhat subdued reputation has worked to give the game a fair bit of mystique, and baccarat is often considered to be the preferred game of the ultra-rich – hence its reputation as a high-roller’s game. This has been bolstered in recent years with baccarat making notable appearances in James Bond movies, where the titular protagonist is said to be particularly fond of this most historic of card games. But what makes baccarat so stylish, and why has it become associated with all things “cool” in recent years? To understand this, we need to go back through the game’s history.
One of the things that surprises people the most about baccarat is how deep the game’s historical roots go. Before baccarat graced our screens as one of the most popular online games, baccarat first emerged over 500 years ago in medieval Italy. It was originally created in the 1400s by an Italian man named Felix Falguiere, who named the game after the Italian for zero, “baccarat”. Having its origins in Italy has greatly contributed to the game’s undeniable style. The fact that the name of the game hasn’t been directly translated into English certainly adds to its perceived style.
From its Italian origins, baccarat made its way across the European continent, eventually finding favour among the French upper classes. Although the name changed slightly – it became known as Chemin de Fer – the ruleset remained largely the same as it was when first played in Italy. Most notably, baccarat found its way into the royal court of King Charles VIII, who was known to indulge in more than a few games of baccarat each evening with his attending noblemen. As such, it was not long before it became a firm favourite of the French aristocracy, who were keen to replicate the favoured stylings of their beloved king.
What this goes to show is that even in times gone by, part of the appeal of baccarat was found in its association with the monied classes – which is an influence that we can notice on the game even today. Across the Channel in England, baccarat caught on for many of the same reasons as it did in France, and soon found favour among the aristocracy.
Before hostilities reached a peak in the mid-1960s, Havana, Cuba was a playground for the rich and famous. Thousands flocked to the golden shores of Havana for food, fun and – most importantly –gambling in the area’s many casinos. One particularly prominent player in this scene was Tommy Renzoni, who was building up a name for himself as one of the best baccarat players going. When tensions began increasing, Renzoni left Cuba behind – the Castro government was closing the area’s many casinos – and found a new home in the Sands Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada in the US. Here, Renzoni significantly increased the reputation of the game, particularly among the ultra-rich and wealthy. The version that he brought over was known as “Punto Banco”, which is still popularly played today across the world. It is in this period that the profile of the game really began to increase, and it soon established itself as one of the most popular card games being played across the world. The association with the golden age of Havana and the early days of the Las Vegas card game scene has definitely added to the game’s distinctive style and its overall cool factor. These were the days of Frank Sinatra and the “Rat Pack”, whose undeniable coolness has rubbed off on the legacy of the game.
Perhaps the crowning moment in the progression of baccarat from a much-loved Italian street game to one firmly associated with the monied classes and, as a result, all things stylish and cool is in its associations with James Bond. Ian Fleming, the author of the series of James Bond books on which the famous film series was based, was a renowned baccarat player. And for this reason, the character of Bond is a frequent baccarat player in both the book and film series. Casinos have provided a backdrop for many scenes in Bond movies, but it is the famous Dr. No and Casino Royale that firmly cemented baccarat into cinema history. Appearing in a series of films as popular as James Bond has certainly done a lot to popularise the game, but more importantly, it has entrenched an association with all things cool and stylish – such that baccarat is now inseparable from visions of classy casinos, black tie, and high-stakes gambling for the ultra-wealthy.
Although poker and blackjack might be the kings of the casino when it comes to the total number of games played, nothing beats baccarat when it comes to the “style” stakes. Due to its historical and contemporary associations with the upper classes and the ultra-wealthy, there is no escaping the undeniable cool factor of baccarat. Although these days, most baccarat games are played online, the associations with black tie, tuxedos and a martini – shaken, not stirred – have persisted in the modern age. Despite being one of the oldest card games around, predating both poker and blackjack, baccarat has managed to maintain its coolness and sense of style throughout its storied history.
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Words: Sean McNulty