BY Rick Lax | November 1, 2013 | Lifestyle
In a warren of exclusivity, Aria’s private rooms lead to even more private rooms.
The wine cellar in Cosmopolitan’s private room offers choices not available at other casinos.
Sean Connery as James Bond, winning three consecutive hands of chemin de fer (the French version of baccarat) in Thunderball.
The Mansion at MGM Grand provides baccarat players with absolute privacy and personal attention.
One of the private rooms at The Mansion, whose design was inspired by an 18th-century Italian villa.
Everybody knows what James Bond drinks, but do you recall what casino game he plays? Here’s a hint: It ain’t poker. Sure, Daniel Craig played a $115 million hand of Hold’em in 2012’s Casino Royale, but look back to the original novel, or to Sean Connery in Dr. No or Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye. England’s favorite superspy plays baccarat (or its French cousin, chemin de fer). And he’s not alone.
Earlier this year, the UNLV Center for Gaming Research revealed that baccarat now rakes in nearly half the floor-game revenue at Vegas casinos. In 1985, blackjack accounted for a similar percentage of table-game revenue, but by 2012 that share had dipped to less than 24 percent. Craps fell from 28 percent to nine percent. The lost percentage points mostly went to baccarat. Today, baccarat is so important to casinos’ bottom lines that publicly traded gaming companies include major baccarat wins and losses in their quarterly reports. To put this in perspective, in the second quarter of 2012, the net revenue at Wynn was $1.25 billion, down from $1.37 billion in 2011. According to Steve Wynn, Las Vegas revenue in 2012 would have trumped that of 2011—if it weren’t for the baccarat losses his casinos sustained.
More and more well-heeled baccarat devotees are flying to Vegas—first-class, if not by private jet— from across the globe. It’s played by elegantly dressed Asian men and women, by gray-haired men alongside their lovely young wives and lovely young daughters (good luck telling which is which). And, increasingly, by middle-class Americans.
Baccarat is as simple as it is booming: Deal out two hands, closest to nine wins. (Face cards and 10s count as zero.) Unlike blackjack, it’s a game of independent trials: zero percent skill, 100 percent luck.
Some baccarat players keep track of every hand played. They use former outcomes to calculate future outcomes—or they try. Others surrender to the fate of the shuffle. They view their baccarat performance as an indication of their personal worth, like an old-fashioned Love Tester—one that costs far more than 25 cents to play. But Love Tester machines are played in noisy arcades; baccarat is played in the world’s most exquisite rooms.
Aria’s high-limit baccarat lounge is like a walk-in matryoshka doll. The room’s main chamber leads to smaller chambers and smaller chambers still. Walk through the foyer, around the plumes emerging from copper horns, up the tiled stairs, beneath the modernist atriums and through the layered wooden pillars, into the den of big money—old and new. Adorned with abstract art, modern art, fresh cut flowers, and the requisite snack bar (noodles, beef, fresh fruit), Aria’s Salon Privé is the place to roll high.
Toward the entrance, six young men sit around a mini baccarat table. A mix of locals and tourists, Asian and white, they’re playing greens, blacks, and yellows—$25, $100, and $1,000 chips. They’re hoping to upgrade to “flags” and “melons”—$5,000 and $25,000 chips, respectively. Aria has $100,000 chips, too, for the big games, typically dealt to VIPs, some sent over from MGM Grand Macau. In the center of the main chamber, three older players sit at a big table game. Flag chips in play. The highest roller loses a big hand and rips up the nine of hearts in frustration. This is permitted.
According to an Aria casino rep, compared with blackjack players, “Baccarat players are more serious and intense when they play. They can hold the cards, bend and squeeze them, whereas in blackjack the game tends to be more relaxed and the dealer always controls the cards.”
Past the trio of high rollers, an open hallway leads to a bathroom… and more baccarat tables. Walk down the passage and on your left you’ll find a chamber with three more tables, for even higher rollers. To the right, there’s yet another room, with four tables and a bathroom, even that a study in golden decadence.
Continue down the main passage and you’ll find another baccarat room to the left, which leads to yet another, which leads to an ultraprivate dining table, set for 10. “We have a very high demand for these Salon Privé rooms,” the Aria rep tells me. “The Salon Privé offers these gaming salons so that guests can enjoy an extraordinary, unique, and exclusive gaming experience. These rooms have been developed to accommodate any customer request, such as game type, culinary, and audiovisual needs.”
