James Bond’s Favorite Card Game Is an Idiot’s Version of Blackjack

I can almost guarantee baccarat is not what you’re imagining
James Bond’s Favorite Card Game Is an Idiot’s Version of Blackjack

It could be argued that the romance between gambling and the idea of the gentleman spy owes a lot to James Bond. Bond, indeed, is a gambler, and a good one at that. He has to be, of course, as a superspy with significant debt isnt the best tool for any intelligence organization.

Now, if your Bond familiarity comes mostly from the recent films, the table youve sat Bond at is likely a poker game. It was Texas Hold Em in the most recent version of Casino Royale, made even harder to forget by a blood-sobbing Mads Mikkelsen. 

This isnt the original game played in Bonds tales, though, but a modern adjustment. In the books, including Casino Royale, and many of the earlier Bond films, his game is baccarat. Purists might stick up their nose at the change, but I completely understand it, for multiple reasons. First and foremost, although its very popular in Asian countries, baccarat isnt very popular in the West (Macau-based readers, please forgive me for the aggressive article title). Its a game that even plenty of gamblers arent familiar with the rules of.

Theres a better reason its a good change, though: Namely, its a game that requires no skill, has no chance to bluff, and if played normally, usually doesnt even involve any actual choices made by the player.

You can see some of the challenges baccarat brings in this scene from Dr. No. Theres a reason the cards are given minimal screentime, and Eunice Gaysons line as Sylvia Trench, “I admire your luck, Mr. Bond,” also hints at the problem, which is that its a total game of luck. 

Baccarat is a simple game of “house/banker” versus “player,” where each player receives, at first, two cards, attempting to get a value as close to 10 as possible. The cards' score comes from the singles digit of their total sum, with face cards worth 10 (effectively zero) and aces worth 1. For example, a four and a nine would add to a total of 13, and an unfortunate score of 3. If either the player or bank has an 8 or 9 in this opening two cards, its called a “natural,” they reveal their cards and the game immediately ends. Higher score wins, or in the case of a tie, they “push,” and both player and banker bets are returned. If theres no natural, then a second round occurs, which is where another distinction needs to be made.

In most modern casino baccarat, this whole exchange happens without player input. Players bet on the player or the banker to win, or on a tie, which pays 8:1 odds but is a complication unnecessary to our explanation. Both the player and banker behavior follow strict rules: The player must take an additional card if they have a 6 or 7, and must stand (i.e., receive no cards) if they have 0 through 5. The banker also follows strict, but more complicated rules, a table of which can be seen here

In terms of affecting results, its a game rich in superstition but absent of skill. In fact, in Eastern countries, they often have to replace the decks after every hand because of players folding and damaging the cards following their own preferred superstitions.

Bond plays an older version of baccarat known as chemin de fer. One big difference here is that players take turns as the role of the “house,” and they put out a maximum bet. Players at the table can risk as much as they want up to that maximum value, with the player wagering the most being dealt the players hand for the rest of the table, with the other bets relying on the results. 

The most important difference, though, does at least add minimal agency — the person playing instead has the choice to hit or stand, regardless of value. But in practice, its expected theyll follow the same rules laid out above, given that everyone else at the tables money is at risk. Which is to say, if youre feeling lucky, you could hit on a 7, but if it doesnt work out, youve just given the rest of the table a good reason to take you out back and teach you some statistics via fists.

All of which is to say, outside of the money at stake and the superstitions involved, its not much more than a game of War with a twist. So why was it the game of someone known for a sharp mind, intuition and incredible charisma? 

Well, you can take two sides on that, depending on how much credit you want to give Ian Fleming. The first is that, for someone like James Bond, the uncertainty of a game of pure luck might appeal to his natural taste for danger. The second, more boring explanation is much, much simpler: It was Flemings favorite card game.


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