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Chinese taste for baccarat drives Macau boom

Saturday - 6/8/2013, 11:10am  ET

In this photo taken on Thursday, May 23, 2013, an attendant demonstrates the game of baccarat on a baccarat gaming table during the Global Gaming Expo Asia in Macau. 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.(AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

KELVIN CHAN
AP Business Writer

MACAU (AP) -- 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.

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