MGM Resorts International, which owns Aria, also accommodates bigtime baccarat players at MGM Grand. You might know the Grand only as “the hotel that hosts the big fight nights,” but that’s because you’ve never seen The Mansion, with its 18th-century Florence–inspired atrium, 800-piece art collection, and garden-surrounded ultraprivate pool. London Swinney, MGM Grand’s vice president of casino operations, says big-time baccarat players flock to the Grand “because the Mansion casino is an extension of the Mansion Villas. Guests are able to access the casino directly from the Villas, and our casino team takes pride in memorizing guest names and their preferences.”
As you might imagine, this personalized experience translates into big money. But Vegas casinos are catering to newer baccarat players, too— Americans who’ve been recently introduced to the game as a classy alternative to blackjack, craps, and roulette.
Gary (not his real name) owns an engraving business in the Midwest. He visits Las Vegas two or three times a year. Usually he bets $100 a hand. “I learned in Atlantic City,” Gary tells me. “The dice table was cold, but I still had a couple dollars in my pocket, so one of my friends taught me baccarat. Been playing ever since.” The dice tables were loud, fast, and fun—Gary liked that. The baccarat tables were slow, methodical, and foreign—Gary liked that, too. He felt as if he had been transported to an earlier, more refined time. More sophisticated players breathing in rarer air. “I was taken in by the mystique,” he says. “Everybody was wearing tuxedos and moving around fancy colored chips. Hundreds were nothing to them.” Betting $100 a hand is nothing to scoff at, but Gary is the first to admit he’s not the highest of high rollers. From the casinos’ point of view, however, every bet counts. “Baccarat is traditionally a high-stakes game,” says Scott Hager, Cosmopolitan’s senior director of table games, “but we are seeing an increased range of players, therefore widening the limits being added to the games on the casino floor.”
Cosmo hosts about 20 baccarat games at any given time. You can find a few of these tables scattered around the glitzy main casino floor, atop the kaleidoscopic pink-on-maroon carpet, surrounded by plush pink-on-maroon gaming chairs. Cosmo brings out more tables during Chinese New Year and other special events. Since opening, the casino has added a higher-limit lounge: The Talon Club, where the majority of the tables live. Leather couches, cigars, handselected single spirits. Prohibition speakeasy meets modern glam. When you combine the Talon Club baccarat players with Cosmo’s mid- and low-rolling baccarat players, it adds up. Says Hager, “Baccarat continues to capture a bigger gaming share in the market.”
Hager’s got one eye on the bottom line and one eye on the casino’s guests. He too has noticed a difference between baccarat and blackjack fans: “Baccarat players are more superstitious. They follow patterns, hunch-type betting. They enjoy the flow of the game, the simplicity.” Once wagering is complete, no additional bets can be placed—unlike blackjack and craps, where guests have the option of double downs, splits, place bets, and come bets. Former professional gambler Anthony Curtis has also gained some insight into baccarat players. He’s played alongside some of the world’s highest rollers in casino-sponsored baccarat tournaments, and along the way he’s noticed something interesting: “I’ve seen players betting $250,000 a hand. Some are wild, some are stoic, but most are fairly animated. There’s not a lot of difference between the big players and small players. I see the same behaviors in $25 players and $25,000 players.”
At the end of the day, most people are the same. Which helps explain why baccarat appeals to so many of them. “It’s one of the great games, with a perfect balance of profitability for the house and rules that produce frequent winners,” Curtis says. “Though it looks complicated, it’s fast and easy to play. It has all the elements that attract gamblers.”
With all these selling points, it’s no wonder that baccarat has taken over Vegas. The question is: What took so long?
All signs point to baccarat reigning as Vegas’s most important table game for years to come. Resorts World Las Vegas, a proposed Asianthemed resort and casino, is slated to open in 2016. Massive pagodas, a replica Great Wall of China… is there any doubt as to which game the highest rollers will be playing on opening night?
Here’s a hint: It ain’t poker.
photography by Bryan Hainer; Courtesy of Photofest (Bond),