MACAU – In the nearly three dozen casinos in Macau, the world's biggest gambling market, there's only one game that matters: baccarat.
Almost all of Macau's $38 billion in gambling revenue last year — six times more than the Las Vegas Strip — came from card game, much of it from Chinese high-rollers betting borrowed money and dwarfing the takings from slots, blackjack or roulette. Wherever you go in the former Portuguese colony, you'll see chain-smoking Chinese gamblers crowded around baccarat tables as players peel back their cards, hoping their luck will give them a good hand.
James Bond's favorite game is overshadowed by blackjack and poker in Las Vegas but the preferences of wealthy Chinese gamblers is changing that, and casinos there have been adding more tables to attract them.
"Baccarat is simple and it offers the opportunity to win big or lose big," said Zhong Jun-hei, a business owner from eastern Jiangxi province on one of his frequent visits to Macau, a tiny self-governing Chinese region on the country's southern coast. "I'll know right away if I put all my money down — in one hand I'll know if I win or lose," he said as he chewed on a fried chicken wing in a food court before a night of wagering at the Galaxy casino-resort in the city's Cotai Strip district.
Zhong and other Chinese gamblers said they like baccarat because it's easy to understand, not too heavily weighted in favor of the casino and exciting to play. Lucky rituals also add to the appeal for mainland Chinese gamblers, most of whom believe winning is more a result of fate than skill.
Their tastes help explain how Macau has risen from a forgotten ex-colonial outpost into a glittering boomtown enclave in the space of a decade. With a propensity to gamble and rising incomes thanks to red-hot economic growth, newly wealthy mainland Chinese have been flooding into Macau, the only place in China where gambling is permitted.
With companies including Las Vegas Sands Corp., Wynn Resorts Ltd. and MGM Resorts International planning a wave of new resorts that are expected to open from around 2015, Macau's dependence on baccarat will get even bigger.
Two-thirds of Macau's casino revenue comes from VIP baccarat, played by big-time gamblers in private rooms using money lent by junket operators that collect on debts when their clients return home. The junket operators, some of which have been suspected of links with organized crime, are part of an informal banking system that skirts Chinese controls on the amount of cash citizens can take outside of the country.
VIP baccarat is also a source of concern for China's new Communist Party leadership under President Xi Jinping, who has pledged to crack down on corruption amid worries about officials channeling funds through Macau.
Baccarat is also the game of choice in other big Asian gambling cities such as Singapore and is a growing contributor to revenue at Las Vegas casinos, thanks in part to rising numbers of Asian visitors. Last year, according to Nevada figures, casinos statewide won $1.37 billion from baccarat players, with the game offered at 278 total tables in 25 casinos. Blackjack, meanwhile, pulled in slightly less than $1 billion even though it was offered across 2,732 tables in 146 casinos.
The game turns on who ends up with a better hand, the player or the banker. Gamblers are dealt two cards and predict whether they will beat the banker, a position that can rotate among the players at the table. The winning hand is the one that comes closest to — but not more than — a total of nine. In some cases, a third card is dealt.
The game originated in Europe centuries ago. It was brought to Macau by billionaire Stanley Ho's gambling company, STDM, which won a casino monopoly in 1962.
But superstitious techniques used by Chinese players illustrate how much more seriously they take the game than their counterparts in genteel U.S. and European casinos.
For starters, there is the Chinese gambler's version of "the peek" used to look at cards dealt face down. At one Galaxy table, a player pushes his seat back, lowers his head close and squeezes a card tightly with his fingers. He peels up the short edge, bending it sharply to take a look, then does the same for the long edge. Once the cards are revealed, they are typically flung casually onto the table, bent beyond use. Such scenes are repeated across Macau's casinos.
"You can go slowly," said Zhong. "If you don't know what you're going to reveal, and you're a little bit nervous, you can slow the process down and make it a little more exciting."
By peeling them back partially, gamblers look for clues about what the face value might be from the shapes on the edges. If it appears to be an unwanted higher number, they blow on the card.
"If you're not Chinese, I'm not sure you'll understand," said Zhong. "It's a superstitious technique. You've got this card, and you want a smaller number, so you blow, blow, blow. The reason is to blow away the big numbers. You want to have a small number for yourself. It's a kind of hope, a kind of superstitious notion."
Raymond Yap, director of international premium markets at Galaxy, offered a slightly more scientific explanation.
"They're allowed to touch the card, and with the thrill of touching the card they feel they are in control of the game," he said. Because of the rough handling, the cards can only be used once. Each month, the company goes through more than a million decks, which are destroyed at a secure facility.
At other tables, gamblers hoping for certain numbers rubbed face-down cards over numerals on the table or called out the desired digit before revealing them. Some pounded the table in the belief it would give their opponent a face card and bust their hand.
The game's speed is also an attraction.
Depending on the version, 40 to 55 games of baccarat can be played in an hour, compared with 12 to 15 for roulette, Yap said. It also means casinos can earn money faster.
"The Chinese gambler usually does not have patience to wait for the outcome," said Yap. "Once they know the outcome of the game they want to move on very quickly to start a new game."
Yap has seen high rollers in VIP rooms bet up to 2 million Hong Kong dollars ($257,000) on a single hand of baccarat. Hong Kong's currency is widely used in Macau, an hour away from the Asian financial center by high speed ferry.
Zhong, the businessman, said he had set aside 20,000 yuan ($3,300), or about a month's income, to gamble during his trip.
"For Westerners or Europeans, their attitude is more about having fun. Winning or losing is not as important to them as it is to Chinese," Zhong said, though he conceded he typically lost more than he won.
Macau casino revenue data: www.dicj.gov.mo/web/en/
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