|By Mike Clary, South Florida
Sun-SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 27, 2007 - Blackjack is the most popular table game among American gamblers, and if the compact between the state and the Seminole Tribe is approved, expect to hear players calling "hit me" at green felt gambling pits all around the tribe's casinos.
But it is the lesser-known table game of baccarat, also permitted by the compact, that could prove to be the biggest winner for the Seminoles and an elite subset of high rollers who prefer to risk their money in quiet settings well apart from the masses and the clamor of slot machines.
Forget casually dressed tourists wearing shorts and sunburns. Think James Bond in Casino Royale.
"Baccarat is the game of choice for the biggest gamblers in the world, especially among Asians and internationals," said Joe Weinert, gambling industry analyst with New Jersey-based Spectrum Gaming. "From a profit standpoint, a major casino would much rather have 10 baccarat tables than 100 roulette tables."
A simple card game that starts with a two-card hand being dealt to one player and one banker, baccarat is just one of the new attractions the Seminole Tribe could offer at its seven Florida casinos once the U.S. Department of the Interior approves the deal.
The 25-year compact between the tribe and Gov. Charlie Crist also gives the tribe the right to set up blackjack tables and install Las Vegas-style slots. In return, the state will get a share of the proceeds, beginning with a minimum of $100 million in the first year.
The agreement is being challenged, however. Last month, House Speaker Marco Rubio filed a petition in the state Supreme Court that argued Crist violated the state constitution in making the deal, and questioned the legality of authorizing games such as blackjack and baccarat that are currently illegal in Florida.
The state Senate also weighed in, agreeing with Rubio, R-West Miami, that Crist overstepped his authority.
More legal wrangling is likely.
But if the compact is approved, baccarat is the game that many analysts say could change the demographics in Florida casinos by drawing experienced players and new gamblers with upscale surroundings and a sophisticated feel.
"Serious gamblers like it because the odds are pretty good," said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. "This will let the Seminoles go after those players who stay in Atlantic City in January because baccarat wasn't available in South Florida."
The game has been growing in popularity in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, where casinos have opened luxurious, Chinese-themed lounges for high-end gamblers, along with offering what is called mini-baccarat, played on craps tables in settings that are less formal.
"Baccarat is not a mass market game," Weinert said. "It is usually played in a intimate, quiet atmosphere, sometimes in an Asian games room with a noodle bar.
"The addition of these table games has the ability to turn Hard Rock into an international destination."
State Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller, D-Cooper City, an opponent of the deal, agreed that baccarat "is seen as a very prestigious game that could bring in high rollers."
But he added that a close reading of the compact suggests "giant loopholes" could allow the Seminoles to offer any number of card games, including pai gow poker, a game that is now illegal in Florida.
Barry Richard, an attorney for the Seminoles who helped fashion the compact, said the tribe is considering refitting its casinos to accommodate only the games named in the compact: blackjack, baccarat and chemin-de-fer, a variation of baccarat.
"The only things contemplated are the games listed in there," he said.
Richard agrees that baccarat could alter the demographics of Florida gamblers.
"It tends to bring in a new tourist clientele otherwise not here," he said.
"These are people the state doesn't have to worry about, people with lots of money, sophisticated card players. And they won't come to Florida at all if the game isn't here."
Mike Clary can be reached at email@example.com or 305-810-5026.
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