An exclusive class of customer deserves a good deal of credit for the Strip's first increase in reported gambling revenue since 2007 — high rollers who play a game that most Americans don't pronounce correctly.
Baccarat, the high-stakes card game favored by James Bond, accounted for nearly 20 percent of the Strip's gambling revenue in November, the Gaming Control Board announced last week. Strip casinos reaped $92.7 million from baccarat players that month — a 136 percent increase from a year ago.
In November, baccarat players wagered a whopping $690.8 million at Strip resorts, about 14 percent of all the money bet in those casinos and an 84 percent increase compared with November 2008.
It was the latest evidence of a trend.
While Strip casinos made less money on most of their games last year, baccarat was an exception, and its momentum has been building. From August through November, each month's baccarat revenue was more than 30 percent higher than it had been in the same month of 2008. Baccarat wagers rose by more than 40 percent in those months.
The trend was not lost on the Hard Rock Hotel. The larger high-limit room it opened the week before New Year's Eve includes a secluded area designed to accommodate more baccarat tables than in years past.
But off-Strip, baccarat is a rarity. The game is mainly found in the high-limit rooms of the Strip casinos that cater to the wealthiest gamblers.
Baccarat can be an expensive business for casinos, given the money they have to spend to attract high rollers, which can include flights to and from the casino for the gambler and his family, complimentary suites, meals, gifts and other perks. Working against a small house edge of less than 2 percent, baccarat players can leave a big dent in a casino's bottom line if they get lucky, especially if they are "whales" betting $100,000 a hand. Most casinos don't offer baccarat for that reason — and because the number of people who play baccarat in the United States is relatively small.
Tens of thousands of people gamble at slots and blackjack tables in Las Vegas every year, but baccarat players number in the mere hundreds. Many of the Strip's baccarat tables are empty much of the time and are mostly used on weekends or days that coincide with holidays or special events such as prizefights and major concerts.
A period that has consistently produced some of the most baccarat action for the Strip is one coming up next month — Chinese new year. Therein lies a key to what has been happening with baccarat on the Strip.
Beginning about four years ago, several Strip resorts started opening sister casinos in Macau, a province on the South China Sea. Macau casinos are dominated by baccarat tables in the same way that U.S. casinos are filled with slot machines.
Macau is the world's most lucrative gambling destination thanks primarily to baccarat players. At Las Vegas Sands' three Macau casinos, for example, the top high rollers, many of them baccarat players, wagered $16.7 billion in the third quarter of last year —
about a billion more than gamblers wagered in all of the games offered on the Las Vegas Strip during that same period.
Most casino revenue on the Strip still comes from slot machines. But it's a smaller percentage today than it was a few years ago, when the economy was booming and the masses had more to spend.
In 2005, the year before Steve Wynn opened Las Vegas' first satellite casino in Macau, baccarat generated 11 percent of the Strip's gambling revenue. For last year through November, the figure was a little more than 16 percent.
The combination of the Macau connection and the economic health of China and Hong Kong is boosting business at the Strip's baccarat tables, according to industry experts.
While the U.S. recession contributed to the worst year on record for MGM Mirage, the corporation's chief marketing officer, Bill Hornbuckle, said its business from international visitors, driven by Asian gamblers, may