Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Meaning of Baccarat in the Identity of James Bond

The modern term of art for the rejuvenation of a franchise is “reboot” and the art of rebooting a beloved property of another generation is full of subtlety as well as peril. A false step can not only damage a franchise for years to come, it can cause the property to deviate from its true nature, and once it walks down the dark path, forever is its destiny affected, at least until the next reboot. It is the management of these properties and their long term development that is one of the most important responsibilities that a studio or producer takes upon themselves.   Like a publisher or curator at a museum, their decisions will quite literally affect our culture, or at least our popular culture.   And with a solemn understanding of their responsibility they approach the problem of adaptation of a franchise with the sensitivity and deliberative nature not unlike a professional castrator of pigs at a slaughterhouse.

As a good producer or studio executive knows, no change is too shallow, inappropriate or ill-advised if it may result in more money in the short run.   In this, they express the highest morality and integrity that our society has to offer.

When the owners of the Bond licenses began development of a new series of Bond films, they had to choose whether to leave Bond in the cold war, and thus make a film set in that era, or bring Bond into our century. They chose to do the latter, updating the character with actor Daniel Craig, and changing Bond's background in a variety of ways both subtle and not so subtle.

One of the changes, at the time unmentioned by any but the most hardcore students of Bond, was to change the preferred card game from a variant of baccarat to a variant of poker, the far-too-trendy “Texas Hold Em” variety. This was either a fundamental mistake or a very bold move on the part of the filmmakers. Did they fully understand the significance of baccarat to the character and identify of James Bond?   Perhaps they merely thought to themselves that the general movie-going audience will not have heard of baccarat in any form and are even less likely to have played it themselves.  Yes, that is correct, and that is part of the point, baccarat is an elitist game of an upper class of society in Europe.

In Dr. No, Ms Sylvia Trench, a guest at the club, plays chermin de fer against a mysterious stranger. 

Joshua Pines, a semi-professional poker player, suggests that poker is a suitable game for James Bond as it is a game of skill, not of chance.  I have no doubt that poker is indeed a game that requires great skill. I would go further and say that poker requires much more skill than even the most skill-oriented form of baccarat, the chemin de fer, which is the variant that Bond plays. But demonstrating skill is only a small part of what baccarat means to the entity we think of as James Bond.

She makes arrangements to raise the limit on the table.  The mysterious stranger introduces himself as "Bond, James Bond" 

When we examine the backstory of James Bond and his relationship with British foreign intelligence, SIS, that is, where Bond came from and what services he can bring to that organization, one aspect of this background is that James Bond is a member of a minor branch of Scottish nobility. He is, as they say, “of station” in the eyes of both British and European nobility. This means that he can go to many places in the world where the rest of us are not welcome, except perhaps as a guest of a member. And even then, we would not be recognized as a peer. But Bond is a peer, a member of the inherited nobility of Europe, a more elite form of society than exists in our country. And this nobility has a long history of being very conscious of who is and who is not a member, and of the social conventions that come with it. In a sense, it is also part of his cover, as in intelligence as well as crime, a good cover is by definition mostly true.

Cmdr. Bond is called away on a secret mission, but he makes arrangements to meet Ms. Trench in a more private setting. 

The game of baccarat also has a long history among the games of chance of European society. It comes in three variations. One variation requires no skill and is a pure game of chance. One variation requires some skill, and the third variation, the chemin de fer, requires the most skill, about as much as the game of blackjack. But demonstrating skill is not the point, and has never been the point of the society of the upper classes. One is there because one was born entitled to be there, not because one was good at anything. That Bond chooses to only play the chemin de fer is revealing about him, he may have something to prove.

Ms Trench arrives early at Bond's apartment, and takes the liberty of getting ready for bed.  Baccarat is clearly value added in terms of improving or enhancing Bond's social life.

When the producers of the Bond movies chose Casino Royale for the reboot, it was the fulfillment of a long-term Bond anomaly. Casino Royale was the only Bond property they could not get the rights due to their being previously licensed to make the Bond spoof of the same name. Thus returning to the Casino Royale was in a way back to basics for Bond. The plot of the novel and of this 2006 motion picture testifies to the cooperation between the US and UK intelligence communities (the CIA backs Bond's game at a critical moment and allows it to continue), and to issues of “fifth columnists” as the antagonist, Le Chiffre, is the chief financier of a French worker's union as well as a paid agent of the Soviet Union in the original text.

Bond was SIS's best gambler, and as a member of the Scottish nobility, would not be out of place at this elite casino.He could legitimately be there and play this European game of chance and skill and work for the destruction of the French traitor. The high stakes game at a casino of this type is unlikely to be poker but could very well be baccarat.

But that is not the only role for baccarat in the novels and movies of James Bond.  Another very notable occasion is at the beginning of Dr. No (1962), the first Bond film with Sean Connery, which opens in Jamaica where a murder takes place, and then switches to Les Ambassadeurs / Le Cercle, a famously elite club of diplomats and aristocracy in London.

It is at this club that the lovely Ms. Sylvia Trench engages in a fierce game of baccarat / chermin de fer with a mysterious stranger.   This stranger introduces himself as "Bond, James Bond," timing his words to match the upbeat of the music track that begins, also mysteriously, in the background. Thus, not only is chermin de fer Bond's game, it is the game that leads inevitably to his first successful romantic liason on film.  Who is to say what would have happened had he been playing poker?  He certainly would not have been at Le Cercle that evening and thus is unlikely to have met Ms Trench.

Certainly CDR Bond knows how to play poker, and plays it well, but it is not a game of the European elite.  (1) Far from it. Poker is the quintessential American card game, a game of skill, a game that probably originated on the riverboat casinos of the Mississippi and then spread West with the frontier. You could hardly get more American than that.

In conclusion, when you change baccarat to poker, which I have no doubt they did without much thought, you actually change a fundamental aspect of Bond's public identity.   Was a reference to a currently trendy American card game really worth such a price?


1. In reviewing the games of Les Ambassadeurs, see URL below, I notice that three-card poker is currently a game there.  No doubt this is a sign of creeping Americanism and other degrading trends in European society.

Baccarat on Wikipedia:

Dr. No (1962) on IMDB

Casino Royale (2006) on IMDB

The club where Bond met Ms Trench

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