LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Sean Connery first uttered the iconic film greeting: “Bond. James Bond” while playing a French version of baccarat in the 1962 secret agent classic “Dr. No.”
Nearly 50 years later, baccarat retains its mystique, and the high-roller draw has become a lifeline for Las Vegas Strip casinos, accounting for 20 percent of total winnings last year. That’s nearly $1.2 billion, according to the latest figures released by the Nevada Gaming Commission.
With those numbers, baccarat has replaced blackjack as the top table game on the Strip.
“It’s the game that’s keeping our heads above water right now,” said Michael Lawton, senior analyst with the commission.
What’s more, baccarat has gained its status with only 272 tables at 21 casinos, a small portion of the Strip’s totals: 5,500 tables and 329 casinos, according to Lawton.
The game’s rules are simple: players may bet on the player, the banker or a tie. The idea is to bet on the hand that comes closest to the number nine.
This simple game has become a boon to the Las Vegas Valley’s reeling economy, the largest population center in a state with the country’s worst unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates.
It is also means that a relatively small number of foreign tourists, mostly from Asia, play a bigger role than ever in maintaining the Strip’s bottom line, as middle-class American tourists have less and less to spend on gambling in Las Vegas.
“It’s a direct correlation with the economy right now,” said Anthony Curtis, publisher of Las Vegas Advisor magazine. As the recession has peaked and begun to wane, Curtis said, “The rich stayed rich, while the middle class stopped playing so much.”
The connection to Asian tourists stems in part from the entrance of Las Vegas companies in Macau, including Las Vegas Sands, MGM Resorts International and Wynn Resorts.
These companies have cultivated relationships on the ground with Chinese gamblers and lured them to Las Vegas with the promise of entertainment and dining in addition to gambling.
Since 2005, Lawton said, baccarat has brought in an average of $890 million a year to Strip casinos, nearly double its performance during the previous seven years.
Bill Hornbuckle, chief marketing officer for MGM Resorts International, with casinos that account for about half of all baccarat revenue in the state, said “the reality is that the market in China continues to grow, and Las Vegas as well, so despite Macau’s emergence, we are still able to draw customers from China.”
The jury is still out on whether things will stay as they are. As Curtis put it, “Vegas is powered by slots.”
He thinks the current situation is “sort of an anomaly” and that when the U.S. economy rebounds, slots, blackjack and other games will do the same.
Lawton says the commission projects “that the mass market will come back in 2011. Where baccarat has been doing well, it will become more of a blend.”
Meanwhile, the Strip welcomes with open arms the high rollers that keep on coming.
On a recent afternoon, the Bellagio hotel and casino’s atrium was still decorated for Chinese New Year, including a statue of a rabbit. Banners celebrating the occasion hung from the walls of the baccarat room, where a table began filling with three Asian players and a Russian man.
Minutes earlier, the Russian player had cashed out at nearby table with $127,000 in chips. A Chinese player had just sat down, fishing out ten $100 bills from a leather satchel.
The Russian man’s luck continued as he bet on two ties in a row — and won $24,000.
Afterward, one of the baccarat players, David Choe, sat slurping noodles in a Chinese restaurant no more than 20 steps away. Choe said he had heard from his casino host that the Russian had lost $1 million the night before.
Choe, 34, has been gambling since he was a teenager, starting, he said, with fake ID.
Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt with the words “New York,” he is the rare U.S. native at the baccarat tables, though of Korean background. He comes from Los Angeles several times a month to play. This time, he was up around $100,000.
“I haven’t counted it yet,” he said.
Choe said he has seen some unusual sights at the baccarat table, including an “ossified drunk” betting $40,000 a hand.
Although he called the game “the easiest thing in the world,” he allowed that many players have superstitions, ranging from not allowing anyone to touch you while playing to following the highest bettor’s chips to putting money down on any streak that appears to emerge.
What is the attraction of baccarat?
“You have your own room, your own world. You can eat there, you can bet or not, you can curse if you lose, or tear up the cards. You can do whatever you want.”
Editing by Dan Whitcomb