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Baccarat, the Chinese way: Rituals you won't see in Vegas

By Pauline Chiou, CNN
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Baccarat craze in China
  • Baccarat is game of choice for the majority of gamblers in Macau
  • Superstition still plays a part in the way that many Chinese gamblers play the game
  • Baccarat brought in 86 percent of Macau's $11.8 billion gaming revenue in 2008
  • Macau
  • China
  • Gambling

Macau, China (CNN) -- Baccarat is not just for James Bond anymore. It is the game of choice for Chinese gamblers from mainland China and Hong Kong. Both groups make up the majority of gamblers in Macau. And they bring some unique, superstitious rituals with them that you won't see in Las Vegas.

If you watch many Chinese gamblers play baccarat in Macau, there is a good chance you will see the players squeeze the cards tightly between their fingers, slowly peek at the cards by lifting the vertical end just enough to see the suit and number, then turn the card horizontally to peek at the number again.

Each time, they crease the cards rendering the cards unusable for another round (Macau casinos seem to tolerate this). The slow dance of peeking and creasing is to increase the suspense as the player hopes for a good pair of numbers that close in on the magic number: 9.

Some Chinese players even blow on the cards, hoping to "blow away" bad numbers. At one table with a sizeable group, a woman exclaimed "hoi, hoi," ("turn it over, turn it over") as she watched a player perform his ritual.

"Sometimes, you almost believe that they can actually change the outcome of a card by the way they squeeze the card. So there's a lot of superstition," said Scott Milburn, vice president of table games at City of Dreams.

Ray Rody, a gaming professor at Macau Millennium College who studies gambling's cultural history, agreed that the typical Chinese gambler is superstitious. That nature is on full display at the baccarat table. In baccarat, one player is dealt a pair of cards and the other gamblers at the table can choose to bet with or against that player.

"The Chinese like to bet with a player when they win and against a player when they are losing because they believe in the luck of other players as well as their own," said Rody.

"They look for trends of three or more straight wins for the banker or player and then bet for a 4th or 5th straight win. The gamblers who believe in this type of luck walk around the casino searching for tables showing a trend."

In fact, City of Dreams has installed computer monitors at the baccarat tables to help gamblers track trends. The monitors show a chart of who won the last 20 or 30 rounds at that table. If a trend starts appearing, that table will most likely draw a big crowd.

Baccarat brings in the lion's share of Macau's casino revenues. According to the latest government statistics available from 2008, baccarat brought in 86 percent of Macau's total gaming revenues, ringing up $11.8 billion.

The other reason players like baccarat is because it's considered the table game with the best odds against the house.

Rody said a gambler who places a "banker bet" in baccarat has the best odds with a statistical disadvantage of 1.06 percent. A "player bet" has a little less favorable odds with a 1.24 percent disadvantage against the house.

"(Baccarat) is the best option for the player for their money to last the longest because most other table games run about a 3 percent disadvantage for the player ... or a 3 percent advantage for the house," Rody said.

Scott Milburn said baccarat is by far the casino's crown jewel.

"We have 70 percent of our floor space of mass market dedicated to baccarat tables," he said, noting he has seen individual VIP baccarat players win or lose between $7 million to $10 million in a day.