- Associated Press - Thursday, January 26, 2012

LAS VEGAS In the days before the Chinese New Year celebration began this week, six high rollers sat down at the private baccarat tables one day at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and began throwing down wagers of $100,000 to $200,000 a hand. It was a scene hardly out of place these days in Sin City.

Big-time gamblers, primarily from Asia, are flocking to Las Vegas to play baccarat and providing a big lift to the overall bottom line of the city’s casinos.

Baccarat has easily surpassed blackjack in terms of casino revenue in Las Vegas and now represents nearly 60 percent of the MGM Grand’s table-games revenue over the past year. It’s especially popular this week with tens of thousands of tourists from Asia in town to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

“For us to make money in gaming today without baccarat is almost impossible,” said Debra Nutton, senior vice president of casino operations at the MGM Grand hotel-casino. “We need the big whales to make money.”

In Las Vegas parlance, a “whale” is a big-time gambler who easily wagers more in one night at the tables than most American families make in a year. Casinos cater to them with plush, secluded gambling salons inside the top casinos - with baccarat games that often start out at a minimum $10,000 per hand.

The whales typically favor baccarat - a game romanticized in James Bond flicks and highly popular in Macau and Singapore.

The game is built on a simple premise: Who will end up with a better hand, the player or the banker? Gamblers are dealt two cards and predict whether they will beat the banker, typically a position that rotates among the players at the table. Smaller tables, known as midi-baccarat, start at $100 limits and look more like large blackjack tables, skipping the rotating banker and leaving that role to the dealer. Even smaller-limit tables are called mini-baccarat.

Nevada figures show that during the 12 months ending Nov. 30, casinos statewide won $1.27 billion from baccarat players, with the game offered at 258 total tables in 24 casinos. Blackjack, meanwhile, pulled in just $1.03 billion, even though it was offered across 2,810 tables in 151 casinos.

While casinos hope to pocket 12 percent of the money wagered on baccarat, the large amounts played in fewer bets mean big swings in revenue quarter to quarter, depending on how lucky the gamblers are.

Slots are still the most popular and lucrative form of gambling in Nevada, with nearly 165,000 machines over 330 locations, including supermarkets, gas stations and airports.

Baccarat has been the most lucrative table game since 2009, and has been increasing its share since then, according to an analysis of gambling revenues by Dave Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

That’s even though the game isn’t widely offered, he said.

“The real high-end play is happening in maybe six or seven casinos,” Mr. Schwartz said.

As Americans struggled during the Great Recession, Las Vegas casinos have worked harder to increase tourism from wealthy international visitors, especially Asians. Their game of choice, casinos say, is baccarat.

The MGM Grand is among those Strip casinos counting on their highest of high rollers coming to town this weekend for the Chinese New Year. Miss Nutton said her casino could double the number of baccarat tables during the Chinese New Year and still be busy.