For one of the most widespread and popular table games ever invented, the historical origins of baccarat are relatively unknown when compared to other casino games.
Non-card games involving a similar set-up and gameplay have been recorded as far back as ancient Rome, where vestal virgins performed a ritual involving the roll of a nine-sided die. The goal in that “game” was to roll either an 8 or 9, which leads modern gaming experts to surmise that baccarat may have evolved from it several centuries later.
Other theories attribute the emergence of baccarat to another fixed number card game called Macao, which was played in 18th century Italy and also required players to reach the total closest to nine for a win.
Game experts place baccarat within a wider group of card games that includes blackjack, pontoon, vingt-et-un, and other versions of fixed number card games played around the world. The latter game, vingt-et-un, is French for “21” and this game shares many similarities with the baccarat we know today.
Most origin stories for modern baccarat place the game’s roots in France, beginning with the publication of Charles Van-Tenac’s manuscript Album des jeux in 1847. In his Album, Tenac included a 13-page mathematical breakdown of a game called baccarat, and most historians agree this represents the first documented reference to the game of baccarat played today.
Another French ancestor of Baccarat is known as chemin de fer, which means “iron way” in the native language – a reference to the iron shoe used to house the deck that was passed around the table. Chemin de fer was a non-banking version of baccarat and the game is still very popular in France. In a game of chemin de fer players take turns taking on the “banker” role, while other players place separate wagers.
A game called punto banco was also played in the 19th century throughout France and Europe, and this banker-based version of baccarat has survived to form the modern game. The word punto means “player” and banco means “banker.” A game of punto banco is played exactly like the baccarat you’ve seen before, with the house acting as a permanent banker that players wager either with or against.
In 1911 the “Official Rules of Card Games Hoyle Up to Date” included sections on both punto banco and chemin de fer, but punto banco was described simply as “baccarat.” The year 1911 is a key one in baccarat history, as most accounts on the subject agree that the game made its way to America at this time.
You can find several anecdotal reports, however, suggesting baccarat or one of its close relatives was played on American soil as early as 1871, so the reality is one version of the game or another has been played here for at least 130 years or so.
When Nevada passed Assembly Bill 98 in 1931 – which legalized casino gambling throughout the state – the games which were permitted included “faro, monte, roulette, keno, fan-tan, twenty-one, blackjack, seven-and-a-half, big injun, klondyke, craps, stud poker, (and) draw poker,” but baccarat was conspicuously absent. Chemin de fer was first played in Nevada at The Sands casino in 1958, but “chimney” as the locals called it, never soared in popularity.
The baccarat craze hit Nevada in 1959, when American gambler and casino executive Tommy Renzoni caught the bug while playing in Havana, Cuba. On November 20th, 1959 a promotion at The Sands saw the first baccarat games spread in Las Vegas, and from then on the game has been a staple of high-limit gaming pits across America and around the world.