Baccarat’s exact origins are unknown, but the game likely comes from Italy, as the word “baccarat” means “zero” in Italian (interestingly, Baccarat is named for the worst possible hand in the game). Additionally, an Italian gambler named Felix Falguierein is also believed to have played the first game in 1480, using a deck of tarot cards. Giving more credence to an Italian origin is the belief that baccarat has its origins in an Etruscan ritual (Etruscans are an ancient people from Italy).
In this ritual, a virgin would roll a nine-sided die in her quest to become a priestess; a roll of 8 or 9 would fulfill this goal, but if she rolled a 5 or below, she would have to walk into the sea and drown herself. Her life would be spared with a roll of 6 or 7, but she could never roll the die again. These values correspond to the standing/drawing rules of baccarat.
Although most evidence points towards Italy as the home of baccarat, the French have also laid claim to inventing it because of its popularity among French nobles in the late 15th and early 16th century. In France, baccarat became known as chemin de fer (translating to “railway”) and has slightly different rules than North American baccarat, punto banco. Most likely, the game simply migrated to France 10 years after being invented in Italy.
From France, baccarat moved eastward to China, as well as up to the British Isles. It gained notoriety when an acquaintance of Queen Victoria’s son came into trouble with the game. Rule changes were introduced in England, and the game eventually became known as European baccarat. This version was the first to incorporate a dealer backed by the casino.
Baccarat did not make it to the Western hemisphere until the 20th century. In the United States, it was apparently introduced twice because it did not catch on the first time. However, Argentines, and later Cubans, became enamored with the game in the 1950’s. Cuba is where the game first took on the name punto banco, as it is known in North America. In this version of the game, the players bet against the casino, not one another. Eventually, baccarat made its way back to the U.S., where it remains a less popular casino game than such mainstays as blackjack and roulette. It is often viewed as an ‘exclusive’ or ‘high-roller’ type of game, although mini-baccarat and online versions of the game are changing this perception as there are many top online casino sites that offer free roulette, baccarat and blackjack to those players that are looking to play for fun and for small money.