My column a few weeks ago about commission-free Baccarat and commission-free Pai Gow Poker prompted a reader to send me an e-mail asking for advice on how to improve his play at Baccarat. The simple reality is that I could not provide him with any advice. Baccarat has no strategy. Sometimes when I say that, it means that there is sort of no strategy. For example, in Casino War, the only choice the Player can make is whether to go to war when the Player and Dealer card tie. Mathematically, the Player should always go to war, so in essence there is no strategy. The Player IS given a choice of what to do, but the choice is always the same, so is there really any strategy? I'll leave that to the philosophers and people who wonder about trees falling in the forest.
In Baccarat, the only choice is whether you bet on the Player hand or the Banker hand. The rules of when cards are drawn is completely fixed. If either (or both) hands are an 8 or a 9, the game is over as one (or both) of the hands is a 'natural' and the game ends. Beyond that, there is a set rule for when the Player's hand will draw (5 or less). The Banker hand will then draw according to 1 of 2 sets of rules. If the Player's hand did not draw, then the Banker hand will draw with 5 or less. If the Player's hand DID draw, then the Dealer will draw depending on the value of his own hand and the value of the Player's 3rd card.
This isn't blackjack. You don't get to decide when to hit or stick. The hands will have either 2 cards or 3 cards. You can have a 0 after 3 cards and you're stuck with it. There's no busting. Only the singles digit matters. So, if you hit a 2 and get a 9, you now have a 1.
So, the hit/stick rules are set in stone, but surely there must be some way of counting? Well, there is, but it just won't do you any good for the base game. I was rather surprised to learn that Baccarat (which uses a 6 or 8-deck shoe like blackjack) goes much deeper into the shoe than blackjack. It goes nearly to the end. Surely, if there are only 10-20 cards left in the shoe and you have an idea of what they are, you should be able to take advantage of it. Well, not really. The casinos will joyfully provide you with paper and pencil so that you can track every card dealt. They are quite happy if you know which cards are left in the deck. The problem is that you don't know which hand will get what. You may know that there is a strong likelihood that one hand will have 9 and the other 0, but which one with the Banker hand get vs. the Player hand?!
So, in the end, Baccarat appears to have less strategy than even Casino War. The only choice the Player makes is whether to bet on the Banker Hand or the Player Hand. Not much of a strategy decision. But, it is not a completely trivial decision. Even after accounting for the commission (paid only on Banker wins), the payback of the Player hand is 98.76% and the payback of the Banker hand is 98.94%. It is not a huge difference, but it is a difference. So, if you want to minimize your losses, you are better off wagering on the Banker hand over the Player hand.
Next up are the sidebets. While the base game cannot be counted at all, the same cannot be said about some of the sidebets. If the casino is going to deal down to the final 10-15 cards and you know that an overabundance are 10's and Faces, perhaps you consider wagering more on the Tie sidebet because the odds of a tie are higher than normal in these cases.
From what I've read (I have not had a chance to prove them out), some of the other sidebets can have their paybacks raised by wagering on them judiciously when the 'count' is in your favor. But, to perfect these methods usually takes a great deal of work.
So, it comes back to the original question of what can a Player do to improve his Baccarat game? Not much. You're playing a game with a relatively low house advantage and that's already a decent choice. If you're looking for one with strategy, you've looked in the wrong place.