Card counting baccarat side bets is one of the strongest ongoing opportunities for advantage players. These opportunities arise from the intersection of four game protection deficiencies, none of which has a good solution. Consider:

  1. While baccarat is traditionally dealt from an eight-deck shoe, it is common for the cut card to be placed one-half deck or less from the end of the shoe. Some cut card placements can lead to the last hand ending with only one or two unseen cards.
     
  2. It is very difficult to create a baccarat side bet that doesn’t have key cards. The rules of baccarat lead to side bets that are based on the repeating themes of specific final totals, specific cards, pairs and three-card hands. Each of these themes yields a countable wager.
     
  3. Players are allowed to keep score. While card counting takes a lot of practice at the blackjack tables, the baccarat player can keep track on a sheet of paper he is allowed to use at the table. The game of baccarat moves at a slow pace; even with a complex counting system, it does not take much practice to become proficient.
     
  4. The size of the wagers that are allowed on baccarat side bets dwarfs that of blackjack. Baccarat is a big money game around the world. Players are accustomed to extraordinary wagering limits. It is common to find table limits on side bets in excess of $1,000. In some cases, the limits are $10,000 or more.

In other words, with very deep cut-card placement, highly vulnerable wagers, the ability to track the shoe and huge betting limits, everything a counter could ever want can be found at baccarat tables (as long as the counter does not delude himself into thinking he can beat the main game or the tie bet using card counting, see this post and this post).

The U.S. based blackjack card counter is mostly unaware of these baccarat opportunities. In most U.S. casinos, baccarat is a small-time game, if it exists at all. Moreover, the key ingredients that make counting baccarat side bets lucrative for the most part don't exist at the blackjack tables. With blackjack:

  1. The cut card in a six-deck shoe game is often placed at one deck or more from the end. In a two deck game, it is rare to find more than 75% of the deck dealt out between shuffles; more typical is 50% to 55% between shuffles.
     
  2. Many blackjack side bets lack clear key cards. Side bets like “21+3” and “In Between” are essentially unbeatable.
     
  3. The game of blackjack moves at a very quick pace. Additionally, no score card is allowed at the table. It takes considerable practice to become proficient enough to count a blackjack side bet.
     
  4. The opportunity to place serious money down on a blackjack side bet rarely exists. Most U.S. casinos limit wagers on blackjack side bets to $25, $50 or $100. It would take a side bet of extraordinary vulnerability to generate interest from the professional AP community (Slingo).

The solution to baccarat side bet protection is three-fold:

  • Safeguard as many deficiencies as possible.
  • Understand the heuristics that aid in identification of advantage play.
  • Educate the work force whose job it is to protect the games.

As far as safeguarding the deficiencies, consider:

Cut Card

A lot of money is lost in U.S. casinos by over protecting against ordinary blackjack card counting. Time not spent dealing is profit left on the tables for the casino. Cut card placement, no mid-shoe entry and not allowing players to change the number of hands they are playing all have significant costs. The same holds for baccarat.

I know several casinos that protect their baccarat side bets by cutting off two decks from their eight deck shoes. Some others place a secondary cut card about two decks from the end, not allowing any side bet wagers beyond that cut card. These solutions have to be measured against their time/motion costs. There are also some side bets whose vulnerability is so extreme they are only offered on baccarat games dealt from continuous shufflers. Many traditional players reject such games outright.

Key Cards

One of the reasons that key cards are so powerful in baccarat is the depth of the cut card. This makes even minor correlations into potentially huge opportunities for the AP. For many baccarat side bets, the key cards are obvious. Here are two examples:

  • For any wager that involves a payout for three-card hands, the key cards to consider are 8’s and 9’s. Likewise, 8’s and 9’s are key cards for any wager that involves naturals.
  • For any wager that involves a specific final total, not based on the number of cards dealt, the key card to consider is the card with the same value as the winning total. For example, the “Tie on 7” side bet (UR Way Egalite) has 7 as a key card.

The only baccarat side bets with low vulnerability are the Dragon Bonus side bet (SHFL) and the Tie bet. The Dragon Bonus wager has a pay table that is based on the difference in total points between the winning and losing hands. The Tie bet is based on that difference being 0 points. In the sense that each of these wagers is based on a difference, the Dragon Bonus and Tie are about equally vulnerable. Neither relies on a specific final total or number of cards.

A poker-style side bet (styled after 21+3) might be safe in a baccarat context. For example, create a side bet based on the four-card poker hand created by the initial Player and Banker hands. The problem is that in most jurisdictions, the baccarat and poker markets are almost disjoint. It is highly unlikely for such a side bet to be popular. Similarly, from a game-protection standpoint, I see nothing wrong with an “In Between” idea for baccarat. For example, that the Banker’s initial two-card total lies between the Player’s initial two cards (and conversely). However, this wager is not thematic to baccarat, so is also likely to be unpopular. The savvy game inventor who comes up with the next thematic and safe baccarat side bet has a profitable future ahead.

Score Card Use

One reason that card counters find baccarat easy to exploit is the ability to use a score card. Eliminating or restricting score cards is a possibility in many markets. With the advent of electronic scoreboards, score cards are becoming obsolete. While high-rollers will always be accommodated, in the mass market it may be reasonable to restrict the use of paper score cards. Even so, there are easy ways for the AP to circumvent these limitations.

First of all, if there is enough profit to be had, it is no problem for the expert AP to learn a new card counting system. Although the systems I present are often challenging to implement, there are often simpler, though slightly less profitable, systems available to the AP. Second, many casinos now use large stadium configurations for mass-market baccarat. In these situations, where each player has their own station that is separated from other players, it is easy to confidentially keep score.

Bet Size

The last issue, the size of the wagers allowed on side bets in baccarat, is confounding to resolve. Any limitation on the size of wagers is a highly unprofitable solution. I am aware of several situations where card counters placed wagers in excess of $10,000 on side bets. These casinos would welcome such a wager from a civilian player.

A not-very-good solution is to apply “best practices” to the maximum wager allowed. The usual formulation of this is to make sure that the maximum amount a player can win on a side bet does not exceed the maximum he can win on the main game. For example, if the maximum wager allowed on Player/Banker is $10,000, then the Dragon 7 side bet (that pays 40-to-1) should be restricted to a maximum wager of $250. Similarly, the Pairs bet (that pays 11-to-1) should be restricted to a maximum wager of about $1000 (or slightly less). However, a "best practices" restriction on bet size does little good in a casino that offers a $100,000 maximum wager (or more) on the main game.

Conclusion

The best solution is an educated work force. All employees who are responsible for safeguarding baccarat should be aware of key vulnerabilities for the betting options they permit. They should also know the usual heuristics for identifying card counters.

Here are a few things to watch out for:

  • Watch for players who make large wagers late in the shoe and otherwise rarely wager on the side bet.
  • Watch for players who make larger wagers on the side bet than on the main game.
  • Watch for players who are back counting the game.
  • Watch for players jumping into the game to place side bets.
  • Watch for players moving between tables to place side bets.
  • Watch for multiple players at a table making the side bet together.
  • Watch for players who are keeping score in an unusual fashion.
  • Watch for players in a stadium who are making large wagers on the side bet.
  • Watch the ubiquitous Pairs bet.

There is no good solution to the problem of safeguarding baccarat side bets. Internationally, these wagers will continue to be among the best opportunities available for high-level advantage play against baccarat. Side bets are extremely profitable for the casino. In baccarat, especially, they are also extremely popular advantage plays.

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received his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Arizona in 1983. Eliot has been a Professor of both Mathematics and Computer Science. Eliot retired from academia in 2009. Eliot Jacobson